Sheridan’s 1864 Valley Campaign   Leave a comment

In the late summer and early fall of 1864, a new Union army, the Army of the Shenandoah, would pursue a campaign designed to drive Confederate forces from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, once and for all. General Ulysses S. Grant’s purpose in ordering the campaign was to deny the valley as both an avenue of attack and a source of sustenance for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. While the numbers of troops involved on both sides was relatively small compared to the other campaigns of 1864, the outcome would prove significant to the course of the war. At the time it occurred, the campaign was celebrated in the North and its success was, along with Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, a key ingredient in President Lincoln’s re-election.

In fact, it could be argued that, in the last years of the 19th century, the campaign’s final dramatic battle was as famous to many Americans as Gettysburg or Shiloh. That same battle even inspired a poem which was memorized at one time or another by almost every schoolboy north of the Mason-Dixon Line. For the South, meanwhile, the campaign not only ended a bold gamble by Robert E. Lee that had taken Confederate forces to the gates of Washington D.C., it also resulted in the brutal destruction of hundreds of valley farms. In doing so, it drove one more critical nail into the coffin of the Confederacy.

However, as time passed, the campaign lost its historical notoriety, which probably explains why so much of the three key battlegrounds of the campaign have been either threatened by or lost to commercial development. Only in the last 15 years has a concerted effort been mounted to save these fields and, through the work of organizations such as the Civil War Trust, some has been saved. So, let’s examine this campaign and its three major battles 

The Shenandoah ValleyThe Shenandoah Valley, whose name comes from a Native American word meaning “daughter of the stars,” lies sandwiched between two chains of the Appalachian Mountains: the Blue Ridge on the east and Valley and Ridge Appalachians on the west. Its namesake river and the two forks that feed the main channel meander serenely northward some 175 miles until it merges with the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry. At the time of the Civil War, the valley was filled with lush fields and forests, and dotted with prosperous communities and farms. The valley was also a critical piece of geography in the conduct of the war. From the beginning of the conflict, the valley was seen as a potential invasion route and, from a Northern perspective, it was, as one Union officer termed it, a “back alley” into the North and a dagger pointed at the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, from a Confederate viewpoint, any Union control of the valley would threaten Richmond and allow Federal forces to cut the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad linking the two primary theaters of the war. (Note: This northward river flow also means that, when one refers to going down or up the valley, you must switch from the traditional north versus south connotation. In the Shenandoah, going up the valley, i.e., against the river’s flow, means you go south, and down the valley is to go north. All such references in this essay follow this pattern.)The Shenandoah River near Harper's Ferry

However, Union efforts to maintain any hold on the valley had been constantly frustrated. While Union forces would occupy Harper’s Ferry for much of the war, they had never been able to successfully prosecute any campaign to take the remainder of the valley. In 1862, Stonewall Jackson had run rings around three different Federal armies, embarrassing them in a series of stunning defeats. After that, Lee had been able to secure the valley during his campaign into Maryland in September 1862, and use it as a route of invasion when he moved into Pennsylvania during the summer of 1863. Then, as Lee savagely struggled with Grant and Meade during the summer of 1864, he again decided to make use of the valley in a bold gamble designed to relieve Grant’s stranglehold on him at Petersburg.

Gen. Jubal EarlyIn July, Lee ordered General Jubal Early to detach 16,000 men from the siege lines at Petersburg and quietly move into the Shenandoah Valley. Once there, he was to drive Union forces under General David Hunter from the valley and move north to threaten and, perhaps, even enter Washington. Lee hoped that, once the capital was at risk, Grant would be forced to move north to counter Early or, at the very least, significantly weaken the massive army facing Lee. In selecting Early, Lee was giving a key assignment to an officer he referred to as “my bad old man.” It was a moniker that fit the irascible Early, who was known to his men as “Old Jube.” Early was an aggressive, brave fighter, always cool when under fire. However, while his aggressive, offensive style was well-suited to a brigade, division, or corps commander, it could be a severe handicap as an independent army commander, especially if he was forced to face superior numbers. One his subordinates and one of the finest Southern field commanders to emerge during the war, General John B. Gordon, once commented that Early tended to attack “without the courage of his convictions.” As a result, Early often fought boldly but blindly because he was unable to discern either his enemy’s weaknesses or strengths. Gordon would later write, “He strikes in the dark, madly, wildly, and often impotently.”

Early’s forces were primarily remnants of Stonewall Jackson’s famous “foot cavalry,” the once magnificent infantry that had raced up and down the valley in 1862, confounding and smashing all the Union armies sent after them. First, there was Breckenridge’s Corps, led by General John C. Breckenridge, a former Vice President of the United States and an able soldier. Breckenridge’s divisions were led by a talented group of field officers including the steady and reliable Robert Rodes, dashing young Stephen Ramseur, and the tough, charismatic Georgian, John B. Gordon. Gen. John B. Gordon Additionally, there was the cavalry of Lunsford Lomax and Thomas Rosser, but Early had little use for the mounted arm. Early seems to have borne an infantryman’s distaste for the cavalry and he let it blind him. As a result, his use of these assets would be limited and unproductive–a critical shortcoming in the campaign that would follow.

