Tag Archives: Army of the Valley

The Battle of Waynesboro

March 1, 1865 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry advanced to within seven miles of the last substantial Confederate force in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The Federals attacked the next day.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

“Little Phil” Sheridan had left Winchester with 10,000 cavalry troopers under Major General Wesley Merritt in late February. They had orders from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, to destroy what remained of the Valley to increase pressure on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s starving army under siege at Petersburg. The Federals marched through Harrisonburg early on the 1st and continued toward Staunton.

Their only opposition was what was left of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley near Staunton. This once formidable force now consisted of just two decimated brigades and some artillery. Cavalry was also scattered throughout the region. When “Old Jube” learned that the Federals were heading his way, he called for the cavalry to concentrate. Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser and 100 troopers rode out to stop the Federals.

Brigadier General George A. Custer’s division led the Federal advance and tried seizing a key bridge over the Middle Fork of the Shenandoah River, also known as the North River. Rosser’s Confederates set the bridge on fire and waited for the Federals in rifle pits on the other side. The Federals outflanked Rosser by fording the river above and below the bridge, thus forcing the Confederates to retreat.

Merritt reported, “This command, under Rosser, was dispersed, captured, or killed. A number of wagons were taken and destroyed by the advance.” The Federals also saved the bridge from destruction, which ensured a quick crossing by the rest of Sheridan’s men. Custer later wrote, “The importance of our success in securing the bridge over North River cannot be over-estimated. Had the enemy succeeded in destroying the bridge it would have compelled a long delay on our part, as there were no fords practicable in the vicinity.”

Rosser and just 30 remaining men joined the main Confederate force at Staunton, where Early ordered a withdrawal to Waynesboro, 15 miles southeast. The Confederates fell back and set up a defense line just west of that town. Their backs were to Rockfish Gap, an important defile in the Blue Ridge. Early wrote:

“My object, in taking this position, was to secure the removal of five pieces of artillery for which there were no horses, and some stores still in Waynesboro, as well as to present a bold front to the enemy, and ascertain the object of his movement, which I could not do very well if I took refuge at once in the mountain. I did not intend making my final stand on this ground, yet I was satisfied that if my men would fight, which I had no reason to doubt, I could hold the enemy in check until night, and then cross the river and take position in Rockfish Gap; for I had done more difficult things than that during the war.”

Brig Gen G.A. Custer | Image Credit: claseshistoria.com

The Federals entered Staunton later on the 1st and found that the Confederates had stripped it of all supplies before retreating. The Federals camped just outside town that night and then resumed their advance in the morning, with Custer’s division in the lead. Custer reported:

“My orders were to proceed to Waynesborough, ascertain something definite in regard to the position, movements, and strength of the enemy, and, if possible, to destroy the railroad bridge over the South River at that point. The roads were almost impassible, owing to the mud caused by the heavy rains of the past few days. Our march was necessarily slow.”

The Federals easily drove off Confederate pickets at Fisherville before approaching the main enemy line. Custer stated that the Confederates were “posted behind a formidable line of earth-works. His position was well chosen, being upon a range of hills west of the town, from which his artillery could command all approaches, while his infantry could, by their fire, sweep the open space extending along their entire front.”

Custer dismounted his men and determined that Early’s front was too strong to break. “But one point seemed favorable to attack,” Custer wrote. “The enemy’s left flank, instead of resting on South River, was thrown well forward, leaving a short gap between his left and the river. The approach to this point could be made under cover of the woods.”

Custer dispatched three regiments under Colonel Alexander Pennington to assault the Confederate left, which was commanded by Major General Gabriel Wharton. Early saw the movement and later wrote, “I immediately sent a messenger with notice of this fact to General Wharton, who was on that flank, and with orders for him to look out and provide for the enemy’s advance; and another messenger with notice to the guns on the left, and directions for them to fire towards the advancing force, which could not be seen from where they were.”

But Wharton was with Early when the Federals poured out of the woods at 3:30 p.m., and he could not alert his men in time. Early “pointed out to him the disorder in his line, and ordered him to ride immediately to that point and rectify it. Before he got back, the troops gave way on the left, after making very slight resistance, and soon everything was in a state of confusion and the men commenced crossing the river.”

As the Confederate left crumbled, two mounted Federal regiments rode straight through the center of the line, leaping over the fortifications and sending the Confederates fleeing through the mud and snow. The Federals chased them through the streets of Waynesboro until nearly all were killed, wounded, or captured. Early rode to the river and implored his men to turn back and fight, “but they could not be rallied, and the enemy forded the river above and got into our rear.”

