Battle of Rutherford's Farm

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Battle of Rutherford's Farm

Other Names: None

Location: Frederick County and Winchester

Campaign: Early's Raid and Operations against the B&O Railroad (June-August 1864)

Date(s): July 20, 1864

Principal Commanders: Commanders: Brig. Gen. William W. Averell [US]; Maj. Gen. S.D. Ramseur [CS]

Forces Engaged: Divisions (5,850 total)

Estimated Casualties: 1,100 total

Result(s): Union victory

Description: On July 20, Brig. Gen. W.W. Averell’s Union division attacked Maj. Gen. S.D. Ramseur’s Confederate division at Rutherford’s and Carter’s farms. This sudden assault came in on the flank of Hoke’s brigade as it was deploying, throwing it into a panic. Ramseur retreated toward Winchester in confusion. 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.

Battle of Rutherford's Farm Map
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Civil War Rutherford's Farm Battlefield Map

Battle of Rutherford's Farm Map
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Civil War Rutherford's Farm Battle Map

Setting the Stage: Robert E. Lee was concerned about Hunter's advances in the Valley during 1864, which threatened critical railroad lines and provisions for the Virginia-based Confederate forces. He sent Jubal Early's corps to sweep Union forces from the Valley and, if possible, to menace Washington, D.C., hoping to compel Grant to dilute his forces against Lee around Petersburg, Virginia. Early was operating in the shadow of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, whose 1862 Valley Campaign against superior forces was etched in Confederate history. (Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign: A History with Maps and Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign of 1862: Confederate Military History).
 
Early had a good start. He proceeded down the Valley without opposition, bypassed Harpers Ferry, crossed the Potomac River, and advanced into Maryland. Grant dispatched a corps under Horatio G. Wright and other troops under George Crook to reinforce Washington and pursue Early.

 

The Battle of Rutherford's Farm was one of several battles fought during Early's Raid and Operations against the B&O Railroad (June-August 1864). Early's Operations against the B&O Railroad, often times referred to as Early's Raid or Early's Maryland Campaign, was part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864 and was the second of three principal campaigns fought throughout the valley region.
 

Early's Raid and Operations Against the B&O Railroad [June-August 1864], aka Early's Maryland Campaign, comprised the following battles: Monocacy – Fort Stevens – Heaton's Crossroads – Cool Spring – Rutherford's Farm – Kernstown II – Folck's MillMoorefield.

Battle of Rutherford's Farm Historical Marker
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Civil War Rutherford's Farm History Marker

Following two unsuccessful Union attacks on his flanks at Kabletown and Berry's Ferry, General Early ordered a withdrawal from the Confederate position at Berryville towards a more secure position at Strasburg on July 19. The movement required the evacuation of the military hospitals and storage depots from the Confederate base of operations at Winchester. To cover the evacuation, Early ordered Ramseur's division to Winchester, with orders to stay within the city's defensive works and not to precipitate any unnecessary engagements with the enemy.
 
Three days prior, Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter had received an erroneous report of Confederate cavalry in Winchester preparing for a raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. To meet this threat, Hunter dispatched Averell's division from Martinsburg. Averell got underway on July 19 and crept slowly up the valley, wary of being overrun by Early's army, making it as far as Bunker Hill by nightfall, where he made camp.

Civil War Rutherford's Farm Battle
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Battle of Rutherford's Farm

Battle: The Battle of Rutherford's Farm, also known as Carter's Farm and Stephenson's Depot, was a small engagement between Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur and Union forces under Brig. Gen. William W. Averell on July 20, 1864, in Frederick County, Virginia, during the American Civil War, as part of Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's Valley Campaign, resulting in a Union victory.
 
Ramseur's division arrived at Winchester the morning of July 20, whereupon he dispatched his cavalry under John C. Vaughn and William L. Jackson to Carter's Farm north of town to scout the enemy's position. Confederate skirmishers found the Union encampment at Bunker Hill about 7 a.m. and reported their presence to Ramseur. At 9 a.m Averell's force broke camp and set down the Valley Turnpike, fighting the Confederate skirmishers the entire way. By 11 a.m the Federals arrived at Stephenson's Depot where they encountered Vaughn's and Jackson's dismounted cavalry supported by artillery on a small ridge. The artillery opened fire halting the Union advance and prompting Averell to bring up his artillery, leading to a protracted duel.
 
About 2 p.m, Vaughn sent a courier to Ramseur apprising him of the developments and recommending that the infantry be brought up to ambush the Union force. Despite Early's orders to stay within the defenses of Winchester, Ramseur saw the chance for a great victory and agreed with Vaughn, dispatching his infantry to the developing battle. Within the hour the infantry arrived and was concealed in a woods atop the ridge. As the Confederate infantry was arriving, the Union assault got underway. As the Union charge approached the woods, the concealed Confederate infantry unleashed a volley of musket fire that checked the Union advance and threatened to turn its left.

Rutherford Farm Battlefield Map
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Civil War Rutherford Farm History Map

Battle of Rutherford's Farm Map
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Civil War Rutherford's Farm Battlefield Map

Civil War Railroad Map
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American Civil War Map of Railroads

Unfortunately for the Confederates, the woods in which they hid formed an acute angle with the Turnpike, leaving their left protruding towards the Union advance. Union cavalry covering the Union right soon smashed into the exposed Confederate left flank, turning it. The Confederate center and right continued to deliver devastating fire against the Union center and left, but slowly regiment by regiment of the Confederate left began to turn in full retreat towards Winchester until finally the whole Confederate line collapsed in retreat. Despite Ramseur's effort, the line could not be reassembled before it reached the defenses of Winchester. Still unsure of the whereabouts of the rest of Early's army, Averell declined to pursue the retreating Confederates, thus ending the battle. (See: Shenandoah Valley and the American Civil War and American Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley.)

Frederick County, Virginia, Map
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Civil War Battle of Rutherford's Farm Map

Aftermath and Analysis: The battle resulted in a resounding Union victory, but strategically resulted in little else except some much needed boosting of Union morale after a string of defeats by Early's veteran troops. The evacuation of Winchester continued undisturbed, and Ramseur, despite his insubordination resulting in unnecessary losses, received nothing more than stern talk from Early.
 
Pvt. John Shanes, Company K, 14th West Virginia Infantry, received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the fighting near Carter's Farm, where he "charged upon a Confederate fieldpiece in advance of his comrades and by his individual exertions silenced the piece."
 
The Battle of Rutherford's Farm was fought in Winchester (county seat of Frederick County) and Frederick County, Virginia. Winchester, furthermore, changed hands between the Confederate and Union Armies on average once every three weeks during the Civil War. Many battles were fought in Frederick County. Some of those battles include:
  • First Battle of Kernstown, March 1862
  • First Battle of Winchester, May 1862
  • Second Battle of Winchester, June 1863
  • Second Battle of Kernstown, July 1864
  • Third Battle of Winchester, September 1864
  • Battle of Cedar Creek, October 1864

The first constitution of West Virginia provided for Frederick County to be added to the new state if approved by a local election. Unlike those of neighboring Berkeley and Jefferson counties, Frederick County residents voted to remain in Virginia despite being occupied by the Union Army at the time.

The site of the battlefield has recently seen heavy development. Located on the north end of Winchester, Virginia, the battlefield now hosts a shopping center and office complex. Advance to Shenandoah Valley Campaigns: The Civil War Battles.

(Sources listed below.)

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Sources: National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Patchan, Scott C. Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign. University of Nebraska Press; Lincoln, Nebraska, 2007; National Archives; Library of Congress.

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