Despite his shortcomings, Early’s campaign was initially something of a success. He was able to slip away from Petersburg unnoticed and proceeded to drive Hunter’s army back into West Virginia. From there, his army marched down the valley to the Potomac, crossed into Maryland, and turned towards Washington. While this was happening, Grant was unable to get reliable intelligence on the size or composition of the Confederate force operating in the valley, and, as a result, did not seem to be overly concerned. However, once this new Southern army seemed poised to take Washington, the pressure to act was too great. Grant had, after all, stripped the defenses of Washington of all but the lowliest of troops to support his campaign against Lee. Now, there was virtually no one left to man the fortifications surrounding the city and, if Early wanted to take the capital, it was essentially there for the taking. On July 6, Grant pulled two brigades of the Third Division of the veteran VI Corps out of the lines at Petersburg and sent them to board ships bound for Baltimore. He hoped that these 5,000 men would be enough.

As the two VI Corps brigades raced northward, Early and his army was approaching Frederick, Maryland. Union General Lew Wallace, who would later gain fame as the author of Ben Hur, mobilized a motley, ragtag force of militia, cavalry, and light artillery and headed west to Monocacy Junction, just across the Monocacy River from Frederick, to meet Early. He had little hope of even holding the Union retreat at MonocacyConfederates, much less stopping them. Then, late on the afternoon of July 8, the first elements of the VI Corps began to arrive, adding veteran strength to Wallace’s otherwise sad, inexperienced contingent. The next morning, Early attacked Wallace’s still outnumbered force in what was the Battle of Monocacy. Wallace held Early back all day and inflicted a high casualty toll on the Confederate forces. Eventually, the Union units were forced to retreat, but the time they bought turned out to be critical.

Early would pause, then move forward to the outskirts of Washington, arriving on July 11. His army was now approaching exhaustion and, as he peered through his glasses at the capitol dome, the always aggressive Early hesitated. He waited one day to attack, but, when the moment came, Early discovered that the fortifications that had been almost empty the day before were now manned in force by the remainder of the VI Corps, which Grant had dispatched while Early was engaged with Wallace at Monocacy. The opportunity to take the Federal capital had been lost. Early would retreat back into the valley, falling back to encamp near Bunker Hill, Virginia.

The Opening Shots: The Battle of Third Winchester

With Early’s near success, Grant decided that the Shenandoah Valley must be dealt with and eliminated as both an avenue of attack and a source of supply for Lee. He traveled to Washington to confer with the president and Secretary of War Stanton. Grant proposed unifying several military departments into one, creating a new Army of the Shenandoah, and tasking its commander to drive Early out of the valley, destroying his army if at all possible, and wreaking havoc on the farms and fields that were feeding Lee’s army. There was a debate as to who should lead this new army, and even George McClellan’s name was mentioned in the discussions. Finally, over the objection of some, Grant named General Philip Sheridan to the new post. Initially, Sheridan was to serve merely as a field commander under the direction of General Hunter, who was the department commander. However, Hunter quickly resigned and Sheridan assumed complete command.

Gen. Phillip SheridanSheridan arrived at Harper’s Ferry on August 6 to assume command of the forces Grant had assembled at nearby Halltown. Sheridan would find his new command totaled nearly 30,000 men, consisting of all of VI, the XIX Corps, an assemblage of units known as the Army of West Virginia, and three divisions of cavalry. VI Corps, of course, had been with the Army of the Potomac since just after Gettysburg, and was led by General Horatio Wright, a solid, steady West Pointer who had assumed command at Spotsylvania Court House after the death of John Sedgwick. XIX Corps, meanwhile, was a new organization that had been enroute from Louisiana to Petersburg when Grant diverted it to Sheridan’s new army. The Army of West Virginia, meanwhile, consisted of units primarily from that state as well as Ohio, led by General George Crook. These tough men had spent most of the war fighting bushwhackers in the mountains of West Virginia and had only recently come into the valley, where they faced Early’s men at Lynchburg. Finally, Sheridan’s cavalry was led by General Alfred Torbert and included veteran officers, among them Wesley Merritt, William Averell, and George Armstrong Custer.Sheridan and his cavalry commanders

Sheridan himself was something of an oddity. At only five-feet, three inches tall, he was a tough Irishman and a West Point graduate. He had distinguished himself in the West under Grant and, like Early, was an aggressive, tough fighter. He had a personality that was magnetic and charismatic to his troops, mercurial with subordinate commanders, and, at times, almost insubordinate to superiors. He had led infantry in the West and commanded Meade’s cavalry when he came east. Some considered him too cocky for independent command, but Grant liked his aggressiveness and thought him ideally suited to the job that needed to be done in the Shenandoah.

Grant’s orders to Sheridan were simple and clear:

In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, as it is expected you will have to go, 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. It is not desirable that the buildings should be destroyed; they should rather be protected; but the people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. 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 immediately put the army in motion and pointed them south, up the valley. On August 10, the army moved towards Bulltown and Sheridan hoped this would get Early’s attention and cause him to fall back toward Winchester. Early did exactly as Sheridan had hoped but the Union general received some disquieting news that caused him to slow his advance. Lee had heard of the formation of Sheridan’s army and knew that Early must be its target. Therefore, he began shifting a division of infantry under General Kershaw, some artillery, and Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to Early. Grant received intelligence of this fact and sent a dispatch to General Halleck urging caution.

