September 23, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals continued pursuing the Confederates in the Shenandoah, but Sheridan soon halted in favor of destroying the Valley instead.
The day after his grave defeat at Fisher’s Hill, Lieutenant General Jubal Early withdrew his Confederate Army of the Valley until the men stopped for the night at Mount Jackson. Sheridan ordered a pursuit, but his cavalry was in the adjacent Luray Valley, making the pursuit ineffective.
Early saw the Federals approaching from atop Rude’s Hill on the 24th and directed his Confederates to continue retreating through New Market. Early wrote, “This movement was made through an entirely open country, and at every mile or two a halt was made, and artillery open on the enemy, who was pursuing, which compelled him to commence deploying into line, when the retreat would be resumed.”
The Confederates halted atop a ridge about six miles south of New Market, along the road to Port Republic. Sheridan opted not to attack, instead bombarding the enemy with artillery. Sheridan had initially planned “pushing up the Valley with a certain amount of supplies and then returning” to Winchester. But now he realized “there is not sufficient (provisions) in the Valley to live off the country.”
On the 25th, Early fell back to Brown’s Gap in the Blue Ridge. In the six days since this campaign began at Winchester, the Confederates had retreated 70 miles. Early awaited Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce him. Lee had warned Early, “do not bring on battle until Kershaw joins you and your troops are rallied,” but once Kershaw arrived, “If you feel strong enough, better move at once after the enemy and attack him, and if possible destroy him.” But even with Kershaw’s men, Early still had less than half of Sheridan’s force.
The Federals stopped at Harrisonburg, where Sheridan reported to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “I am now 94 miles from Martinsburg and 104 miles from Harpers Ferry.” This was a dangerously long distance to be away from the nearest railroad supply depots.
Sheridan had been ordered to follow Early “to the death.” But he was also ordered to make “the Shenandoah Valley a barren waste… to eat out Virginia clear and clean… so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.” With the latter order in mind, Sheridan proposed to Grant, “I think the best policy will be to let the burning of the crops in the Valley be the end of this campaign, and let some of this army go elsewhere.”
Grant agreed. He wrote Sheridan, “Your victories have created the greatest consternation. If you can possibly subsist your army to the front for a few days more, do it, and make a great effort to destroy the roads about Charlottesville and the canal wherever your cavalry can reach it.”
Destroying the fertile Valley would not only keep Confederate forces from operating there, but it would prevent vital foodstuffs from reaching Lee’s army at Petersburg. Sheridan told his men, “The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.”
The Federals quickly began their swath of destruction, which included all “forage, mills, and such other property as might be serviceable to the Rebel army” between Harrisonburg and Staunton. The destruction was soon expanded to Strasburg, as Early’s Confederates fell back to Waynesboro. As Sheridan destroyed the Valley, Confederate authorities bitterly criticized Early for yielding the Valley to the Federals.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 180-81; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 462-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 500-03; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134-35; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 574-75; 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. 777-78; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 332-33; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79