Sheridan had almost 30,000 men, while Early had just under 10,000.
Union losses were around 500, Confederate over 1,200.
After Third Winchester Early had to fall back, and chose the strong position of Fisher’s Hill. The Valley was only about four miles wide, with rough terrain on both sides to slow flanking parties. With a marshy stream to cover the front and guns on the hill, Early had reason to be pleased.
But his army was badly weakened, and he didn’t have enough veteran infantry to cover the whole front. He used dismounted cavalry to cover the western flank. Meanwhile, Sheridan pushed south and on the 21st drove Early’s outposts back so that he could fully examine the Confederate line.
He decided to stake everything on a major flanking attack; he would commit one of his three corps to the west, and also two thirds of the cavalry to the east. The two other corps did a brilliant job of feinting attacks, holding Early’s whole attention until 4pm. Then Crook’s two divisions smashed into the dismounted Confederate cavalry, troops Early considered his least reliable. They didn’t resist for long, and when they ran it exposed the flank of the infantry. Defeat spread down the Confederate line as each unit was outflanked from the west. As the Confederates fell into confusion, Sheridan’s infantry moved forward. He was at the forefront, egging the men on and trying to turn the Confederate defeat into a disaster.
His two cavalry divisions under Torbert achieved nothing because they met two Confederate brigades at a narrow pass. Rather than get involved in a risky and bloody battle Torbert paused. But the third cavalry division should have achieved more. Averell’s division was back with the main army and should have rounded up hundreds of retreating Rebels – except Averell decided not to risk anything in the dark and camped. Sheridan sacked him after one more chance, when Averell still wasn’t aggressive in pursuit of an obviously whipped enemy.
Early had little choice but to get as far away from Sheridan as he could. He’d lost over 1,200 men (mainly prisoners) and sixteen guns, but his army was demoralized and not fit to fight. He retreated to Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge which preserved his army (Sheridan couldn’t use his superior numbers in the restricted terrain) but left the Valley wide open. Sheridan’s orders had two parts: first was to beat the Rebel army, but second was to burn everything that would support another Confederate invasion. With Early out of the way, he got started. Mills and barns from Staunton to Strasburg went up in flames in “The Burning” or “Red October.”
Content provided by:
American Battlefield Protection Program, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service.