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Battle of Fisher’s Hill

September 21-22, 1864

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."

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed native Ohioan Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of America. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get 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's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Ohioan 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.

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. 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, DC, before being forced to retreat back 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. Outside of the political arena, Confederate operations in the valley had become a source of irritation to Grant. Consequently, 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."

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 Early 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.

Early halted his retreat on September 20, and he established a defensive line at Fisher's Hill, south of Strasberg, Virginia. Fisher's Hill is located at a place where the Shenandoah Valley narrows to a width of about four miles. Protected on each side by mountains, the hill embodies a high slope that faces north. Early believed that the site's natural features gave his small army the best opportunity to check Sheridan's movement down 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 approximately 4:00 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 remainder of his army, inciting a general Confederate retreat. With his army now decimated, as well as demoralized by two overwhelming defeats within the span of three days, Early had no choice but to retreat or to face annihilation. Thus, he retreated south nearly 100 miles to Rockfish Gap, Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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 or 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 attending to Grant's directive to lay waste to the valley. During an operation of destruction 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." While scholars debate the actual level of destruction that Sheridan’s men exacted, his campaign still denied the Confederacy of supplies that were much needed on other fronts.

Ohio unites that participated in the Battle of Fisher’s Hill included:

Infantry units:

23rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

34th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

36th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

91st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

116th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

123rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery Units:

Battery L of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery Regiment

Cavalry Units:

2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment

8th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment

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