January 31, 1864 – Confederate forces scoured the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia to feed the armies, while Federals in the region began panicking at their presence.
Major General Benjamin F. Kelley commanded the Federal Department of West Virginia from Cumberland, Maryland. His main responsibilities included guarding the supply routes through the Shenandoah and Luray valleys from Confederate raiders. This became especially important this winter because General Robert E. Lee sent forces into the region to forage for the Army of Northern Virginia.
These Confederate forces comprised the new Shenandoah Valley District, led by Major General Jubal Early. They consisted of two infantry brigades and cavalry units led by Generals Fitzhugh Lee, Thomas L. Rosser, John D. Imboden, and Albert Jenkins. Kelley reported on the 3rd, “It now appears that Lee has detached a large force and sent them into the valley. If General (George G.) Meade (commanding the Army of the Potomac) would send a strong cavalry force into the Luray Valley, it would be an important movement to us.”
Fitz Lee’s cavalry threatened a Federal outpost at Petersburg, but, as Fitz reported, “The greater part of my ammunition being wet, owing to starting in a snow and rainstorm, and having no artillery, I decided not to attack them, and moved upon their line of communication toward New Creek Depot.” In Hardy County, the Confederates captured Kelley’s supply train and 250 heads of cattle before moving toward New Creek.
Stopping within striking distance of New Creek on the night of the 4th, Lee wrote, “Marched at 4 o’clock next morning in a hail storm, and though a point was reached within six miles of the depot, on account of the sufferings of my men and the impassibility of the mountain passes to my smooth-shod horses was unable to proceed farther.” Lee’s troopers soon fell back to Harrisonburg.
Meanwhile, a portion of Early’s command advanced from Strasburg but was forced to stop at Fisher’s Hill due to extreme weather and impassable roads. But this did not stop the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, J.W. Garrett, from panicking at the prospect of a Confederate army operating in the Valley. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “It is stated that General (Richard) Ewell is in the valley with 20,000 men.” He asked Halleck “to judge whether considerable re-enforcements are not required to prevent disasters.”
Halleck in turn contacted Meade: “It is now reported that Ewell’s corps is in the Shenandoah Valley. Have you any information to that effect? I think another brigade should be sent here… for transportation to Harper’s Ferry.” Meade responded:
“Our scouts have returned from the valley and report that Early’s command, consisting of five brigades of infantry, estimated at 7,000, together with Lee’s, Rosser’s, Imboden’s, and Jenkin’s cavalry, and some artillery, passed down the valley about Friday last with the intention of making a raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad…”
Meade then objected to Halleck’s request:
“I am still of the opinion that the operations against Early, to be effective, should be from the Railroad and defensive, and the character of the season and roads, together with the difficulty of procuring supplies, after exhausting those carried with them, will render nugatory any effort made from this army to cut off Early’s retreat…”
Meade contended that defensive operations against Early “would require a smaller detachment than an independent movement into the valley.” Halleck replied that one brigade should “probably be sufficient to supply General Kelley’s wants.” Meade then shared a more optimistic report: “Further examination of scouts… would lead to the conclusion that the infantry of Early’s command in the lower valley was only two brigades and some detached regiments.”
Operations remained limited through most of January. On the 28th, Early accompanied a Confederate force heading west from New Market in search of forage and cattle. The force consisted of Rosser’s Laurel Brigade of cavalry, an infantry brigade under Brigadier General Edward L. Thomas, and an artillery battery. The next day, the Confederates scattered Federal skirmishers and entered Moorefield. While there, Early and Thomas received word that a Federal supply train was moving toward Petersburg. Early directed Rosser and Thomas to capture the train.
The Confederates moved out on the morning of the 30th. They advanced across Branch Mountain and drove off a Federal force guarding the gap. They spied the train at Medley, protected by Federal infantry and cavalry. Rosser sent his 400 men forward, but the Federals knocked them back. The Confederates advanced again, this time supported by a cannon. They hit the Federals in front and on the left flank, sending them fleeing in panic. The Confederates seized the 95 wagons left behind, which were filled with supplies.
Rosser entered Petersburg the next day and seized more provisions and munitions. While Thomas’s infantry occupied the town, Rosser’s cavalry continued north down Patterson’s Creek in search of cattle and sheep. When Rosser learned that Federal reinforcements were approaching, he led his men to Moorefield, relinked with Thomas, and returned east toward the Shenandoah Valley.
The raiders netted 80 Federal prisoners, 95 supply wagons, 1,200 cattle, and 500 sheep while sustaining just 25 casualties. The troopers of Rosser’s brigade demonstrated their admiration of his leadership by reenlisting after the raid.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 387, 393; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 453; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 644-45