Tag Archives: John C. Breckinridge

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 Second Battle of Kernstown

July 24, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates defeated Federal forces under Brigadier General George Crook and drove them out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

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

Crook had led his Army of West Virginia (or VIII Corps) south from Winchester to clear Confederates out of the Valley. When Early learned that a large Federal force had stopped pursuing him, he led his Confederates out of Strasburg to confront Crook to the north. Early’s Army of the Valley numbered about 14,000 men, while Crook had about 8,500. Crook believed that Early’s infantry had returned to the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg and therefore expected to only encounter cavalry, which he was confident he could disperse.

The armies met at Kernstown, site of a battle during “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley campaign of 1862. As the opposing cavalries skirmished to open the fight, Crook formed his infantry in a line facing south that consisted of Colonel (and future U.S. president) Rutherford B. Hayes’s brigade on the left (east), Colonel James Mulligan’s division holding Pritchard’s Hill in the center, and Colonel Joseph Thoburn’s division holding Sandy Ridge on the right.

The commanders saw the Confederates approach and quickly realized that they were not just cavalry as Crook supposed. They expressed reluctance to attack, but Crook insisted and the Federals advanced to meet the enemy around 12 p.m. Mulligan held firm under Major General John B. Gordon’s initial assault, but Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates moved around Hayes’s flank while hidden in a deep ravine and, when they suddenly emerged and fired, Hayes’s Federals broke and ran.

Thoburn did not advance with the rest of the army, thus opening a gap between his division and Mulligan’s. Gordon’s Confederates exploited the gap, and Mulligan found himself surrounded on three sides. He tried rallying his troops to prevent a rout but was mortally wounded. The panicked, demoralized Federals fled north toward Winchester. Colonel Thomas Harris, who succeeded Mulligan as division commander, later wrote:

“I gave the order to fall back, and used all the efforts in my power to preserve my line in doing so, but as we were very closely pursued by the enemy, before whose destructive fire we had to ascend a rather steep hill for 200 yards, my line was at once broken and the men became scattered and pressed quickly from under the control of their officers. Having become separated from my horse in our last advance, I was unable to keep pace with the larger portion of my command or to make myself heard by them, and it was not until after we had retreated more than a mile that I was able to rally a couple of hundred men around the flag of the Tenth (West Virginia).”

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William W. Averell’s Federal cavalry had been assigned to try moving around the Confederate right flank. Averell’s troopers were unexpectedly blocked by Confederate horsemen guarding the Front Royal Pike. The Federals were easily repulsed, and they withdrew to Martinsburg.

The Federal infantry raced through Winchester, abandoning or burning 72 wagons and 12 caissons. They continued north through Bunker Hill, eventually reaching Harpers Ferry and crossing the Potomac River to safety. Early now had complete control of the entire Valley.

This was yet another humiliating defeat for the Federals in the Shenandoah, as the Confederates routed the force assigned to destroy them. The Federals sustained 1,185 casualties, including 479 captured, while the Confederates lost about half the Federals’ total. This easy victory emboldened Early to launch another northern invasion, this time into Pennsylvania.

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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 20439-49; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439; 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 11299-309; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 545; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 415-16, 677-79

 

The Washington Raid Ends

July 13, 1864 – Following his unsuccessful attempt to capture Fort Stevens, Lieutenant General Jubal Early led his Confederate Army of the Valley away from the outskirts of Washington and back into Maryland.

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

The Confederates fell back northward, moving through Rockville and then turning west toward Poolesville and the Potomac River beyond. They reached the Potomac almost exactly 30 days after being detached from the Army of Northern Virginia.

Early’s forces completed their river crossing on the 14th and gathered at Leesburg, Virginia. They had a long supply train filled with captured goods from Maryland, along with about 1,000 prisoners, horses, cattle, and $220,000 taken from Hagerstown and Frederick as reparations for Federal destruction in the Shenandoah Valley.

Early’s raid had been a success in that it caused great panic in Washington, and it diverted Federal attention and resources from other theaters. It also boosted Confederate morale and temporarily brightened the dimming hope that European powers might recognize Confederate independence. But it had not caused the Army of the Potomac to weaken itself enough for General Robert E. Lee’s army to break out of Petersburg.

At the capital, President Abraham Lincoln expressed frustration that Early’s army had been allowed to escape back to Virginia. None of the six nearby generals took the lead in pursuing the Confederates until Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, assigned Major General Horatio G. Wright to lead the operation.

Wright’s force consisted of his own VI Corps, elements of XIX Corps, and several units that had been assigned to defend Washington. The pursuit began a full day after Early withdrew, with the Federals not arriving at Poolesville until the 15th. Confederate cavalry guarded the river fords to delay a Federal crossing.

