Battle of Fisher's Hill
DESCRIPTION: "Old Early's Camp at Fisher's Hill Resolved some Yankee's blood to spill, He chose the time when Phil was gone." Early attacks the Union troops, but Sheridan hears the fight, rides back, and rallies his troops to brush Early aside
AUTHOR: C. A. Savage? (see NOTES)
EARLIEST DATE: 1864
KEYWORDS: battle Civilwar
Sep 22, 1864 - Battle of Fisher's Hill.
Oct 19, 1864 - Battle of Cedar Creek
FOUND IN: US(Ap)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Thomas-Makin', p. 58, "Battle of Fisher's Hill" (1 text)
WolfAmericanSongSheets, #97, p. 8, "Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864" (2 references)
ST ThBa058 (Partial)
LOCSinging, as100710, "The battle of Cedar Creek, October 19th, 1864," J Magee (Philadelphia), 1864
NOTES [2745 words]: Thomas's version of this song appears to conflate two battles, Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek -- understandable, since both involved Confederates based at Fisher's Hill. (Indeed, it may be an indication that the song is old, from before the names of the battles were standardized.) Although the song is called "Fisher's Hill," the description is of the battle of Cedar Creek.
The Shenandoah Valley had been a thorn in the side of the Union from the beginning of the war; it has been the site of Jackson's Valley Campaign of 1862, which disrupted the Federals' 1862 Peninsular campaign. And it had been a source of more trouble in 1864; with Grant bearing down on Richmond, Robert E. Lee had sent Jubal A. Early's understrength corps -- the remnant of Jackson's old command -- back to the Valley to see if Early could replicate Jackson's success.
In one sense, Early did better; he actually raided Washington, skirmishing outside the city on July 11-12 (Boatner, p. 256). But Grant had rushed enough troops to the city that Early dared not assault it. Back into the Shenandoah Valley he went.
Grant was determined not to repeat the Union mistakes of 1862, when Jackson had defeated a bunch of Union forces in detail by maneuvering between them. Grant would combine all the Shenandoah forces into one army, reinforce it, and appoint a single commander. And an aggressive one, at that. His choice was his old favorite, Phil Sheridan (the "Phil" of the song), who in 1864 had become cavalry commander of the Army of the Potomac. Sheridan took command of his new army on August 7, 1864 (Boatner, p. 743). It was a huge force -- Boatner, p. 743, says 48,000 men; the table of organization on pp. 308-313 of Wert shows seven divisions of infantry organized into three corps, plus three divisions of cavalry. Wert, p. 21, puts the total at 35,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry. Early never had more than five divisions of infantry and two of cavalry (Wert, pp. 313-317), and usually he had just four divisions of infantry -- all of which had been so heavily used as to be hardly stronger than brigades. Sheridan had at least a 3:1 edge in troops.
If anything, the discrepancy in the cavalry was even worse; the Southern horses were almost completely broken down, and their discipline was eroding (Wert, p. 24). And Early couldn't count on his generals to make up the difference; although Sheridan's senior officers weren't particularly brilliant, Early's men had lost so many officers that there simply weren't that many good leaders left in his corps.
The campaign began in earnest in September. Sheridan had been inactive for his first few weeks in command, so Early sent back one of his divisions (Kershaw's) to Lee (Boatner, p. 937). Sheridan responded by attacking Early at Winchester (the battle came to be called "Third Winchester" or "Opequon Creek").
It was not a good battle for the Federals; Early's forces had been scattered, but the Union troops had not been able to concentrate and attack; "during the first half of the day the Federal program had been handled with an absolute minimum of skill" (Catton, p. 300). Had the infantry battle been all that mattered, Early would likely have held his ground and earned at least a draw. Indeed, if he had had even a few more men to counter Sheridan's last reserves, he might have won outright. But Sheridan had one last division to put in, and it turned the tide (Wert, p. 70). And Sheridan's cavalry smashed the Confederate troopers (Wert, p. 97, etc.) to turn the battle into a clear Union victory. Early suffered roughly 30% losses (Wert, p. 103. The Union forces actually suffered more casualties, but they had such a huge advantage in force that it amounted to only 12% of those engaged on their side). Early also lost his senior division commander, Robert Rodes (Boatner, p. 707), which caused him to reshuffle the commands of two of his divisions. Early had no choice but to retreat to his bastion at Fisher's Hill -- which is where Wert, p. 106, thinks he should have fought in the first place.
