May 19, 1864 – Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates began leaving the Shenandoah Valley, and Major General Franz Sigel was replaced as Federal commander in the region.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, congratulated Breckinridge for his resounding victory over Sigel’s Federals at the Battle of New Market: “I offer you the thanks of this army for the victory over General Sigel. Press him down the Valley, and if practicable follow him to Maryland.”
Lee and the Confederate high command hoped the Federals would repeat their two-year pattern of abandoning the Valley after a defeat. Lee therefore sent a second message to Breckinridge: “If you can follow Sigel into Maryland, you will do more good than by joining us. (But) if you cannot, and your command is not otherwise needed in the Valley or in your department, I desire you to prepare to join me.”
With Sigel’s Federals retreating northward down the Valley, Breckinridge told Lee that he preferred to bring 2,500 men to Lee’s command in eastern Virginia rather than chase Sigel to Maryland. Lee answered, “Proceed with infantry to Hanover Junction by railroad. Cavalry, if available, can march.”
Breckinridge’s Confederates began heading east on the 19th. That same day, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, gladly accepted Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck’s suggestion to replace Sigel as head of the Federal Department of West Virginia. Grant had never been impressed with Sigel’s abilities, and his embarrassing defeat at New Market reinforced this assessment.
Major General David Hunter replaced Sigel. When Hunter reached department headquarters near Strasburg, he sent Sigel north to command the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. Hunter was expected to move from Staunton to Lynchburg, wrecking the important Virginia Central Railroad. The Federals would be “living off the country” during the march, destroying anything useful to the Confederacy and driving Confederate forces out of the region. The pattern of regrouping for months before resuming the offensive in the Valley would be broken.
Meanwhile, the Federal force that was supposed to have reinforced Sigel, led by Brigadier General George Crook, reached Meadow Bluff after retreating 50 miles into West Virginia. The men had been tasked with wrecking the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, but Crook had ordered a withdrawal after receiving an incorrect report that Grant had been defeated at the Wilderness. Crook’s Federals were exhausted and low on supplies, but when Hunter took command, he ordered them to “move immediately on Staunton.”
Hunter introduced a brutal new policy to Valley residents after Confederate guerrillas shot up a Federal wagon train near Newtown: he sent a cavalry unit to burn down the house from where the shots came. The Federals declared that if these attacks continued, “the commanding general will cause to be burned every rebel house within five miles of the place at which the firing occurs.”
Prior to this order, both sides had a tacit understanding that the rights and property of civilians would be respected. But Hunter asserted that Confederate guerrillas were outlaws, and if they could not be caught, then those who aided and abetted them would suffer. This policy of retaliatory arson earned Hunter the nickname “Black Dave.”
Hunter’s newly renamed Army of the Shenandoah, about 8,500 strong, left its camps at Strasburg and Cedar Creek on the 26th, moving south up the Valley turnpike. Hunter’s orders from Halleck were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad “beyond the possibility of repair for weeks; then, either return to your original base or join Grant, via Gordonsville.”
Meanwhile, Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones was assigned to command the new Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia now that Breckinridge and his men had gone east. Jones took over Breckinridge’s old Department of Western Virginia, as well as eastern Tennessee. He had about 8,500 infantry and cavalry, and his main responsibilities were to protect Staunton’s warehouses and the crucial Virginia Central.
As Hunter moved south, Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General John D. Imboden felled trees to impede his advance. From New Market, Imboden reported that Hunter was heading for Strasburg, adding, “His cavalry outnumbers ours two to one, his infantry four to one, his artillery four to one. There is no point this side of Mount Crawford where I can successfully resist him.”
The Federals advanced through Woodstock, where, according to Hunter’s chief of staff, Colonel David H. Strother, Hunter was “evidently seeking an apology to burn something” by searching the town jail. Hunter found no prisoners but still planned to burn the town hotel until his aides talked him out of it. On the 30th, Hunter’s Federals returned to New Market and properly interred their dead comrades whom Confederates had only partially buried.
Farther west, Crook’s Federals began moving out of their camps on the Greenbrier River in the Alleghenies. Crook was to move east and join forces with Hunter, giving them a combined force of about 20,000 men. These Federal movements concerned Lee, who directed Jones to “get all the available forces you can and move at once to Imboden’s assistance to defend the Shenandoah Valley.” Action in the Valley would escalate as the enemy forces approached each other in June.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 409, 414; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5203-13, 5280-301, 5705-15, 6350-60; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 442-45; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24, 39, 41-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 506-07, 509; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 527-28, 584, 817