Pennington wrote, “The movement was completely successful. The entire line of the enemy was thrown into confusion and obliged to retreat, many throwing away their arms and accouterments to enable them to do so more effectually.” Custer reported, “The rout of the enemy could not have been more complete; no order or organization was preserved. The pursuit was taken up by my entire command, and continued through Rockfish Gap for a distance of twelve miles.”

Early barely escaped capture as he rode off with some of his staff to Jarman’s Gap, out of the Federal pursuers’ reach. He wrote that he “rode aside into the woods, and in that way escaped capture. I went to the top of a hill to reconnoiter, and had the mortification of seeing the greater part of my command being carried off as prisoners, and a force of the enemy moving rapidly towards Rockfish Gap.”

Early and the few Confederates not captured eventually returned to Richmond. Public opinion turned against Early for the many defeats he had sustained leading up to the virtual destruction of his army. General Lee was therefore forced to relieve him of command.

Meanwhile, Custer tallied the spoils of the Federal victory:

“Among some of the substantial fruits of this victory we had possession of about 1,800 prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery, 17 battle-flags, and a train of nearly 200 wagons and ambulances, including General Early’s headquarters’ wagon, containing all his official desks and records. The result of this engagement was of the highest value and importance to us for another reason; it opened a way across the Blue Ridge Mountains through Rockfish Gap, and thereby saved us from several days’ delay and marching.”

The Waynesboro rout permanently ended Confederate opposition in the Shenandoah Valley. Not only did it deprive Lee of a final infantry reserve, but it gave Sheridan free reign to spend most of this month laying waste to the region before rejoining the Federals at Petersburg. Sheridan’s Valley campaign, which had begun last August, was a stunning Federal success from which the Confederates would never recover.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 341-42; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 426; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541; 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, 16874-84, 17569-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8191; 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; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 265; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 644-46; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 482; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 491-92, 677-80, 810-11

Sheridan’s Valley Raid

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.”

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.”

Sheridan’s troopers moving up the Valley | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 430, 25 Mar 1865

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.

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References

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

The Shenandoah Valley: Confederates Not Quite Defeated

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.

Gen. T.L. Rosser | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

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References

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

The Battle of Cedar Creek

October 19, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates launched one more desperate attack against Major General Philip Sheridan’s numerically superior but unsuspecting Federal army in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Sheridan had left his army to attend a conference at Washington. He no longer considered Early a serious threat after defeating him at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill in September. The Federals were encamped along the east bank of Cedar Creek, above the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Their line ran north to south and consisted of three infantry corps:

  • VI Corps under Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the army in Sheridan’s absence, held the right (north) flank.
  • XIX Corps under Brigadier General William H. Emory held the center.
  • VIII Corps (also known as the Army of West Virginia) under Brigadier General George Crook held the left (south) flank.

Early had received reinforcements and regrouped his Army of the Valley. However, his men were short on supplies because Sheridan’s Federals had laid waste to the Valley. Early could have fallen back to replenish his supplies, but he instead decided to launch a bold attack on the unsuspecting Federals.

Through the night of the 18th and early morning of the 19th, Major General John B. Gordon led three Confederate divisions northeast around Massanutten Mountain and over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. This placed them within striking distance of Crook’s unsuspecting Federals on the left. Meanwhile, two supporting divisions took positions on Gordon’s left, poised to hit Emory in the center.

At 5 a.m., the Confederates attacked through the fog between Cedar Creek and Middletown. Many Federals were still asleep when the attack began, and their lines soon disintegrated as Gordon’s forces swept through their camps. Captain Henry A. du Pont, heading Crook’s artillery, saved nine of his 16 guns and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for staving off complete disaster.

As the sun rose and the fog lifted, Emory shifted his XIX Corps to meet Gordon’s advance. This left a bridge over Cedar Creek open, enabling Major General Gabriel Wharton’s supporting Confederate division to cross and attack. Intense fighting took place near the Belle Grove plantation, where the Federals held their ground long enough for their supply wagons to withdraw and VI Corps to prepare defenses to the north.

The Confederates under both Wharton and Major General Joseph B. Kershaw crashed into VI Corps, which put up a fierce resistance and made brief stands as they slowly withdrew northwest toward Middletown. Early opted to concentrate most of his force against this position instead of destroying VIII and XIX corps. Meanwhile, hungry Confederates stopped to loot captured camps.

