Tag Archives: Joseph B. Kershaw

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 Battle of Fisher’s Hill: Aftermath

September 23, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals continued pursuing the Confederates in the Shenandoah, but Sheridan soon halted in favor of destroying the Valley instead.

Federal Maj Gen Philip Sheridan and Confederate Lt Gen Jubal Early | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The day after his grave defeat at Fisher’s Hill, Lieutenant General Jubal Early withdrew his Confederate Army of the Valley until the men stopped for the night at Mount Jackson. Sheridan ordered a pursuit, but his cavalry was in the adjacent Luray Valley, making the pursuit ineffective.

Early saw the Federals approaching from atop Rude’s Hill on the 24th and directed his Confederates to continue retreating through New Market. Early wrote, “This movement was made through an entirely open country, and at every mile or two a halt was made, and artillery open on the enemy, who was pursuing, which compelled him to commence deploying into line, when the retreat would be resumed.”

The Confederates halted atop a ridge about six miles south of New Market, along the road to Port Republic. Sheridan opted not to attack, instead bombarding the enemy with artillery. Sheridan had initially planned “pushing up the Valley with a certain amount of supplies and then returning” to Winchester. But now he realized “there is not sufficient (provisions) in the Valley to live off the country.”

On the 25th, Early fell back to Brown’s Gap in the Blue Ridge. In the six days since this campaign began at Winchester, the Confederates had retreated 70 miles. Early awaited Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce him. Lee had warned Early, “do not bring on battle until Kershaw joins you and your troops are rallied,” but once Kershaw arrived, “If you feel strong enough, better move at once after the enemy and attack him, and if possible destroy him.” But even with Kershaw’s men, Early still had less than half of Sheridan’s force.

The Federals stopped at Harrisonburg, where Sheridan reported to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “I am now 94 miles from Martinsburg and 104 miles from Harpers Ferry.” This was a dangerously long distance to be away from the nearest railroad supply depots.

Sheridan had been ordered to follow Early “to the death.” But he was also ordered to make “the Shenandoah Valley a barren waste… to eat out Virginia clear and clean… so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.” With the latter order in mind, Sheridan proposed to Grant, “I think the best policy will be to let the burning of the crops in the Valley be the end of this campaign, and let some of this army go elsewhere.”

Grant agreed. He wrote Sheridan, “Your victories have created the greatest consternation. If you can possibly subsist your army to the front for a few days more, do it, and make a great effort to destroy the roads about Charlottesville and the canal wherever your cavalry can reach it.”

Destroying the fertile Valley would not only keep Confederate forces from operating there, but it would prevent vital foodstuffs from reaching Lee’s army at Petersburg. Sheridan told his men, “The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.”

The Federals quickly began their swath of destruction, which included all “forage, mills, and such other property as might be serviceable to the Rebel army” between Harrisonburg and Staunton. The destruction was soon expanded to Strasburg, as Early’s Confederates fell back to Waynesboro. As Sheridan destroyed the Valley, Confederate authorities bitterly criticized Early for yielding the Valley to the Federals.

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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; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 462-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 500-03; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134-35; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 574-75; 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. 777-78; 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. 677-79

The Shenandoah Valley: Sheridan Plans an Offensive

September 16, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan unveiled a plan to drive Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley once and for all.

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

As September began, Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah began coming out of its defenses and moving down the Valley Turnpike toward Winchester. Early’s Army of the Valley blocked Sheridan at Bunker Hill, north of Winchester. The Confederates were reinforced by elements of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Both sides maneuvered and skirmished, with Early’s main force setting up at Stephenson’s Depot and Sheridan’s moving east of Winchester, between Berryville and Clifton. No major confrontation seemed imminent, so Anderson’s Confederates began heading east toward Snicker’s Gap; from there they were to move through the Blue Ridge and return to Lee’s army at Petersburg.

