Fight at Fisher's Hill through Union eyes

Perspective: "The whole Confederate line yielded its formidable position almost without striking a blow."

Cedar Creek 137th Anniversary Special Section

October 14, 2001|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,SUN STAFF

Among the scenarios to be re-enacted at this year's Cedar Creek event is the fighting at Fisher's Hill, featuring the portion of the battle involving the Union 19th Corps.

There are a number of primary documents relating to this fighting. Presented below is an overview of the action from Volume 9 of Abraham Lincoln, A History by John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay, President Abraham Lincoln's biographers and private secretaries. This seminal work was originally published in 1886.

Also included in this report are edited versions of the official reports of Brig. Gen. William Dwight, commander of the 1st Division of the 19th Corps, and Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover, commander of the 2nd Division of that corps. Both were involved in the fighting at Fisher's Hill. These reports are included in Series 1, Volume 43, Part I of the War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published at the end of the 19th century.

Nicolay and Hay account

Jubal A. Early established himself on Sept. 20, 1864, two miles south of Strasburg at Fisher's Hill, the strongest defensive position in the Valley. His right, under Wharton, was protected by the hill and by the north fork of the Shenandoah; his left, the dismounted cavalry of Lomax, was posted at the base of Little North Mountain; the interval was filled by Gordon's, Ramseur's and Pegram's divisions, in the order named, from right to left. Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, now under W. C. Wickham, was posted at Millford, in the Luray Valley, to guard against a movement on the Confederate right and rear - a precaution, as it turned out, of the greatest value.

Thus posted, General Early felt himself secure, hoping that Sheridan would arrive, look at his position and retire, as had happened a month before.

But a very different spirit now animated the two armies. The moment the National troops arrived, on the afternoon of the 20th, they began to take up positions which could mean nothing but aggression.

All that Early could see in the way of gradual approach and careful reconnaissance convinced him at last that he would have to endure and energetic attack; but what was going on out of his sight was more serious still.

Sheridan was engaged during the 21st in posting Wright and Emory, the one on the right, the other on the left, as near as convenient to the enemy, and succeeded in occupying, after a sharp skirmish with troops of the 6th Corps, the high ground on the north of Tumbling Run, a swift brook which ran directly in front of the Confederate position.

When this point had been gained, it was quickly fortified, and there was a certain comfort to General Early in the sound of the pioneers' axes and in the work of the engineers under his very eyes. He began, he says, to think Sheridan "was satisfied with the advantage he had gained and would not probably press it further."

But Sheridan, instantly on arriving, has resolved to repeat his tactics of the 19th, and sent Crook round the enemy's left flank. With admirable silence and secrecy this was accomplished, without the knowledge of Early's vigilant lookout on Three Top Mountain. Crook, with the 8th Corps, gained the flank of Little North Mountain, and then stole along its rugged side, under cover of the woods, until he came upon the Confederate left and rear.

In the meantime, Ricketts' division of the 6th Corps was thrown well forward and to the left of the Confederate center, producing the impression that the attack would be made from that direction.

General Early, who, in his ordinary frame of mind, would have welcomed such an attack as he now saw himself threatened with, now only wished for night to come, and gave orders for his troops to retire after dark. The sun had already set, and he did not dream that a battle and defeat would come to him in the short hour of twilight. But the time was ample.

Suddenly, with not more warning than the lightning gives, Crook burst upon the division of Lomax, taking their works in reverse and putting them to disordered flight.

Ricketts immediately joined hands with him, and the rest of Wright's and Emory's men poured like a torrent into the ravine of Tumbling Run, and swarmed up its further slope with an irresistible rush.

The whole Confederate line yielded its formidable position almost without striking a blow.

"After a very brief contest," says Early, "my whole force retired in considerable confusion."

The two defeats exerted their cumulative force upon them. They were so amazed at Crook's sudden apparition that they imagined he had come over the mountains and taken the pike in their rear, and great numbers therefore broke in dismay and disorder to escape on the right by the north fork of the Massanutten range.

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