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Lee appears to have conceived the design, after crossing the Potomac at Williamsport, to pass the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge, and thus place himself in the path of General Meade if he crossed east of the mountain, or threaten Washington.
From Front Royal, the Shenandoah River runs along the western base of the Blue Ridge to Harper's Ferry, where it unites with the Potomac, which here bursts through the mountains.
Just southeast of Strasburg, which is nearly midway between the eastern and western walls of the valley, rises an abrupt range of mountains called Massanutten, consisting of several ridges which extend southward between the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River until, losing their identity, they merge into lower but broken ground between New Market and Harrisonburg.
The Shenandoah River is composed of two branches, called, respectively, the "North Fork" and the "South Fork," which unite near Front Royal in Warren County.
General Early's plan was for one column under General Gordon, consisting of three divisions of infantry (Gordon's, Ramseur's, and Pegram's), and Payne's brigade of cavalry to cross the Shenandoah River directly east of the Confederate works at Fisher's Hill, march around the northerly face of the Massanutten Mountain, and again cross the Shenandoah at Bowman's and McInturff's fords.