Battle of Fisher's Hill
Jonathan A. Noyales
As the shadows began to grow long on September 20, 1864, Union Major General Philip H. Sheridan and his commanders stared at the seemingly impregnable heights of Fisher’s Hill, grandly known as the ‘Gibraltar of the Shenandoah Valley,’ which seemed to be crawling with Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s men.
Fisher’s Hill, just south of Strasburg, was recognized as a defensive key to the lower Valley during the Civil War. Massanutten Mountain stood to the east, while Little North Mountain rose to the west. Those two ridges narrowed the Valley, and the steep slopes of Fisher’s Hill stood roughly in the middle. The hill had a sharp northward-facing slope and a small creek, Tumbling Run, traversing the ground to the north. Officers in both armies knew the site and understood that if defended properly it could be impenetrable. ‘Fisher’s hill is a natural fortification of lofty heights thrown across the Shenandoah Valley at a point where the Massanutten Mountain reduces [it] to a width of barely four miles,’ remarked a staff officer in the Union XIX Corps. Nonetheless, Sheridan knew he had to attack the precipitous slopes — how to do so remained the question.
When Sheridan received command of the Middle Military Division in early August 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered him to ‘give the enemy no rest.’ Grant was disgusted that Early had become such a distraction that summer by marching down the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and threatening Washington. That campaign had disrupted Grant’s efforts to hammer General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into submission near Petersburg, and the Yankee commander wanted the troublesome ‘Old Jube’ quieted for good.
But throughout his first month of command of the Army of the Shenandoah, which consisted of the VI Corps, two divisions of the XIX Corps, the VIII Corps and two cavalry divisions, Early’s Army of the Valley — approximately 15,000 men — had kept Sheridan at bay, even though ‘Little Phil’ had some 60,000 men at his disposal. By mid-September, Sheridan had received intelligence from area Unionists and his own scouts that bolstered his confidence and prompted an attack on Early’s Confederates in Winchester on September 19. The Third Battle of Winchester turned out to be an outstanding victory for Sheridan’s army and left Early’s command in chaos. However, Early’s army was not totally demoralized as it retreated south to the fastness of Fisher’s Hill before Sheridan’s pursuit.
Early knew the Valley well and understood that Fisher’s Hill afforded the best immediate opportunity to defend against Sheridan. The previous month he had sought refuge at Fisher’s Hill after feeling threatened by Federal forces and was never attacked. Furthermore, Early could not retreat any farther up the Shenandoah Valley without leaving the door wide open for Sheridan to move into the upper valley and carry out his plan to lay waste to the fertile region known as the Confederacy’s ‘breadbasket.’
The battered Confederate force arrived at Fisher’s Hill during the early morning hours of September 20 and by noon had taken up defensive positions facing north to Strasburg. Although the chief engineer of Maj. Gen. William Emory’s XIX Corps had initially deemed the heights ‘inattackable,’ during the afternoon of September 20 the position was in fact extremely vulnerable.
In order to adequately defend Fisher’s Hill, Early needed to have enough troops to stretch out over a four-mile front from Little North Mountain to Massanutten or his flanks would be exposed and susceptible to assault. And there was the rub. A captain in the 13th Virginia succinctly described the Confederate dilemma, saying, ‘The position was a very strong one, but our army was too small to man it.’
In August Early had the ability to defend the position, but by late September he did not. Four thousand of his men had become casualties at Third Winchester, most of whom had been taken prisoner. Orders from the Confederate War Department to move Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s troops to the Department of Southwest Virginia further diminished Early’s strength. Early also had to pare off troopers to contend with a Union cavalry threat in the Luray Valley, as the portion of the Shenandoah Valley from Massanutten east to the Blue Ridge was known.
Early attempted to compensate for his lack of troops by strengthening the defenses and using dismounted cavalry, but with Sheridan’s Federals moving in to his front, Early realized the foolishness of his position and thought it best to withdraw. ‘Having discovered that the position could be flanked,’ Early confessed, ‘I had determined to fall back on the night of the 22nd.’ Unfortunately for Early, he would not be given the option to retreat without battle, for the Federals had realized the extent of Early’s problems by late on the night of the 20th.
