I’m a history buff in general, and a military history buff in particular. So living near the epicenter of Civil War history, you can imagine I’m in my element.
For background, the battle was fought on September 21-22, 1864 during the final Union push into the Shenandoah. Still reeling from a very recent defeat at Winchester, the Confederates retreated to Fischer’s Hill, near the northern mouth of the Shenandoah Valley. Jubal Early’s Confederates could only muster 9,500 soldiers, while Sheridan’s Union force had almost 30,000.
This location was nicknamed the “Gibraltar” of the Shenandoah. The position was the narrowest part of the valley, anchored by Massanutten Mountain to the east and Little North Mountain to the west. Its defensibility was augmented by the hill’s steep slopes, situated behind a small creek. If well defended, this position could shut out a Union advance.
Unfortunately for them, Confederates were so few in number they were unable to properly defend the position. Ideally, their line would have reached the length of the valley from mountainside to mountainside. Instead they could only man a portion of the line; their left flank was essentially exposed.
Seeing the enemy line didn’t reach the mountains on the western side of the valley, VIII Corps commander Gen. George Crook devised a plan to sneak around the Confederate left flank at night. Crook selected a lawyer to plead his case to Sheridan; a Colonel (and future President) named Rutherford B Hays. Not wanting to dare a frontal assault, Sheridan accepted Crook’s plan.
The maneuver was successful. Two Union divisions surprised the Confederate left flank, rolling up their battle line while at the same time the main army launched a frontal attack. Early and much of the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah got away but was so crippled it was unable to oppose Phil Sheridan’s ‘burning’ of the Shenandoah Valley.
But what makes any battlefield tour fun are the human stories – and this one has a doozy. The Confederates posted a lookout in the high branches of a tree, hoping to spot the Union troops at a distance. I wonder – did he see a line of blue uniforms outflanking him? If so, what did he say? Did he flail his arms at his comrades saying “Um….guys….GUYS!!!! LOOK TO OUR LEFT!!!”. Was his calls heeded? Regardless, it must have been a shock to see two Union divisions charging up the hill at their unprotected flank. Even now, the tree bears scars from the battle.
Thanks to a non-profit the battlefield at Fischer’s Hill (aka Ramseur’s Hill) has recently received a well deserved upgrade. These include a parking lot, walking trail, and “Civil War Trails” signs explaining the flow of the battle and the background of key commanders. There’s still work to be done, but it’s a good start.
The parking lot is small but it’s been almost empty every time I’ve ever visited it. There are sign posts at the start of the trail, but be sure to go to your right and up the hill after you pass thru the gateway. The trail (dirt in some places, gravel in others) goes in a loop, passing a still-standing tree which was used as a look-out post by a Confederate soldier who tried to warn his commander of a large Union force bearing down on their flank. Overall, the ‘hike’ takes less than an hour.