Inform Sheridan that it is now certain two divisions of infantry have gone to Early and some cavalry and twenty pieces of artillery. This movement commenced last Saturday night. He must be cautious and act now on the defensive until movements here force them to detach to send this way. Early’s force, with this increase, cannot exceed 40,000, but this is too much for Sheridan to attack.

Sheridan continued a slow movement towards Early, but when news of the Confederate reinforcements was confirmed, he withdrew back to Halltown on August 23. This, in turn, led Early to believe that he was facing a timid opponent and, once his reinforcements did arrive, he began to behave more aggressively, moving some of his force to Charlestown and, at one point, even making a feint that was designed to make Sheridan believe he might move into Maryland. Early soon returned to Bunker Hill, but kept up cavalry patrols along Opequon Creek, which resulted in numerous skirmishes. One Union officer described this pattern between Sheridan and Early as “Mimic War” and it continued into early September.

Grant soon grew tired of this lack of offensive action and feared that his orders to that effect were not getting to Sheridan. Therefore, Grant proposed a meeting with Sheridan for September 15, at which he planned to provide him with an operational plan of Grant’s own making. Grant later described the meeting in his memoirs:

On the 15th of September I started to visit General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. My purpose was to have him attack Early, or drive him out of the valley and destroy that source of supplies for Lee’s army. I knew it was impossible for me to get orders through Washington to Sheridan to make a move, because they would be stopped there and such orders as Halleck’s caution (and that of the Secretary of War) would suggest would be given instead, and would, no doubt, be contradictory to mine. I therefore, without stopping at Washington, went directly through to Charlestown, some ten miles above Harper’s Ferry, and waited there to see General Sheridan, having sent a courier in advance to inform him where to meet me.

When Sheridan arrived I asked him if he had a map showing the positions of his army and that of the enemy. He at once drew one out of his side pocket, showing all roads and streams, and the camps of the two armies. He said that if he had permission he would move so and so (pointing out how) against the Confederates, and that he could "whip them." Before starting I had drawn up a plan of campaign for Sheridan, which I had brought with me; but, seeing that he was so clear and so positive in his views and so confident of success, I said nothing about this and did not take it out of my pocket.

Map of the Battle of Third WinchesterAt 1:00 a.m. on the morning of September 19, Sheridan began his campaign against Early in earnest, ordering his army to advance towards Winchester on the Winchester-Berryville Pike. Wilson’s cavalry division led the way, crossing Opequon Creek, then moving through a narrow defile known as Berryville Canyon, followed by the XIX and VI Corps. Sheridan’s plan was for the cavalry to sweep away any Confederate pickets in the canyon, then seize the open ground beyond, allowing the infantry of VI and XIX Corps to quickly form up and attack. However, his plan was far too optimistic about the speed at which the infantry would move through the canyon and could have been a fatal error. The cavalry swiftly made it through the narrow passage, scattered the pickets at the far end, and moved forward to the attack, charging the elements of Ramseur’s Division that were blocking the pike ahead.

However, as the Federal troopers crashed unsuccessfully against Ramseur’s line, the infantry got hopelessly bogged down in the canyon amid a jam of men and wagons. As a result, the initiative was lost and Early had time to react, moving more men into position on Ramseur’s left. Had Sheridan’s plan worked, Early would have been the one in trouble. Convinced that he was facing a slow, cautious opponent, he had placed his men in position carelessly, with huge gaps between each division’s flank. Now, however, he was quickly trying to close those gaps to meet Sheridan’s assault, which would not get underway until almost noon.

That assault would first come from XIX Corps, which attacked from the Union right against John Gordon’s division. At first, they met with success, but Gordon’s men, supported by Confederate horse artillery to their left, smashed the assault, sending the inexperienced Federal troops fleeing backward. As they ran, Gordon’s men cheered and continued to pour volleys into the fleeing troops. One young Union soldier from Iowa saw his own father go down, badly wounded. He stopped ran to his father, hoisted him onto his back and continued running amid a hailstorm of bullets until he reached the safety of his own lines. Remarkably, both men survived.

Further south, the VI Corps began its attack along with the XIX Corps, but their flanks quickly separated and neither could support the other. Still, these veterans had some success against Ramseur, with two brigades rupturing the Confederate center and then moving to capture a battery of artillery. Ramseur’s left flank now gave way and his men began to drift back toward Winchester. However, just as Ramseur’s flank gave way from weight of the VI Corps assault, Rodes brought his division forward from a protected position in the West Woods. About 1:30 p.m., he launched a devastating counterattack into the gap that had opened between the VI and XIX Corps. One Southern brigade “came out of the woods like a whirlwind,” crushing Ricketts’s division of VI Corps, which formed the corps’ right flank. About this time, Rodes was killed by shrapnel, the first of many generals Early would lose in the course of the campaign.

Gen. Emory UptonUnion soldiers of both corps now streamed back along the Berryville Pike, while two artillery batteries sitting astride the road tried to slow the Confederate advance. Seeing a potential disaster in the making, Sheridan committed his reserves, which included the brigade belonging to one of the Union’s brightest stars, Emory Upton. Upton was more than brave and aggressive, he was a brilliant tactician, an innovator. Upton led a bold and impetuous charge that stunned the Confederates and drove them back into the West Woods. His corps commander would later say that Upton’s attack was the turning point of the battle.