Anderson’s lead division under Major General Joseph B. Kershaw advanced toward Berryville, unaware that Sheridan had stationed Brigadier General George Crook’s VIII Corps there. The two forces collided near sunset on the 3rd. The Federals fell back but then regrouped and counterattacked. Kershaw disengaged for the night, and Early came up with three reinforcing divisions the next day. But as Early wrote after the war:

“I at first thought that I had reached his (Sheridan’s) right flank, and was about making arrangements to attack it, when casting my eye to my left, I discovered, as far as the eye could reach with the aid of field glasses, a line extending toward Summit Point. The position the enemy occupied was a strong one, and he was busily engaged fortifying it, having already made considerable progress. It was not until I had this view that I realized the size of the enemy’s force, and as I discovered that his line was too long for me to get around his flank, and the position was too strong to attack in front, I returned and informed General Anderson of the condition of things.”

The Confederates fell back west toward Winchester and took positions on high ground east of the Valley Turnpike. The Federal army doubled the size of Early’s, but Sheridan did not pursue the Confederates. This was mainly because Sheridan had to detach units to guard his supply lines, prevent raids into Maryland or Pennsylvania, and protect both the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Also, with the presidential election coming in two months, Sheridan did not want to risk jeopardizing Abraham Lincoln’s reelection with a defeat.

The two armies probed each other’s defenses for the next two weeks, looking for exploitable weaknesses but finding none. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, encouraged Sheridan on the 9th:

“I would not have you make an attack with the advantage against you, but would prefer just the course you seem to be pursuing–that is, pressing closely upon the enemy, and when he moves, follow him up, being ready at all time to pounce upon him if he detaches any considerable force.”

This strategy would prevent Early’s Confederates from reinforcing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But it would also allow Early to control the Valley, where his men could ensure the continued transfer of the rich harvests to Lee’s besieged forces at Petersburg.

Another three days of sparring prompted President Lincoln to write Grant: “Sheridan and Early are facing each other at a deadlock. Could we not pick up a regiment here and there, to the number of say 10,000 men, and quietly but suddenly concentrate them at Sheridan’s camp and enable him to make a strike? This is but a suggestion.” Grant replied that he intended “to see Sheridan and arrange what was necessary to enable him to start Early out of the Valley. It seems to me it can successfully be done.”

Meanwhile, Early held strong positions along Opequon Creek, and after delays, Anderson’s Confederates began leaving the Valley on the 14th to rejoin Lee, who desperately needed them on the Petersburg siege lines. That same day, Grant left Petersburg to confer with Sheridan at Charles Town.

Rumors quickly spread among Sheridan’s army that Anderson was leaving, but Sheridan informed Grant, “I have nothing new to report for yesterday or today. There is as yet no indication of Early’s detaching.” Sheridan asked his cavalry commanders to determine whether Early’s army had been weakened by Anderson’s departure. When they were slow in gathering information, Sheridan enlisted troops to serve as scouts and asked Crook if he knew of any civilians at Winchester who would be willing to provide intelligence.

Crook recommended Rebecca Wright, a Quaker teacher and known Unionist. Sheridan wrote her a letter of introduction, which was smuggled to her by a black messenger who wrapped it in tinfoil and carried it under his tongue. Wright read the message and answered: Anderson’s men and three batteries had returned to Petersburg, and Early’s reduced army was scattered around Winchester and highly vulnerable to attack.

This meant that Sheridan’s chance of defeat was greatly reduced. And news of William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta meant that even if Sheridan was defeated, Lincoln’s reelection bid was already gaining momentum. Sheridan therefore resolved to take the offensive, but to increase his chance of success even further, he would wait until Anderson’s Confederates were far enough away so they could not hurry back to help Early.

As Sheridan plotted his moves, Grant arrived in Charles Town and met with him at the Rutherford House. Grant had a specific plan in mind for Sheridan to drive Early out of the Valley and destroy Lee’s supply line. Worried that administration officials might reject this plan, Grant had bypassed Washington and traveled straight to Sheridan’s headquarters.

But before Grant could share his plan, Sheridan revealed one of his own. Most of his Federals would seize the Valley Turnpike at Newtown, below Winchester, while his cavalry would confront the small Confederate force in Winchester. The Federals would cut off Early’s supply lines and escape route, forcing him to fight on ground of Sheridan’s choosing.