By 10 a.m., the Confederates had captured over 1,300 prisoners, 18 cannon, and several battle flags. But Early disregarded Gordon’s advice to continue pressing the attack, instead ordering a halt to regroup. Gordon later wrote, “My heart went into my boots. Visions of the fatal halt on the first day at Gettysburg, and of the whole day’s hesitation to permit an assault on Grant’s exposed flank on the 6th of May in the Wilderness rose before me.”

Sheridan, asleep 15 miles away, woke to the sound of battle at 6 a.m. He began moving toward the fight two hours later, when the sound became “an unceasing roar.” Sheridan hurried from Winchester and arrived on the scene around 10:30 a.m., where he found thousands of demoralized Federal troops in retreat. Sheridan rode through the men, waving his hat and shouting, “Turn back! Turn back! Face the other way!” When the soldiers cheered him, Sheridan yelled, “God damn you! Don’t cheer me, fight! We will lick them out of their boots!”

“Sheridan’s Ride” | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The troops were revitalized by this spectacular display of battlefield leadership. A VI Corps soldier later wrote, “Such a scene as his presence and such emotion as it awoke cannot be realized but once in a century.” The Federals stabilized their wavering lines north of Middletown, after having been pushed back four miles. At 3 p.m., Early finally allowed Gordon to follow up his morning attack. But by that time, the strengthened Federal lines held firm against the lesser Confederate assaults.

Sheridan counterattacked at 4 p.m. The reorganized VI and XIX corps led the effort, while Crook’s VIII Corps was in reserve. The Federals turned Gordon’s left, which crumbled the rest of Early’s line. Brigadier General George A. Custer led a Federal cavalry attack on Early’s rear; panic-stricken Confederates feared that this would block their escape across Cedar Creek. Confederate Major General Stephen D. Ramseur fell mortally wounded as his division tried making a stand before being forced to fall back.

Federal cavalry attacks by Custer and Brigadier General Wesley Merritt turned the Confederate withdrawal into a rout as Early’s men fell back four miles to Fisher’s Hill. They were forced to leave all their captured guns and supplies behind. Custer celebrated the dramatic Federal victory by hoisting “Little Phil” Sheridan off the ground and dancing with joy.

The Federals suffered 5,665 casualties (644 killed, 3,430 wounded, and 1,591 missing) out of about 30,000, while Confederate losses were estimated at 2,910 (320 killed, 1,540 wounded, and 1,050 missing) from roughly 18,000. Early reported to his superior, General Robert E. Lee at Petersburg:

“I found it impossible to rally the troops, they would not listen to entreaties, threats, or appeals of any kind… The rout was as thorough and disgraceful as ever happened to our army… It is mortifying to me, General, to have to make these explanations of my reverses. They are due to no want of effort on my part, though it may be that I have not the capacity or judgment to prevent them. If you think that the interests of the service would be promoted by a change of commanders, I beg you will have no hesitation.”

Early chastised his men for their conduct in this battle, writing in part, “Many of you, including some commissioned officers, yielded to a disgraceful propensity for plunder… Subsequently those who had remained at their post, seeing their ranks thinned by the absence of the plunderer… yielded to a needless panic and fled the field in confusion.” He later summed up the battle: “The Yankees got whipped and we got scared.”

Lee decided not to replace Early, who led his forces to New Market to regroup and possibly confront Sheridan once more. But after being routed three times within a month, the Confederates could no longer contend with the Federals’ superior size, supply, and armament. The troops gradually dispersed, and the Federals gained permanent control of the Valley and its vital resources.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, ordered a 100-gun salute fired into the Confederate defenses at Petersburg in celebration. People serenaded President Abraham Lincoln at the White House, where Lincoln proposed three cheers for “all our noble commanders and the soldiers and sailors…”

Lincoln then wrote to Sheridan, “With great pleasure, I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation and my own personal admiration and gratitude for the month’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and especially for the splendid work of October 19.” The Chicago Tribune stated, “The nation rings with praises of Phil Sheridan.”

Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana traveled to Sheridan’s headquarters and woke him up late on the night of the 23rd to award him the rank of major general in the regular army. Sheridan also received a commendation from the adjutant general “for the personal gallantry, military skill, and just confidence in the courage and patriotism of his troops… whereby, under the blessing of Providence, his routed army was reorganized, a great national disaster averted, and a brilliant victory achieved.”