As the VI and XIX Corps were struggling against Early’s infantry, Sheridan’s cavalry went into action. Early’s misuse of his cavalry during the campaign would stand in stark contrast to Sheridan’s brilliant employment of his mounted forces. Throughout the campaign, Sheridan would use his cavalry effectively in concert with his infantry in a true “combined arms” approach. On this morning, that began with Merritt’s cavalry division pushing down from north of Winchester, forcing Confederate cavalry backward. Gen. Wesley Merritt By 10:30 a.m., Merritt’s troopers had completely swept the Southern cavalry aside and encountered Confederate infantry from Wharton’s division, which were deployed across the roads in woods and behind stone fences. The Federal cavalry probed Wharton’s defenses with skirmishers and artillery and launched one charge, which was quickly turned back. By noon, however, with Sheridan’s infantry attack in full swing, Wharton withdrew south to form along the Confederate left flank. Merritt continued down the road and was able to merge with Averell’s cavalry in the early afternoon.Red Bud Run

Sheridan now ordered Crook to bring his West Virginians and Ohioans forward from their reserve position in the rear. His plan called for Crook’s two divisions under Generals Thoburn and Duval to split, with Thoburn entering the line to replace XIX Corps while Duval’s division crossed Red Bud Run and deployed to the west just north of the Hackwood House. Crook now ordered his artillery to open a massive barrage on Gordon’s Confederates followed by Duval’s infantry, who swept forward and smashed into Gordon’s flank, turning it, and advancing against Wharton’s line. As he did so, Thoburn’s West Virginians charged out of the woods against Gordon’s right. Caught in a deadly pincer, Gordon abandoned his line and fell back, finally realigning himself. However, the Confederate battle line was now bent into a compact L-shape, anchored by cavalry on the far left. Wharton’s division faced north while Gordon’s division made the turn of the L and Rodes’ and Ramseur’s divisions extended the line south.

Crook's attackWith the success of Crook’s attack and the realignment of Early’s forces, Sheridan saw an opportunity to break the Confederate defenses. He ordered a massive general advance of the entire army against the Southern position just north and east of Winchester. As the long blue line surged forward, the din of battle became incredible, with a constant crash of artillery and rifle fire. The Confederates held desperately onto their positions because they essentially had nowhere to go. Behind them lay the streets and houses of Winchester where there would be no chance to set up a defense. If they fell back, it would have to be in full retreat.

Around 3:30 p.m., with the infantry battle raging, Averell and Merritt led their cavalry divisions down the Valley Pike from the north at a thundering gallop, crashing into the Confederate left flank. They quickly overran the cavalry and infantry defending the Southern redoubts there and forced the enemy infantry to withdraw. The damage caused by this attack was phenomenal. The word that Union cavalry was in their rear spread panic all along the Confederate line, and Early’s soldiers began a mad dash for the rear, “whirling through Winchester.” Wharton’s and Gordon’s divisions essentially disintegrated. Rodes’s division was able to finally change fronts and stem the onrushing Federal cavalry, but it was too late–Early’s army was in full retreat.

Merritt and Averell's charge on the Confederate left flank

As night fell, Early withdrew his army up the Valley Pike to Fisher’s Hill south of Strasburg. Sheridan’s men were too disorganized by their victory to immediately pursue and they halted in Winchester. Casualties were heavy on both sides, with Union killed, wounded, and missing totaling over 5,000 men, while Early lost more than 3,000 men he could ill afford to lose. The first round of the fight for the Shenandoah was over, and Sheridan was the clear victor.

Early Reels South: Confederate Disaster at Fisher’s Hill

View across the valley towards the Blue Ridge from Early's defensive lineFollowing his defeat at Winchester, Jubal Early moved his army south up the valley to Fisher’s Hill. From a military topography point of view, his new position was a dominating one. Early placed his army on high ground that extended nearly across the entire valley floor. Wharton’s division was entrenched on the Confederate right flank along a high bluff and extended to the left to cover the Valley Pike. On his left, Gordon’s division was placed from the Valley Pike across Manassas Gap Railroad to near the Middle Road above the hamlet of Fisher’s Hill. Ramseur’s old division, now led by John Pegram, was positioned to Gordon’s left, and Rode’s division, now under the command of Stephen Ramseur, extended the line west to a high hill south of Tumbling Run South Fork. While Lomax’s cavalry extended the main line northwest to and beyond the Back Road, it was little more than a skirmish line, which essentially left Ramseur’s flank “in the air.”

Little North Mountain as seen from the base of Ramseur's Hill.However, at first, Early was not overly concerned about his left flank because Lomax’s position was at the base of the steep, rough terrain of Little North Mountain. As a result, he probably felt confident that no Union force could realistically threaten his left. Plus, he had a commanding view from atop the hill and his artillery covered every possible approach. One Southern officer referred to the Fisher’s Hill defenses as “our Gibraltar.” However, Early began to worry his position was not so impregnable. He realized that, while his position was impressive, he no longer had enough men to man the line. With his casualties at Winchester, his effective strength was reduced to about 10,000 men. As he rode his line, he realized how thin it truly was. By the afternoon of September 22, “Old Jube” had decided to abandon Fisher’s Hill, issuing an order for a nighttime retreat up the valley. However, his decision to fall back came too late.

