February 28, 1865 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry struggled through harsh weather to cut the Confederate supply line into the Shenandoah Valley and starve General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into submission.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had held Lee’s army under a tentative siege at Richmond and Petersburg since last June. But Grant had not been able to completely encircle the Confederates, and one of his deepest fears was that Lee would escape to the west before spring. Grant therefore planned an all-out effort to not only defeat the Army of Northern Virginia but to end the war. This involved several simultaneous offensives, including:
- Major General George Stoneman’s cavalry securing eastern Tennessee
- Major General E.R.S. Canby’s army securing Alabama
- Two separate sweeps through Mississippi
- Major General William T. Sherman’s armies driving northward through the Carolinas
- Major General John Schofield’s army driving inland from Wilmington
This coordinated effort also involved Sheridan, whose army had driven most organized Confederate resistance out of the Shenandoah Valley and lain waste to the once-fertile region. All that was left to challenge Sheridan was Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s small, demoralized force and John S. Mosby’s scattered partisans. On the 20th, Grant issued orders to Sheridan to destroy them once and for all:
“As soon as it is possible to travel, I think you will have no difficulty about reaching Lynchburg with a cavalry force alone. From there you could destroy the railroads and canal in every direction so as to be of no further use to the Rebellion this coming spring, or, I believe, during the existence of the Rebellion. Sufficient cavalry should be left behind to look after Mosby’s gang. From Lynchburg, if information you might get there would justify it, you could strike South, heading the streams in Virginia to get to the westward of Danville and push on and join Sherman… this additional raid with one now about starting from East Tennessee under Stoneman, numbering four or five thousand, one from Vicksburg numbering seven or eight thousand cavalry, one from Eastport, Miss., ten thousand cavalry, Canby from Mobile Bay with about thirty-eight thousand mixed troops, the three latter pushing for Tuscaloosa, Selma and Montgomery… Sherman with a large army eating out the vitals of South Carolina is all that will be wanted to leave nothing for the Rebellion to stand upon. I would advise you to overcome great obsticles to accomplish this. Charleston was evacuated on Tuesday last.”
Sheridan had sent his infantry back to Petersburg, leaving him with just 10,000 cavalry troopers. But these would be enough to handle Early, who had also sent most of his troops back to Petersburg and now had just two tattered brigades between Staunton and Waynesboro. Grant wanted Sheridan to destroy Early’s force, cut all the railroads supplying the Army of Northern Virginia, and then ride south to join Sherman, who lacked an effective cavalry force.
Word of Grant’s plan quickly alarmed administration officials at Washington. A small Confederate force had recently embarrassed the Federals by capturing two generals at Cumberland, Maryland, and they feared that if the remainder of Sheridan’s force left the Valley, the Confederates could duplicate Early’s raid on Washington last summer.
President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Grant: “Have you well considered whether you do not again leave open the Shenandoah Valley entrance to Maryland and Pennsylvania, or at least to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad?” Grant replied that Sheridan’s “movement is in the direction of the enemy, and the tendency will be to protect the Baltimore and Ohio road and to prevent any attempt to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania.”
Sheridan assured his superiors, “I will leave behind about 2,000 men, which will increase to 3,000 in a short time.” These men would be led by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who had recently returned to duty after dealing with his nagging wound from Gettysburg. Hancock had earned a stellar reputation as commander of II Corps in the Army of the Potomac, prompting Lincoln to write that his return had “relieved my anxiety, and so I beg that you will dismiss any concern you may have on my account in the matter of my last dispatch.”
By the time Sheridan received Lincoln’s blessing, he had already put his men in motion. He wrote to Grant, “Where is Sherman marching for?” Sheridan also asked for “any definite information as to the points he may be expected to move on this side of Charlotte.” Grant replied, “If you reach Lynchburg, you will have to be guided in your after movements by the information you obtain.”
Sheridan’s force left Winchester on the 27th, with the cavalry under the command of Major General Wesley Merritt. It would have normally been led by Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert, but according to Sheridan:
“General Torbert being absent on leave at this time, I did not recall him, but appointed General Merritt Chief of Cavalry, for Torbert had disappointed me on two important occasions–in the Luray Valley during the battle of Fisher’s Hill, and on the recent Gordonsville expedition–and I mistrusted his ability to conduct any operations requiring much self-reliance.”
Merritt’s command consisted of two cavalry divisions led by Brigadier Generals Thomas C. Devin and George A. Custer. They were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal on their way to Lynchburg. Sheridan reported:
“On the morning of February 27, 1865, we marched from Winchester up the Valley pike, with five days’ rations in haversacks, and fifteen days’ rations of coffee, sugar, and salt in wagons, thirty pounds of forage on each horse, one wagon for division headquarters, eight ambulances, and our ammunition train; no other wagons, except a pontoon train of eight boats, were permitted to accompany the command.
“My orders were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, the James River Canal, capture Lynchburg if practicable, and then join Major-General Sherman wherever he might be found in North Carolina, or return to Winchester; but in joining General Sherman I must be governed by the position of affairs after the capture of Lynchburg.
“The command was in fine condition, but the weather was very bad, as the spring thaw, with heavy rains, had already come on. The valley and surrounding mountains were covered with snow which was fast disappearing, putting all the streams nearly past fording. On our first day’s march we crossed Cedar Creek, Tumbling Run, and Tom’s Brook, and went into camp at Woodstock, having marched thirty miles.”
Early had just 1,800 men to stop him, along with detachments under Generals Lunsford Lomax, John Echols, and Thomas L. Rosser scattered throughout the Valley. Early wrote:
“As soon as Sheridan started, I was informed of the fact by signal and telegraph, and orders were immediately sent by telegraph to Lomax, whose headquarters were at Millboro, on the Central railroad, forty miles west of Staunton, to get together all of his cavalry as soon as possible. Rosser was also directed to collect all of his men that he could, and an order was sent by telegraph to General Echols, in Southwestern Virginia, to send his brigade by rail to Lynchburg.”
The Confederates awaited the enemy advance near Staunton. The Federals were hampered by icy rain, swollen waterways, and pockets of Confederate horsemen sniping at them along the way. But the advance could not be stopped, and soon the two disproportionate forces would clash in what would be the last battle ever fought in the Shenandoah Valley.
Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 341; Catton, Bruce, Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 425; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 540; 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 16797-816; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 559; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 679-80; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 159; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 644; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-80, 810-11