November 13, 1864 – After being routed at Cedar Creek in October, Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates left the Shenandoah Valley. But some were not yet ready to admit complete defeat.
By this month, Early’s once formidable Army of the Valley was no longer a serious threat to Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah. Nevertheless, the Confederates advanced north from New Market as Early vainly tried to find an opening to launch another offensive. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s Federals fell back northward “down” the Valley to be closer to their supply base.
On the 11th, Early received word that Sheridan had moved north in preparation for sending part of his army to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Petersburg. Continuing north, part of Early’s army clashed with the Federal rear guard under Brigadier General George A. Custer near Middletown and Newtown. Expecting Early to attack in full force the next day, Sheridan issued orders: “Corps commanders will have their commands under arms and everything hitched up by daylight tomorrow, 5.30 a.m.”
The following day, the Confederates probed Federal positions but were driven back by two cavalry divisions. The Federals called this a decisive victory, but Early called it simply a reconnaissance. If anything, Early “discovered by this movement that no troops had been sent to Grant…”
Sheridan reported to Grant that night, “Yesterday evening the enemy’s cavalry made a demonstration on my front south of Newtown, and my scout reported a large infantry force having moved down the pike to Middletown with the intention of attacking. This morning I had everything ready, but no attack was made.”
This was Early’s last northward advance down the Shenandoah Valley. Having marched 1,700 miles and fought 75 engagements since June, Early’s men had made remarkable efforts to threaten Federals in the Valley and even outside Washington, despite being heavily outnumbered by veteran soldiers. Overall, Early’s campaign had surpassed the fine achievements of “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley campaign of 1862.
Early fell back to New Market and returned Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division to the Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Richmond and Petersburg. This left Early with just a token force. Sheridan also reduced his army by sending VI Corps to the siege.
Although the last major Confederate force in Shenandoah was gone, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser’s cavalry continued minor operations. Rosser’s two brigades embarked on a raid of New Creek, West Virginia, a supply depot on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad west of Cumberland, Maryland.
Federals considered their New Creek depot to be the strongest among their supply bases along the B & O. It was located between two mountains at the junction of the New Creek and Potomac River valleys. An attack could only come from one direction, which the Federals covered with the 800-man garrison at Fort Kelley and five guns.
Rosser’s 500 troopers reached Moorefield, West Virginia, on the 27th, and a Federal detachment from New Creek confronted them there. The Federals were driven off, but those who returned to New Creek warned the troops there of Rosser’s presence. Rosser, conscious that victory depended on the element of surprise, rode his men all night to get to New Creek as soon as possible.
As the Confederates came within striking distance, Rosser held a council of war to consider his options. He and his officers decided to go through with the attack. By this time, the Federals returning from Moorefield had warned Colonel George Latham, commanding at Fort Kelley, that an attack would come. Fortunately for Rosser, Latham took no precautions.
The Confederates captured the Federal pickets and then descended on Fort Kelley itself. Most Federals were cooking lunches, unprepared for such an onslaught. Within 30 minutes, Rosser’s men captured about 700 Federals and seized enormous amounts of much-needed provisions and supplies. The Confederates burned the buildings and the railroad bridge before disappearing into the woods.
Both Latham and his superior, Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, came under intense criticism for failing to guard against such an attack, and Latham was later dishonorably discharged. Rosser’s successful New Creek raid proved that the Confederates were not yet ready to concede defeat in the Valley.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20595; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 485-87, 494; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 519-20, 524-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 596, 601-02; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 410, 644