Sheridan, having won his first victory, followed Early to Fisher's Hill. It was a very difficult position to attack -- the Confederates actually called it "their Gibraltar" (Wert, p. 110), and had fortified it carefully. If Early had stayed there all along, the Union troops might never have been able to attack him.
But the severe Confederate losses at Winchester had changed the situation. They could no longer man the entire Fisher's Hill line at full strength. Sheridan and his officers looked the position over, spotted a weak point, and attacked it on September 22 (Wert, p. 111). This time, Early's forces were simply not in position to resist. They were swept from the field, and probably lost at least 15% of their remaining forces (Boatner, p. 281; Freeman, p. 584, cites losses of 1235 in the infantry and artillery, with cavalry losses unreported). Federal losses were on the order of 2%.
The Union forces thought Early no longer a threat (Catton, p. 303), so they proceeded with their original mission of making the Shenandoah useless to the Confederacy. Food was confiscated, buildings burned, transportation destroyed (Wert, p. 157ffff.). But Sheridan didn't move forward to commit his act of devastation; he headed back north (Catton, p. 304) -- otherwise, his own supply lines would have been cut by his own acts of destruction. And that gave Early a chance to produce one last surprise. Back he came to Fisher's Hill -- and, from there, counterattacked at Cedar Creek a month after the first Fisher's Hill battle.
He didn't have a lot of choice. For one thing, Sheridan's devastation had been effective; there were no supplies at Fisher's Hill (Catton, p. 306). Also, Robert E. Lee -- who never understood how heavily Early was outnumbered (Freeman, p. 585) -- was pushing for action (Wert, p. 173).
Early had three cards up his sleeve. First, Lee had given him back Kershaw's Division, which had not been available at Winchester and Fisher's Hill (Freeman, p. 585). This didn't make up all Early's losses, but it certainly helped! Second, Sheridan thought Early was unable to attack him (especially after his cavalry tore Early's to shreds at Tom's Brook on October 9; Sheridan had told his cavalry commander A. T. A. Torbert "to whip the rebel cavalry or get whipped," and Torbert took the first option; Freeman, pp. 596-597). So in mid-October Sheridan put his army into a camp that was reasonably comfortable, but unfortified, and laid out so that the various forces were not mutually supporting (Wert, p. 172; Catton, p. 307). And, finally, although Early didn't know it, Sheridan left the army for a time, to argue with the government about whether and when he could release his troops for other service (Wert, p. 172).
And Sheridan's flank was in the air, although he thought it inaccessible. But Early's officers (notably John B. Gordon, his best division commander) found a way to sneak around it. The path the located ran very close to the Federal lines, so they could have been defeated in detail if the Federals had noticed -- but they didn't notice (Wert, pp. 175-176).
So Early attacked the Union flank, and promptly routed George Crook's corps -- seven thousand men, or about a fifth of Sheridan's infantry (Catton, pp. 308-309); apart from a few artillery companies, the corps had collapsed almost without firing a shot (Wert, pp. 182-183). Most of the men in the next corps, William H. Emory's XIX corps, were also driven from the field (Wert, p. 190); the Confederates captured 1300 prisoners and 18 cannon (Wert, p. 195). And, by routing them, John Gordon had a big chunk of the Confederate infantry in the rear of the Union VI Corps, Sheridan's last (if best) infantry unit; if the entire Confederate force could strike before the Federals could rearrange their forces, Sheridan's army could be disastrously defeated (Catton, p. 309).
