Cavalry Charge on Star Fort September 19, 1864
By late afternoon on September 19, 1864, General Jubal Early had spent his army attempting to repel attacks launched by General Philip Sheridan’s three Infantry Corps. At the same time, Sheridan’s cavalry, under General Alfred Torbert, had brawled with Confederate mounted troops all day north of Winchester. General Torbert commanded three formidable cavalry divisions which, by themselves, numbered almost as many troopers as General Jubal Early had infantry. Early’s cavalry, ill equipped in both arms, horses, and accoutrements, had done their best to resist these assaults, but had been pushed steadily back toward Winchester.
Lieutenant Colonel Onslow Bean’s tiny cavalry brigade had received repeated strikes from General Averell’s Cavalry Division during the course of the day. About mid-afternoon General Martinus Schoonmaker’s Union Brigade had pressed them back through a wooded area along the Welltown Road. Bean’s commander, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, had reassembled his troopers, and distributed them along a stone wall just south of Red Bud Run. Here he would attempt to make a stand with his rapidly thinning line of Confederate horsemen.
General Martinus Schoonmaker
Once again, Averell’s two divisions prepared to renew their attack. With “sabers drawn, bands playing, flags and banners unfurled” two full cavalry divisions crashed into the weakened Confederate line. The diminished Rebel force could not hold against such pressure. As Colonel Bean’s Brigade of Tennesseans was routed, he directed his men toward the ramparts and trenches surrounding Star Fort. Some cavalrymen from Colonel Thomas Smith’s Virginian Brigade followed along behind them as well. The Rebels were determined to put the fort to task.
Meanwhile, General Averell, disordered by success, regrouped his men once again. General Sheridan had sensed an opportunity for his cavalry to make a grand charge. The landscape “was open, and offered an opportunity such as seldom had been presented during the war for a mounted attack.” Averell did not agree with Sheridan’s instructions and relayed the opinion that their horses were too exhausted from chasing rebel cavalrymen all day. Averell noted they “couldn’t move faster than a walk.”
General Sheridan’s orders were not to be flouted. Schoonmaker’s and Powell’s troopers deployed into line on the right. Merritt’s three brigades did the same on the left. As Averell gave the order to charge, Schoonmaker’s 8th Ohio, and 14th and 22nd Pennsylvania Regiments, rumbled forward toward Star Fort.
Some eight thousand Union Cavalrymen, in all, were partaking in the largest cavalry assault of the entire Civil War. General George Custer noted the scene “furnished one of the most inspiring as well as imposing scenes of martial grandeur ever witnessed upon a battlefield. No encouragement was required to inspirit either man or horse.”
George Carpenter, in his regimental history of the 8th Vermont Infantry, was also a witness to the Cavalry charge. He wrote: “In solid columns, with drawn sabers flashing in the sun, troopers burst at a gallop upon the surprised enemy. It was like a thunder-clap out of a clear sky, and the bolt struck home.”
Captain Theophilus F. Rodenbough of the 2nd U. S. Cavalry would write: “At the sound of the bugle, we took the trot, the gallop and then the charge. As we neared the line we were welcomed by a fearful blast of musketry, which temporarily confused the leading squadron… Instantly, officers cried out ‘Forward! Forward!’ The men raised their sabers and responded to the commands with deafening cheers… In a moment we were face to face with the enemy. They stood as if awed by the heroism of the brigade, and in an instant broke in complete rout, our men sabering them as they vainly sought safety in flight.” Rodenbough would loose his right arm in the fighting at 3rd Winchester.
Union Grand Cavalry Charge at 3rd Winchester
Fitz Lee’s cavalry was outnumbered more than four to one. There was no way his Spartan line of horsemen could withstand the weight of Torbert’s charge. Though the position at Star Fort was a formidable one, Bean did not have the numbers required to hold it. Panic seized his Rebel troopers and they rapidly withdrew from the fortification, escaping to the south and west.
Schoonmaker made the decision not to occupy the fort. He and his men rode on past the east side of the fortification and prepared to take on Fort Jackson to the South. Though Southern horsemen had offered stubborn resistance at every fence line, barricade, and fort, by nightfall Winchester was firmly in Union hands.
General Schoonmaker would, himself, be honored with the Medal of Honor on May 19, 1899, for leading the attack on Star Fort. The citation reads: “During the Battle of Star Fort, Virginia, at a critical period, gallantly led a cavalry charge against the left of the enemy’s line of battle, drove the enemy out of his works, and captured many prisoners.”
The choice of the location for the building of Star Fort dates back to the beginning of the Civil War. The site was located about one and a half miles north of Winchester and the same distance west of the Valley Pike. Stonewall Jackson had first taken advantage of this high ground by creating artillery emplacements there in 1861. At the time the stronghold had been dubbed Fort Alabama.
It was Union troops, however, that “began constructing the irregular eight-sided earthwork.” Union Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy had, in early 1863, taken advantage of this lofty ground northwest of Winchester. He built a garrison of “sturdy stone and wooded gun platforms” borrowed from “privately owned buildings ripped apart for that purpose.”
Star Fort was constructed as an artillery platform designed to cover the open ground north of Winchester. A ring of rifle pits was dug around the fort to further strengthen it. “Though the rife pits didn’t perform the function to elevate the line off the parapet, those pits did function to provide a line of resistance some distance off the main ditch.” The fort was “flanked by rifle trenches” and could “theoretically” hold “more than 1500 defenders and up to eight guns.”
