Tag Archives: Shenandoah Valley

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

The Battle of Opequon

September 19, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals attacked the weakened Confederate army outside Winchester as part of Sheridan’s overall effort to drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley.

Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley was reduced to just 12,000 men after Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s detachment left the Shenandoah to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. Despite this, Early sent two divisions under Major Generals Robert Rodes and John B. Gordon north to destroy a bridge on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, west of Martinsburg.

This left just 4,000 Confederates to defend Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot along Opequon Creek. Early decided to spread his army thin because Sheridan, commanding the 40,000-man Federal Army of the Shenandoah, had shown no aggression since taking command. But Early was unaware that Sheridan, having received vital intelligence from a spy named Rebecca Wright, was about to attack.

Sheridan initially planned to attack the Confederates at Winchester while cutting off the Valley Turnpike below the town. But when he learned that Early divided his army, Sheridan instead opted to destroy the force at Winchester and Stephenson’s Depot, and then move on to destroy the force west of Martinsburg. Orders were issued for the Federals to mobilize at 2 a.m. on the 19th. According to Sheridan’s plan:

  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps would advance on the Berryville Pike, and, “As soon as it has reached open country it will form in line of battle, fronting in the direction of Stephenson’s Depot.”
  • Brigadier General William H. Emory’s XIX Corps would support Wright.
  • Major General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia (i.e., VIII Corps) would be in reserve, “to be marched to any point required.”

As the Federals prepared, Early learned from intercepted dispatches that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had recently met with Sheridan. This indicated that Sheridan might attack soon. Early therefore ordered Rodes and Gordon to stop wrecking railroad tracks and hurry back to Winchester. By the end of the 18th, Rodes was back at Stephenson’s Depot, and Gordon was at Bunker Hill. The Confederates were still spread along a 14-mile line, but they were more concentrated than they had been when the day began.

The Federals advanced at 3 a.m. on the 19th, led by the cavalry. Their initial target was Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s isolated division on the Berryville Road, about a mile and a half east of Winchester. However, Sheridan mishandled the advance by sending his men through the narrow Berryville Canyon, and a major traffic jam ensued among the men, horses, and wagons. The delay gave Early time to bring up Rodes and Gordon from the north, and Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division from the south.

The Federals approached the Confederates on a north-south line, with Wright on the left (south) and Emory on the right. Gordon’s division came up to Ramseur’s left (north), and fighting began in the cornfields and woodlands at 11:40 a.m. One of Emory’s divisions under Brigadier General Cuvier Grover pushed Gordon back but was then repulsed by a counterattack. Gordon’s division nearly decimated XIX Corps.

Combat near Opequon Creek | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates discovered a gap in the Federal center just as Rodes’s division came up, and troops from both Rodes’s and Gordon’s commands pushed through. Early wrote that it “was a grand sight to see this immense body hurled back in utter disorder before my two divisions, numbering a very little over 5,000 muskets.” But Early suffered a major loss when Rodes was mortally wounded in the assault.

Sheridan brought up the rest of VI and XIX corps to plug the gap, and Brigadier General David A. Russell, commanding a division in VI Corps, was killed by shrapnel in the counterattack. The Federals eventually closed the gap, which possibly saved the army from destruction. Sheridan later wrote:

“The charge of Russell was most opportune, but it cost many men in killed and wounded. Among the former was the courageous Russell himself, killed by a piece of shell that passed through his heart, although he had previously been struck by a bullet in the left breast, which wound, from its nature, must have proved mortal, yet of which he had not spoken. Russell’s death oppressed us all with sadness, and me particularly.”

During a lull on the field, Sheridan directed Crook’s Federals to move around the Confederate left. The Confederates crumbled under the overwhelming assault; Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton) was mortally wounded and his brigade was decimated. Gordon repositioned his withdrawing men behind a stone wall on a line running east to west, perpendicular to the rest of Early’s army. Breckinridge’s division came up to extend the Confederate left flank.

Meanwhile, Wright’s Federals launched another attack on the Confederate right, as Sheridan rode along the front, waving his hat and yelling, “Give ‘em hell… Press them, General, they’ll run!” As the Federals gradually pushed the Confederates back toward Winchester, Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal cavalry attacked Breckinridge’s isolated division on the far left until one of Early’s cavalry brigades fought them off.

Sheridan’s final charge | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Around 4:30 p.m., Crook and Wright launched assaults that broke the Confederate left and penetrated Breckinridge’s part of the line. Cavalry under Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and William W. Averell attacked in support. Sheridan wrote, “Panic took possession of the enemy, his troops, now fugitives and stragglers, seeking escape into and through Winchester.” Ramseur’s Confederates held off the Federals to allow an orderly retreat. This marked the first time that Early’s army had been driven from the field.

The Confederates withdrew along the Valley Turnpike to Newtown while moving their supplies, munitions, and equipment to Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan reported to Grant, “I have the honor to report that I attacked the forces of General Early on the Berryville pike at the crossing of Opequon Creek, and after a most stubborn and sanguinary engagement, which lasted from early in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening, completely defeated him.” The Federals captured “2,500 prisoners, five pieces of artillery, nine army flags, and most of their wounded.”

Sheridan’s chief of staff telegraphed Washington, “We have just sent them whirling through Winchester, and we are after them to-morrow. This army behaved splendidly.” The Federals secured Winchester for the last time, holding the town for the rest of the war.