Sheridan became a northern hero, and “Sheridan’s Ride” from Winchester to the battlefield became a famous poem by Thomas Buchanan Read. The Federal victory at Cedar Creek stopped any future Confederate threat to Washington, which enabled the Federals to devote more resources to the siege of Petersburg and Richmond. This victory greatly boosted northern morale as well as Lincoln’s chances for victory in the upcoming election.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 182; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 518, 540; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 476-77; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 11915-35, 11959-2002; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 511; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8000; 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. 144-58; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 585-86; 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. 779-80; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 333; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 121, 677-79

The Shenandoah Valley: Early Plans to Attack

October 18, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan went to attend a conference in Washington, while Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates prepared to launch a surprise attack on Sheridan’s army.

Federal Maj Gen Philip Sheridan and Confederate Lt Gen Jubal Early | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As the Federal Army of the Shenandoah withdrew to Woodstock, Sheridan’s cavalry, commanded by Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert, fought rear guard actions against Early’s Confederate troopers. Disapproving Torbert’s order not to confront the Confederates, Sheridan directed him, “Either whip the enemy or get whipped yourself.”

Torbert complied, ordering two of his divisions under Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and George A. Custer to turn and face the opposing Confederate divisions led by Brigadier Generals Lunsford Lomax and Thomas L. Rosser (a former West Point classmate of Custer’s). Merritt pushed back Lomax’s undersized force on the left, while Custer’s 2,500 troopers took on Rosser’s 3,500 posted on hills along the south bank of Tom’s Brook, near Woodstock.

As Merritt continued pushing Lomax back, Custer traded artillery fire in Rosser’s front while shifting his men to attack the Confederate left. The unsuspecting Confederates immediately broke; according to Custer:

“The enemy, seeing his flank turned and his retreat cut off, broke in the utmost confusion and sought safety in headlong flight. The pursuit was kept up at a gallop by the entire command for a distance of nearly two miles, where a brigade of the enemy was formed to check our farther advance.”

With Rosser’s force broken, Lomax’s soon broke and ran as well. The Federals took some 300 prisoners and 11 guns (or 36 total since September 19th) as the Confederates fled 26 miles back to Early’s lines north of New Market. Federals nicknamed this fight the “Woodstock Races” as a response to the “Buckland Races” that Major General Jeb Stuart had inflicted on Custer the previous year. Custer wrote triumphantly:

“Never since the opening of this war had there been witnessed such a complete and decisive overthrow of the enemy’s cavalry. The pursuit was kept up vigorously for nearly twenty miles, and only relinquished then from the complete exhaustion of our horses and the dispersion of our panic-stricken enemies.”

Despite having his cavalry routed, Early still intended to take the offensive against Sheridan. He wrote to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, explaining his intentions and stating, “I think I can defeat his infantry and thwart his movements…” However, Early acknowledged that he might have trouble obtaining supplies now that the Federals had laid waste to much of the upper Valley.

Meanwhile, Sheridan’s forces continued falling back northward “down” the Valley, closer to their supply lines. They crossed Cedar Creek on the 10th, just north of Strasburg. The Federals set up strong positions on either side of the Valley Turnpike, unaware that Early planned to attack. Sheridan even detached Major General Horatio G. Wright’s crack VI Corps to return to the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg.

By the 13th, Early’s Confederates had advanced to Fisher’s Hill, about five miles south of Sheridan. Despite being reinforced by Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s infantry division, Early’s Army of the Valley was still outnumbered two-to-one. Nevertheless, a part of his force advanced and drove off Federal skirmishers before returning to Fisher’s Hill. More probing on both sides took place over the next two days.

Sheridan reacted to these probes by recalling Wright’s corps, which had stopped at Ashby’s Gap. Sheridan planned to attack Early on the 14th, but the Confederates had fallen back to strong positions on Fisher’s Hill, so Sheridan instead put Wright in command of his army and accepted a summons by Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck to come to Washington for a strategy conference.

While preparing to leave, Sheridan learned that Federals had intercepted and deciphered a message supposedly from Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who had recently recovered from wounds suffered at the Wilderness. The message was intended for Early: “Be ready to move as soon as my forces join you, and we will crush Sheridan.”

Sheridan believed this was a bluff, but as a precaution he called off a cavalry raid into the Blue Ridge and placed those men on his right flank. Wright assured Sheridan, “I shall hold on here until the enemy’s movements are developed, and shall only fear an attack on my right, which I shall make every precaution for guarding against and resisting.”

