The Shenandoah Valley had been a disastrous area for Union commanders during the first eight months of 1864. Generals Sigel and Hunter had both lost their commands after failures in and around the valley. Hunter’s campaign had even led indirectly to the appearance of Confederate troops in front of the northern defences of Washington!
On 1 August General Sheridan was appointed to command the combined forces that were to operate in the Shenandoah. Five days later, on 6 August, he replaced Hunter in command of a new Military Division. His orders were to destroy Early’s army (preferably by capturing it rather than annihilating it) and to reach the Virginia Central Road, thus cutting one of Lee’s supply lines. Finally, Sheridan was ordered to ‘Take all provisions, forage and stock wanted for the use of your command; such as cannot be consumed, destroy’.
The Shenandoah Valley was one of the most fertile areas in the Confederacy. By destroying its crops, Sheridan would deny those supplies to Lee’s army around Richmond and Petersburg, make it much harder for Early’s men to operate in the Valley, and finally deny the Confederate guerrillas easy access to supplies. It was not intended to cause starvation in the valley itself – Sheridan’s own orders to his troops included the instruction to leave each family enough food for the upcoming winter, but to destroy any surplus that could aid the Confederate war effort.
However, despite these dramatic orders, and Sheridan’s fiery reputation, for nearly two months he remained at the northern end of the Valley. Early had been reinforced to 23,000 men, so was still massively outnumbered by Sheridan’s 40,000. However, Union intelligence overestimated the size of the army Early had taken to Washington, and also the number of reinforcements he received, and across August believed that he had 40,000 men of his own.
Sheridan did advance towards Strasburg, before receiving news of the Confederate reinforcements. He retreated back to Harpers Ferry, destroying crops as he went. His unexpected inactivity in the valley now started to worry President Lincoln, who prodded Grant into paying two visits to Sheridan. His second visit was made on 17 September, by which time Sheridan was finally ready to move.
Three days earlier, the Confederate reinforcements that had so worried Sheridan had returned to Lee. Worse, Early’s remaining men were widely scattered around Winchester, making them vulnerable to a surprise attack. Sheridan intended to attack Early from the east, hoping to trap Early in the town.
Unfortunately, there was only one good road into Winchester from the east, the Berryville Road. This was not enough for two of Sheridan’s army corps. Worse, the baggage train of the first of those corps, the Sixth, was following immediately behind the infantry. The Nineteenth Corps, following behind, got tangled in this baggage train. Sheridan’s planned morning attack against scattered Confederate forces became an afternoon attack against concentrated Confederate troops.
Two Confederate divisions even launched a counterattack into the gap between the two Federal corps. In the fighting here the Confederates lost General Robert E. Rodes, and the Union General David A. Russel, before the gap was closed. Meanwhile, at the front of the line the Federal army was advancing through weight of numbers (Sheridan had 37,700 men in the battle, Early only 12,150). Finally, Sheridan’s Eighth Corps (Crook) broke Early’s left wing.
After a good start, Early’s army appeared to collapse in rout and fled south. His losses were heavy – 276 dead, 1827 wounded and 1818 missing or captured – some 40% of his entire army. Sheridan lost more men – 697 dead, 3983 wounded and 332 missing and wounded, but he could more easily afford the losses.
Despite these heavy losses, and the appearance of rout at Winchester, Early was quickly able to reform the remains of his army. His reduced force formed up at Fisher’s Hill, only twenty miles south of Winchester, and prepared to fight again.