Little Phil realized a frontal attack was unlikely to succeed and would result in heavy casualties no matter the outcome. He recalled that the ‘enemy’s position at Fisher’s Hill was so strong that a direct assault would entail unnecessary destruction of life, and besides, be of doubtful result.’ The initial meeting of Sheridan and his three corps commanders on September 20 provided no immediate decision. One of the initial plans discussed was an attack against the Confederate right flank, and although VI Corps commander Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright and Emory liked the idea, Brig. Gen. George Crook, Sheridan’s West Point roommate and close friend and the head of the VIII Corps, was not keen on the idea.
Captain Russell Hastings, the adjutant of the 23rd Ohio of Crook’s command, had been wounded on the 19th and was in a hospital in Winchester, but after the fight at Fisher’s Hill, he undoubtedly discussed the battle with those who were there and had access to correspondence related to the engagement. Hastings claimed that Crook suggested a turning movement before the evening meeting. A flank attack on the right would be difficult to conceal from a Confederate signal station atop Massanutten, but an assault against the left end of Early’s line held promise, argued Crook. Sheridan adjourned the meeting and then summoned the commanders later that evening to discuss a turning movement of Early’s left.
Crook sometimes lacked confidence in presenting his opinions verbally, especially to superiors. To bolster his argument and hopefully convince Sheridan at the evening meeting, Crook brought his two division commanders, Colonels Rutherford Hayes and Joseph Thoburn, to Sheridan’s headquarters. Hayes, a Harvard-trained lawyer, was brought along to plead Crook’s case. At the ’somewhat stormy council of war,’ as Hastings later described it, Hayes made a most eloquent appeal to Sheridan to allow Crook to conduct the turning movement against Early’s left flank — just as Crook had done one day earlier at Winchester. General Wright, however, would not hear of it.
Wright, senior to Crook, believed that conducting the flank attack should be his privilege, as it was the post of honor. Some Union officers in Sheridan’s army already had a negative opinion of Wright and saw him as a glory hound who disliked working in conjunction with other commands. When Wright demanded he be given the post of honor, Hayes apparently lambasted him. ‘It is not a question of post of honor,’ Hayes lectured Wright. ‘The question is, how can the battle be fought, and won, at the least loss of life. The success of the Union Arms must not at this time be jeopardized by personal interests.’ Crook suggested that while his men got into position to flank the enemy, the VI and XIX corps could distract the Confederates by moving against Early’s front. Wright was still doing everything he could to block the flank attack plan, and Sheridan was not yet convinced.
Hayes then reminded Sheridan about the fighting experiences of many of the men in Crook’s command and the nature of the ground over which this flank march of nearly a dozen miles would take place — rocky, rugged and mountainous terrain. A large portion of Crook’s corps had fought much of the Civil War in the mountains of western Virginia and the men were simply more accustomed to this sort of terrain; neither the troops of the VI Corps nor the XIX Corps had such experience. An aged fifer in the 13th West Virginia constantly boasted that he ‘was born on the mountain side [and] have always stood sidewise, with one foot higher than the other ever since I can remember.’
Despite Wright’s strong feelings against the attack, Sheridan believed it was the only way to break the Valley’s Gibraltar. After the war ended Sheridan failed to give Crook any credit for devising the plan to crush Early at Fisher’s Hill. ‘I resolved on the night of the 20th,’ Sheridan penned in his memoirs, ‘to use again a turning-column, against his left, as had been done’ at Third Winchester. ‘To this end I resolved to move Crook, unperceived if possible, over to the eastern face of Little North Mountain, whence he could strike the left and rear of the Confederate line.’ Sheridan’s reluctance to credit Crook for his role in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 marred a four-decades-old friendship.