Before his train left, Sheridan warned Wright, “Look well to your ground and be well prepared. Get up everything that can be spared.” Sheridan left with his entire cavalry corps, assuring Wright that he would return in two days, “if not sooner.”

Sheridan conferred with Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Washington on the 18th. Sheridan convinced them to approve his plan to take up defenses in the lower (northern) Valley and send VI and XIX corps back to the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. He left the capital that day, traveling by train to Martinsburg and then by horse to Winchester, about 15 to 20 miles from his army.

Meanwhile, Confederates spied the Federal positions from atop the Shenandoah Peak and the Massanutten Mountain. They saw Sheridan’s three corps spread out along Cedar Creek’s east bank, not suspecting an attack. Being outnumbered, Early could not launch a frontal assault, but his officers informed him that the Federal left was vulnerable to a flank attack.

On the afternoon of the 18th, Early held a council of war and resolved to launch a full-scale attack at dawn. Major General John B. Gordon began the operation that night by leading three divisions around Massanutten Mountain and across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River so they could assault the Federal left in the morning. Early would then deploy Kershaw’s division to support Gordon and his fifth division with 40 guns under Major General Gabriel Wharton to hit the Federal center along the Valley Turnpike.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20521-29; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 471-72; 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 11829-59, 11870-900; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 507-10; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7988; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135, 139-41, 144, 151; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 581-82, 584-85; 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. 779; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79 | 491-92

Federals Lay Waste to the Shenandoah Valley

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.

Maj Gen Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 180-81; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20512-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 466, 470; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 11818-59, 11870-900; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 506-07; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7988; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135, 137-41, 144, 151; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 580-85; 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. 778; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 485; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79

The Battle of Fisher’s Hill: Aftermath

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.

Federal Maj Gen Philip Sheridan and Confederate Lt Gen Jubal Early | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

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References

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

The Battle of Fisher’s Hill

September 22, 1864 – After defeating the Confederate Army of the Valley at Winchester, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals pursued the enemy to a strong eminence blocking the path to the upper (southern) Shenandoah.

Sheridan followed up his resounding victory by directing his Army of the Shenandoah to track down Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates on the 20th. Early’s men retreated 21 miles to Fisher’s Hill, a steep ridge that one Federal officer called “the bugbear of the Valley.”

By this time, Early’s army had been reduced to less than 10,000 men. Early also lost one of his top commanders, Major General Robert Rodes, at Winchester, and now he was told that another, Major General John C. Breckinridge, had to go take command in southwestern Virginia due to John Hunt Morgan’s death.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Early put his diminished force behind previously built earthworks, with Massanutten Mountain on their right (east) and Little North Mountain on their left. Their right was anchored on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and their left was on Fisher’s Hill. The line might have been impregnable if Early did not have to stretch his men so thin to defend it; Brigadier General Lunsford Lomax’s dismounted cavalry had to cover the left. But Early was hopeful that Sheridan would be just as reluctant to attack Fisher’s Hill as he had been in August.

The pursuing Federals skirmished with Confederate rear guard elements before arriving at Strasburg, a mile north of Fisher’s Hill, late on the 20th. Just as Early hoped, Sheridan hesitated to launch a frontal assault. Sheridan informed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “The enemy’s infantry occupy a very strongly fortified position in my front, across the Strasburg Valley.”

Sheridan met with his three corps commanders–Major Generals Horatio G. Wright, George Crook, and William H. Emory–to discuss their next move. Crook proposed leading his corps around Early’s left. Wright and Emory argued against it, but Sheridan approved. He also directed his cavalry commander, Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert, to lead two divisions across the Massanutten at New Market Gap in the Luray Valley to cut Early’s line of retreat.

The Federals began moving on the 21st. The Confederates tried preventing them from entering the Luray Valley at Front Royal, but the Federals drove them south. Meanwhile, Confederate signalmen atop Massanutten Mountain could see Crook’s corps, causing Crook to delay his flanking movement until after dark.

Crook’s maneuver took most of the 22nd. Some Confederates saw them moving around their left, as one soldier wrote in his diary, “We can see them plainly climbing up the side of North Mountain. I suppose Gen. Early knows this and has troops there to meet them, and unless he has, we will have to get from this position and very quickly too.”

During that time, Early received reports on the size of the Federal force in his front and decided to withdraw, starting that afternoon. But around 4 p.m., Crook’s Federals suddenly appeared on Lomax’s left. They quickly drove Lomax’s men off as Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s infantry tried turning to face them. But Crook’s men routed them as well.