Sheridan, far from being the passive, meek opponent Early had originally thought him to be, was aggressively pushing forward. At midday on September 21, he advanced his army south, massing most of VI Corps in a horseshoe opposite Early’s right-center, north of Flint Hill. For its part, XIX Corps had been so badly weakened by the fight at Winchester that Sheridan elected to place it on his left and had the corps entrench, hoping not to have to ask too much of it. Crook’s Army of West Virginia was held in reserve and out of sight from the Confederate line. Averell’s cavalry division, meanwhile, was assigned to cover Back Road, which ran along the base of Little North Mountain. The rest of Sheridan’s cavalry was sent to advance up the Luray Valley to probe Early’s right.

Almost as soon as Sheridan’s men were in position, skirmishing began in earnest. Surveying what lay ahead, Sheridan discovered that the two rises called Flint Hill blocked his view of Early’s position. The hill was defended by a Confederate skirmish line entrenched in what was termed “bull pens,” U-shaped barricades made up of fence rails and filled in with earth. Not to be denied a decent view of the enemy, Sheridan ordered units from VI Corps to take the hill. After two attacks by three regiments failed, he sent an entire brigade of five regiments in to finish the job. Now, Sheridan not only had a clear view, but a commanding position for his infantry and artillery.

image_thumb20 Sheridan then set in motion a plan designed to attack Early where he was the most vulnerable and from where he least expected it: on the Confederate left from Little North Mountain. For this difficult task, Sheridan needed men who were prepared to march through rough mountainous terrain. Crook’s West Virginians were ideally suited to the task, so, after sunrise on September 22, he ordered them to move forward up the mountainside. The entire force of 5,000 men quietly marched towards Early’s left, following deep ravines and staying in the forest, safely out of sight of Confederate observers. Although two of those observers would see evidence of Crook’s movement and report it to Ramseur, the usually vigilant young general seems to have taken no notice or discounted the reports entirely.

As Crook’s men climbed Little North Mountain, Ricketts division of VI Corps advanced to take control of the high ground overlooking the North Fork of Tumbling Run, while Averell’s cavalry division moved south down Back Road until they linked with Ricketts’ right flank. The VI Corps skirmish line was now within range of Early’s defenses and began steadily popping away at the Confederates. Ricketts, meanwhile, formed his division behind the crest of the hills and awaited Crook’s attack.

Crook’s “Mountain Creepers,” as they soon would call themselves, moved relentlessly but silently forward along Little North Mountain. Crook ordered the color bearers in his command to trail their flags so they could not be seen. He also directed his troops to discard their knapsacks and arrange their canteens and bayonet scabbards such that they would not rattle and reveal the army’s position. Around 2:00 p.m., Crook began a flanking movement along the shoulder of the mountain, forming his men into two parallel columns and marching south until more than half of the command was beyond the Confederate left flank. Encountering only sporadic fire from a few of Lomax’s cavalry pickets, Crook ordered his troops forward.

Map of the Battle of Fisher's Hill

Around 4:00 p.m., all was in readiness and Crook ordered his columns to face left and to charge. The West Virginia and Ohio boys moved at the double-quick down the side of the mountain, shouting at the tops of their lungs. Lomax’s cavalry shook off their momentary astonishment, took to their horses, and scattered in wild confusion. Charging down the hill pell-mell, Crook’s troops quickly lost all semblance of order, becoming a massive wave of men pouring toward Ramseur’s infantry on what is now called “Ramseur’s Hill.” Jubal Early had never been so utterly surprised.

Fisher's Hill attackSoon, the blue wave split and one part funneled to the right along an old road towards the rear of the Confederate positions. One brigade of North Carolinians tried desperately to hold out against Crook’s assault but, suddenly, they heard the sound of Rickett’s VI Corps division, which Sheridan had unleashed against Ramseur’s front, charging to their right and rear. From the sounds of battle, the Tar Heels knew that they were flanked. The North Carolinians fled, and Ramsuer’s entire division was now flanked by Crook’s assault. Sheridan quickly seized the moment and ordered an advance by the entire Army of the Shenandoah. Literally within minutes, Early’s whole defensive line across the valley collapsed and his army fled southward, abandoning equipment and artillery pieces.

image_thumb29 With his army in shambles, Early tried to collect his men at the base of Round Hill on the Valley Pike. Gordon, Ramseur, and Pegram established a rear guard of artillery and infantry at Prospect Hill, holding off what was a badly disorganized Union pursuit. Meanwhile, hundreds of Confederates either fled into the mountains or simply surrendered, telling their Federal captors that they were tired of “poor rations and sound lickings.” In one instance, a captured officer from Virginia, who was being escorted to the rear, encountered his son, a Union soldier in the 13th West Virginia. The two men silently shook hands, tearfully embraced, and then the elder soldier continued his journey down the road to captivity. Nearby, a group of Union officers came upon one ragged Confederate prisoner, crouching next to a fire, shivering, and singing a song. The one line they could clearly hear said, “Old Jube Early’s about played out.” And, on this cool September night, that is exactly how it seemed. But “Old Jube” was not done just yet and there was one more act to play in the Shenandoah.


The Final Act: The Battle Cedar Creek

After the debacle at Fisher’s Hill, Jubal Early led his shattered army further south up the Shenandoah Valley, with Philip Sheridan slowly following at a distance. By September 25, three days after the battle at Fisher’s Hill, Early brought his army to a halt in Brown’s Gap of the Blue Ridge. He posted his cavalry near Port Republic, between himself and the Union cavalry that were trailing him. As for Sheridan and the infantry, they broke off their slow pursuit and turned towards Harrisonburg, some 10 miles west of Port Republic.

