American Civil War: Battle of Fisher's Hill

Fighting at Fisher's Hill, 1864
Battle of Fisher's Hill. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Fisher's Hill - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Fisher's Hill was fought September 21-22, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederate

Battle of Fisher's Hill - Background:

In June 1864, with his army besieged at Petersburg by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, General Robert E. Lee detached Lieutenant General Jubal A.

Early with orders to operate in the Shenandoah Valley.  The goal of this was to have Early reverse Confederate fortunes in the region which had been sustained a blow due to Major General David Hunter's victory at Piedmont earlier in the month.  Additionally, Lee hoped that Early's men would divert some Union forces away from Petersburg.  Arriving at Lynchburg, Early was able to force Hunter to withdraw into West Virginia and then drove down (north) the valley.  Entering into Maryland, he pushed aside a scratch Union force at the Battle of Monocacy on July 9.  Responding to this new threat, Grant ordered Major General Horatio G. Wright's VI Corps north from the siege lines to reinforce Washington, DC.  Though Early threatened the capital later in July, he lacked the forces to mount a meaningful assault on the Union defenses.  With little other choice, he withdrew back to the Shenandoah.

Battle of Fisher's Hill - Sheridan Takes Command:

Weary of Early's activities, Grant created the Army of the Shenandoah on August 1 and appointed his cavalry chief, Major General Philip H.

Sheridan, to lead it.  Composed of Wright's VI Corps, Brigadier General William Emory's XIX Corps, Major General George Crook's VIII Corps (Army of West Virginia), and three divisions of cavalry under Major General Alfred Torbert, this new formation received orders to eliminate Confederate forces in the Valley and render the region worthless as a source of supplies for Lee.

  Moving south from Harpers Ferry, Sheridan initially showed caution and probed to ascertain Early's strength.  Leading four infantry and two cavalry divisions, Early misinterpreted Sheridan's early tentativeness as over-caution and permitted his command to be strung out between Martinsburg and Winchester.

Battle of Fisher's Hill - "Gibraltar of the Shenandoah Valley":

In mid-September, having gained an understanding of Early's forces, Sheridan moved against the Confederates at Winchester.  In the Third Battle of Winchester (Opequon) his forces inflicted a severe defeat on the enemy and sent Early reeling south.  Seeking to recover, Early reformed his men along Fisher's Hill just south of Strasburg.  A strong position, the hill was situated at a point where the valley narrowed with Little North Mountain to the west and Massanutten Mountain to the east.  Additionally, the north side of Fisher's Hill possessed a steep slope and was fronted by a creek named Tumbling Run.  Known as the Gibraltar of the Shenandoah Valley, Early's men occupied the heights and prepared to meet Sheridan's advancing Union forces.  

Though Fisher's Hill offered a strong position, Early lacked sufficient forces to cover the four miles between the two mountains.

  Anchoring his right on Massanutten, he deployed the divisions of Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton, Major General John B. Gordon, Brigadier General John Pegram, and Major General Stephen D. Ramseur in a line extending east to west.  To bridge the gap between Ramseur's left flank and Little North Mountain, he employed Major General Lunsford L. Lomax's cavalry division in a dismounted role.  With the arrival of Sheridan's army on September 20, Early began to realize the danger of his position and that his left was extremely weak.  As a result, he began making plans for a retreat further south to begin on the evening of September 22.   

Battle of Fisher's Hill - The Union Plan:

Meeting with his corps commanders on September 20, Sheridan rejected mounting a frontal assault against Fisher's Hill as it would cause heavy losses and had a questionable chance of success.

  Subsequent discussions resulted in a plan to strike Early's right near Massanutten.  While this was endorsed by Wright and Emory, Crook had reservations as any movement in that area would be visible to the Confederate signal station atop Massanutten.  Adjourning the meeting, Sheridan reconvened the group that evening to discuss a thrust against the Confederate left.  Crook, with support from one of his brigade commanders, future president Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, argued in favor of this approach while Wright, who did not wish his men to be relegated to a secondary role, fought against it. 

When Sheridan approved of the plan, Wright attempted to secure leading the flank attack for VI Corps.  This was blocked by Hayes who reminded the Union commander that VIII Corps had spent much of the war fighting in the mountains and was better equipped to traverse the difficult terrain of Little North Mountain than VI Corps.  Resolving to move forward with the plan, Sheridan directed Crook to begin quietly moving his men into position.  That night, VIII Corps formed in heavy woods north of Cedar Creek and out of sight of the enemy signal station (Map).

Battle of Fisher's Hill - Turning the Flank:

On September 21, Sheridan advanced VI and XIX Corps towards Fisher's Hill.  Nearing the enemy lines, VI Corps occupied a small hill and began deploying its artillery.  Having remained concealed all day, Crook's men commenced moving again that evening and arrived at another concealed position north of Hupp's Hill.

  On the morning of the 21st, they ascended the east face of Little North Mountain and marched southwest.  Around 3:00 PM, Brigadier General Bryan Grimes reported to Ramseur that enemy troops were on their left.  After initially dismissing Grimes' claim, Ramseur then saw Crook's men approaching through his field glasses.  Despite this, he refused to send more forces to the left end of the line until he discussed it with Early.

In position by 4:00 PM, Crook's two divisions, led by Hayes and Colonel Joseph Thoburn, commenced their attack on Lomax's flank.  Driving in the Confederate pickets, they quickly routed Lomax's men and pressed on towards Ramseur's division.  As VIII Corps began to engage Ramseur's men it was joined on its left by Brigadier General James B. Ricketts' division from VI Corps.  Additionally, Sheridan directed the remainder of VI Corps and XIX Corps to pressure Early's front.  In an attempt to rescue the situation, Ramseur directed Brigadier General Cullen A. Battle's brigade on his left to refuse back to face Crook's men.  Though Battle's men mounted a fierce resistance, they were soon overwhelmed.  Ramseur then sent Brigadier General William R. Cox’s brigade to aid Battle.  This force became lost in the confusion of the fight and played little role in the engagement.

Pressing forward, Crook and Ricketts next rolled Grimes' brigade as enemy resistance faltered.  With his line shattered, Early began directing his men to withdraw south.  One of his staff officers, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Pendleton, attempted to mount a rearguard action on the Valley Turnpike but was mortally wounded.

  As the Confederates retreated in confusion, Sheridan ordered a pursuit in the hopes of dealing Early a fatal blow.  Chasing the enemy south, the Union troops finally broke off their efforts near Woodstock.

Battle of Fisher's Hill - Aftermath:

A stunning success for Sheridan, the Battle of Fisher's Hill saw his troops capture nearly 1,000 of Early's men while killing 31 and wounding around 200.  Union losses included 51 killed and around 400 wounded.  As Early escaped south, Sheridan commenced laying waste to the lower part of the Shenandoah Valley.  Reorganizing his command, Early attacked the Army of the Shenandoah on October 19 while Sheridan was away.  Though the fighting at the Battle of Cedar Creek initially favored the Confederates, Sheridan's return later in the day led to a change in fortunes with Early's men being driven from the field.  The defeat effectively gave control of the valley to the Union and eliminated Early's army as an effective force.  

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Fisher's Hill." ThoughtCo, Dec. 28, 2016, thoughtco.com/battle-of-fishers-hill-2360259. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, December 28). American Civil War: Battle of Fisher's Hill. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-fishers-hill-2360259 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Fisher's Hill." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-fishers-hill-2360259 (accessed January 21, 2018).