Map of the battle | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Sheridan then ordered his other two corps to attack the Confederate front, shouting, “Forward! Forward everything!” Wright’s VI Corps linked with Crook, with Emory on Wright’s left, and they quickly drove the remaining Confederates off in a rout. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. “Sandie” Pendleton–chief of staff to “Stonewall” Jackson, Richard Ewell, and Early–was mortally wounded trying to stop the Federal advance.

Early sustained 1,235 casualties (30 killed, 210 wounded, and 995 captured), and lost 20 guns. The Federals lost just 456 (36 killed, 414 wounded, and six missing). The Federals pursued the Confederates into the night, chasing them four miles before the Confederates turned and tried making a stand. They soon broke again and continued fleeing. Sheridan informed Grant that if Torbert’s cavalry “push on vigorously to the main valley, the result of this day’s engagement will be more signal.” But to Sheridan’s dismay, Torbert was unable to cut off Early’s retreat.

Sheridan also learned that while his infantry was chasing the enemy, some troops had stopped at Front Royal, and Brigadier General William W. Averell’s cavalry division encamped at Fisher’s Hill instead of rounding up prisoners. Enraged, Sheridan immediately removed Averell as division commander. The Federals halted their pursuit.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, sent reinforcements to Early with a message: “It will require the greatest watchfulness, the greatest promptness, and the most untiring energy on your part to arrest the progress of the enemy in the present tide of success. I have given you all I can.”

Grant wrote Sheridan, “Keep on, and your good work will cause the fall of Richmond.” Grant ordered the Federals at Petersburg to fire a 100-gun salute, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered similar salutes in 15 other Federal commands in honor of Sheridan’s victory. This greatly boosted northern morale, along with President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection in November.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 181; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 538; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20512; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 461; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 569-70; 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 11617-27, 11639-50; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 499-500; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 122, 124-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 572-73; 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; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 260-61, 677-79

The Battle of Opequon

September 19, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals attacked the weakened Confederate army outside Winchester as part of Sheridan’s overall effort to drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley.

Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley was reduced to just 12,000 men after Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s detachment left the Shenandoah to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. Despite this, Early sent two divisions under Major Generals Robert Rodes and John B. Gordon north to destroy a bridge on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, west of Martinsburg.

This left just 4,000 Confederates to defend Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot along Opequon Creek. Early decided to spread his army thin because Sheridan, commanding the 40,000-man Federal Army of the Shenandoah, had shown no aggression since taking command. But Early was unaware that Sheridan, having received vital intelligence from a spy named Rebecca Wright, was about to attack.

Sheridan initially planned to attack the Confederates at Winchester while cutting off the Valley Turnpike below the town. But when he learned that Early divided his army, Sheridan instead opted to destroy the force at Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot, and then move on to destroy the force west of Martinsburg. Orders were issued for the Federals to mobilize at 2 a.m. on the 19th. According to Sheridan’s plan:

  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps would advance on the Berryville Pike, and, “As soon as it has reached open country it will form in line of battle, fronting in the direction of Stephenson’s Depot.”
  • Brigadier General William H. Emory’s XIX Corps would support Wright.
  • Major General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia (i.e., VIII Corps) would be in reserve, “to be marched to any point required.”

As the Federals prepared, Early learned from intercepted dispatches that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had recently met with Sheridan. This indicated that Sheridan might attack soon. Early therefore ordered Rodes and Gordon to stop wrecking railroad tracks and hurry back to Winchester. By the end of the 18th, Rodes was back at Stephenson’s Depot, and Gordon was at Bunker Hill. The Confederates were still spread along a 14-mile line, but they were more concentrated than they had been when the day began.

The Federals advanced at 3 a.m. on the 19th, led by the cavalry. Their initial target was Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s isolated division on the Berryville Road, about a mile and a half east of Winchester. However, Sheridan mishandled the advance by sending his men through the narrow Berryville Canyon, and a major traffic jam ensued among the men, horses, and wagons. The delay gave Early time to bring up Rodes and Gordon from the north, and Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division from the south.

The Federals approached the Confederates on a north-south line, with Wright on the left (south) and Emory on the right. Gordon’s division came up to Ramseur’s left (north), and fighting began in the cornfields and woodlands at 11:40 a.m. One of Emory’s divisions under Brigadier General Cuvier Grover pushed Gordon back but was then repulsed by a counterattack. Gordon’s division nearly decimated XIX Corps.

