The Battle of Fisher's Hill was fought in Shenandoah County, Virginia, near Strasburg, on September 21 and 22, 1864. The Union Army of the Shenandoah dealt the Confederate Army of the Valley a crushing defeat opening the door for Philip Sheridan's scorched earth offensive known as "The Burning."
Prelude to the Battle
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Early Invades the Shenandoah Valley
As Grant pressed Lee in Eastern Virginia during the spring and summer, the Confederate general devised a plan to divert Union forces away from his army. Lee designated Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s corps as the Army of the Valley and in June he ordered Early to re-deploy his army from Petersburg to the Shenandoah Valley. On June 17-18, Early’s army defeated Major General David Hunter’s Union forces at the Battle of Lynchburg, leaving control of the valley in Confederate hands. Early then launched his own offensive, invading Maryland and eventually threatening Washington, DC before being forced to retreat to the Shenandoah Valley.
Early’s successes in Maryland threatened President Lincoln’s re-election bid in November. Coupled with Grant’s mounting casualty totals in Eastern Virginia, Southerners had good reason to hope that the Northern electorate might opt for a peace candidate and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy to end the war.
Grant Sends Sheridan into the Valley
On August 1, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley to deal with Early. A week later, on August 8, Grant placed Sheridan in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah. Grant’s ordered Sheridan to destroy Early’s army and to
Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions… so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.
Sheridan succeeded at both.
Battle of Opequon
Initially, Sheridan was slow to act because false intelligence reports led him to believe that Early’s army was much larger than it really was. After receiving more accurate information regarding the size and deployment of Early’s army, Sheridan attacked the Rebels near Winchester, Virginia. On September 19, Sheridan’s army dealt the Confederates a severe blow at the Battle of Opequon, forcing Early to retreat south.
Rebel Defenses at Fisher’s Hill
Early halted his retreat on September 20 and established a defensive line at Fisher’s Hill, south of Strasberg. At Fisher’s Hill, the Shenandoah Valley narrows to a width of about four miles. Protected on each side by mountains, the hill features a high slope that faces north. Early believed that the site’s natural features gave his small army the best chance to check Sheridan’s movement up the valley. With enough soldiers, Early may have been correct, but his army was not large enough to defend a four-mile front. As one Rebel defender later reminisced, “The position was a very strong one, but our army was too small to man it.”
Sheridan grasped Early’s dilemma and determined to move against the Confederates while they were vulnerable. On the night of September 20, Sheridan and Major General George Crook devised a plan to crush Early’s army. The next day, most of Sheridan’s army advanced on the Rebel center, feinting a frontal attack.
With Early’s attention focused on the center, Crook marched two divisions (5,000 soldiers) undetected around the Confederate left flank. At about 4 p.m. on September 22, Crook’s soldiers smashed into the Rebels who quickly fell back in confusion. As the left end of Early’s line collapsed, Sheridan advanced the rest of his army, spurring a general Confederate retreat.
With his army now decimated and demoralized by two overwhelming defeats within three days, Early had no choice but to get his army away from Sheridan or face annihilation. He retreated south nearly 100 miles to Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Aftermath of the Battle
The defeat at Fisher’s Hill was a crushing blow to the Confederacy. Early’s small army suffered over 1,200 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured/missing), which it could ill-afford. The Federals suffered just over 500 casualties. More importantly, Early’s retreat opened the central Shenandoah Valley to Sheridan’s scorched earth offensive.
With Early’s army nearly neutralized, Sheridan spent the next few weeks laid waste to the valley. During an operation known as “The Burning,” Sheridan claimed to have slaughtered thousands of sheep, hogs, and cattle and to have burned “2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements [and] over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat.” Sheridan’s campaign denied the Confederacy of supplies that were much needed on other fronts.