Other officers, however, did give Crook credit. Chief among them was Hayes. Four days after the battle Hayes wrote his uncle: ‘At Fisher’s Hill the turning of the Rebel left was planned and executed by General Crook against the opinions of other generals….General Sheridan is a whole-souled brave man and believes in Crook, his old class and roommate at West Point. Intellectually he is not General Crook’s equal, so that, as I said, General Crook is the brains of this army.’ Others viewed things with a bit more objectivity. Artillery Captain Henry A. DuPont recognized that the flank attack was Crook’s idea, but keenly observed that ‘Hayes’ admiration for his corps commander may have led him to underestimate the intellectual ability of his commanding general.’
Regardless of who should receive the lion’s share of the credit for conceiving the plan, both Sheridan and Crook knew that if the plan was going to succeed, the flank attack needed to be kept secret — therefore many of Crook’s movements would have to take place under cover of darkness or amid the fall foliage. That night Crook organized his men in heavy woods on the north bank of Cedar Creek. Paramount in Crook’s mind was keeping his corps out of sight of the Confederate signal station on Massanutten.
Throughout the day on the 21st, Crook’s men stayed concealed in the woods north of Cedar Creek while the VI and XIX corps marched from the area around Strasburg south to Fisher’s Hill. Troops of the VI Corps occupied a small hill in front of Fisher’s Hill that was a good platform for artillery. Meanwhile, Crook’s men waited for the cover of darkness. Then, as the sun began to set, they marched southwest and occupied a position in an area of dense woods slightly north of Hupp’s Hill. Crook wore a private’s blouse, just in case prying eyes from Massanutten happened to land on him, and he ordered his color bearers to trail their flags, fearing that the bright colors of the Stars and Stripes or flagpole finials would attract attention.
Crook’s regiments filed into their positions near Hupp’s Hill during the evening of the 21st and rested for several hours. Beginning the next morning, they marched to the eastern face of Little North Mountain, from which they would launch their assault.
By 2 p.m., Crook’s two divisions had reached the Back Road, situated at the base of the mountain. Along the road, near St. Stephens Church, Crook’s men made their final preparations for the ascent up Little North Mountain and the subsequent attack. Knapsacks were piled, and the men, remembered one soldier from the 116th Ohio, ‘arranged canteens and bayonet scabbards so that no noise would be made by them.’ Crook’s men had managed to maintain secrecy throughout the march, but that effort would be wasted if the Yankees revealed themselves as they climbed up the slopes of the mountain.
To distract Early’s men from the events on their left flank, Sheridan directed Emory and Wright to increase their activity along the Rebel front. While the large majority of Early’s men were preoccupied with Emory and Wright, the VIII Corps moved into position along the eastern face of Little North Mountain. The march was a difficult one, and all organization in Hayes and Thoburn’s columns was lost as they moved along the rocky precipice.
At approximately 4 p.m., Crook — with battle lines formed squarely on the enemy’s left flank — launched his assault. While most Confederates did not know Crook’s whereabouts, evidence suggests that Early had some knowledge of the attack but failed to give it credence. Brigadier General Bryan Grimes noticed some activity on the Confederate left flank around 3 p.m., at least one hour before the flank attack commenced. Concerned about the vulnerability of his position, Grimes summoned Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur and implored him to reinforce the left end of the line. The units on the extreme Confederate left, dismounted cavalry under Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax, a force that many other Rebel commanders rated as sub-par, were the only obstacles that stood in the way of the massive flank attack.
Ramseur initially shrugged off Grimes’ suggestion, stating that the Union troops Grimes observed was nothing more than a fence row. But when Ramseur peered through his binoculars, he saw Crook’s 16 infantry regiments bearing down on the left. Despite that, Ramseur declined to bolster the left until he first discussed the matter with Early — a tremendous error in judgment on his part. To many, the sight of Crook’s four brigades was plain as day. A Confederate private observed in his diary that he and his comrades could see Crook’s men ‘moving heavy columns of infantry to their right all day. We can see them plainly climbing up the side of North Mountain.’
