It had been a long and grueling War in the Shenandoah Valley with some towns changing hands some seventy times between Union and Confederate forces. On March 2, 1865 it came to an end. Jubal Early’s force, stripped over the winter to shore up Lee’s thin ranks holding the lines at Petersburg, was now reduced to 1500 men. Sheridan was moving South, initially under orders to move into North Carolina and link up with Sherman advancing into North Carolina. Not wanting to leave Early in his rear, Sheridan sent twenty-five year old Brigadier General George Armstrong with a division of cavalry, 2,500 men, to find Early.
Custer had graduated dead last in his class at West Point in 1861, making him the class goat. The “goat” had a spectacularly successful War, rising in rank from Second Lieutenant to Major General of Volunteers. (He had been promoted from Captain to Brigadier General of Volunteers, passing over the intervening ranks, in 1863.) Daring and combative, Custer had helped transform Union cavalry from lackluster to an able strike force.
Early posted his small force on a ridge due west of Waynesboro, Virginia. Arriving at 2:00 PM on March 2, Custer quickly saw that Early had fortified his position and that head on attacks would probably not work, but that Early’s left could be turned. (Early had thought that a thick wood adequately protected this flank.) Sending one brigade to turn the Confederate left while he attacked frontally with two brigades worked to perfection. Virtually the entire Confederate force was taken prisoner with Early and fifteen to twenty Confederates escaping. Here is Sheridan’s account of the battle from his Memoirs: (more…)