Tag Archives: Philip Sheridan

The Shenandoah Valley: Confederates Not Quite Defeated

November 13, 1864 – After being routed at Cedar Creek in October, Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates left the Shenandoah Valley. But some were not yet ready to admit complete defeat.

By this month, Early’s once formidable Army of the Valley was no longer a serious threat to Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah. Nevertheless, the Confederates advanced north from New Market as Early vainly tried to find an opening to launch another offensive. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s Federals fell back northward “down” the Valley to be closer to their supply base.

On the 11th, Early received word that Sheridan had moved north in preparation for sending part of his army to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Petersburg. Continuing north, part of Early’s army clashed with the Federal rear guard under Brigadier General George A. Custer near Middletown and Newtown. Expecting Early to attack in full force the next day, Sheridan issued orders: “Corps commanders will have their commands under arms and everything hitched up by daylight tomorrow, 5.30 a.m.”

The following day, the Confederates probed Federal positions but were driven back by two cavalry divisions. The Federals called this a decisive victory, but Early called it simply a reconnaissance. If anything, Early “discovered by this movement that no troops had been sent to Grant…”

Sheridan reported to Grant that night, “Yesterday evening the enemy’s cavalry made a demonstration on my front south of Newtown, and my scout reported a large infantry force having moved down the pike to Middletown with the intention of attacking. This morning I had everything ready, but no attack was made.”

This was Early’s last northward advance down the Shenandoah Valley. Having marched 1,700 miles and fought 75 engagements since June, Early’s men had made remarkable efforts to threaten Federals in the Valley and even outside Washington, despite being heavily outnumbered by veteran soldiers. Overall, Early’s campaign had surpassed the fine achievements of “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley campaign of 1862.

Early fell back to New Market and returned Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division to the Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Richmond and Petersburg. This left Early with just a token force. Sheridan also reduced his army by sending VI Corps to the siege.

Gen. T.L. Rosser | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Although the last major Confederate force in Shenandoah was gone, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser’s cavalry continued minor operations. Rosser’s two brigades embarked on a raid of New Creek, West Virginia, a supply depot on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad west of Cumberland, Maryland.

Federals considered their New Creek depot to be the strongest among their supply bases along the B & O. It was located between two mountains at the junction of the New Creek and Potomac River valleys. An attack could only come from one direction, which the Federals covered with the 800-man garrison at Fort Kelley and five guns.

Rosser’s 500 troopers reached Moorefield, West Virginia, on the 27th, and a Federal detachment from New Creek confronted them there. The Federals were driven off, but those who returned to New Creek warned the troops there of Rosser’s presence. Rosser, conscious that victory depended on the element of surprise, rode his men all night to get to New Creek as soon as possible.

As the Confederates came within striking distance, Rosser held a council of war to consider his options. He and his officers decided to go through with the attack. By this time, the Federals returning from Moorefield had warned Colonel George Latham, commanding at Fort Kelley, that an attack would come. Fortunately for Rosser, Latham took no precautions.

The Confederates captured the Federal pickets and then descended on Fort Kelley itself. Most Federals were cooking lunches, unprepared for such an onslaught. Within 30 minutes, Rosser’s men captured about 700 Federals and seized enormous amounts of much-needed provisions and supplies. The Confederates burned the buildings and the railroad bridge before disappearing into the woods.

Both Latham and his superior, Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, came under intense criticism for failing to guard against such an attack, and Latham was later dishonorably discharged. Rosser’s successful New Creek raid proved that the Confederates were not yet ready to concede defeat in the Valley.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20595; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 485-87, 494; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 519-20, 524-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 596, 601-02; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 410, 644

Prelude to the 1864 Federal Elections

November 7, 1864 – By November, most pundits believed that President Abraham Lincoln and his Republican party would win the upcoming elections. However, the Republicans were not taking any chances.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

In the presidential election, Lincoln ran for reelection on a “National Union” party ticket that included both Republicans and some War Democrats in a united front. Lincoln’s running mate was Andrew Johnson, the Democratic war governor of Tennessee who had been the only southern U.S. senator not to leave Congress when his state seceded.

Lincoln’s opponent was George B. McClellan, the popular former general-in-chief whom Lincoln had fired. McClellan had alienated political allies by repudiating his own party’s platform that called for peace at any cost, including southern independence and continuation of slavery.

The Republican-dominated National Unionists played up the recent military victories as reasons to reelect Lincoln. At a Cincinnati theater, prominent actor James E. Murdoch recited T. Buchanan Read’s latest poem celebrating Major General Philip Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Creek. Titled “Sheridan’s Ride,” it caused a sensation, and Republicans quickly used the poem to fuel their campaigns:

“Up from the South, at break of day

“Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay…

“But there is a road from Winchester town

“A good, broad highway leading down…

“Still sprang from these swift hoofs, thundering south

“The dust like smoke from the cannon’s mouth

“Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster

“Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster…”

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton urged Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant not to provoke a major battle at Richmond or Petersburg out of fear that a military defeat could cost Lincoln the election. Similarly, it was suggested that Major General William T. Sherman wait until after the election to begin his march from Atlanta to the sea.

Every effort was made to furlough soldiers so they could go home and vote. For states allowing absentee voting, election officials were sent to the armies to collect the soldiers’ ballots. Lincoln was confident that the troops would vote for him, even though most who had served under McClellan still revered him.

Two days before the election, Major General John A. Dix, commanding the military department that included New York, announced that Confederate agents from Canada planned to burn New York City on Election Day. That same day, the U.S. State Department issued a communiqué:

“Information has been received from the British provinces to the effect that there is a conspiracy on foot to set fire to the principal cities in the Northern States on the day of the Presidential election.”