The Federals sustained 5,018 casualties (697 killed, 3,983 wounded and 338 missing) in what they called the Battle of Opequon. The Confederates lost about 3,921 (276 killed, 1,827 wounded and 1,818 missing or captured) in what they called the Third Battle of Winchester. The Confederate losses equated to about a quarter of Early’s entire army, but he nevertheless asserted that “Sheridan ought to have been cashiered” for allowing the Confederate army to escape relatively intact.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 181; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 538; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 648-49; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20474-504; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 460; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11629-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 497-98; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 109, 112, 118, 122; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 570-72; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 776-77; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 332-33; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 260-61, 328, 677-79, 835

The 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 Shenandoah Valley: Sheridan Falls Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 447-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 486-91; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-08; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 558-59, 561; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 677-79

The Moorefield Engagement

August 7, 1864 – Federal cavalry attacked a Confederate detachment that had just finished raiding through Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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

As August began, elements of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley continued operating north of the Potomac River. These included cavalrymen under Brigadier Generals John McCausland and Bradley T. Johnson. They had burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late July, and now they rode for Cumberland in western Maryland to wreck track on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The Confederates exchanged cannon fire with a small Federal force under Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley before disengaging and riding southeast to Old Town on the Potomac. The next day, they captured a Federal detachment contesting their crossing and moved on to Springfield, West Virginia. Meanwhile, Federal Brigadier General William W. Averell received orders to move “by the most expeditious route” to destroy the Confederate force.

McCausland and Johnson intended to destroy part of the B&O at New Creek, but Kelley deployed Federal troops there and forced the Confederates to withdraw southward. The troopers stopped near Moorefield, south of Romney, where they rested and fed their mounts. McCausland did not know that Averell was pursuing him. Averell’s cavalry reached Springfield on the night of the 5th.

Brig Gen W.W. Averell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The next day, Averell rode on to Romney. Troops in his vanguard captured a Confederate messenger bearing a dispatch stating that McCausland’s command was near Moorefield. Averell directed his men to mobilize at 1 a.m. so they could attack the Confederates by daybreak. Averell was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, but he relied on the element of surprise to offset this disadvantage.

After capturing the Confederate pickets, Averell’s lead brigade under Major Thomas Gibson rode through Johnson’s camp and scattered his panicked troopers. The Confederates fled across the river as Averell’s second brigade under Colonel William H. Powell slammed into McCausland’s men. These Confederates were routed as well, and Averell scored a spectacular victory.

Averell reported capturing three battle flags, four cannon, 420 men, and 400 horses while losing just 41 troopers (nine killed and 32 wounded). The Federals also recovered a large amount of loot taken from Chambersburg and other towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

This defeat deepened the rift between McCausland and Johnson that had been growing since McCausland threatened to burn several Maryland towns (as a Marylander, Johnson took offense). McCausland later reported, “The affair at Moorefield was caused by the surprise of Johnson’s brigade.” Johnson accused McCausland of not being on the scene when the fight began. Early recalled that this battle had “a very damaging effect upon my cavalry for the rest of the campaign.”

On the same day that the Confederates were decimated at Moorefield, Major General Philip Sheridan took command of the new Federal Army of the Shenandoah at Halltown, Virginia. Sheridan organized and consolidated his new force to “make the first move for the possession of the Shenandoah Valley” and destroy Early’s Army of the Valley. According to Sheridan:

“I desired that Early might remain at some point well to the north till I was fully prepared to throw my army on his right and rear and force a battle, and hence I abstained from disturbing him by premature activity, for I thought that if I could beat him at Winchester, or north of it, there would be far greater chances of weighty results. I therefore determined to bring my troops, if it were at all possible to do so, into such a position near that town as to oblige Early to fight.”

Early fell back from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill, where he planned to move north into Maryland and Pennsylvania once more. However, he received word that Sheridan’s forces were approaching on his right (east) flank and would soon threaten his rear. Early therefore ordered a withdrawal to Winchester, where he could guard all approaches on Opequon Creek with the formidable Fisher’s Hill behind him.

Skirmishing occurred along Cedar Creek as Early pulled back to Fisher’s Hill, south of Strasburg, on the 11th. Early reported to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, that “the enemy was advancing in much heavier force than I had yet encountered.” Lee responded by sending infantry and cavalry under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson from Culpeper to reinforce Early.

Anderson’s Confederates arrived at Front Royal, at the north end of the Luray Valley, on the 14th. If they moved toward Winchester, they could threaten Sheridan’s left, rear, and supply lines. Also, having detached elements of his army to guard various posts, Sheridan feared that he could now be outnumbered. And Confederate raiders under Colonel John S. Mosby had destroyed a large Federal wagon train near Berryville.

As Brigadier General Wesley Merritt’s Federal cavalry reconnoitered Anderson’s forces and guarded the army’s rear, Sheridan ordered his men to retreat. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had advised Sheridan to proceed with caution and avoid a defeat that might hurt President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection in the fall.

The Federals fell back to Halltown, 45 miles northeast. Sheridan later wrote, “Subsequent experience convinced me that there was no other really defensive line in the Shenandoah Valley, for at almost any other point the open country and its peculiar topography invites rather than forbids flanking operations.” Early saw Sheridan’s withdrawal as a sign of timidity and set out to pursue him.

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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. 442-44, 446-47; 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 11424-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479-80, 482-86; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 101, 104; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 549-50, 555-56; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 508-09, 677-79, 812-13

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