American Civil War: Third Battle of Winchester (Opequon)

Philip Sheridan
Major General Philip Sheridan. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Third Battle of Winchester - Conflict & Date:

The Third Battle of Winchester was fought September 19, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

Third Battle of Winchester - Background:

In June 1864, with his army besieged at Petersburg by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, General Robert E. Lee dispatched Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early to the Shenandoah Valley.  It was his hope that Early could reverse Confederate fortunes in the area which had been damaged by Major General David Hunter's victory at Piedmont earlier in the month as well as divert some Union forces away from Petersburg.  Reaching Lynchburg, Early succeeded in compelling Hunter to withdraw into West Virginia and then advanced down (north) the Valley.  Crossing into Maryland, he defeated a scratch Union force at the Battle of Monocacy on July 9.  Responding to this crisis, Grant directed VI Corps north from the siege lines to reinforce Washington, DC.  Though Early menaced the capital later in July, he lacked the forces to assault the Union defenses.  With little other choice, he retreated back to the Shenandoah.

Third Battle of Winchester - Sheridan Arrives:

Tired of Early's activities, Grant formed the Army of the Shenandoah on August 1 and appointed Major General Philip H. Sheridan to lead it.  Comprised of Major General Horatio 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 command received orders to destroy Confederate forces in the Valley and render the region useless as a source of supplies for Lee.  Advancing from Harpers Ferry, Sheridan initially showed caution and probed to test Early's strength.  Possessing four infantry and two cavalry divisions, Early mistook Sheridan's early tentativeness as over-caution and allowed his command to be strung out between Martinsburg and Winchester.

Third Battle of Winchester - Moving to Battle:

Learning that Early's men were dispersed, Sheridan elected to drive on Winchester which was held by Major General Stephen D. Ramseur's division.  Warned of the Union advance, Early worked feverishly to reconcentrate his army.  Around 4:30 AM on September 19, the lead elements of Sheridan's command pushed into the narrow confines of Berryville Canyon east of Winchester.  Seeing an opportunity to delay the enemy, Ramseur's men blocked the canyon's western exit.  Though ultimately driven back by Sheridan, Ramseur's action bought time for Early to gather Confederate forces in Winchester.  Advancing from canyon, Sheridan neared the town but was not ready to attack until around midday.

Third Battle of Winchester - Striking Early:

To defend Winchester, Early deployed the divisions of Major Generals John B. Gordon, Robert Rodes, and Ramseur in a north-south line to the east of the town.  Pressing west, Sheridan prepared to attack with VI Corps on the left and elements of XIX Corps on the right.  Finally in position at 11:40 AM, Union forces commenced their advance.  While Wright's men moved forward along the Berryville Pike, Brigadier General Cuvier Grover's division of XIX Corps stepped off from a woodlot known as First Woods and crossed an open area dubbed Middle Field.  Unknown to Sheridan, Berryville Pike slanted south and a gap soon opened between VI Corps' right flank and Grover's division.  Enduring severe artillery fire, Grover's men charged Gordon's position and began to drive them from a stand of trees named Second Woods (Map).

Though he attempted to halt and consolidate his men in the woods, Grover's troops impetuously charged through them.  To the south, VI Corps began to make headway against Ramseur's flank.  With the situation critical, Gordon and Rodes quickly organized a series of counterattacks to save the Confederate position.  As they moved troops forward, the latter was cut down by an exploding shell.  Exploiting the gap between VI Corps and Grover's division, Gordon reclaimed Second Woods and forced the enemy back across Middle Field.  Seeing the danger, Sheridan worked to rally his men while pushing the divisions of Brigadier Generals William Dwight (XIX Corps) and David Russell (VI Corps) into the gap.  Moving forward, Russell fell when a shell exploded near him and command of his division passed to Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Third Battle of Winchester - Sheridan Victorious:

Stopped by the Union reinforcements, Gordon and the Confederates retreated back to the edge of Second Woods and for the next two hours the sides engaged in long-range skirmishing.  To break the stalemate, Sheridan directed VIII Corps to form on the Union right astride Red Bud Run, with the division of Colonel Isaac Duval to the north and that of Colonel Joseph Thoburn to the south. Around 3:00 PM, he issued orders for the entire Union line to advance.  On the right, Duval fell wounded and command passed to future president Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes.  Striking the enemy, Hayes and Thoburn's troops caused Early's left to disintegrate.  With his line collapsing, he ordered his men to fall back to positions closer to Winchester.

Consolidating his forces, Early formed an "L-shaped" line with the left bent back to face the advancing men of VIII Corps.  Coming under coordinated attacks from Sheridan's troops, his position became more desperate when Torbert appeared north of town with the cavalry divisions of Major General William Averell and Brigadier General Wesley Merritt.  While Confederate cavalry, led by Major General Fitzhugh Lee, offered resistance at Fort Collier and Star Fort, it was slowly driven back by Torbert's superior numbers.  With Sheridan about to overwhelm his position and Torbert threatening to surround his army, Early saw no choice but abandon Winchester to retreat south.

Third Battle of Winchester - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Third Battle of Winchester, Sheridan sustained 5,020 killed, wounded, and missing while the Confederates incurred 3,610 casualties.  Beaten and outnumbered, Early withdrew twenty miles south to Fisher's Hill.  Forming a new defensive position, he came under attack from Sheridan two days later.  Beaten in the resulting Battle of Fisher's Hill, the Confederates again retreated, this time to Waynesboro.  Counterattacking on October 19, Early struck Sheridan's army at the Battle of Cedar Creek.  Though successful early in the fighting, strong Union counterattacks effectively destroyed his army in the afternoon.

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