From his bivouac amid the Blue Ridge, Early totaled the results of the twin disasters that befell him and his army at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill. His four divisions of infantry now contained about 7,200 men, and his artillery could only muster 23 guns manned by 850 men. Worst of all, however, had been the loss of leadership in the army, which was so necessary to maintaining good discipline. General Rodes was dead, killed at Winchester, and Fitzhugh Lee had been badly wounded in the same engagement. But, what was perhaps more grievous were the losses among field officers, the men required to command at the tactical level in combat. In Ramseur’s Division, one brigade had not a single surviving officer amongst its five regiments, with the 4th North Carolina being led by a young second lieutenant. The other three brigades were only slightly better with two of them having two field officers each, while the third had three officers to spread across five regiments. Early would officially report to Lee that “my troops are very much shattered, the men very much exhausted, and many of them without shoes.”

image_thumb8With the stunning losses in the valley, Lee was pressured both publicly in the press and privately by even the governor of Virginia to remove Early from command. However, Lee had no one else to send and, therefore, “Old Jube” would have to do. But, do what? If Lee brought the Army of the Valley back to Petersburg and Richmond, that would only mean that Sheridan’s entire army could either return to further strengthen Grant or, perhaps worse, he could come through the Blue Ridge and threaten Lee from the rear. No, Lee decided, Early would have to stay in the valley.

However, the question remained as to what Early could hope to accomplish. He was badly outnumbered and told Lee so, providing an accurate picture of the situation. On September 23, he sent a dispatch to Lee in which he told the commanding general that, “The enemy’s infantry force was nearly, if not quite, three times as large as mine, and his cavalry was very much superior, both in numbers and equipment.” But, Lee would not accept his general’s assessment of Sheridan’s strength. He wrote back to Early stating, “The enemy’s force cannot be so greatly superior to yours. His effective infantry, I do not think, exceeds 12,000 men.” In addition to vastly underestimating Sheridan’s strength, Lee pushed Early to achieve a resounding victory. In Lee’s mind, he had sent Early to the valley to rout Union forces and that is what he would still have to do. Lee badly needed his bold gamble in the valley to succeed and, therefore, success was now required.

To aid in this, Lee sent Kershaw’s Division back to join Early, and they arrived on September 26. In the same dispatch to Early in which he understated Union numbers, Lee went on to direct Early to achieve what must have seemed impossible:

I very much regret the reverses that have occurred to the army in the Valley, but trust they can be remedied. The arrival of Kershaw will add greatly to your strength, and I have such confidence in the men and officers that I am sure all will unite in the defense of the country. It will require that every one should exert all his energies and strength to meet the emergency. One victory will put all things right. You must do all in your power to invigorate your army. Get back all absentees; maneuver so, if you can, as to keep the enemy in check until you can strike him with all your strength…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 his present tide of success…I have given you all I can; you must use the resources you have so as to gain success. The enemy must be defeated, and I rely upon you to do it. I will endeavor to have shoes, arms, and ammunition supplied you. Set all your officers to work bravely and hopefully, and all will go well…We are obliged to fight against great odds. A kind Providence will yet overrule everything for our good.

Custer-The BurningSo, there it was: depend upon Providence, achieve one great, miraculous victory, and all would be right. What Early truly thought about these words from his commander are unknown to history, but one wonders if he must have thought Lee simply did not understand the situation. However, Jubal Early was nothing if not totally loyal to Robert E. Lee and set about trying to accomplish what he had been asked to do.

Luckily for Early, his opponent became embroiled in a three-week debate with Grant as to what should be done next. As that debate ensued, Sheridan made no effort to pursue and destroy Early’s army. Rather, thinking Early posed little real threat any more, he began a slow retrograde down the valley.  However, as he did so, he set about performing the other job he had been assigned by Grant at the beginning of the campaign: destroying the Confederacy’s source of supply in the Shenandoah. Sheridan’s army methodically and systematically put the Shenandoah Valley to the torch. Crops, barns, and grain stores were burned, and any livestock that the army did not need for its own subsistence were mercilessly slaughtered. The lush green valley of the “daughter of the stars” turned into a smoldering, burning hell. Fires glowed across the valley floor day and night, as great pillars of smoke rose everywhere to cloud an otherwise blue, brilliant fall sky. So severe and wanton was the destruction, the people of the valley would, for decades, refer to this time simply as “The Burning.”

In his report of October 7, Sheridan would report to Grant, detailing the results of his men’s handiwork:

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 Fort Valley, as well as the main valley…When this is completed the Valley, from Winchester up to Staunton, ninety-two miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.

