Tag Archives: George A. Custer

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 Shenandoah Valley: Sheridan Falls Back

August 16, 1864 – Elements of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah scored an impressive victory, but Sheridan came under heavy criticism for withdrawing nonetheless.

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

Sheridan decided to fall back toward Winchester upon learning that a Confederate force under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson had arrived at Front Royal to reinforce Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Sheridan dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to hold Anderson’s men at bay while the rest of the Federal army retreated.

Confederates led by Brigadier General William C. Wickham drove the Federal pickets back before coming upon one of Merritt’s dismounted brigades under Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin at Cedarville. A saber duel ensued until the Confederates fell back across the Shenandoah River.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William T. Wofford’s Confederate brigade on Guard Hill was assaulted by Federal horsemen led by Brigadier General George A. Custer. The Federals used their Spencer repeating rifles to drive the Confederates off in retreat. Merritt reported:

“The enemy advanced boldly, wading the river, and were allowed to approach within short carbine range, when a murderous volley was poured into their solid ranks, while the whole command charged. The enemy were thrown into the wildest confusion.”

This decisive Federal victory resulted in the capture of two battle flags and hundreds of prisoners. It also revealed that Confederates were at Front Royal in force, thus validating Sheridan’s decision to withdraw. Merritt’s Federals served as the rear guard and fell back with the main army. Northerners starving for a decisive victory heaped enormous criticism upon Sheridan for withdrawing.

As Sheridan fell back, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, reiterated his orders to destroy anything in his path that might be useful to the Confederates. Grant also instructed Sheridan to arrest citizens of Loudoun County known to support Colonel John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans. Sheridan issued orders to his cavalry:

“In compliance with instructions of the lieutenant-general commanding, you will make the necessary arrangements and give the necessary orders for the destruction of the wheat and hay south of a line from Millwood to Winchester and Petticoat Gap. You will seize all mules, horses, and cattle that may be useful to our army. Loyal citizens can bring in their claims against the Government for this necessary destruction. No houses will be burned, and officers in charge of this delicate, but necessary, duty must inform the people that the object is to make this Valley untenable for the raiding parties of the rebel army.”

The Confederates under Early and Anderson joined forces to pursue the Federals, with skirmishing around Winchester, Opequon Creek, and Berryville. Anderson clashed inconclusively with Federal cavalry at Summit Point on the 21st. Early tried moving into the Federal rear, resulting in heavy skirmishing. Sheridan later wrote, “A sharp and obstinate skirmish with a heavy picket-line of the Sixth Corps grew out of this manoeuvre, and resulted very much in our favor, but the quick withdrawal of the Confederates left no opportunity for a general engagement.”

Sheridan then notified Washington on the 22nd, “My position at best being a very bad one, and, as there is much depending on this army, I fell back and took a new position in front of Halltown, without loss or opposition.” The two forces fought at Smithfield Crossing over a four-day period from the 25th to the 29th, as Sheridan fell back to Halltown under the protection of Federal guns at Harpers Ferry and Maryland Heights.

The Federals formed a strong defensive line that Sheridan hoped Early would attack. An observer for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reported, “The line runs along a commanding ridge which overlooks a broad valley beyond, and is a position of great natural strength. The intervals to the left and right, connecting the rivers, say a mile each, are not so strong, but the enemy could hardly succeed in a flank movement.”

The Confederates initially pushed back VI Corps in heavy fighting, but the Federal line was quickly restored and Early found no weaknesses in the Federal position. Although Early could not break the Federal line, the Federals had once again left the Valley.

Believing Sheridan to be just as timid as his predecessors, Early decided to cross the Potomac River once more. He left a small force in the Federals’ front and moved another into Maryland at Williamsport. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, noted Early’s success in pushing Sheridan back, but added, “It will have little or no effect upon Grant’s operations, or prevent re-enforcements being sent to him.”

Based on Early’s estimate that Sheridan’s army numbered about 30,000 men, Lee wrote that “if Sheridan’s force is as large as you suppose, I do not know that you could operate to advantage north of the Potomac.” Lee also stated that he was “in great need of his troops, and if they can be spared from the Valley, or cannot operate to advantage there,” he would take back Anderson’s force. Early therefore abandoned plans to reenter Maryland and instead fell back to Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Grant estimated that he had inflicted 10,000 casualties on Lee’s army over the past two weeks and informed Sheridan, “I now think it likely that all troops will be ordered back from the valley except what they believe to be the minimum number to detain you. My reason for supposing this is based upon the fact that yielding up the Weldon road seems to be a blow to the enemy he cannot stand.”

Sheridan interpreted Early’s withdrawal as a validation of Grant’s message, and he told one of his commanders, “The indications are that they will fall back perhaps out of the Valley… their projected campaign is a failure.” Merritt’s cavalry pursued the Confederates on the 28th, pushing them back to Smithville before Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s forces held them off. Skirmishing continued as Sheridan began realizing that Early had no intentions of leaving the Valley.