Combat near Opequon Creek | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates discovered a gap in the Federal center just as Rodes’s division came up, and troops from both Rodes’s and Gordon’s commands pushed through. Early wrote that it “was a grand sight to see this immense body hurled back in utter disorder before my two divisions, numbering a very little over 5,000 muskets.” But Early suffered a major loss when Rodes was mortally wounded in the assault.

Sheridan brought up the rest of VI and XIX corps to plug the gap, and Brigadier General David A. Russell, commanding a division in VI Corps, was killed by shrapnel in the counterattack. The Federals eventually closed the gap, which possibly saved the army from destruction. Sheridan later wrote:

“The charge of Russell was most opportune, but it cost many men in killed and wounded. Among the former was the courageous Russell himself, killed by a piece of shell that passed through his heart, although he had previously been struck by a bullet in the left breast, which wound, from its nature, must have proved mortal, yet of which he had not spoken. Russell’s death oppressed us all with sadness, and me particularly.”

During a lull on the field, Sheridan directed Crook’s Federals to move around the Confederate left. The Confederates crumbled under the overwhelming assault; Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton) was mortally wounded and his brigade was decimated. Gordon repositioned his withdrawing men behind a stone wall on a line running east to west, perpendicular to the rest of Early’s army. Breckinridge’s division came up to extend the Confederate left flank.

Meanwhile, Wright’s Federals launched another attack on the Confederate right, as Sheridan rode along the front, waving his hat and yelling, “Give ‘em hell… Press them, General, they’ll run!” As the Federals gradually pushed the Confederates back toward Winchester, Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal cavalry attacked Breckinridge’s isolated division on the far left until one of Early’s cavalry brigades fought them off.

Sheridan’s final charge | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Around 4:30 p.m., Crook and Wright launched assaults that broke the Confederate left and penetrated Breckinridge’s part of the line. Cavalry under Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and William W. Averell attacked in support. Sheridan wrote, “Panic took possession of the enemy, his troops, now fugitives and stragglers, seeking escape into and through Winchester.” Ramseur’s Confederates held off the Federals to allow an orderly retreat. This marked the first time that Early’s army had been driven from the field.

The Confederates withdrew along the Valley Turnpike to Newtown while moving their supplies, munitions, and equipment to Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan reported to Grant, “I have the honor to report that I attacked the forces of General Early on the Berryville pike at the crossing of Opequon Creek, and after a most stubborn and sanguinary engagement, which lasted from early in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening, completely defeated him.” The Federals captured “2,500 prisoners, five pieces of artillery, nine army flags, and most of their wounded.”

Sheridan’s chief of staff telegraphed Washington, “We have just sent them whirling through Winchester, and we are after them to-morrow. This army behaved splendidly.” The Federals secured Winchester for the last time, holding the town for the rest of the war.

The Federals sustained 5,018 casualties (697 killed, 3,983 wounded and 338 missing) in what they called the Battle of Opequon. The Confederates lost about 3,921 (276 killed, 1,827 wounded and 1,818 missing or captured) in what they called the Third Battle of Winchester. The Confederate losses equated to about a quarter of Early’s entire army, but he nevertheless asserted that “Sheridan ought to have been cashiered” for allowing the Confederate army to escape relatively intact.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 181; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 538; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 648-49; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20474-504; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 460; 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 11629-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 497-98; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 109, 112, 118, 122; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 570-72; 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. 776-77; 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. 260-61, 328, 677-79, 835

The Shenandoah Valley: Sheridan Plans an Offensive

September 16, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan unveiled a plan to drive Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley once and for all.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As September began, Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah began coming out of its defenses and moving down the Valley Turnpike toward Winchester. Early’s Army of the Valley blocked Sheridan at Bunker Hill, north of Winchester. The Confederates were reinforced by elements of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Both sides maneuvered and skirmished, with Early’s main force setting up at Stephenson’s Depot and Sheridan’s moving east of Winchester, between Berryville and Clifton. No major confrontation seemed imminent, so Anderson’s Confederates began heading east toward Snicker’s Gap; from there they were to move through the Blue Ridge and return to Lee’s army at Petersburg.

