In 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was concerned about Major General David Hunter’s advances in the Shenandoah Valley, which threatened critical railroad lines and provisions for the Virginia-based Confederate forces. He sent Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s corps to sweep the Union forces from the Valley and, if possible, to menace Washington, D.C., hoping to compel Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to dilute his forces against Lee around Petersburg, Virginia.
Operating in the same area that Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had in his successful 1862 Valley campaign, Early got off to a good start. Entering the Valley without opposition, he bypassed Harpers Ferry, crossed the Potomac River, and advanced into Maryland. In response, Union General Grant dispatched a corps under Horatio G. Wright and other troops under George Crook to reinforce Washington and pursue Early.
Cool Spring (July 17-18, 1864) – Also known as the Battle of Island Ford, Parkers Ford, Snickers Ferry, and Castleman’s Ferry, this two-day engagement took place in Clarke County. A Union column, consisting of the VI Corps and elements of the XIX Corps under Major General Horatio Wright, pursued Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s army as it withdrew from the environs of Washington, D.C. Wright’s force was joined by elements of Brigadier General George Crook’s command, which had accompanied Hunter during his retreat through West Virginia. On July 17th, the Union cavalry passed through Snickers Gap and attempted to force the Shenandoah River passage at Snickers Ford (Castleman’s Ferry). On the morning of July 18th, the vanguard of the Union infantry moved through Snickers Gap. Colonel Joseph Thoburn (of Crook’s command) led his division downstream to cross the river at Judge Richard Parker’s Ford. Confederate General Early’s three nearby infantry divisions moved to defend the fords. Major General Robert Rodes’s division attacked and shattered Colonel Thoburn’s right flank on the Cool Spring plantation in the afternoon. Thoburn made a stand behind a stone wall at the river’s edge and beat off three attacks until darkness enabled him to withdraw. Union pursuit of Early was delayed several days. The Confederate victory resulted in estimated casualties of 422 Union and 397 Confederate.
Rutherford’s Farm (July 20, 1864) – Also known as the Battle of Carter’s Farm and Stephenson’s Depot, this battle took place in Frederick County and Winchester, Virginia. Union Brigadier General W.W. Averell’s division attacked Major General S.D. Ramseur’s Confederate division at Rutherford’s and Carter’s farms. This sudden assault came in on General Robert Hoke’s brigade’s flank as it was deploying, throwing it into a panic. Ramseur retreated toward Winchester in confusion. Union General Averell captured four pieces of artillery and nearly 300 men. With this defeat, Early withdrew his army south to a defensive position at Fisher’s Hill. The Union victory resulted in estimated Union casualties of 220 and 45 Confederate.
Kernstown II (July 24, 1864) – This engagement also took place in Frederick County and Winchester, Virginia. Believing that Confederate General Jubal Early’s army was no longer a threat in the Valley, Major General Horatio Wright abandoned his pursuit and ordered the VI and XIX Corps to return to Washington, where they were to be sent to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant “army group” before Petersburg. Wright left Brigadier General George Crook with three divisions and some cavalry to hold Winchester. Under orders to prevent reinforcements from being sent to Grant, Confederate General Jubal Early marched north on July 24th against General Crook. After an hour of stubborn resistance at Pritchard’s Hill, the Federal line collapsed, and Crook’s divisions streamed back in disarray through the streets of Winchester. Colonel James Mulligan commanding Crook’s 3rd Division was mortally wounded. Rutherford B. Hayes commanded a brigade against Confederate General John C. Breckinridge’s wing. Crook retreated to the Potomac River and crossed near Williamsport on July 26th. As a result of this defeat and the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on July 30th, Grant returned the VI and XIX Corps and appointed General Philip Sheridan as commander of Union forces in the Valley. The Confederate victory resulted in estimated casualties of 1,200 Union and 600 Confederate.