October 18, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals ravaged the Shenandoah Valley and fended off retaliatory attacks while Confederate General Jubal Early planned a major assault.
After moving southward up the Valley in September, Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah countermarched down the Valley, destroying anything useful to soldiers or civilians as they went. Sheridan reported from Woodstock on the 7th that he had “destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements; over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep… Tomorrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage, &c. down to Fisher’s Hill. When this is completed the Valley, from Winchester up to Staunton, 92 miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.”
Amidst the Federal destruction, Confederate scouts killed Sheridan’s topographical engineer, Lieutenant John R. Meigs, near Dayton. Sheridan responded by sending cavalry under General George A. Custer to destroy every house within five miles of the town. Confederates then retaliated by killing Sheridan’s chief quartermaster, Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius W. Tolles, and his medical inspector, Dr. Emil Ohlenshlager.
The Federal depredations infuriated Early, who began reorganizing his Army of the Valley for a new campaign. General Robert E. Lee, commanding Early’s force along with the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, warned Early, “You have operated more with divisions than with your concentrated strength. Circumstances may have rendered it necessary, but such a course is to be avoided if possible.” Nonetheless, Early planned to take the offensive as soon as Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser’s Confederate cavalry arrived from Petersburg.
Rosser attacked part of Custer’s cavalry at Brock’s Gap near Fisher’s Hill, but the Confederates could not match the Federal strength and withdrew. Custer’s men resumed their destruction in the Valley, despite intermittent Confederate harassment. Meanwhile, Sheridan summoned General A.T.A. Torbert to headquarters and ordered him to lead the cavalry against Rosser at daylight: “Either whip the enemy or get whipped yourself.”
Three days later, the Federal cavalry under Custer and General Wesley Merritt caught up with Rosser at Tom’s Brook near Woodstock. The Federals took some 300 prisoners as the Confederates fled 26 miles back to Early’s lines north of New Market. Federals nicknamed this fight the “Woodstock Races” as a response to the “Buckland Races” that General Jeb Stuart had inflicted on Custer the previous year.
Sheridan’s infantry crossed Cedar Creek on the 10th, just north of Strasburg. They took strong positions on either side of the turnpike, unaware that Early planned to attack. Two days later, Early’s Confederates advanced to Fisher’s Hill, about five miles south of Sheridan. Early had been reinforced by Rosser and an infantry division, but Sheridan’s force still outnumbered his by two-to-one. Nevertheless, Sheridan recalled Federal General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps from Ashby’s Gap to reinforce him.
On the 15th, Sheridan received a directive to go to Washington and discuss future strategy. This included clarifying whether General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant’s desire for Sheridan to cut the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonsville and Charlottesville was a suggestion or an order. Sheridan boarded the train for Front Royal the next day, leaving Wright in overall command.
Before Sheridan left, Wright showed him a message that had been intercepted from the Confederates: “Be ready to move as soon as my forces join you, and we will crush Sheridan,” signed, “(General James) Longstreet.” Sheridan believed this was a bluff, and Wright assured him, “I shall hold on here until the enemy’s movements are developed, and shall only fear an attack on my right, which I shall make every precaution for guarding against and resisting.” Sheridan told Wright, “Look well to your ground and be well prepared. Get up everything that can be spared.” He said he would return in two days, “if not sooner.” Sheridan traveled with his entire cavalry corps.
Sheridan conferred with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck in Washington on the 18th. Sheridan convinced them to accept his plan to take up defenses in the lower (northern) Valley and send VI and XIX corps back to the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. He left the capital that day, traveling by train to Martinsburg and then by horse to Winchester, about 15 to 20 miles from his army.
Meanwhile, Confederates spied the Federal positions from atop the Shenandoah Peak and the Massanutten Mountain. They saw Sheridan’s three corps spread out along Cedar Creek’s east bank, not suspecting an attack. On the afternoon of the 18th, Early held a council of war and resolved to launch a full-scale attack at dawn. Confederate General John B. Gordon led three divisions around Massanutten so they could assault the Federal left in the morning. Early would then deploy two divisions and 40 guns against the Federal center along the turnpike.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 180-81
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 11818-59, 11870-900
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7988
- Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135, 137-41, 144, 151
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 580-85
- Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79