To top it all off, Horatio G. Wright, the VI Corps commander who was in overall command with Sheridan gone, took a wound in the throat (Wert, p. 191). He stayed with the troops, but he was dripping blood, eventually found it hard to talk, and can't have been at his best.
But it was a foggy morning, so it was hard for the Confederates -- including Early -- to see what was happening (Wert, p. 197). Many of Early's forces (most of them starving) scattered to plunder the Union camp (at least, that was Early's explanation; Freeman, p. 608; Wert, p. 184; Catton, p. 315). Gordon begged Early to get them back in line and finish the battle, but Early was sure that the rest of the Federals would flee the field (so, at least, Catton, p. 311; Freeman, p. 604; Boatner, p. 134; Wert places much of the blame on Early's subordinates for halting although he does say on p. 227 that he believes Early thought the battle won. The other sources I checked mostly agree with Gordon, but because so few Confederate reports were filed, it appears it's basically Early's word against Gordon's -- Wert, pp. 215-217. Apparently scholars consider Gordon more credible).
We can't know if the Southrons could really have finished off the Sixth Corps and truly won the battle (after all, that one corps probably still had more men than Early's entire army, and there were two solid Union cavalry divisions present as well), but it appears that most southerners came to believe that they could have done so (Wert, p. 244). Early just had to reorganize his lines, get his cavalry on the Union supply line up the Valley Pike, and finish things off. But he didn't even try -- he didn't even try to get his men into proper defensive positions. Early has been bold, but, Gordon concluded, "he lacked the courage of his convictions" (Wert, p. 247).
Meanwhile, Sheridan had heard of the catastrophe (reports claim that he heard the noise of the fight by listening to the ground, but given how far away he was, I have to think this is folklore), and set off on his black horse Rienzi (this is the name used in most sources; Wert, p. 221, etc. calls it "Rienza") for the field. It was a twenty mile trip (although, contrary to people who had heard too many Black Bess tales, Sheridan didn't gallop the whole way; Catton, p. 313 -- and he did use both whip and spur; Wert, p. 223), and he periodically gathered up bodies of troops stumbling away from the field and turned them around and sent them back. He reached the field between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. (Wert, p. 223).
And, somehow, his mere presence helped the men recover their spirits -- perhaps because they remembered winning two battles under "Little Phil." As he came by, they cheered him like crazy -- and although Crook's corps was too scattered to fight, the other two, and the cavalry, reorganized and were ready to go to battle (Wert, pp. 223-225). And so, after a quiet mid-day, Sheridan restarted the battle at 4:00 p.m. (Wert, p. 229; it probably would have been earlier except for a false report that Confederate reinforcements were arriving, which had to be investigated).
Some of the Confederates, such as Gordon, were expecting a counter-attack, but there was only so much they could do to prepare; they weren't in a good position to defend, and they didn't have enough troops to cover all the ground they needed to cover. The first part of the Federal assault was halted with some loss (Wert, pp. 232-233), but eventually the Federals broke through and outflanked the Confederates. Who promptly started collapsing from left to right (Wert, p. 234). And Stephen Dodson Ramseur (the youngest West Pointer to make Major General in the Confederate armies; Wert, pp. 237-238), commanding one of Early's divisions, was mortally wounded while trying to rally the men (Freeman, p. 607). This meant four of Early's five divisions were commanded by officers with less than five weeks' experience in the job. In the midst of a catastrophe, there were no officers left who knew how to handle their troops! Most commentators agree that the shortage of southern officers (all the way down to the company level; it wasn't just generals) converted what started as a reverse into a disaster.
Sheridan promptly smashed two Confederate divisions, forcing the others to retreat, and when Sheridan's cavalry pitched into the Confederate rear, the retreat became a rout (Catton, p. 316). The Confederates fled back to (or past) Fisher's Hill in utter disorder (Wert, p. 236). The Federals took back all the cannon they had lost, and a couple of dozen more (Freeman, p. 608), and thousands of prisoners (Sheridan claimed 1600, although Freeman, p. 609, casts doubt on the number); the dying Ramseur, who had never seen his new baby and never even knew the child's gender, was one of them.
