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.
Lee Sends Early to 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, Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley.
Battle of Lynchburg
On June 17 and 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, D.C., before being forced to retreat into 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 to the Shenandoah Valley
Outside of the political arena, Confederate operations in the valley had become a source of irritation to Grant. On August 1, Grant sent Ohioan Major General Philip Sheridan to the valley and, on August 8, placed him in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah. Grant’s orders for Sheridan were twofold: 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.”
At first, Sheridan was slow to act because faulty intelligence reports led him to believe that Early’s army was much larger than it really was. Early mistook Sheridan’s restraint as a sign that he was dealing with another timid Union general. As a result, Early brashly spread his forces thin as he conducted raids on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. On September 16, Sheridan received more accurate intelligence regarding the size and deployment of Early’s army and engaged Early near Winchester, Virginia.
September 19, 1864 – Sheridan Advances
At 4:30 a.m. on September 19, Sheridan’s army advanced from the east along the Berryville Road toward Winchester. Along the way, his soldiers traveled through a long narrow canyon. The Union cavalry quickly passed through the narrow passage and began sweeping away Confederate pickets on the other side. The rest of the Union force, however, bogged down as foot-soldiers, artillery, and supply trains tried to negotiate the narrow canyon. Early used the time to concentrate his small army and block the turnpike.
Federals Sent Fleeing
The bottleneck delayed the Union offensive until almost noon when Union Brigadier General William Emory’s 19th Corps attacked Major General John B. Gordon’s division. The initial assault was successful, but Gordon’s men rallied and repulsed the Federals, sending them fleeing toward the rear.
Confederate Exploit a Gap
Simultaneous with Emory’s assault, Union Major General Horatio Wright’s 6th Corps advanced against Confederate Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division farther to the south. Ramseur’s division collapsed, but during the ensuing Union advance, a gap developed between Emory’s and Wright’s corps. Confederate Major General Robert E. Rodes quickly exploited the situation, leading his division in a counterattack that began at approximately 1:30 p.m. During the attack, an exploding shell killed Rodes, but Brigadier General Cullen A. Battle took command and continued to lead the Confederate surge.
Federal Counterattack Stems Confederate Surge
Sheridan deployed Brigadier General David A. Russell’s division to prevent the Rebels from splitting his army. Russell was mortally wounded as his soldiers scurried to fill the gap. Brigadier General Emory Upton assumed command of the division and mounted a vigorous counterattack that stemmed the Confederate tide.
As the fighting slowed in the center, Sheridan sent Brigadier General George Crook’s 8th Corps to find Early’s left flank. At the same time, Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s cavalry was flanking the Confederate right. As Early consolidated his forces toward the middle, Sheridan ordered a general advance in the late afternoon. Faced with an onslaught from a much larger army, the Confederate resistance melted away. By nightfall, Sheridan had possession of Winchester, and Early’s army was retreating to the south.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Opequon was the bloodiest engagement of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. Sheridan’s force of approximately 39,000 soldiers suffered 5,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured or missing). Early suffered fewer total casualties (3,610), but he lost one-fourth of his army of approximately 12,000 men.
The battle was also a turning point in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. Early retreated to Fisher’s Hill, where the two armies met again two days later, but Sheridan had seized the initiative. Within little more than a month, he drove Early out of the valley. The Shenandoah Valley ceased to be a source of sustenance for the Confederacy, and Early’s army was no longer an agent of distraction for Grant’s campaign against Lee.