August 6, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan received command of a new Federal military department designed to drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley for good.
After putting Sheridan in this new command, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, went to notify Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of West Virginia, of the change. Sheridan’s new Army of the Shenandoah was to absorb Hunter’s department. Arriving at Hunter’s headquarters on the Monocacy River in Maryland, Grant recalled:
“I found General Hunter’s army… scattered over the fields along the banks of the Monocacy, with many hundreds of cars and locomotives, belonging to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which he had taken the precaution to bring back and collect at that point. I asked the general where the enemy was. He replied that he did not know. He said the fact was, that he was so embarrassed with orders from Washington moving him first to the right and then to the left that he had lost all trace of the enemy.”
Under Grant’s plan, Sheridan was to command the Federals in the field while Hunter took over administrative duties within the new military department. In the meantime, Hunter was to lead his troops to Harpers Ferry, where they would confront Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley wherever they found it.
Grant said it was “desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return” to Maryland or Pennsylvania. “Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command; such as cannot be consumed, destroy.” He urged Hunter not to destroy public buildings; “they should rather be protected.”
Hunter began moving his Federals out, arriving at Halltown, Virginia, on the 5th. But being dissatisfied with his new role in the department, Hunter “expressed a willingness to be relieved from command.” Grant accepted. Sheridan arrived on the scene on the 6th and received orders from Grant that were almost identical to Hunter’s:
“In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, as it is expected you will have to do first or last, it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy… Bear in mind, the object is to drive the enemy south, and to do this you want to keep him always in sight. Be guided in your course by the course he takes.”
Sheridan’s command would include the Departments of Washington, West Virginia, the Susquehanna, and the Middle. His army would consist of:
- Hunter’s Army of West Virginia, now under Brigadier General George Crook
- Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac
- Two divisions of Brigadier General William Emory’s XIX Corps from the Army of the Gulf
- Two divisions of Sheridan’s old Cavalry Corps from the Army of the Potomac, now under Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert
- A cavalry division under Brigadier General William W. Averell
By the night of the 6th, Sheridan wrote Grant, “I find affairs somewhat confused, but will soon straighten them out.” Grant notified him the next day:
“The Departments of Washington, the Middle, the Susquehanna, and of Western Virginia, have been formed into a military division called the Middle Division, and you have been assigned to the temporary command. You can assume command without any further authority.”
President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton expressed reservations about giving Sheridan such a large responsibility, but Grant insisted that he trusted Sheridan for the job.
Sheridan received word that Early’s Confederates were around Winchester, and thus directed his new army to go there. But most of Early’s forces were actually in Maryland, harvesting wheat at Sharpsburg and Hagerstown. Early fell back southward across the Potomac River to Bunker Hill on the 7th, but he would soon receive reinforcements.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, went to Richmond to discuss strategy with Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson and President Jefferson Davis. It was agreed to send Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division of Anderson’s corps to Culpeper, along with a cavalry division under Major General Fitzhugh Lee, with Anderson in overall command. From there, Anderson could return to Petersburg in case of emergency or threaten Sheridan’s flank if he moved any deeper into the Shenandoah.
The struggle between Sheridan and Early over control of the Shenandoah had begun.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 537; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445; 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 11361-92, 11320-30; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 482; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7869; Keefer, Kimberly A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 100-01, 104; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 491; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 675-76; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 491-92, 677-79, 817