As Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early raided the B&O Railroad at Martinsburg, WV, Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan advanced toward Winchester along the Berryville Pike with the VI Corps and XIX Corps, crossing Opequon Creek. The Union advance was delayed long enough for Early to concentrate his forces to meet the main assault, which continued for several hours. Casualties were very heavy. The Confederate line was gradually driven back toward the town. Mid-afternoon, the VIII Corps and the cavalry turned the Confederate left flank. Early ordered a general retreat. Because of its size, intensity, serious casualties among the general officers on both sides, and its result, many historians consider this the most important conflict of the Shenandoah Valley.
Sheridan was given command of the Army of the Shenandoah and sent to the Shenandoah Valley to deal with Early's Confederate threat. For much of the early fall of 1864, Sheridan and Early had cautiously engaged in minor skirmishes while each side tested the other's strength. Early mistook this limited action to mean that Sheridan was afraid to fight, and he left his army spread out from Martinsburg to Winchester. Sheridan learned of Early's dispersed forces and immediately struck out after Winchester, the location of two previous major engagements during the war, both Confederate victories.
Early quickly gathered his army back together at Winchester just in time to meet Sheridan's attack on September 19. The Union forces coming in from the east had to march on the narrow road through Berryville Canyon, which soon got clogged up with supply wagons and troops, delaying the attack. This delay allowed Early to further strengthen his lines. Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon's division arrived from the north and took up position on the Confederate left.
By noon Sheridan's troops had reached the field and he ordered a frontal attack along Early's lines. Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright's Union VI Corps on the left flank halted when faced with well entrenched Confederates on a hilltop supported by artillery. The XIX Corps, under Maj. Gen. William H. Emory, to the north of the VI Corps, drove Gordon's division through some woods, but when the Federals continued pursuing the Confederates through they were cut down by artillery as they entered the clearing on the far side.
The VI Corps resumed its advance and began driving back the Confederate right flank, but the VI and XIX Corps were slowly moving apart from each other and a gap appeared between them. Brig. Gen. David A. Russell's division was rushed forward to plug the gap. Russell was hit in the chest, but continued moving his division forward. The brigade of Brig. Gen. Emory Upton reached the gap, but was too late—the Confederates had already launched a counterattack through the gap. Upton placed his men in line of battle and charged. Leading the charge was a young colonel named Ranald S. Mackenzie, commanding the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery regiment, serving as infantry. Russell received a second bullet and fell mortally wounded. Upton assumed command of the division and a lull came over the battlefield.
At this point Sheridan called the battle a "splendid victory", but had no intentions of stopping the fight just yet. Sheridan sent the VIII Corps under Brig. Gen. George Crook to find the Confederate left flank. Meanwhile, cavalry units under Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson were swinging around the Confederate right flank. With the three corps in line, Sheridan ordered them all forward. This new advance did not start well. Crook's troops had to march through a swamp and the XIX Corps was not advancing at all. General Upton was struggling to persuade the XIX Corps units on his flank to move forward with his own division when an artillery shot tore off a chunk of his thigh. The surgeon was able to stop the bleeding and Upton ordered a stretcher brought forward from which he directed his troops for the rest of the battle. Finally the Confederate lines began to give way. Sheridan, so excited by the imminent victory, rode along the lines waving his hat and shouting.
Late in the day, two divisions of Union cavalry arrived from the north and came thundering into the Confederate left flank. The division of Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt crushed the Confederate works while the division of Brig. Gen. William W. Averell swung around the flank. The Confederate army was in full retreat. Caught in the retreat were the wives of several Confederate generals staying in Winchester. John B. Gordon was forced to leave his wife behind in attempts to keep his troops intact, believing she would become a prisoner of the Union army. She did, however, manage to escape in time.
The Battle of Opequon marked a turning point in the Shenandoah Valley in favor of the North. Early's army for the most part remained intact but suffered further defeats at Fisher's Hill and Tom's Brook. Exactly a month later, the Valley Campaigns came to a close after Early's defeat at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Victory in the Valley, along with other Union victories in the fall of 1864, helped win re-election for Abraham Lincoln.
The battle was particularly damaging due to the number of casualties among key commanders. In the Union army, Brig. Gen. David A. Russell was killed and Brig. Gens. Emory Upton, George H. Chapman, and John B. McIntosh were seriously wounded. Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes was killed and Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, Brig. Gens. William Terry, Archibald Godwin, and Col. William Wharton were wounded. Also among the Confederate dead was Col. George S. Patton, Sr. His grandson and namesake would become the famous U.S. general of World War II, George S. Patton, Jr.
Medals of HonorEdit
During the Battle of Opequon, fourteen Union enlisted men and one officer received the Medal of Honor for their actions.
Most of the preservation effort at the Opequon Battlefield has been privately oriented. The Civil War Trust has preserved 222 acres of the 567-acre battlefield. The most recent acquisition was made in 2009 by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, with participation by the Civil War Trust and the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation. At that time, these preservation groups purchased a 209-acre parcel known as the "Huntsberry Farm" tract, named for a family who lived on the land at the time of the battle, for $3.35 million.
The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation is presently engaged in restoring the battlefield, focusing first on the key battle area south of Redbud Run. Restoration and interpretation of this area is underway, focusing on the infamous 30-acre Middle Field, in time for the 150th Anniversary of the battle in September, 2014.