May 15, 1864: Battle of New Market

“And New Market’s young cadets.”

Southern Birthright, Bobby Horton

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John C. Breckinridge, fourteenth Vice-President of the United States and current Confederate Major General, had a big problem.  His task was to hold the Shenandoah Valley, the bread basket of the Army of Northern Virginia, for the Confederacy, and he was confronted with two Union columns seeking to rendezvous at Staunton, Virginia and place the Valley under Union control.  One column under George Crook was coming from the West Virginia.  The second column under Franz Sigel was coming down the Valley.  Sigel had twice the men that Breckinridge could muster, 9,000 to 4000, but Breckinridge saw no alternative but to march north and engage Sigel before the two Union columns could join against him.

 

The Confederacy by this time was robbing the cradle and the grave to fill out its ranks.  In the cradle contingent with Breckinridge were 257 cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, who ranged in age from 15-24.

 

Breckinridge brought Sigel to battle at mid-morning on May 15, 1864 south of New Market.  With detachments Sigel’s force was down to 6,000 men.  However, 2 to 3 was still very poor odds for an attacking army. (more…)

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Published in: on May 15, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 15, 1864: Battle of New Market  
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March 2, 1865: End of the War in the Valley

 

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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…)

Published in: on March 2, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on March 2, 1865: End of the War in the Valley  
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October 19, 1864: Battle of Cedar Creek

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The last major battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley in the Civil War, it was fitting that the topsy turvy nature of the battle of Cedar Creek reflected the see-saw fights waged by the Union and the Confederacy for control of the Valley since the start of the War.

After his victories in the Shenandoah Valley in September, and his destruction of the most valuable agricultural regions in the Valley, Sheridan assumed that the War was at an end in the Valley for the winter, at least as far as major battles were concerned.  Delploying his 31,000 Army of the Shenandoah along Cedar Creek northeast of Strasburg, Viriginia, Sheridan felt secure enough, even with Early’s 21,000 Army of the Valley in the vicinity, to attend a conference with Grant in Washington on October 18.  On the evening of October 18 he slept at Winchester, eleven miles from his army.

Sheridan of course did not know that Early had received a letter from General Lee on October 12 urging him to attack.  Examing the Union position carefully, Early decided that an attack on the Union left, which relied for its security on natural obstacles might succeed, Early assuming correctly that the Union commanders would be more concerned about an attack from the west which was free of such obstacles.

The Confederates on the evening of October 18 in three columns made a night march against the Union left.  By 3:30 AM they were in position to laucher their attack.  The attack began at 5:00 AM in darkness and a thick fog.  Surprise was complete and the division sized Union Army of West Virginia which was at the far left of the Union force was quickly overwhelmed.  By 10:00 AM, Early had driven the seven Union divisions from the field, captured 1300 prisoners, taken 24 cannon, and his famished troops were feeding off Union supplies in the abandoned Union camps.  His troops seemed to have won an against the odds victory.  Then Sheridan arrived at the battlefield and changed everything.

At 6:00 AM pickets at Winchester reported that they heard the faint sound of artillery.  Not expecting an attack Sheridan thought nothing of it.  However he ordered his horse Rienzi to be saddled and after a quick breakfast he began at 9:00 AM to ride towards Cedar Creek.  The sounds of fighting became louder the closer approached and Sheridan realized a fight was in progress.  Sheridan was cheered by stragglers from the fight as he approached Cedar Creek.  Sheridan ordered the stragglers to follow him which most of them did, convinced that little Phil would bring them victory again.  Sheridan arrived at the battlefield at 10:30 AM.

Sheridan immediately began planning his counterattack.  Early had effectively lost control of his army due to the plundering of the Union supplies, and Sheridan had plenty of time to perfect his plan before he launched his attack at 4:00 PM.  The smaller Confederate force resisted for about an hour when its left began to crumble and the Confederates routed from the field.

