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. This location was nicknamed the “Gibraltar” of the Shenandoah because its commanding heights made it an ideal defensive position.
Unfortunately for them, Confederates were so badly outnumbered they were unable to properly defend the hill. Seeing the enemy line didn’t reach the mountains on the western side of the valley, the Union devised a plan to sneak around the Confederate left flank at night. The maneuver was successful, and two Union divisions – one commanded by future President Rutherford B Hayes – surprised the Confederates and helped collapse their battle line. General Early and much of his army got away, but was thereafter unable to oppose Phil Sheridan’s ‘burning’ of the Shenandoah.
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 them outflanking him? If so, what did he say? Did he flail his arms saying “Um….guys….GUYS!!!! LOOK TO OUR LEFT!!!”. If so, it must have been a shock to see two Union divisions baring down on their position. 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.