The best available estimate for Union losses is, 644 killed, 3430 wounded, 1591 missing, total of 5665 (Livermore, p. 129); for the Confederacy, 320 killed, 1540 wounded, 1050 missing, total of 2910 (Livermore, p. 130; Wert, p. 246, reprints these estimates but admits to grave doubts about the southern numbers). Even in total defeat, the Confederates had inflicted more losses than they had taken -- but it was a rate of exchange the Confederates simply could not afford. Wert's final judgment, on p. 248, is that Early had out-generaled Sheridan, but that his edge was not enough to make up for Sheridan's advantage in numbers -- and Sheridan had made up for much of the difference by being so inspiring.
With Early well and truly whipped, and everyone settling down for the winter, Robert E. Lee withdrew four of Early's five divisions to help him defend Petersburg (Wert, p. 250). Early was left only with Wharton's Division, which had been small to begin with and now was hardly the size of a regiment, and a few unattached units which were equally attenuated (Freeman, p. 617); Wert, p. 251, estimates that he had 1500 men, mostly without transport. Early, a Lieutenant General, was left with a command that should have gone to a senior colonel or, at best, a brigadier general; Gordon was given charge of Early's troops at Petersburg. The troops Early had left could no longer hope to attack; they were simply there to hold down a few Federal troops. They didn't hold everyone, though; the Union Sixth Corps went back to the Army of the Potomac over the winter, and would participate in Lee's final defeat. (Indeed, Wert, pp. 249-250, argues that Sheridan should have taken most of his army straight to Richmond and ended the war. I think he's right.) Sheridan himself waited a little longer to go back to Richmond and Petersburg; on March 2, 1865, Sheridan's remaining forces attacked Early's remnant near Waynesboro, and destroyed it; the remaining Confederates hardly even put up a fight before scattering (Wert, p. 251). Early and a few men managed to reach Petersburg, but the clamor against Early was so strong that Lee had simply to relieve Early of his command on March 30 (Freeman, pp. 635-636). It hardly mattered; Lee's army would itself be destroyed within a month.
Sheridan's hasty return to the front lines at Cedar Creek inspired the well-known poem "Sheridan's Ride" by Thomas Buchanan Read, but that piece does not seem to be traditional; the stanza form is not typical of folk song.
As "Old Early Camped at Fisher's Hill," this is item dA40 in Laws's Appendix II. Thomas doesn't indicate a tune, but I suspected "Old Dan Tucker" when I first saw it, and a broadside now seems to confirm this. According to Edwin Wolf 2nd, American Song Sheets, Slip Ballads, and Political Broadsides 1850-1870, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1963, p. 8, there was a song "Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864," eight verses beginning "Old Early camped at Fisher's Hill," with the air listed as "Old Dan Tucker," credited to "C. A. Savage, Co. 'K,' 8th Indiana." Curiously, this is dated 1863 -- before the battle! Presumably, though, this was just a printer's error. Wolf also lists a 13-verse version which appears to be the LOCSinging edition, but it has no author or tune listed.
The 8th Indiana was indeed involved in the Shenandoah campaign; it was part of the fourth brigade (Shunk's) of the second division (Grover's) of the XIX Corps (Emory's), meaning that it was one of the units which was routed at Cedar Hill but reformed for the counterattack (Wert, p. 310). It was commanded at Cedar Hill by Lt. Colonel Alexander H. Kenny, who was wounded when Kershaw's division attacked Shunk's brigade (Wert, p. 193). - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- Catton: Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, Doubleday, 1953
- Freeman: Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, 3 volumes, Scribners, 1942-1945 (all references are to Volume 3)
- Livermore: Thomas Leonard Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-1865, 1900 (I use the undated HardPress Inc. paperback reprint which is a hack scan job put together so poorly that it has the pages on the wrong side -- even-numbered pages on the right side and odd on the left)
- Wert: Jeffry D. Wert, From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864, 1987 (I use the 1989 Touchstone paperback)
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