Union casualties were 5,665 to 3000 Confederate.  Among the Confederate dead was Major General Stephen Dodson Ramseur, who died the day after the battle in spite of the best medical care his Union captors could provide.  The day before the battle he had learned that his wife had borne him a daughter.  His last words were   “Bear this message to my precious wife—I die a Christian and hope to meet her in heaven.”  He was 27 years old.

The battle was decisive and Early’s army was no longer a threat to Union control of the Shenandoah.  The victory provided a great boost to the re-election campaign of Lincoln during the closing weeks of the campaign leading up to election day November 8.

Here is Sheridan’s account of the battle in his memoirs: (more…)

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on October 19, 1864: Battle of Cedar Creek  
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Shenandoah Valley: The Burning

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After his victory over Early at Fisher’s Hill, Sheridan decided that further pursuit of Early up the Valley would be pointless as Early’s force was too small to any longer pose a threat to Union control of the Shenandoah and his time would be better spent carrying out Grant’s wish expressed to General David Hunter that crows have to carry their own provisions over the Shenandoah Valley.  As Sheridan wrote to Grant: , “My judgment is that it would be best to terminate this campaign by the destruction of the crops, &c., in this valley, and the transfer of troops to the army operating against Richmond.”   Grant agreed, and Sheridan over the next two weeks conducted a march from Stanton north to Strasburg, a distance of 70 miles with his army covering a width of thirty miles.

 

On October 7, 1864 Sheridan reported to Grant:

I have the honor to report my command at this point to-night. I commenced moving back from Port Republic, Mount Crawford, Bridgewater, and harrisonburg yesterday morning. The grain and forage in advance of these points up to Staunton had previously been destroyed. In moving back to this point the whole country from the Blue Ridge to the North Mountains has been made untenable for a rebel army. I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements; over seventy 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 Forst Valley, as well as the main valley. A large number of horses have been obtained, a proper estimate of which I cannot now make. Lieutenant John R. Meigh, my engineer officer, was murdered beyond Harrisonburg, near Dayton. For this atrocious act all the houses within an area of five miles were burned. Since I came into the Valley, from Harper’s Ferry up to Harrisonburg, every train, every small party, and every small party, and every straggler has been bushwhacked by people, many of whom have protection papers from commanders who have been hitherto in this valley. From the vicinity of Harrisonburg over 400 wagon-loads of refugees have been sent back to Martinsburg; most of these people were Dunkers and had been conscripted. The people here are getting sick of the war; heretofore they have had no reason to complain, because they have been living in great abundance. (more…)

Published in: on September 23, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Shenandoah Valley: The Burning  
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September 21, 1864: Battle of Fisher’s Hill

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After his defeat at the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864, go here to read about it,  Early retired south to a strong position near Strasburg, Virignia, with his right anchored on the North Branch of the Shenandoah River, and his left on Fisher’s Hill, grandiloquently known during the Civil War as the Gibraltar of the Valley.  The position was a very strong one, but with only 10,000 men to cover four miles, Early did not have enough troops to man it adequately.

Sheridan with 29,000 men quickly decided that a frontal attack would be fruitless without a flank attack.  Crook was sent with his corps on an arduous march to flank the Confederate left on Fisher’s Hill.  Crook was in position to commence his attack at 4:00 PM on September 22, while Sheridan pressed Early from the front.  After some desultory fighting, the Confederate army routed.  Battle losses in dead and wounded were minimal, but  1000 Confederates were taken prisoner.  Early retreated to Waynesboro leaving Sheridan in undisputed control of the lower Valley, a control that Sheridan was going to use to destroy the granary of the Confederacy.