As Sheridan moved north, Early began to trail him, and sent his newly assigned cavalry under General Tom Rosser to keep close watch on and harass the Union army. After a few days, Sheridan grew tired of Rosser’s activities and sent two divisions of his cavalry to deal with him, telling General Torbert, to ‘whip the rebel cavalry or get whipped.” Torbert took Sheridan’s tasking to heart and, on October 9, smashed Rosser’s cavalry at Tom’s Brook. The completeness of the victory was undeniable, as Torbert only lost nine men killed and 48 wounded, while driving Rosser 26 miles to the south and capturing 42 wagons and 52 Confederate prisoners. This victory spawned a nearly universal belief in Sheridan’s army that Early’s Army of the Valley was truly finished.

image_thumb18Over the next week, Sheridan moved his forces into camp around the Belle Grove Plantation, just north of Cedar Creek and south of the town of Middletown, while Early remained nearby at Fisher’s Hill. Despite this proximity, Sheridan was not overly concerned, so much so that he consented to a journey to Washington to confer with Grant and Secretary of War Stanton on how to extricate his army from the valley and return to the trenches at Petersburg. In everyone’s mind, Jubal Early posed no threat.

image_thumb21That supreme confidence could be seen in the placement of Sheridan’s army along Cedar Creek. The army was spread over five miles from flank to flank. The cavalry was placed along Back Road, just to the right of VI Corps, which camped on some hills just above the banks of the creek and about a mile northwest of the Valley Pike. XIX Corps sat to their left, occupying a crest about 150 feet above the creek, on which they built entrenchments that ran all the way to the pike. Crook’s Army of West Virginia, meanwhile was southeast of the pike on a knoll just above the creek, and was the southern terminus of the Union line.

However, as one Union soldier would later remark, “Cedar Creek was a good place to water, but a bad place for a fight.” While there were certain natural strengths to be had in the terrain, there also were significant disadvantages. In the Civil War, being able to mutually support one another was of critical importance to infantry units, and the terrain north of Cedar Creek did not allow that. The ground was filled with deep ravines and rocky ridges that divided infantry commands from one another, and inhibited rapid movement by the flanks. Plus, the overall deployment reflected more of an encampment than a battlefield alignment. However, for the most part, the placement of Sheridan’s army was solid in terms of resisting a frontal assault, especially against VI Corps on the right and XIX Corps in the center. However, if a surprise attack was made against the exposed left flank near the creek, one might roll up the entire army and smash it, a flaw Jubal Early and his commanders would soon discover.

image_thumb24 On October 17, John Gordon and Early’s topographical engineer, the legendary Jedediah Hotchkiss, climbed to the top of Signal Knob on the Massanutten of the Blue Ridge to survey Sheridan’s army. From atop the mountain, the Union army was spread before them. The sky was clear and the air cool, with no hint of haze, giving them an unobstructed view. Carefully and methodically mapping the Union emplacements, they could see the opportunity on the Union left, where Crook’s men were encamped and they formulated a daring plan to turn the Union left flank. Returning to Fisher’s Hill that night, they briefed Early on their plan and he approved it. Early would later write in his memoirs that, “I was now compelled to move back for want of provisions and forage or attack the enemy in his position with the hope of driving him from it, and I determined to attack.”

On the night of October 18, the audacious plan was set in motion with all units to be in place by 5:00 a.m. the next morning. Gordon’s, Ramseur’s, and Pegram’s divisions, were placed under Gordon’s overall command and left Fisher’s Hill, moving toward the Blue Ridge. Turning north, they followed a narrow path along the face of the Massanutten, a “pig’s path,” marching in single file. The moon was bright and dimly lit the small path. Gordon carefully placed couriers at ever fork in the pathway, making sure that the troops went in the right direction as they stealthily approached the Union lines. As they neared the point of attack, a dense fog and mist began to form along the creek, allowing them to sneak up on and capture Federal pickets. By 4:00 a.m., Gordon’s men were ready.

Cedar-creek_thumb2 Meanwhile, Kershaw’s and Wharton’s divisions, along with what remained of Early’s artillery, advanced down the Valley Pike, by Spangler’s Mill and through Strasburg. Kershaw’s column diverged to the right on the road to Bowman’s Mill Ford, where it prepared for the dawn attack. Wharton continued on the pike past the George Hupp House to Hupp’s Hill, where he deployed his division. Southern artillery, meanwhile, massed on the Valley Pike south of Strasburg to await orders to fire as the coming battle developed.

Ironically, as all this was taking place, Sheridan was sleeping soundly in Winchester, some thirteen miles to the northeast. He had returned there from the conference in Washington and, seeing no need to quickly return to his command, he opted to spend the night in Winchester. Certain that Early was nowhere near and even more certain that he did not pose a threat, Sheridan was confident that his corps commanders could handle whatever might occur.

As 5:00 a.m. approached, the dense fog still clung to the hills around Cedar Creek and the first shafts of the morning’s light were piercing the eastern sky above the Blue Ridge. Sheridan’s men began to stir, quietly making their breakfast, and the smell of brewing coffee and frying pork fat soon filled the air. Little did they suspect that danger was so very close and what one soldier would describe as “Hell Carnival” was about to begin.

image_thumb5 On the Union left, George Crook’s men were squatting by their campfires, pouring coffee, and preparing to eat when a thunderous volley of rifle fire rang out, breaking the still calm of the cool, crisp fall morning. This was followed by the sound of a thousand throats shouting a shrill “rebel yell” and the sight of hundreds of Confederate soldiers charging out of the fog like some nightmarish apparition. Early’s men quickly climbed over the Union entrenchments and poured a merciless volley into the West Virginians, cutting Crook’s men down by the score.