Between 4 and 4:30 p.m., as the sun began to set behind Little North Mountain, Crook’s two divisions, about 5,500 strong, struck Early’s left, encountering Confederate pickets who put up no resistance and took to their heels, reporting to their comrades in Ramseur’s Division that they had been flanked. Confederate artillery soon opened up, but did ‘little execution,’ Crook later remembered.
As Hayes’ and Thoburn’s divisions rolled down the mountain into a ravine, their orderly lines became jumbled. By ‘the time we arrived at the foot of the mountain and emerged from the woods our lines were completely broken,’ recalled Crook. Speed was everything, and that meant there would be no time to reform. ‘Thence we went, sweeping down their works like a western cyclone, every man for himself, firing whenever he saw a rebel and always yelling and cheering to the extent of his ability,’ recalled the 116th Ohio’s Colonel Thomas F. Wildes.
The Union attackers first ran into Lomax’s dismounted horsemen. Early generally held his cavalry in low regard, and those troopers did little to change his opinion that they had ‘been the cause of all my disasters’ when they could not thwart the Union onslaught.
After the war, some Confederate veterans contended that the panic-stricken cavalrymen did more than Crook’s division to create alarm among the Confederate defenders and break up the left. ‘While standing in position a cavalryman from our left came down our line,’ remembered the 13th Virginia’s Captain S.D. Buck, ‘reporting to each command that we are flanked! This did much for Sheridan and the worthless soldier should have been shot then and there.’ Buck continued his tirade against this nameless horseman, ‘That one cowardly cavalryman is responsible for this disaster.’ While unfair to blame one cavalryman for the disintegration of Early’s line, it is reasonable to surmise that the sound of firing on the left and frantic men from Lomax’s command fleeing their position must have been demoralizing to an army that three days earlier had suffered defeat.
By the time Crook’s men caromed into the Confederate left, Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts’ division of the VI Corps had linked with Crook’s left. Sheridan’s entire army then pressed Early from the front and left, just as it had done three days earlier at Winchester. Crook had thrown Early’s army into disarray, and Old Jube’s attempts to redeploy troops to bolster his left were counterproductive, as that only weakened the areas that were under pressure by the Union VI and XIX corps.
Ramseur desperately tried to hold to his tenuous position, and immediately ordered Brig. Gen. Cullen A. Battle’s Brigade of Alabamians to the left to form a line parallel to the attackers. Battle’s Brigade, which had performed admirably at Winchester, found itself supporting Major Thomas J. Kirkpatrick’s Amherst Battery (part of Major William Nelson’s artillery battalion) and the only obstacle between Crook’s Federals and the Confederate left. As the attackers rushed onward, the gunners of the Amherst Battery fired canister into their foe, and Battle — wielding a cedar fence stake — urged his men to stand firm and shouted, ‘Close up! On your life!’
Even though they were facing a hopeless situation, Battle’s Brigade put up enough resistance to gain Crook’s attention. ‘On a prominent ridge about one mile from the base of the mountain,’ Crook penned in his after-action report, ‘where one of their main batteries was posted, the enemy made his most stubborn stand.’ Regardless of that tenacity, however, Crook claimed his men soon drove the Confederates ‘pell-mell from their position.’
As the men of Hayes’ and Thoburn’s divisions pounded the Confederate left, Ramseur sent Brig. Gen. William R. Cox’s Brigade to help Battle. In the confusion of the fight, however, Cox got off track and left the Alabamians to fend for themselves. When the pressure of Crook’s attack became too much to endure, the Alabamians and the guns they supported withdrew from the field.
After Battle’s men pulled out, Grimes’ Brigade of North Carolina Tar Heels was next to bear the weight of the attack. Without orders, Grimes, who was already taking fire to his front, took two of his regiments and faced them to the west to meet Crook’s attack. Grimes’ men fought ably according to most accounts, but fire from the front, left and rear compelled him to fall back. The rout was on. Small pockets of Confederates desperately tried to defend their positions but to no avail.