By that time, Major General David Hunter’s Army of West Virginia had finally arrived at Harpers Ferry, burning and plundering homes on their march through their army’s namesake. Hunter received orders to join forces with Wright to pursue and destroy Early, with Wright in overall command. When Hunter protested that he outranked Wright, Grant placed Hunter’s army under command of Brigadier General George Crook while Hunter handled the army’s administrative duties from department headquarters.

Wright hoped to trap Early’s Confederates between his force and Crook’s, but he had trouble communicating with Crook due to Confederates cutting telegraph wires in the area. Crook’s 7,000 Federals crossed the Potomac near Harpers Ferry on the 15th and advanced to Hillsboro.

Early began moving his 12,000 Confederates out of Leesburg the next morning, heading west toward Snickers Gap in the Blue Ridge on his way back to the Shenandoah Valley. Wright’s 17,000 Federals took the entire day to cross the Potomac. During this time, a Federal cavalry detachment set out to locate the Confederates and clashed with troops guarding their wagon train around Purcellville.

When Crook learned of this engagement, he ordered Brigadier General Alfred N.A. Duffie’s cavalry to seize the wagon train. Duffie dispatched a brigade under Colonel William B. Tibbits, which spotted the Confederates about a mile north of Heaton’s Crossroads. Tibbits positioned his troopers and guns on a ridge and opened fire around 2 p.m.

The Confederate guards immediately abandoned the wagon train. The Federal assault became confused as some troopers stopped to seize the wagons and others confronted the Confederates. Major General John C. Breckinridge organized an infantry force to stop the Federal advance, while cavalry rode around to the enemy’s rear. Tibbits and a fraction of his brigade escaped capture and returned to Hillsboro. They seized or burned 80 wagons, but they had to leave the rest and all their cannon behind.

Had the Federals attacked with a larger force, they could have stopped or even destroyed Early’s army. Crook advanced to Purcellville that night, with Duffie’s cavalry skirmishing briefly with Confederate troopers at Woodgrove. By this time, the Confederates were moving through the Blue Ridge.

Wright and Crook joined forces as they pushed west toward Snickers Gap on the 17th. The Confederate rear guard prevented Federal cavalry heading the advance from crossing the Shenandoah River. Wright received word that the Confederates were merely skirmishers and Early’s main army was farther west. This was incorrect, as Early’s main army was guarding the river crossings.

Wright assigned Colonel Joseph Thoburn to lead three brigades around the Confederate left (northern) flank and seize Castleman’s Ferry. As the Federals moved on the 18th, Thoburn learned that the Confederates were massed on the riverbank. Both sides added reinforcements, with the Confederates holding a ridge near the Cool Spring plantation. Thoburn led his Federals across the Shenandoah River and lined them up behind stone walls.

The Federals repelled three assaults before night fell, and Thoburn ordered a withdrawal back across the river. The Federals sustained 422 casualties, while the Confederates lost roughly the same number. Early retained control of the river, as Wright and Crook continued debating how best to pursue his army.

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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 20429; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 436-37; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11055; 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 9611-42, 11331-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 469-71; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88-89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 538-40; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279, 415-16

The Washington Raid: Early Reaches Winchester

July 2, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley arrived at Winchester as it moved north “down” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley toward Maryland.

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

Early’s mission was to clear the Valley of Federal forces and then cross the Potomac River to take the fight to the North. It was hoped that this would draw Federals away from Petersburg, where the Armies of the Potomac and the James were besieging General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

After Major General David Hunter withdrew his Federal army into West Virginia, Early had a clear path down the Valley from Lynchburg. Upon reaching Winchester, Early received orders from Lee to operate in the lower (northern) Valley “until everything was in readiness to cross the Potomac and destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal as far as possible.”

Early dispatched cavalry to burn bridges on the B & O, and he sent one infantry corps under Major General John C. Breckinridge through Martinsburg. Early led the other corps to Harpers Ferry, where the rest of his army would rejoin him. About 5,000 Federals under Major General Franz Sigel were at Martinsburg, and a Federal force about half Sigel’s size under Brigadier General Max Weber was at Harpers Ferry.

As the Confederate cavalry met unexpected resistance near Leetown, Breckinridge entered Martinsburg behind Sigel’s retreating Federals. Early wrote, “It was too late, and these divisions were too much exhausted to go after the enemy.” The Confederates began stripping Martinsburg of anything useful to their army, but this soon degenerated into wholesale looting.

Meanwhile, B & O Railroad President John W. Garrett notified Major General Lew Wallace, commanding the Federal Middle Department which included the lower Shenandoah, that his railroad agents reported large numbers of Confederates approaching Harpers Ferry. Fearing another Confederate invasion, Wallace began gathering Baltimore militia to meet the threat.