Here is Early’s report to General Robert E. Lee on the engagement: (more…)

Published in: on September 21, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on September 21, 1864: Battle of Fisher’s Hill  
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September 19, 1864: Third Battle of Winchester

Third Battle of Winchester

Throughout the War control of the Shenandoah Valley, an incredibly fertile agricultural region had been hotly contested by the Union and the Confederacy.  So long as the Confederates controlled it, they not only reaped the crops, vital to feed Lee’s army, but they also had an avenue to launch sudden invasions of the North, shielded from Northern cavalry observation the Blue Ridge Mountains that marked the eastern border of the Valley.  On September 19, 1864 control of this militarily vital region swung, for the last time, in favor of the Union.

After his conference with Grant on September 16, Sheridan began a drive on Winchester to smash Early’s army.  Early hastily gathered together his scattered forces just in time before Sheridan attacked on the 19th.   The Confederates were heavily outnumbered, 12000 to 40000.    The narrow rode that Sheridan’s men had to take to attack gave Early time, that he took full advantage off, to entrench his force.

With numbers so overwhelmingly in his favor, Sheridan simply ordered a frontal attack against the entire Confederate line.  The attack made slow progress, aided by Brigadier General James Wilson, launching a turning movement with his cavalry against the Confederate right.

By the end of the day Early was in full retreat, a Union two division Union cavalry charge crushing his left flank.  It was a stunning Union victory.  They paid a high price for it, incurring 5,020 casualties to 3, 610 Confederate.  Church bells rang throughout the North in celebration of the victory.  Here is Sheridan’s account of the battle in his memoirs: (more…)

September 16, 1864: Meeting of Grant and Sheridan

 

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In the aftermath of the fall of Atlanta and the ongoing stalemate at Petersburg, the crucial theater of the War became the Shenandoah Valley, crucial because of the upcoming presidential election, which was now just over a month and a half away.  Union victories or defeats could have a great impact on that election, and it was the Shenandoah Valley which was the most likely venue for such battlefield successes or failures.  Grant recognized this, and on September 16th he conferred with Sheridan.  Here is his account of the meeting in his Personal Memoirs: (more…)

Published in: on September 16, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on September 16, 1864: Meeting of Grant and Sheridan  
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July 24, 1864: Second Battle of Kernstown

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After the ending of his raid on Washington, General Jubal Early returned to the Shenandoah Valley.  With Early no longer a threat to Washington, the Union VI and XIX corps were returned to Grant’s army besieging Petersburg.  This left only the three division Army of West Virginia under Major General George Crook to contest the Shenandoah with Early.

Crook planned to attack Early at Kernstown on July 24.  Crook began getting messages from his division commanders indicating a reluctance to attack Early as the Confederates seemed to have a numerical superiority.  Their caution was justified in that Early had about 13,000 troops to the Union 10,000.

A Union attack began at 1:00 PM and was quickly routed by Major General John Breckinridge.  This began a panic in the Union force that routed as the Confederates chased them back into West Virginia.  Union casualties were 1200 to 600 Confederate.  With this victory, Early once again raided the north, burning Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on July 30, and go here to read about it.  Grant now realized that Early was a serious threat, and turned the VI and XIX corps back around towards the Shenandoah.  He placed Major General Philip Sheridan in overall command with the mission to stamp out Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah for good.

Here is Crook’s report on the battle: (more…)

Published in: on July 24, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on July 24, 1864: Second Battle of Kernstown  
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June 17-18, 1864: Battle of Lynchburg

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When it came to military matters Robert E. Lee was a gambler.  His decision to send Jubal Early and his Second Corps off to the Shenandoah Valley in June of 1864 was an example of this, in spite of facing the Army of the Potomac that outnumbered him almost two to one.  Lee’s calculation was simple:  if the Union had control over the Shenandoah it became increasingly difficult for him to feed his army, losing access to the grain bin of the Confederacy and the rail line that allowed it to supply Richmond and Lee’s army.  A Union army under David Hunter was approaching Lynchburg, and Early’s initial mission was to save that essential rail depot. (more…)

Published in: on June 17, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 17-18, 1864: Battle of Lynchburg  
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