Following his defeat at Winchester on September 19, 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early led his army south through the Shenandoah Valley, looking desperately for a new defensive position upon which to hold his ground against the Federals and their commander, Phillip Sheridan. He found a piece of high ground called Fisher’s Hill between Massanutten Mountain to the east and Little North Mountain to the west. Early considered “this was the only position in the whole Valley where the defensive line could be taken against an enemy moving up the Valley.”
The only flaw lay in the few numbers available to cover the entire line along Fisher Hill to intercept Sheridan. In consequence, he had to put his cavalry on his left flank. This decision, by experience, should have told Early that this was not a smart move. The cavalry had occupied his left flank at Winchester, and their withdraw under the pressure of the Federals led to the collapse of the entire line. At Fisher’s Hill, Early compensated for the potential weakness of his left flank by anchoring his right against the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and the Massanutten Mountains to the east. From his right to left the units were Gabriel Wharton, John B. Gordon, John Pegram, Stephen Ramseur, and then Lunsford Lomax’s cavalry.
Early’s position on Fisher’s Hill gave Sheridan some pause. To engage in a frontal assault against this fortified hill, even with superior numbers, Sheridan risked high losses. By this point in the war, any general was aware of the folly in trying to launch a frontal assault against a heavily defended, deeply entrenched line. He called a council of war to discuss the options with his three leading commanders, George Crook (Army of West Virginia), William Emory (XIX Corps), and Horatio Wright (VI Corps). If a frontal assault wouldn’t work, the flanks must be taken. Attacking the enemy’s right flank against Massanutten Mountain with its signal station would sacrifice the element of surprise. The only route left was on the enemy’s left flank. It had worked before during the Third Battle of Winchester, and with Crook’s “Mountain Creepers” attacking on the left flank, Wright and Emory in the front, he’d send his own cavalry through New Market Gap in an effort to get into the Confederate’s rear. If all went well, Sheridan would bag Early’s army. Throughout September 21st, the Federals shuffled their lines closer and closer, masking their intentions as Crook’s men got into position in the woods on Lomax’s left.
By noon of September 22nd, Crook was in position with his two columns and Early was wise to what the Federals were planning. He ordered preparations to begin for the withdraw, knowing his left flank would not hold up to the “Mountain Creepers” creeping in around 2pm. By 4pm, the assault was launched, but given to the rocks and thicket-strewn ground down the mountainside, Crook’s columns lost all formation as they collided with the Confederate cavalry. In a repeat performance, mimicking the events at Third Winchester, the left Confederate flank crumbled. The Union forces were as “one large body of advancing soldiers, the bolder and stouter men being nearer the front, and the rear pushing eagerly forward and shouting and hurrahing and firing after the fast receding foe.” Crook could be seen in the rear with an armful of rocks, hurling them at his own men that dared to turn their backs to the retreating foe. Elements of Emory’s corps were sent in to strengthen Crook’s assault.
Ramseur, commanding the infantry on the left flank, witnessed the rout of the cavalry and turned Cullen Battle’s brigade of Alabamians and some artillery toward the advancing Federals to staunch the bleeding of blue into the Confederate lines. However, with Crook on his left and Wright’s corps advancing to his front, the rebels could not withstand. Early ordered Wharton to pull men from the extreme Confederate right to the left to help reinforce Ramseur’s breaking line, but it was no use. Like dominos, the Federals assaulted the Confederate line and the graybacks crumbled, one by one. Soon, Sheridan’s forces ascended Fisher’s Hill and carried the position. Once more, the Confederates retreated up the Valley (south).
Early would later sum it up and write that “the enemy’s immense superiority in cavalry and the inefficiency of the greater part of mine has been the cause of all my defeats.” A soldier of the 4th Georgia understood that well enough too when he recalled, “Neither fights [Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill] was our infantry whipped but forced to fall back because the cavalry let the Yankees flank our position.” In addition to the damage to morale, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton was killed during the skirmishing that took place in the retreat.
Union – 528 (51 of which were killed)
Confederate – 1,235 (30 of which were killed), 14 guns captured
Touring the Battlefield
Hupp House/Sheridan’s Headquarters
Besides Interstate 81, the Old Valley Turnpike – also referred to as Highway 11 – is the main artery of travel up and down the Valley. To begin the tour of the battle of Fisher’s Hill, drive by the Hupp House, which served as Sheridan’s headquarters prior to the battle. Here, Sheridan called his council of war to discuss how best to approach Fisher’s Hill. It’s not recommended to drive up to the house, as it’s not accessible to the public, so just try to catch a glimpse of it as you drive by. There’s not a solid address for the home, so drive to the Walgreen’s in Strasburg (335 Crystal Ln, Strasburg, VA 22657) turn left out of the parking lot onto Highway 11 and look for the Hupp House with the white columns on your left.
Ramseur’s Hill – 1864 Battlefield Rd, Strasburg, VA 22657
This is the only official battlefield park for Fisher’s Hill and a rather nice one at that. This position was held by Stephen Ramseur’s Confederate infantry. Park in the parking lot and walk through the gate to get on the trailhead. The property is open to the public, but is also used for grazing cattle. There are cow patties EVERYWHERE, so please watch your step. Follow the trail to the various stops to follow the progress of the battle via the informational signs. It can be a bit of a climb, so dress appropriately and bring water.
We had the nice fortune of having a private tour guide when we visited. He didn’t say much, but accepted plenty of head scratches for payment. He led the way along most of the trail and even made sure we stayed on track once or twice. The paths were not clearly marked in some places and we almost went the wrong way, but “Bud” (I called him “Bud” I don’t know his real name) patiently waited for us on the right trail to make sure we didn’t get lost. I imagine he must have belonged to a local resident and was very friendly.