New York Gov Horatio Seymour | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

New York Governor Horatio Seymour, an administration opponent, tried calming fears by stating, “There is no reason to doubt that the coming election will be conducted with the usual quiet and order.” Nevertheless, administration officials dispatched Major General Benjamin F. Butler and 7,000 Federal troops to New York City and the harbor forts to supervise the election process. The military presence may have served as a not-so-subtle persuasion for undecided voters to back the National Unionists.

Even without potential panic in New York, Lincoln’s reelection seemed assured before Election Day. On the 7th, James Russell Lowell published “The Next General Election” in the influential North American Review. He supported Lincoln and denounced Democrat attempts to reconcile with southerners. He called Lincoln “a long-headed and long-purposed man” who had “shown from the first the considerate wisdom of a practical statesman.”

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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. 507-08; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 183-84; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 543; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19810-26; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 157-58; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 483; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11582, 11603-25; 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 12044-54, 13096-137, 15248-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 517; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 664-66; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 166; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 592, 594; 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. 780; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 333-34, 353; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Loc 56359-62

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 Battle of Fisher’s Hill

September 22, 1864 – After defeating the Confederate Army of the Valley at Winchester, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals pursued the enemy to a strong eminence blocking the path to the upper (southern) Shenandoah.

Sheridan followed up his resounding victory by directing his Army of the Shenandoah to track down Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates on the 20th. Early’s men retreated 21 miles to Fisher’s Hill, a steep ridge that one Federal officer called “the bugbear of the Valley.”

By this time, Early’s army had been reduced to less than 10,000 men. Early also lost one of his top commanders, Major General Robert Rodes, at Winchester, and now he was told that another, Major General John C. Breckinridge, had to go take command in southwestern Virginia due to John Hunt Morgan’s death.

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

Early put his diminished force behind previously built earthworks, with Massanutten Mountain on their right (east) and Little North Mountain on their left. Their right was anchored on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and their left was on Fisher’s Hill. The line might have been impregnable if Early did not have to stretch his men so thin to defend it; Brigadier General Lunsford Lomax’s dismounted cavalry had to cover the left. But Early was hopeful that Sheridan would be just as reluctant to attack Fisher’s Hill as he had been in August.

The pursuing Federals skirmished with Confederate rear guard elements before arriving at Strasburg, a mile north of Fisher’s Hill, late on the 20th. Just as Early hoped, Sheridan hesitated to launch a frontal assault. Sheridan informed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “The enemy’s infantry occupy a very strongly fortified position in my front, across the Strasburg Valley.”

Sheridan met with his three corps commanders–Major Generals Horatio G. Wright, George Crook, and William H. Emory–to discuss their next move. Crook proposed leading his corps around Early’s left. Wright and Emory argued against it, but Sheridan approved. He also directed his cavalry commander, Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert, to lead two divisions across the Massanutten at New Market Gap in the Luray Valley to cut Early’s line of retreat.

The Federals began moving on the 21st. The Confederates tried preventing them from entering the Luray Valley at Front Royal, but the Federals drove them south. Meanwhile, Confederate signalmen atop Massanutten Mountain could see Crook’s corps, causing Crook to delay his flanking movement until after dark.

Crook’s maneuver took most of the 22nd. Some Confederates saw them moving around their left, as one soldier wrote in his diary, “We can see them plainly climbing up the side of North Mountain. I suppose Gen. Early knows this and has troops there to meet them, and unless he has, we will have to get from this position and very quickly too.”

During that time, Early received reports on the size of the Federal force in his front and decided to withdraw, starting that afternoon. But around 4 p.m., Crook’s Federals suddenly appeared on Lomax’s left. They quickly drove Lomax’s men off as Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s infantry tried turning to face them. But Crook’s men routed them as well.

Map of the battle | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Sheridan then ordered his other two corps to attack the Confederate front, shouting, “Forward! Forward everything!” Wright’s VI Corps linked with Crook, with Emory on Wright’s left, and they quickly drove the remaining Confederates off in a rout. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. “Sandie” Pendleton–chief of staff to “Stonewall” Jackson, Richard Ewell, and Early–was mortally wounded trying to stop the Federal advance.

Early sustained 1,235 casualties (30 killed, 210 wounded, and 995 captured), and lost 20 guns. The Federals lost just 456 (36 killed, 414 wounded, and six missing). The Federals pursued the Confederates into the night, chasing them four miles before the Confederates turned and tried making a stand. They soon broke again and continued fleeing. Sheridan informed Grant that if Torbert’s cavalry “push on vigorously to the main valley, the result of this day’s engagement will be more signal.” But to Sheridan’s dismay, Torbert was unable to cut off Early’s retreat.

Sheridan also learned that while his infantry was chasing the enemy, some troops had stopped at Front Royal, and Brigadier General William W. Averell’s cavalry division encamped at Fisher’s Hill instead of rounding up prisoners. Enraged, Sheridan immediately removed Averell as division commander. The Federals halted their pursuit.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, sent reinforcements to Early with a message: “It will require the greatest watchfulness, the greatest promptness, and the most untiring energy on your part to arrest the progress of the enemy in the present tide of success. I have given you all I can.”

Grant wrote Sheridan, “Keep on, and your good work will cause the fall of Richmond.” Grant ordered the Federals at Petersburg to fire a 100-gun salute, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered similar salutes in 15 other Federal commands in honor of Sheridan’s victory. This greatly boosted northern morale, along with President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection in November.

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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; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20512; 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. 461; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 569-70; 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 11617-27, 11639-50; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 499-500; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 122, 124-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 572-73; 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; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 260-61, 677-79