June 5, 1864 – Federals scored a decisive victory over a small Confederate force, which enabled Major General David Hunter to continue his southward march “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Hunter’s 8,500-man Federal Army of the Shenandoah moved up the Valley toward Staunton, where it was to be joined by Brigadier General George Crook’s Federals advancing from West Virginia. The combined force would then continue southward and destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Lynchburg. This would cut off General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from the Valley’s plentiful foodstuffs.
After defeating the Federals at New Market, Major General John C. Breckinridge had taken most of the Confederates out of the Valley to reinforce Lee’s army at Cold Harbor. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, aimed to keep the Valley clear of Confederates, and he instructed the Army of the Potomac:
“To aid the expedition under General Hunter, it is necessary that we should detain all the army now with Lee until the former gets well on his way to Lynchburg. To do this effectually it will be better to keep the enemy out of the intrenchments of Richmond than to have them go back there.”
The largest Confederate force still in the Valley was Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s 3,000 cavalrymen. The troopers did their best to impede Hunter’s march up the Valley Turnpike before falling back behind the North River at Mount Crawford. There they blocked the path to Staunton.
Meanwhile, Lee called on Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones, commanding the Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia, to reinforce Imboden with as many troops as he could find. Imboden contacted Jones, “Is it possible for you to aid me?” Jones dispatched two cavalry brigades to stop Crook’s advance in West Virginia, then he led his remaining 2,000 men out of Lynchburg to reinforce Imboden on the 4th.
Hunter’s Federals reached Harrisonburg, eight miles north of Mount Crawford, on the 3rd. From there, Hunter “found the enemy occupying a strong intrenched position at Mount Crawford, on the North River.” The next day, Hunter moved to within striking distance, but despite outnumbering Imboden’s force, he opted to wait until Crook’s 10,000 Federals arrived before attacking.
In the meantime, Hunter kept part of his Federal army in the Confederates’ front as a diversion while moving the rest of his troops southeast to Port Republic. The Federals began crossing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River around 6 p.m.
When Jones and Imboden learned of Hunter’s movements, Imboden suggested falling back to better ground at Mowry’s Hill, about three miles south of the village of Piedmont. Jones directed all the infantry to relocate there while Imboden’s cavalry harassed Hunter’s Federals at Port Republic, about seven miles north of Piedmont.
On the rainy morning of the 5th, the Federals continued their southward advance, with Hunter’s cavalry easily driving off Imboden’s pickets. Imboden attacked with his main force, which made some progress until the Federal numbers proved too great to overcome. Imboden narrowly escaped capture as his troopers fell back toward Piedmont. Jones opted to make a stand in front of Piedmont instead of on Mowry’s Hill. Imboden objected, but Jones was the ranking commander.
Jones’s troops held positions behind hastily built breastworks. Imboden’s cavalry linked with Jones’s right, but while Jones’s men faced north, Imboden’s faced east, thus forming an L-shaped line. The Confederates repelled the initial Federal attacks, but Federal guns disabled most of the Confederate artillery. Jones tried pulling back to align himself better with Imboden, but another Federal attack prevented that.
The Confederates then counterattacked, but the Federals held them off with their artillery and Spencer repeating rifles. According to Colonel William Ely of the 18th Connecticut, “Seeing an excellent opportunity to use cannon, I dispatched an orderly with a request for two howitzers, which came promptly and did excellent service, in knocking the rail pens in splinters amid great slaughter.”
As the Confederates returned to what was left of their breastworks, Jones ordered one of Imboden’s brigades to shift left, thus creating a gap in the line. The Federals quickly advanced to exploit the gap as a Confederate regiment scrambled to close it. Colonel Jacob Campbell of the 54th Pennsylvania recalled:
“Here for a short time a most desperate struggle took place, bayonets and clubbed guns were used on both sides, and many hand-to-hand encounters took place. So sudden and apparently so unexpected to the enemy was our movement on their flank that they were soon compelled to give way in great confusion, despite all efforts of their officers to rally them.”
As Jones urged his troops to hold firm, he was killed by a gunshot wound to the forehead. Jones’s death demoralized the Confederates, who wavered and then broke in retreat. They fled down the East Road to New Hope, where Imboden formed a rear guard that held off the Federal pursuit long enough for the main force to escape through the Blue Ridge. For the first time in the war, a Confederate force had been routed in the Shenandoah Valley.
That night, Brigadier General John C. Vaughn, commanding Imboden’s rear guard, reported to Lee: “My command is much scattered. The enemy is pursuing. I fear I will be forced to leave the Valley. Staunton cannot be held.” Even worse, the two Confederate brigades trying to hold Crook’s Federals back retreated upon learning of the defeat at Piedmont. Crook and Hunter would soon join forces and become too overwhelming for the Confederates to stop.
The Federals sustained 780 casualties (including 420 killed), while the Confederates lost 1,660, of which over 1,000 were captured. This battle finally cleared the region of Confederates, and as Hunter reported, “On the next day, June 6, I occupied Staunton without opposition.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-20; 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 6350-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 448-51; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 42, 45-50; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 513-14, 516; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 737; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 404, 584