Anderson’s lead division under Major General Joseph B. Kershaw advanced toward Berryville, unaware that Sheridan had stationed Brigadier General George Crook’s VIII Corps there. The two forces collided near sunset on the 3rd. The Federals fell back but then regrouped and counterattacked. Kershaw disengaged for the night, and Early came up with three reinforcing divisions the next day. But as Early wrote after the war:

“I at first thought that I had reached his (Sheridan’s) right flank, and was about making arrangements to attack it, when casting my eye to my left, I discovered, as far as the eye could reach with the aid of field glasses, a line extending toward Summit Point. The position the enemy occupied was a strong one, and he was busily engaged fortifying it, having already made considerable progress. It was not until I had this view that I realized the size of the enemy’s force, and as I discovered that his line was too long for me to get around his flank, and the position was too strong to attack in front, I returned and informed General Anderson of the condition of things.”

The Confederates fell back west toward Winchester and took positions on high ground east of the Valley Turnpike. The Federal army doubled the size of Early’s, but Sheridan did not pursue the Confederates. This was mainly because Sheridan had to detach units to guard his supply lines, prevent raids into Maryland or Pennsylvania, and protect both the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Also, with the presidential election coming in two months, Sheridan did not want to risk jeopardizing Abraham Lincoln’s reelection with a defeat.

The two armies probed each other’s defenses for the next two weeks, looking for exploitable weaknesses but finding none. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, encouraged Sheridan on the 9th:

“I would not have you make an attack with the advantage against you, but would prefer just the course you seem to be pursuing–that is, pressing closely upon the enemy, and when he moves, follow him up, being ready at all time to pounce upon him if he detaches any considerable force.”

This strategy would prevent Early’s Confederates from reinforcing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But it would also allow Early to control the Valley, where his men could ensure the continued transfer of the rich harvests to Lee’s besieged forces at Petersburg.

Another three days of sparring prompted President Lincoln to write Grant: “Sheridan and Early are facing each other at a deadlock. Could we not pick up a regiment here and there, to the number of say 10,000 men, and quietly but suddenly concentrate them at Sheridan’s camp and enable him to make a strike? This is but a suggestion.” Grant replied that he intended “to see Sheridan and arrange what was necessary to enable him to start Early out of the Valley. It seems to me it can successfully be done.”

Meanwhile, Early held strong positions along Opequon Creek, and after delays, Anderson’s Confederates began leaving the Valley on the 14th to rejoin Lee, who desperately needed them on the Petersburg siege lines. That same day, Grant left Petersburg to confer with Sheridan at Charles Town.

Rumors quickly spread among Sheridan’s army that Anderson was leaving, but Sheridan informed Grant, “I have nothing new to report for yesterday or today. There is as yet no indication of Early’s detaching.” Sheridan asked his cavalry commanders to determine whether Early’s army had been weakened by Anderson’s departure. When they were slow in gathering information, Sheridan enlisted troops to serve as scouts and asked Crook if he knew of any civilians at Winchester who would be willing to provide intelligence.

Crook recommended Rebecca Wright, a Quaker teacher and known Unionist. Sheridan wrote her a letter of introduction, which was smuggled to her by a black messenger who wrapped it in tinfoil and carried it under his tongue. Wright read the message and answered: Anderson’s men and three batteries had returned to Petersburg, and Early’s reduced army was scattered around Winchester and highly vulnerable to attack.

This meant that Sheridan’s chance of defeat was greatly reduced. And news of William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta meant that even if Sheridan was defeated, Lincoln’s reelection bid was already gaining momentum. Sheridan therefore resolved to take the offensive, but to increase his chance of success even further, he would wait until Anderson’s Confederates were far enough away so they could not hurry back to help Early.

As Sheridan plotted his moves, Grant arrived in Charles Town and met with him at the Rutherford House. Grant had a specific plan in mind for Sheridan to drive Early out of the Valley and destroy Lee’s supply line. Worried that administration officials might reject this plan, Grant had bypassed Washington and traveled straight to Sheridan’s headquarters.

But before Grant could share his plan, Sheridan revealed one of his own. Most of his Federals would seize the Valley Turnpike at Newtown, below Winchester, while his cavalry would confront the small Confederate force in Winchester. The Federals would cut off Early’s supply lines and escape route, forcing him to fight on ground of Sheridan’s choosing.

According to Sheridan, Grant “neither discussed nor disclosed his plans, my knowledge of the situation striking him as being so much more accurate than his own.” Instead, Grant simply told Sheridan, “Go in.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 452-54, 458-60; 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 11585-616; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 492-95, 497; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 108-09; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 564-65, 569-70; 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. 776; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79