Four days after taking command of the Army of the Shenandoah, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan led his new command out of Harper’s Ferry and headed south. His hope was to force Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates out of the lower Shenandoah Valley. With Early ensconced at Bunker Hill, Sheridan set his sights on the small hamlet of Berryville, a one time haunt of Revolutionary War hero Daniel Morgan.
Early, however, was quick to react to Sheridan’s movement and withdrew to take up a position below the town of Strasburg along a low, steep ridge known as Fisher’s Hill. The Federals lay just to the north, near the village of Middletown, encamped along Cedar Creek. Ironically, both armies were positioned on fields that would be the scene of two major clashes in the months to come. Sheridan judiciously probed Early’s position, but refused to commit his men to a major assault.
Meanwhile, miles away in the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee was also monitoring the movements in the Valley. Deciding to reinforce his “Bad Old Man” as Lee called him, on August 6, he sent Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s infantry division westward. Kershaw’s infantry was augmented by an artillery battalion under Wilfred Cutshaw along with a cavalry division commanded by his nephew, Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee.
Kershaw’s men would arrive in Front Royal and threaten Sheridan’s left. Not willing to give battle, Little Phil decided to abandon his position along Cedar Creek. Rain accompanied Sheridan’s men as they trudged north. As Sheridan withdrew, Early left the safety of Fisher’s Hill and cautiously pursued. On August 21st, Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ division attacked the Federals near Charlestown. The sharp fight was inconclusive, with a combined loss on each side totaled a little over 400 killed, wounded and missing.
A few days later, Early left a skeleton force at Charlestown to make a feint toward the Potomac River. “Old Jube” hoped that the movement would goad Sheridan into abandoning Virginia and moving into Maryland to block another potential invasion. Sheridan refused to take the bait and Early decided to abandon Charlestown entirely and retire back to Bunker Hill. Sheridan followed, only to abandon his position on September 3 and march back to Berryville. There, the Federals set about constructing field fortifications that would ultimately stretch for eight miles.
Like Sheridan had done only a few weeks before in front of Fisher’s Hill, Early probed the Berryville line from September 4 to September 5. Recognizing the edge earthworks gave to a defending army during the Overland Campaign, Early was reluctant to launch a major assault on the Federals. Instead, he was content to take up a position near Winchester, to watch and wait for Sheridan’s next move. For the next two weeks, both sides would stare at each other over the banks of Opequon Creek. The maneuvering of the first month of the campaign in the Shenandoah Valley would pale in comparison to the bloodshed in the days to come.