Sketch of Star Fort
The fortification had also played a major role in the fighting around the city during the Gettysburg Campaign. On June 12, 1863, the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under General Richard S. Ewell, with three infantry divisions numbering nearly 19,000 combatants, had entered the Shenandoah Valley at Chester Gap. The force had split up, with General Jubal Early’s Division continuing north along the Valley Pike, and a second, under General Edward Johnson, marching along the Front Royal Road. Ultimately, they would converge on Winchester and threaten the defending force under General Robert Milroy.
Despite the strength of the army rumored to be approaching, Milroy was confident that the potency of his defenses would enable him to repel any Confederate attack or siege. The elevations west of town “were heavily fortified and consisted of trenches linking central strong points or ’forts’. The strongest of these were Fort Milroy and Star Fort.” Despite orders to the contrary, General Milroy chose to defend Winchester.
The first collisions between Union and Confederate troops occurred on June 12th. By June 13 the two adversaries found themselves locked in mortal combat. Fighting would take place upon ground fought over previously by many of the soldiers. Land surrounding the old Kernstown Battlefield, including Pritchard’s Hill and Sandy Ridge, were wrestled over once again. Participants in the 1st Battle of Winchester had frequented this ground during Jackson’s Valley Campaign. As the day progressed Jubal Early’s Division began to flank Milroy on the left while General Edward Johnson’s Division skirted him on the right. By the end of the day General Milroy was nearly surrounded.
Map of 2nd Battle of Winchester
On the following day, June 14, both Early and Johnson continued to pressure General Milroy from both the east and west. About 6:00 p.m. Early’s forces attacked and captured West Fort. On command, Hay’s brigade “rushed forward across 300 yards of open fields and swept upward into the works. After a brief hand-to-hand struggle, the Federal defenders abandoned the works, retreating to Fort Milroy, while their own captured artillery were turned around and used against them.”
By 9:30 p.m., Lieutenant Colonel McKellip of the 6th Maryland Infantry, Union, informed his men he expected an attack on their position at Star Fort. He pulled his troops from the rifle pits in front of the fort into the stronghold itself where they could support the Baltimore Battery. Lieutenant H. E. Alexander of the 6th Maryland did not believe “ten thousand men could have taken us, from the calmness and firmness which the Sixth Maryland evinced.”
Colonel Andrew McReynolds, commander of General Milroy’s Third Brigade, informed Captain F. W. Alexander’s Baltimore Battery that he was expecting an attack on their position in the next thirty minutes. Captain Alexander instructed his artillerymen to load their guns with canister and to make ready for the coming assault.
McReynolds was correct in his assessment. Within minutes Confederate troops began to appear in front of Star Fort. One member of the battery, Fred Wild, recorded that as “they were coming up, we fired grape and canister into them as fast as the guns could be loaded… A display of pyrotechnics that was awfully, terribly grand.” Within minutes the Rebel attack was repulsed.
Shortly after midnight, Union soldiers began leaving their works. It was completed so quietly that Early’s Confederates did not know they had left until daybreak. Alexander was forced to spike his guns and leave them behind. They were abandoned at Star Fort in the exact spots where they had discharged their last rounds at the charging enemy.
The retreating column massed in the low ground between Star Fort and Fort Milroy, then moved down the railroad and the Valley Pike toward the Charles Town crossroad, just south of Stephenson’s Depot. For most escape was not in the cards. Star Fort fell to the Confederates without firing a single shot and the vast majority of Milroy’s command would be captured that same morning. The 2nd Battle of Winchester had ended as a Confederate victory. It was among one of the most brilliantly conceived, and skillfully executed, assaults of the war.
Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation Marker at Star Fort
Still, preservation of Star Fort did not become a reality until more than one hundred and forty years after the Civil War. The initial protection of the property came to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in 2006 and 2007 from donations made by the families of Mr. Seth Hardison, Mr. Dean Smith, and from the now defunct Middlesex Artillery-Fleet’s Battery.
A recent 10-acre addition has allowed the preserved site to grow to 20 acres. The conservation of the additional property was made possible by extremely generous donations made by the landowners, Dr. Byron Brill, Seth Hardison, and Dean Smith. “They donated 50% of the fair market value of the property – a $375,000 donation with a property that was valued at $750,000.”
The preserved land which surrounds Star Fort, will allow the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation a location from which they will be able to tell the role played by the strong hold in the battles fought around Winchester. As these sites are conserved so too are the memories of the combatants who battled and perished there. It is a part of the Shenandoah Valley’s history that must be, and has been, preserved.
Morris Jr., Roy. Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan. Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, N. Y. 1992.
Noyalas, Jonathan. Sabers War and Memory. The Wars Largest Cavalry Charge Sealed a Union Victory and Inspired Postwar Artists. Civil War Times Magazine. February 2019. Vienna, Va.
Osborne, Charles C. Jubal: The Life and Times of General Jubal A. Early, CSA. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill, N. C. 1992.
Ovies, Adolfo. Crossed Sabers. General George Armstrong Custer and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. 2004.
Patchan, Scott. The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Savas Beatie, California. 2013.