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.
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.”
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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