The Battle of 3rd Winchester (The Battle of Opequon) pitted Union General Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah against General Jubal A. Early’s Army of the Valley west of Opequon Creek. General Sheridan attacked Early on September 19, 1864, inaugurating a campaign that would drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley for good.
On September 17, 1864, an eager and confident Gen. Early had taken most of his men to attack the B & O railroad in Martinsburg, West Virginia, leaving divisions under Gens. Stephen Ramseur and Gabriel Wharton behind to occupy the area in and around Winchester. Sheridan decided to exploit the opportunity to pounce upon an isolated portion of Early’s army.
At 3 a.m. on the 19th, Union cavalry swept Confederate pickets out of the Berryville canyon, allowing the rest of the Union force to advance. However, Sheridan’s infantry columns created a jam in the narrow canyon, which along with steady resistance by Ramsuer’s men, allowed time for Early’s main body — already on the way back to Winchester — to return and form a line of battle before any real assault took place.
At 11:40am, Sheridan launched a massive assault using elements of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps. Major Walker of the 11th Vermont later recounted: “[Sheridan’s men were inspired that he was] at the very front and under fire of the enemy…carefully attending to details which we had been accustomed to see more celebrated commanders entrust to their staff.”
Union soldiers pierced the Confederate lines but strong artillery fire and a determined counterattack drove the Northerners back across the “Middle Field”—now the bloodiest ground in the Shenandoah Valley.
Union Sixth Corps veterans in reserve blunted the Confederate counterattack. Among those pushing back was Union Colonel Ranald Mackenzie who galloped into battle under fire with a grin on his face, “the men hated him with the hate of hell, but they could not draw a bead on so brave a man as that.”
Later that afternoon, Sheridan unleashed his Eighth Corps and powerful cavalry forces upon the Confederate left flank. Major Walker witnessed Sheridan ride “along the whole of our extended skirmish line, wheeling out from the storm of bullets only as he reached our own division, and pausing as he passed between the brigades to exclaim, ‘Crook and Averell are on their left and rear—we’ve got’em bagged, by God!’” Early scrambled to maintain position but was steadily forced backward. By early evening, Early was falling back through Winchester southward towards Fisher’s Hill. Early never counted this as a defeat in his book, years later exclaiming, “Sheridan ought to have been cashiered “for letting us escape with more than half our men."
Third Winchester was the bloodiest battle of the Shenandoah Valley, resulting in more casualties than the entire 1862 Valley campaign. By the end of October, 1864, Sheridan had brought the Valley firmly under Union control.
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