The regimental historian of the 116th Ohio recorded that they had been ’stopped at several points by small bodies of the enemy, but such stops were only momentary, for as soon as a little sharp firing was heard at any point, the men would of their own accord, concentrate there, and in a few moments would be rushing on again.’ Colonel George Wells, commanding Thoburn’s 1st Brigade in the fight, echoed, ‘As long as a rebel was in sight they chased him, and whenever they heard heavy firing and saw that our advance was checked they gathered like bees.’
As darkness began to cloak the field, Early’s men withdrew from their positions, and he later admitted he was quite displeased that the fight was a ‘very brief contest’ and that his men ‘retired in considerable confusion.’ The Southern commander believed that the troops could have provided better resistance to Crook’s flank attack, but as he explained to General Robert E. Lee: ‘In the affair at Fisher’s Hill the cavalry gave way, but it was flanked. This could have been remedied if the troops had remained steady, but a panic seized them at the idea of being flanked, and without being defeated they broke, many of them fleeing shamefully.’ A Virginian agreed with Early, expressing shame that, as he put it, ‘we had disgraced ourselves.’
Battlefield deaths were minimal at Fisher’s Hill; only 30 of Early’s men and 51 of Sheridan’s were killed. Early, however, did have his ranks greatly depleted, with nearly 1,000 of his men captured and more than 200 wounded. Sheridan had slightly more than 400 wounded, but he had more men than Early and could afford the loss. Crook lost 162 men in the fight, about 30 percent of the Federal casualties.
Sheridan’s army pursued the Confederates south past Woodstock after the battle, but were unable to put the finishing touches on Early. ‘Our success was very great,’ lamented Sheridan, ‘yet I had anticipated results still more pregnant.’ Early had slipped away once again. Following his second defeat in three days Early retreated south and by month’s end was near Waynesboro.
Despite the fact Early had escaped, Crook’s flank attack reaped significant results. Fisher’s Hill had disorganized Early’s men and pushed them farther up the Valley. The lack of a strong Rebel presence in the upper Shenandoah gave Sheridan the freedom to begin what became known as the ‘Burning’ during the autumn of 1864, as he fired large amounts of property, carrying out another element of Grant’s plan to destroy the region as a source of provender for the Confederate armies.
While Sheridan laid waste to the upper Shenandoah Valley, Early reorganized and reinforced his battered command. The two would lock horns on October 19, 1864, at the Battle of Cedar Creek. That morning, Early turned the tables by striking Crook’s VIII Corps on Sheridan’s left flank. In a matter of 15 minutes Crook’s men, many of them asleep in the early morning hours, were captured or driven from their position.
Though Sheridan’s men rallied to carry the day, that fight tainted the reputation of the VIII Corps. Although it is true that Sheridan’s army won at Cedar Creek largely due to the fighting of the XIX and VI corps, the VIII Corps was responsible for much of Sheridan’s success in the Valley up to that point and played an important role in the creation of his wartime legacy. The flank attack at Winchester and the massive maneuver at Fisher’s Hill gave Sheridan two crucial victories and elevated him to the pantheon of legendary Union commanders.
As the years went by, arguing over the fight at Fisher’s Hill resulted in animosity between Sheridan and Crook, two men who had been nearly as close as brothers for four decades. Historians have expended a fair amount of ink debating who was responsible for developing the idea to strike Early’s left flank. Evidence exists to support both claims.
Regardless of who conceived the plan, Crook should be credited for guiding his men to the eastern slopes of Little North Mountain, and his soldiers deserve a large portion of the recognition for taking matters into their own hands after the terrain had disrupted their formations. Had the soldiers lacked initiative and fighting prowess, the attack would have failed and the plan declared a blunder. ‘I feel the success is due, more than in any battle I know,’ Colonel Wells wrote in his battle report, ‘to the splendid individual heroism of the men in the ranks.’