Tag Archives: Army of the Valley

The Shenandoah Valley: Hunter Reaches Lynchburg

June 17, 1864 – Major General David Hunter’s Federal Army of West Virginia closed in on the key railroad town of Lynchburg as Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley arrived to defend it.

Hunter’s Federals moved out of Lexington on the 13th, after burning and looting much of the town. Hunter had been delayed due to Confederate partisans harassing his supply lines, but now he had his entire force ready to move toward his main objective: the intersection of three railroads at Lynchburg.

Major General John C. Breckinridge | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federals moved southeast through Buchanan. Major General John C. Breckinridge, commanding the few Confederates left in the Shenandoah Valley, ordered Brigadier General John D. Imboden to pursue Hunter with his cavalry and, “Lose no time in finding their direction.” Skirmishing occurred at New Glasgow, but the Federals continued forward through the Peaks of Otter in the Blue Ridge before occupying Liberty on the night of the 15th.

Breckinridge issued peremptory orders for Imboden to pursue Hunter: “I want you to find his position, and purposes, at all hazards.” Frustrated by Imboden’s reluctance, Breckinridge telegraphed Richmond: “Enemy reported to be advancing, in force not known. The cavalry, under Imboden, doing less than nothing. If a good general officer cannot be sent at once for them, they will go to ruin.”

Breckinridge arrived at Lynchburg on the 16th with just two small brigades totaling 2,000 men. Major General D.H. Hill, who was awaiting reassignment at Lynchburg, helped Breckinridge prepare defenses in the hills southwest of town. Meanwhile, Early’s army (formerly Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia) reached Charlottesville on its way west to reinforce Lynchburg.

From Charlottesville, Early notified Breckinridge, “My first object is to destroy Hunter, and the next it is not prudent to trust to telegraph. Hold on and you will be amply supported.” Early later wrote, “The trains were not in readiness to take the troops on board until sunrise on the morning of the 17th, and then only enough were furnished to transport about half of my infantry.”

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

Early and half his force reached Lynchburg at 1 p.m. on the 17th, with the rest of his force following on the slow-moving trains. Early’s troops joined the other Confederates in the defenses as Confederate cavalry under both Imboden and Brigadier General John McCausland stalled the Federal advance about four miles from Lynchburg. Early directed Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s men to build a redoubt about two miles from the town.

Hunter issued orders not to attack Lynchburg until all his Federal troops were up and ready for deployment. By that time, it was near sundown, so Hunter halted for the night, planning to attack in the morning. Many of his officers and men strongly objected to stopping the advance, but Hunter was short on both ammunition and supplies due to ongoing disruptions to his supply lines.

That night, Early instructed the soldiers and civilians to make the Confederate force defending Lynchburg seem larger than it was. The people made as much noise as possible, and trains pulled in and out of town all night, indicating to the Federals that the Confederates were being heavily reinforced.

Next morning, Hunter probed the Confederate lines and decided they were too strong for a frontal assault. He directed Brigadier General George Crook to move around the enemy right, but Early’s seasoned veterans launched a surprise attack that drove him back. The Confederates then attacked Hunter’s other division under Brigadier General Jeremiah C. Sullivan while their artillery neutralized the Federal guns.

The Confederates disengaged near sundown and returned to their defenses. Hunter opted not to counterattack because he believed he was outnumbered, and he was still short on ammunition. He fell back at nightfall, having lost his nerve in the face of an inferior enemy. Hunter’s withdrawal emboldened Early, who directed his Confederates to pursue the Federals.

Hunter fell back northwest into West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley, stopping at Sweet Sulphur Springs to collect supplies. The hungry Federals fought each other over the much-needed provisions. Hunter’s withdrawal left the Shenandoah wide open for the Confederates all the way to the Potomac River. Early recalled:

“As the enemy had got into the mountains, where nothing useful could be accomplished by pursuit, I did not deem it proper to continue it farther… I had seen my soldiers endure a great deal, but there was a limit to the endurance even of Confederate soldiers. I determined, therefore, to rest on the 22nd, so as to enable the wagons and artillery to get up, and prepare the men for the long march before them.”

The next day, the Confederates turned onto the path that Hunter had taken from Staunton to Lynchburg. According to Early:

“The scenes on Hunter’s route from Lynchburg had been truly heart-rending. Houses had been burned, and helpless women and children left without shelter. The country had been stripped of provisions and many families left without a morsel to eat. Furniture and bedding had been cut to pieces, and old men and women and children robbed of all the clothing they had except that on their backs. Ladies’ trunks had been rifled and their dresses torn to pieces in mere wantonness. Even the negro girls had lost their little finery.

“We now had renewed evidences of the outrages committed by Hunter’s orders in burning and plundering private houses. We saw the ruins of a number of houses to which the torch had been applied by his orders. At Lexington he had burned the Military Institute, with all of its contents, including its library and scientific apparatus; and Washington College had been plundered and the statue of Washington stolen.

