The Battle of Smithfield Crossing occurred from August 25 to August 29, 1864 between two Confederate infantry divisions and one Union Calvary division. The battle was a result of an ongoing campaign between Union forces led by General Phillip H. Sheridan and Confederate forces led by General Jubal A. Early. The goal was to take control of the Shenandoah Valley region, along with its key strategic points. Late in the summer of 1864 many battles and skirmishes would occur between the two forces, with the Battle of Smithfield Crossing being one of them. This battle is ranked in the top 3 percent of the more than 16,000 recorded armed encounters in the Civil War. It holds a certain significance to the fight for control of the region and can be considered a big piece of cause and effect in the struggle across the valley in 1864.
In 1864 he Shenandoah Valley had drawn
significant attention from both Confederate and Union armies who looked to gain
control of the region. The area held key strategic points such as mill, ports, bridges,
and riverways. These points would allow the transportation of supplies and
troops with ease for whatever side controlled them. The area was extensively used
by General Robert E. Lee to keep his armies in and around Virginia supplied and
reinforced as the Civil War raged on. Union General Ulysses S. Grant looked put
a stop to this after the disaster at Kernstown, Virginia and the Confederate
burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
General Grant dispatched General
Phillip H. Sheridan to the region with the goal of defeating Confederate General
Jubal A. Early who commanded the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley.
General Sheridan commanded a force of 50,000 Union soldiers, as he conducted
strategies of total war, which meant they would not only battle the enemy but
burn any resources or useful structures so that they could not be used by the enemy.
However, even with such a large force causing so much damage, General Early continually
received reinforcements and supplies sent by General Robert E. Lee. Sheridan
was aware of the large Confederate force in the area and had been ordered to
move cautiously and avoid defeat. This lead for Confederate General Early to
pursue an attack on Sheridan’s Union forces which lead to a Battle at Cameron’s
Depot. General Sheridan followed his orders to be cautious and withdrew. General
Early and his Confederate infantry chased after the Union forces to Summit
Point, Charlestown, and finally south of Harper’s Ferry where Sheridan’s forces
dug in. Jubal Early then attempted to push into Maryland in order to continue
with his army’s momentum and was intercepted by a force of Sheridan’s Calvary. The
Calvary force was defeated, and Sheridan’s forces were then pushed even further
south to Stephenson’s Depot, near Opequon Creek.
Confederate General Early’s
strategy was working as he continually pushed Union General Sheridan’s forces
further and further south. The Battle of Summit Point or also called the Battle
of Cameron’s Depot resulted in 1,000 casualties but unknown as to how many each
side suffered. This battle occurred on August 21, 1864, several days before the
Battle of Smithfield Crossing. This was part of General Early’s strategy, to
attack multiple points along Opequon Creek in an attempt to break through the
defenses established by the Union forces. The battlefield stretched across the
Shenandoah Valley as both sides struggled to gain control of key points and
drive the other side out of the region for good.
Opequon Creek had a significant
crossing called Smithfield Crossing. Early’s forces dug in along the western
bank of the creek from Bunker Hill to Stephenson’s Depot. On August 28, 1864 Union
calvary drove Confederate cavalry forces from around Leetown, south towards
Smithfield, across the Opequon Bridge. On the morning of August 29, 1864, the cavalry
force was pushing towards Bunk Hill in pursuit of the Confederate forces. Led
by General Custer, the Union cavalry force was met by two Confederate infantry divisions.
The Confederate forces then began to pursue and push at the crossing point in
order to infiltrate and begin to attack the rest of the Union forces. However,
Union cavalryman Wesley Merritt rallied his forces and the next day, with Major
General James Rickett’s infantry sent to reinforce the brigade, the Confederate
force was pushed back. Rickett’s infantry, armed with repeater carbines,
overwhelmed the Confederate divisions and forced them to retreat across the
bridge. The Battle of Smithfield Crossing totaled 300 casualties and is
considered an inconclusive battle with no clear victor, even though the Union
ended up controlling the crossing.