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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. 447-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 486-91; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-08; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 558-59, 561; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 677-79

The Battle of Trevilian Station

June 7, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry launched a raid intended to draw Confederate attention away from the Army of the Potomac’s impending crossing of the James River.

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

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac, with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in overall command, continued facing off against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in front of Cold Harbor, northeast of Richmond. Grant was planning to sidestep Lee to the south, across the James River, and he assigned Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to create a diversion.

Sheridan’s troopers were to ride around Lee’s left (north) flank and link with Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah at Charlottesville. This would draw Lee’s cavalry away from discovering the James crossing, while Hunter and Sheridan “break up the (Virginia Central) railroad connection between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley and Lynchburg.” The combined force was also to destroy the James River Canal.

Early on the 7th, Sheridan led 7,000 cavalrymen in two divisions north to New Castle Ferry on the Pamunkey River. The next day, Lee received word of Sheridan’s expedition and responded by dispatching two divisions of about 4,700 troopers and three batteries under Major Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee (with Hampton in overall command) to oppose him. This left Lee with hardly any cavalry, but he believed that since Sheridan and Hunter were both on the move, Grant would stay put until their mission was completed.

Hampton correctly guessed that Sheridan’s target was Trevilian Station, east of Charlottesville. Hampton’s men took a more direct route along the Virginia Central and got there first. Sheridan’s Federals struggled in the excessive heat and had to shoot several horses that broke down. President Jefferson Davis noted, “If our cavalry, concentrated, could meet that of the enemy, it would have moral as well as physical effects, which are desirable.”

On the 10th, Hampton placed his division three miles ahead of the Trevilian Station depot and Fitz Lee’s division near Louisa Court House, about five miles away. That night, Sheridan’s troopers camped near Clayton’s Store on the south bank of the North Anna River. The Federals noted large groups of Confederate scouts nearby, which indicated that an enemy force blocked their way up ahead. Sheridan prepared for battle.

Hampton learned from a spy that Sheridan would come from Clayton’s on two roads–one leading south to Trevilian and one leading southeast to Louisa. He deployed two brigades along the Trevilian road, with one brigade stationed behind breastworks protecting his left (west). Hampton then called on Fitz Lee to come up from Louisa and form on his right.

Action on 11 June | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On the right, Brigadier General George A. Custer’s Federal brigade clashed with Lee’s Confederates on the Louisa road. Lee disengaged to join Hampton, but Custer took a more direct road and moved around Hampton’s right before Lee got there. Custer’s Federals then reached the station in Hampton’s rear, seizing all of Hampton’s unguarded supplies and 800 of his horses left when the troopers dismounted to fight.

Hampton responded by sending the brigade on his left to confront Custer. Lee soon came up on Hampton’s right and dispatched a force to deal with Custer as well. Finding himself nearly surrounded, Custer pulled back and, as he reported, “From the nature of the ground and the character of the attacks that were made upon me, our lines resembled very nearly a circle.”

Custer pulled his colors from their staff and stuffed them into his coat before the Confederates could capture them. The Confederates closed in, regaining all their wagons and horses, and even capturing Custer’s headquarters wagon. But then Sheridan launched a strong assault in Hampton’s front and on Lee’s right flank. This forced the Confederates to withdraw and saved Custer’s command. By that time, both sides were short on ammunition and exhausted from fighting in the oppressive heat.

Hampton’s men fell back west and entrenched themselves on the road to Gordonsville. Lee’s troopers withdrew east toward Louisa. This gave the Federals control of Trevilian Station. Sheridan planned to renew the assault the next day, but he received word that Hunter “was marching toward Lynchburg, away from instead of toward me, thus making the junction of our commands beyond all reasonable probability.” Sheridan therefore resolved to end the raid and return to the Army of the Potomac.

The next day, the Federals destroyed Trevilian Station and wrecked railroad track to the east and west. Sheridan dispatched part of his force to reconnoiter the Confederate positions to the west, and around 3 p.m. they found Hampton’s men in an L-shaped defense line about two miles northwest of Trevilian. Fitz Lee’s troopers had joined with Hampton earlier that day.

Action on 12 Jun | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Federals, led by Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert, assaulted the smaller part of the “L,” which ran north-south parallel to the railroad. But despite seven charges, the Federals could not break the Confederate line. Lee’s troopers on the larger part of the “L” then swung southeast to attack the Federal right. The Federals held their ground until fighting stopped around 10 p.m. Torbert withdrew during the night.

Sheridan began his withdrawal back to Cold Harbor the next day. He kept his pace deliberately slow to prevent Hampton from returning to the Army of Northern Virginia for as long as possible. The Federals sustained 1,007 casualties (102 killed, 470 wounded, and 435 missing) in the fighting, while the Confederates reportedly lost 831, including about 500 taken prisoner. These were the most casualties of any cavalry battle in the war.