According to Sheridan, Grant “neither discussed nor disclosed his plans, my knowledge of the situation striking him as being so much more accurate than his own.” Instead, Grant simply told Sheridan, “Go in.”

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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. 452-54, 458-60; 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 11585-616; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 492-95, 497; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 108-09; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 564-65, 569-70; 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; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79

The Army of the Shenandoah: Sheridan Takes Command

August 6, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan received command of a new Federal military department designed to drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley for good.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

After putting Sheridan in this new command, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, went to notify Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of West Virginia, of the change. Sheridan’s new Army of the Shenandoah was to absorb Hunter’s department. Arriving at Hunter’s headquarters on the Monocacy River in Maryland, Grant recalled:

“I found General Hunter’s army… scattered over the fields along the banks of the Monocacy, with many hundreds of cars and locomotives, belonging to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which he had taken the precaution to bring back and collect at that point. I asked the general where the enemy was. He replied that he did not know. He said the fact was, that he was so embarrassed with orders from Washington moving him first to the right and then to the left that he had lost all trace of the enemy.”

Under Grant’s plan, Sheridan was to command the Federals in the field while Hunter took over administrative duties within the new military department. In the meantime, Hunter was to lead his troops to Harpers Ferry, where they would confront Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley wherever they found it.

Grant said it was “desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return” to Maryland or Pennsylvania. “Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command; such as cannot be consumed, destroy.” He urged Hunter not to destroy public buildings; “they should rather be protected.”

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

Hunter began moving his Federals out, arriving at Halltown, Virginia, on the 5th. But being dissatisfied with his new role in the department, Hunter “expressed a willingness to be relieved from command.” Grant accepted. Sheridan arrived on the scene on the 6th and received orders from Grant that were almost identical to Hunter’s:

“In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, as it is expected you will have to do first or last, it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy… Bear in mind, the object is to drive the enemy south, and to do this you want to keep him always in sight. Be guided in your course by the course he takes.”

Sheridan’s command would include the Departments of Washington, West Virginia, the Susquehanna, and the Middle. His army would consist of:

  • Hunter’s Army of West Virginia, now under Brigadier General George Crook
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Two divisions of Brigadier General William Emory’s XIX Corps from the Army of the Gulf
  • Two divisions of Sheridan’s old Cavalry Corps from the Army of the Potomac, now under Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert
  • A cavalry division under Brigadier General William W. Averell

By the night of the 6th, Sheridan wrote Grant, “I find affairs somewhat confused, but will soon straighten them out.” Grant notified him the next day:

“The Departments of Washington, the Middle, the Susquehanna, and of Western Virginia, have been formed into a military division called the Middle Division, and you have been assigned to the temporary command. You can assume command without any further authority.”

President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton expressed reservations about giving Sheridan such a large responsibility, but Grant insisted that he trusted Sheridan for the job.

Sheridan received word that Early’s Confederates were around Winchester, and thus directed his new army to go there. But most of Early’s forces were actually in Maryland, harvesting wheat at Sharpsburg and Hagerstown. Early fell back southward across the Potomac River to Bunker Hill on the 7th, but he would soon receive reinforcements.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, went to Richmond to discuss strategy with Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson and President Jefferson Davis. It was agreed to send Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division of Anderson’s corps to Culpeper, along with a cavalry division under Major General Fitzhugh Lee, with Anderson in overall command. From there, Anderson could return to Petersburg in case of emergency or threaten Sheridan’s flank if he moved any deeper into the Shenandoah.

The struggle between Sheridan and Early over control of the Shenandoah had begun.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 537; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11361-92, 11320-30; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 482; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7869; Keefer, Kimberly A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 100-01, 104; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 491; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 675-76; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 491-92, 677-79, 817

The Deep Bottom Engagement

July 26, 1864 – As the Petersburg siege continued, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed the Army of the Potomac to launch an ancillary attack on the Confederate defenses southeast of Richmond.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

Grant, the overall Federal commander, resolved that the Federals needed to “do something in the way of offensive movement” toward Richmond. This would divert Confederate attention and resources from both the siege of Petersburg and the tunneling expedition outside that city, 22 miles south of the Confederate capital.

