1861, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew
from a vulnerable position at Harpers Ferry and chose
instead to base the defense of the Shenandoah Valley
at Winchester. Winchester had the advantage of being
close to Confederate positions at Manassas, to which
point General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson
transported troops from Winchester to the Battle of
First Manassas. Making Winchester a base of operations,
however, required its defense, and so construction began
on several earthen defense works around the city in
1861. Guarding the approaches to Winchester from the
north and east would be essential.
July 7, 1861, under the supervision of Lieutenant
Collier, Virginia militiamen and a detachment of Federal
prisoners began the work of constructing earthworks
on the chosen site. The fort was an imposing obstacle
on the Valley Pike. Yet despite the earthworks, Winchester
was only slightly more defensible than Harpers Ferry.
Both Federal and Confederate forces usually chose
to retreat from Winchester rather than make a stand.
As a result, Fort Collier remained an imposing yet
unused position for most of the war. Fort Collier,
however, was destined to play a major role in the
Third Battle of Winchester.
the spring of 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant
ordered General Philip Sheridan to devastate the Shenandoah
Valley. Sheridan moved on Winchester in mid-September.
Sheridan’s force of over 39,000 men was more
than twice the size of the Confederate force defending
the Lower Valley, under the command of General Jubal
Early. Caught almost unaware by Sheridan’s rapid
advance, General Early rallied his forces north and
east of Winchester just in time to meet the oncoming
battle around Winchester began at dawn on September
19. Union infantry attacked from the east along the
Berryville Pike, were driven back, and then counterattacked.
Meanwhile, Union and Confederate cavalry clashed north
of town along the Opequon Creek. By early afternoon
the Confederate lines were forced into a constricted
“L” shape facing north and east, with
Fort Collier anchoring the left of their desperate
the battle hanging in the balance, nearly 6,000 troopers
advanced up the Martinsburg Pike from Stephenson’s
Depot, arrayed in five brigades astride the Pike and
in the fields on either side of the road, and then
they charged. The tremendous force first hit Confederate
forces north of the fort. Three small infantry regiments,
commanded by Colonel George S. Patton, ancestor of
the World War II general, were struck at full tilt,
and the Confederate forces formed a hollow square
in a vain attempt to hold off the cavalrymen. Confederate
Brigadier General Thomas Devin described the attack:
It was a terrible scene. Right on, over and
through the rebel lines dashed the wild troopers,
slashing right and left.
charge shattered Patton’s regiments and the
remnants fell back toward Fort Collier. Colonel Patton
was killed. The Union cavalry continued its thunderous,
earthshaking charge on both sides of the Pike. On
the Pike itself, however, Union General George Armstrong
Custer held back until he saw the Confederates change
their front, and then he charged. A Confederate infantryman
saw them coming:
I never saw such a sight in my life as that
of the tremendous force, the flying banners, sparkling
bayonets and flashing sabers moving from the north
and east upon the left flank and rear of our army.
led it boot to boot. . . the enemy’s line
broke into a thousand fragments under the shock.
were too many horsemen, coming too fast, in too many
waves, for the Confederates to hold them off. The
gunners and the handful of infantrymen in the works
fought until the bitter end. While some surrendered
in the fort,
Others hung tenaciously to their muskets, using
them with their muzzles against our soldiers’
breasts, and a number took refuge in a house and
fought through the doors and windows, but the field
Union soldier who saw the fort’s interior when
the fighting was over saw no Confederate survivors.
There was only
their abandoned artillery, which had done so
much damage. . . hissing hot with action, with their
miserable rac-a-bone horses attached.
Confederates retreated through the streets of Winchester,
briefly rallied in the Mount Hebron Cemetery, and
then retreated to Fisher’s Hill above Strasburg.
Defeat there and at Cedar Creek soon followed.