Garrett sent boxcars to Martinsburg to help with the Federal evacuation, but they were intercepted by John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans. Garrett then telegraphed Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “Cannot General Hunter be ordered from the west to such points east of Cumberland as may be most judicious? Appearances at present indicate a general abandonment of the (rail)road.”

After confirming that the Confederates threatening the lower Valley were Early’s, Halleck tried contacting Hunter but received no response. He then wired Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, headquartered with the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. He warned Grant that Sigel was no match for Early, and added, “You can therefore judge what probability there is of a good defense if the enemy should attack the line in force.”

Sigel transferred troops to strengthen the garrison at Harpers Ferry on the 3rd. Federal troops and guns commanded Bolivar Heights and Maryland Heights, overlooking the town. Early wrote Breckinridge, “I will move everything in that direction in the morning.” Panic spread among the citizenry north of the river, including Washington, as it was unclear whether another Confederate invasion would take place.

The next day, Halleck instructed Weber that “everything should be prepared for a defense of your works and the first man who proposes a surrender or retreat should be hung.” The Federals manned their defenses as Early’s Confederates approached. After scouting the defenses, Early decided that “it was not possible to occupy the town of Harpers Ferry, except with skirmishers, as it was thoroughly commanded by the guns on Maryland Heights.”

Sigel’s Federals began arriving and entrenching on Maryland Heights that night, after Early had decided to bypass Harpers Ferry. The Federals fired on the Confederates as they looted some of the warehouses in the town. A Confederate officer wrote, “A universal pillaging of United States Government property, especially commissary stores, was carried on all night.” Skirmishing occurred at Patterson’s Creek Bridge and South Branch Bridge, where Early planned to cross the Potomac the next day.

On the 5th, a Confederate detachment demonstrated in Harpers Ferry and feasted off the captured stores as the rest of Early’s army crossed the river at Shepherdstown to the northwest. Upon entering Maryland, the Confederates moved east and occupied Sharpsburg that night. The Confederate detachment withdrew as well, leaving the Federals confused as to where they would go next.

Federal officials at Washington became increasingly concerned as Early moved closer to the capital. However, conflicting reports slowed their response to the situation. The governors of New York and Pennsylvania were called upon to send 24,000 militia to defend Maryland.

At Baltimore, Wallace received an incorrect report that Confederate cavalry was moving through southern Pennsylvania. He stated, “In this situation, I felt it my duty to concentrate that portion of my scanty command available for field operations at some point on the Monocacy River, the western limit of the Middle Department.”

To best protect both Baltimore and Washington, Wallace selected the point on the Monocacy where the B & O crossed. Roads from this point led east to Baltimore and southeast to Washington. Although Wallace had acted on incorrect information, he placed his troops in a perfect position to block Early. However, Wallace had just 3,000 men to face 10,000 seasoned Confederate veterans.

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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. 432-33; 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 9345-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 464-65; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 640-44; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 69, 71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 531-34; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 504

The Washington Raid: Early Moves North

June 26, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley reached Staunton as part of a new offensive intended to clear the Shenandoah Valley of Federals and threaten the North.

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

Early’s “army” was the detached Second Corps of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had sent Early to the Valley to stop Major General David Hunter’s Federal army from threatening Confederate supplies and civilians. After driving Hunter into West Virginia, Early implemented the second phase of his strategy by taking the fight to the North.

The Confederates moved from Lynchburg to Staunton and saw the destruction that Hunter’s men had wrought upon the people there. Partly to avenge these depredations, Early planned to raid Washington with just 10,000 men. Early did not expect to either win the war or even capture Washington, but he hoped to capitalize on northern war weariness and perhaps diminish President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection. He also hoped to draw Federal troops away from the siege of Petersburg.

The Confederates gathered supplies at Staunton as Early reorganized the force into two infantry corps led by Major General John C. Breckinridge (with divisions under Major General John B. Gordon and Brigadier General John Echols) and Early himself (with divisions under Major Generals Robert Rodes and Stephen D. Ramseur). Major General Robert Ransom, Jr. commanded the cavalry. Pro-Confederate Marylanders also joined the new army and formed their own cavalry battalion.

After procuring five days’ rations, the Confederates left Staunton on the 28th. They moved quickly, relying on speed and stealth to thwart the Federals; they destroyed railroad tracks and bridges while collecting supplies along the way. As Early’s men moved north, Federal officials at Washington immediately began expressing concern.

Early’s Confederates passed New Market on the 30th, having covered 50 miles in two days. Early reported to Lee that the troops were “in fine condition and spirits, their health greatly improved… If you can continue to threaten Grant (at Petersburg), I hope to be able to do something for your relief and the success of our cause shortly. I shall lose no time.”

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References

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. 430-31; 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 9335-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 461; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68-69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 529-30

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

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