According to Grant’s plan, Federal cavalry would ride beyond the Confederate lines and wreck track on the Virginia Central Railroad, which linked Richmond to the fertile Shenandoah Valley. Infantry would advance in support of the cavalry to threaten (and possibly capture) Richmond.

Grant directed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, to send forces north of the James River, “having for its real object the destruction of the railroad on that side.” Grant added, “It is barely possible that by a bold move this expedition may surprise the little garrison of citizen soldiery now in Richmond and get in.” If so, “Concentrate all the force possible at the point in the enemy’s line we expect to penetrate.”

Maj Gen W.S. Hancock | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Meade assigned Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and two divisions of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to the mission. They were to cross the James River at Deep Bottom, 10 miles southeast of Richmond, where troops of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred had built a pontoon bridge.

Sheridan would ride ahead, threatening Richmond and wrecking the railroad north and west of the city. Hancock would confront the Confederates at Chaffin’s Bluff and prevent enemy forces from opposing Sheridan. The Federals moved out on the night of the 26th. They crossed the James and occupied a bridgehead held by X Corps of the Army of the James.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending both Richmond and Petersburg, heard rumors of such a drive on Richmond. He believed this would be just a diversion from the main action outside Petersburg, but as a precaution he quietly sent Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division north of the James before Grant had even issued his orders.

The Federals began crossing the James at 3 a.m. on the 27th. Advancing toward Chaffin’s Bluff, Hancock met unexpected resistance near where the New Market Road intersected Bailey’s Creek. Nevertheless, the Federals overwhelmed the Confederates and captured four 20-pound Parrott guns.

Hancock took positions east of Bailey’s Creek, between the New Market Road to the southwest and Fussell’s Mill to the northeast. The Federals were suddenly pinned down by Confederate fire from the divisions of Kershaw and Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox. The fighting diminished while Lieutenant Generals Richard H. Anderson and Richard Ewell argued over which of them was the ranking Confederate commander.

Upon reconnoitering the enemy positions west of Bailey’s Creek, Hancock reported, “The works appeared to be filled with men, and a number of pieces of artillery were in position. After a careful examination of the position it was decided that the chances of successful assault were unfavorable, and it was determined to maneuver to the right, with the view of turning the position.”

Sheridan’s troopers moved beyond Hancock’s right and began probing up the Darbytown Road, which ran northwest to Richmond. Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert seized the high ground around Fussell’s Mill, but a Confederate counterattack drove him off.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lee, learning of this activity north of the James, dispatched another infantry division under Major General Henry Heth and a cavalry division under his son, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee. Reinforcements from the Richmond garrison also hurried to strengthen the defenses in front of Hancock and Sheridan.

Grant arrived at the scene late that afternoon and was surprised to see such strong Confederate resistance. He reinforced Hancock’s infantry with a brigade from XIX Corps and issued orders for the Federals to turn the enemy’s left (north) flank the next day. This would enable Sheridan to ride northwest and raid Richmond.

On the 28th, Sheridan’s Federals moved to assault the Confederate left, but the Confederates preemptively attacked their right with three brigades under Kershaw. The dismounted Federals took refuge just below a ridgeline and repelled a Confederate charge with their repeating carbines. The Federals took 300 prisoners and two battle flags while losing a cannon.

Despite the Federal success, Lee’s swift decision to bolster the Confederate defenses prevented Sheridan from moving toward Richmond or the Virginia Central Railroad as planned. Hancock positioned his forces so they could withdraw back across the James, and the Federals began returning to the Petersburg line that night.

The Federals sustained 334 casualties in this operation. Grant reported to Washington, “We have failed in what I had hoped to accomplish.” Even so, Grant had drawn several Confederate units north of the James, leaving only 18,000 men to defend Petersburg. Grant concluded, “I am yet in hopes of turning this diversion to account.” Federal hopes now shifted to the tunneling expedition.

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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 22209; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474-76; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7809; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 546-48; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 204