October 3, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan directed his Federals to continue laying waste to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and exact harsh retribution for the loss of a key aide.
After driving the Confederates off Fisher’s Hill in September, Sheridan began the second phase of his campaign by destroying the Valley to deprive Confederate troops of the vital foodstuffs harvested there. As October began, Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah was laying waste to the area around Harrisonburg.
The defeated Confederate Army of the Valley, led by Lieutenant General Jubal Early, retired east of Harrisonburg to Brown’s Gap in the Blue Ridge. Early was reinforced by Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s infantry division from the Army of Northern Virginia, and he planned to resume the offensive as soon as he could regroup. In the meantime, scouting and raiding parties harassed the Federals.
On the 3rd, a Federal surveying party consisting of Lieutenant John R. Meigs and two soldiers came across three Confederate horsemen near Dayton, southwest of Harrisonburg. The Confederates killed Meigs and took one soldier prisoner. The remaining soldier escaped and told Sheridan what happened. Having taken a liking to Meigs for his topographical skill, Sheridan was enraged.
The commander declared that Meigs and his companion had been murdered by guerrillas harbored by local residents. As Sheridan later wrote, “The fact that the murder had been committed inside our lines was evidence that the perpetrators of the crime, having their homes in the vicinity, had been clandestinely visiting them, and been secretly harbored by some of the neighboring residents.”
In response, Sheridan ordered Brigadier General George A. Custer’s cavalry division to destroy every house within five miles of Dayton. “The Burning,” as residents later called it, began on the 4th and continued for two days. Federals pleaded with Sheridan to spare Dayton itself, as most people there were Unionists and pacifists. Federal troops helped Dayton residents pack their belongings in anticipation that Sheridan would refuse, but at the last moment he granted the town a reprieve. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Wildes of the 116th Ohio recalled:
“All hands turned to and helped to carry everything back to the houses, and the people of Dayton anyhow, if of no other place in the South, believed there were at least some Yankees who had some humanity in them. There was not a man in the regiment who would not have faced death in a dozen battles rather than to have burned that village in the presence of those weeping, imploring and helpless women and children.”
Although he spared Dayton, Sheridan carried out his threat of killing two Confederate partisans held as prisoners and announced that in the future, he would execute two prisoners for every one Federal soldier killed by partisans. It was later revealed that the Confederates who killed Meigs and his companion were actually scouts in Early’s army, not partisans.
Enraged Confederates retaliated by killing Sheridan’s chief quartermaster, Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius W. Tolles, and his medical inspector, Dr. Emil Ohlenshlager. The Federal depredations also prompted Early to hurry and launch a new campaign. General Robert E. Lee, commanding both Early and his own Army of Northern Virginia, warned him, “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.”
Taking no heed, Early dispatched a cavalry division led by Major General Thomas L. Rosser (formerly commanded by Major General Fitzhugh Lee, who had returned to Petersburg) to stop Custer. Rosser’s troopers attacked the Federals at Brock’s Gap, but the Confederates could not match the Federal strength and were forced to withdraw.
Early then “determined to attack the enemy in his position at Harrisonburg.” However, when the Confederates came out of Brown’s Gap, they found that Sheridan had fallen back to Woodstock, 20 miles north. Early’s men then advanced to New Market instead.
At Woodstock, Sheridan reported his campaign of destruction to the overall Federal commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant:
“I have 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. This destruction embraces the Luray Valley and Little Fort Valley, as well as the main valley. A large number of horses have been obtained, a proper estimate of which I cannot now make.”
Sheridan also reported that his troops sent 400 wagons filled with people drafted into the Confederate army from Harrisonburg to Federal-occupied Martinsburg because they were Quakers, Dunkers, or some other sect of pacifists who refused to fight for the Confederacy. He wrote, “The people here are getting sick of war, hithertofore they have had no reason to complain, because they have been living in great abundance.”
Regarding the future, Sheridan ominously wrote, “Tomorrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage, &c., down to Fisher’s hill. When this is complete the Valley, from Winchester up (south) to Staunton, 92 miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.”
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