Sheridan claimed victory over Hampton, but his Federals did not link with Hunter as ordered. Also, the Confederates quickly repaired all the damage done to the Virginia Central Railroad, and the supply line reopened within two weeks. Nevertheless, this engagement erased any remaining doubt that Federal cavalrymen were at least the equal of their southern counterparts.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 21-25; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 423; 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 6369-79, 6407-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 451-54; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7414-25; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516-17, 519-21; 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. 551, 763

The Battle of Haw’s Shop

May 26, 1864 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant once again looked to turn General Robert E. Lee’s right flank.

By this time, the Federal and Confederate armies were deadlocked on the North Anna River, with neither force able to break the other’s defenses. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had responded to two prior stalemates by moving southeast, around the Confederate right, to get closer to Richmond. But this time he considered something different.

At a council of war on the night of the 25th, Major General George G. Meade, the Federal army commander, argued for another movement around Lee’s right. Grant, however, called for a movement around Lee’s left. This would cut the Confederate army off from being supplied by the Shenandoah Valley, and it could also confuse Lee in such a way that he might put his army in a vulnerable position.

Grant issued orders the next day, but before the army even began mobilizing, he received word that Lee was strengthening his left flank in anticipation of just such a move. Lee wrote of Grant, “From present indication, he seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank.” Grant quickly changed the plan, as he reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify. To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas (North and South Anna rivers) is impossible on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by the left leaves Little River, New Found River and South Anna River, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of our army, to be crossed. I have determined therefore to turn the enemy’s right by crossing at or near Hanover Town. This crosses all three streams at once, and leaves us still where we can draw supplies.”

Federal cavalry demonstrated on the Confederate left to mask the movement to the right. Lee, still bedridden from acute diarrhea, tried discerning whether the activity on his left indicated a general advance or a feint. Conflicting reports came to headquarters stating that Grant intended to attack both. The Confederates were not aware that Grant intended to move east of the Pamunkey River to Hanovertown. Reaching this abandoned port would place the Federals just 15 miles northeast of Richmond.

The Federals began pulling out of their entrenchments that night, ending the stalemate on the North Anna. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps stayed in place while Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps swung around them. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry troopers, back from their raid earlier in the month, led the way to Hanovertown, about 34 miles southeast.

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

Sheridan reached the town on the 27th, with the infantry on its way. A Federal cavalry brigade of Michiganders under Brigadier General George A. Custer secured a crossing on the Pamunkey just north of Hanovertown after a sharp skirmish with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate horsemen.

When Lee learned that the Federals had left their defenses on the North Anna, he directed the Confederates to fall back to Atlee’s Station, just nine miles north of Richmond on the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee reached his objective before Grant reached his, having to cover just 18 miles. The Confederates quickly sealed all approaches to Richmond on the railroad from the Pamunkey.

Lee sought to secure the high ground on the south bank of the Totopotomoy Creek, which ran west into the Pamunkey just south of Hanovertown. Lee dispatched cavalry forces under Major General Wade Hampton to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether the Federals intended to stop at Hanovertown or continue south around Lee’s right flank.

General Wade Hampton | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hampton’s Confederates moved out from Atlee’s Station on the 28th, probing eastward while one of Sheridan’s brigades under Brigadier General David M. Gregg probed westward from Hanovertown. Gregg met Hampton about three miles west of Hanovertown and a mile west of a blacksmith shop called Haw’s Shop. Hampton’s dismounted troopers awaited Gregg behind breastworks, supported by artillery.

A vicious fight ensued that grew into the largest cavalry battle since Brandy Station last June. Both sides tried flanking the other, with Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal division arriving to extend Gregg’s right and repelling a Confederate flanking maneuver. Finally, Custer’s Michiganders arrived on the scene, and their repeating Spencer carbines turned the tide for the Federals, and Hampton’s troopers withdrew.

The fight at Haw’s Shop lasted about seven hours, and although it was a battle between cavalries, the men fought dismounted behind defenses like infantry. Sheridan claimed victory because Hampton withdrew, but Sheridan committed only one of his two divisions to the fight. He might have destroyed Hampton had he deployed more men.

Hampton claimed victory because he learned during the fight that the Federals had crossed the Pamunkey in force, and he prevented Sheridan from learning where Lee’s army was. Hampton had also delayed the Federal advance for seven hours before finally pulling back.

Lee set up headquarters in the Clarke house, where the owner allowed him to conduct all his business indoors due to his continuing illness. Grant transferred the Federal supply base from Port Royal on the Rappahannock to White House on the Pamunkey. Confident that he was wearing the Confederates down, Grant wrote to Halleck:

“Lee’s army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured. The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements has contributed largely to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men, and to break down that of the enemy.”

But the Army of Northern Virginia still had some fight left.

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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 20321; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 414-15; 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 5814-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-46; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7235-58; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 434; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 137, 148-49; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 509-10; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551