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In 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.

On 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.

In 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 Federals.

The 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 last-ditch defense.

With 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.

The 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.

Custer led it boot to boot. . . the enemy’s line broke into a thousand fragments under the shock.

There 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 was won.

A 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.

The 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.

 
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