“These are but some of the outrages committed by Hunter or his orders, and I will not insult the memory of the ancient barbarians of the North by calling them ‘acts of vandalism…’ Hunter’s deeds were those of a malignant and cowardly fanatic, who was better qualified to make war upon helpless women and children than upon armed soldiers. The time consumed in the perpetration of those deeds, was the salvation of Lynchburg, with its stores, foundries and factories, which were so necessary to our army at Richmond.”

The “long march” that Early had referenced would be northward “down” the Valley to invade the North, exact revenge for Hunter’s depredations, and threaten Washington.

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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 20411; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 21-22; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 427-29; 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 9284-304; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 456-58, 460; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 58-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524-25; 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. 739; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 376-77, 454

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Hunter Terrorizes the Shenandoah Valley

June 8, 1864 – Brigadier General George Crook’s Federals from West Virginia joined forces with Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah and prepared to drive southward “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley from Staunton.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The day after his victory at Piedmont, Hunter became the first Federal commander to lead a force into the key town of Staunton. From there, Hunter was to join forces with Crook and move south to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Lynchburg. Federal troops destroyed all warehouses, barns, mills, workshops, and railroad factories in their path. They then looted and pillaged Staunton and vicinity, causing seething resentment among Valley residents.

Upon learning of Piedmont, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, detached Major General John C. Breckinridge to return west and take the Valley back. However, Breckinridge had just 2,100 men in two brigades to reinforce the 4,000 Piedmont survivors in protecting the vital railroad junction at Lynchburg.

Meanwhile, Crook’s Federal Army of the Kanawha joined with Hunter, giving the combined force 18,000 men and 30 guns. Both Crook and his cavalry commander, Brigadier General William W. Averell, urged Hunter to continue south to Lynchburg as ordered, but Hunter opted to instead advance on Lexington to the southwest and then march through the Blue Ridge at the Peaks of Otter to get to Lynchburg.

Hunter’s new “Army of West Virginia” headed out of Staunton on the 10th. In response to harassment from Confederate partisans, Hunter directed his troops to live off the land, which included looting civilian homes and farms. Breckinridge reported that Hunter was moving up the Valley to either Lexington or Lynchburg, but his force was too small to stop the Federals.

President Jefferson Davis asked Lee to clear the Federals out of the Valley, but Lee said he could only do so by detaching an entire corps in the face of the opposing Army of the Potomac. Lee concluded, “If it is deemed prudent to hazard the defense of Richmond… I will do so.”

Crook’s Federals reached Lexington around 12 p.m. the next day and entered the town after driving off a small Confederate cavalry force. Hunter stopped to visit the grave of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson before ordering his men to burn the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson had taught before the war. Hunter accused the school administrators of teaching a “treasonous” curriculum and sending cadets out to fight Federal troops at New Market. Hunter did not know that Lee had buried George Washington’s silver beneath VMI for protection.

Hunter set up headquarters in the VMI superintendent’s home, the only building on campus not burned. He also directed his troops to burn Washington College and turn the main building into a horse stable. Outraged, Virginia Governor John Letcher publicly called on the citizens to oppose “the vandal hordes of Yankee invaders.” When Hunter learned of this, he ordered Letcher’s Lexington home burned for issuing “a violent and inflammatory proclamation… inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerrilla warfare on my troops.”

The looting and destruction continued for three days, during which a Federal soldier wrote, “Many of the women look sad and do much weeping over the destruction that is going on. We feel that the South brought on the war and the State of Virginia is paying dear for her part.” But during this time, Hunter suffered two setbacks:

  • Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, assigned to join him in the drive on Lynchburg, was stopped by Confederate horsemen under Major General Wade Hampton.
  • Confederate partisans led by Colonel John S. Mosby continuously raided Hunter’s supply lines, forcing him to wait at Lexington until all his cavalry could come up.

These setbacks gave Breckinridge more time to prepare defenses at Lynchburg.

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

On the night of the 12th, Lee decided on a daring gamble. He would detach Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps from his army and send it west. These Confederates would absorb Breckinridge’s force, secure Lynchburg, and drive Hunter’s Federals out of the Valley. Early was to then move north “down” the Valley and cross the Potomac River into Maryland. From there, he would turn southeast and threaten Washington.

This would leave Lee’s Confederates dangerously outnumbered against the Army of the Potomac, but Lee hoped that Early’s offensive would compel Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to detach forces, or even withdraw the army altogether, to protect Washington. It may even provoke Grant into launching a hasty attack that could give Lee an opening to destroy his force.

Early received written orders to move out at 3 a.m. on the 13th. He was “to strike Hunter’s force in the rear, and, if possible, destroy it; then to move down the Valley, cross the Potomac near Leesburg in Loudon County, or at or above Harper’s Ferry… and threaten Washington City.”

Early was to leave with all three of his divisions (8,000 men) and an artillery battalion. Early renamed his corps the Army of the Valley and led it out of the Cold Harbor trenches on the morning of the 13th. The troops boarded trains and headed west to Lynchburg, just as Hunter’s Federals finally left Lexington.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 493-94; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 176; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20411; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 420-23, 425; 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 6359-69, 6398-408, 6522-41, 6561-91, 9314-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 451, 454-55; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7472-84; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 50-59; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516, 519-20; 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. 738-39; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 454