Union officers dashed about, trying to form up their surprised men and resist the attackers. But, these initial attempts were quickly overrun. Crook’s men began to flee in disorder and one of his division commanders, General Thoburn was killed trying to rally his men. A few regiments did manage to form and one, the 11th West Virginia, was able to resist long enough to allow some of the artillery to get away. However, the remainder of Crook’s command made a mad dash for the rear.

At the sound of firing on their right, Wharton’s division advanced and Early’s artillery opened a steady barrage fire on the XIX Corps from the heights overlooking Cedar Creek. However, almost immediately, Gordon’s attack on the Union left began to lose some cohesion as starving, poorly clothed Confederate soldiers stopped to pillage the Union camps, grabbing up food, blankets, and shoes wherever they could find them. Confederate officers desperately tried to restore order and soon had their men moving again.

Meanwhile, mobs of stragglers from Crook’s command streamed west across the Valley Pike, confirming the scope of the disaster. Seeing this, Emory withdrew his XIX Corps units that covered the turnpike bridge and attempted to form a defensive line parallel with the pike. As he did so, Wharton’s division attacked across Cedar Creek capturing seven Union guns. Several Federal brigades made a stand against Wharton that gave Union supply wagons parked near Belle Grove Plantation enough time to escape to the north. However, that was all the resistance they could muster, as Early’s men pushed them steadily backward toward Belle Grove.



As Crook’s army evaporated and XIX Corps fell back, VI Corps deployed to meet the approaching assault, forming a line anchored on Cedar Creek and fighting an isolated battle against Kershaw’s division. Wheaton’s Division of VI Corps advanced to high ground in the fields north of Belle Grove, where they were assaulted by Gordon. As the sun rose in the sky and burned off the dense fog, the two sides could see each other for the first time, and Union resistance stiffened. Kershaw and Gordon repeatedly battered themselves against VI Corps until the Federals finally began a slow but organized retreat toward Middletown. While Early’s attack was still moving forward, the stubborn defense mounted by VI Corps had broken his momentum and was, even now, allowing Sheridan’s army to regroup. Worse, the plundering of the now abandoned Union camps continued, which further slowed the Southern advance and added to the steady loss of precious momentum.

As soon as the artillery had begun to fire at Cedar Creek, a distant, steady rumble could be heard in Winchester. Pickets reported the sound of steady firing to Sheridan, but, at first, as he arose from bed, the Union general was none too worried. Soon, however, a staff officer entered Sheridan’s bedroom and told him that the firing to the south was continuing. The general ordered that his breakfast be quickly prepared and his horse, Rienzi, saddled. image_thumb34 Rienzi was a beautiful, black six-year old Morgan that stood 17 hands high, easily dwarfing the diminutive Sheridan. By 8:30, Sheridan had finished his breakfast, mounted Rienzi, and begun a slow trot through the streets of Winchester toward Middletown.

Upon reaching the southern limits of Winchester, the firing could clearly be heard in the distance as “an unceasing roar.” Sheridan listened carefully for a few moments, then spurred Rienzi forward down the road. Within a few miles, he came upon the first evidence of the mounting disaster at Cedar Creek in the form of stalled, tangled wagons driven by members of Crook’s command. They told Sheridan that all was near ruin, prompting the general to send his staff forward at a gallop in an effort to sort out what was happening ahead.

image_thumb55 They quickly returned to tell Sheridan that they came upon more men who were telling the same story, one of defeat and a panicked rout. Sheridan now set off at a gallop towards the fighting, shouting at every group of dispirited soldiers to follow him and get back in the fight. To one group, he exclaimed, “Boys turn back; face the other way. I am going to sleep in that camp tonight or in hell!” Reading those words some 145 years distant from the event, one may see them somewhat cynically as pointless bravado. However, they proved to be a magic elixir to these frightened Union soldiers. Hearing Sheridan’s words, men cheered, turned around, and headed back into battle. As he galloped south along the Valley Pike, the tide of men flowing north in retreat turned and reversed itself.

At 10:30 a.m., Sheridan arrived on the field. Seeing him, the men of VI Corps broke out into wild cheers at the return of ‘Little Phil.” Sheridan dismounted and met with his corps commanders. When General Emory reported that XIX Corps had reorganized and could cover a retreat to Winchester, Sheridan angrily turned to him and shouted, “Retreat–Hell! We’ll be back in our camps tonight!” With that, Sheridan began reorganizing the army and preparing for a counterattack. VI Corps was deployed on the left of the line, adjacent to the Valley Pike, with XIX Corps on the right. Crook’s shattered and disorganized command was placed in reserve. As the two sides continued skirmishing, Sheridan completed his reorganization by placing a cavalry division on each of his flanks, with Merritt on the left and Custer on the right.

Sheridan rallys his armyBy 3:00 p.m., all was in place for the Union counterattack. However, first, in one of the most dramatic moments of the war, Sheridan again mounted Rienzi and rode along the front of the reestablished Federal battle line, between his men and Early’s Confederates. The Union soldiers responded with a tremendous cheer as Sheridan rode up and down their line. This was the kind of inspiring physical bravery often required of commanders during the Civil War and, in this case, its effects were almost magical.

As the afternoon wore on, Jubal Early became convinced that he had won a great victory and that Federal forces would retire as soon as nightfall arrived. He could not have been more wrong. Shortly after 3:00 p.m., Merritt’s Union cavalry began advancing from the Federal left, pressuring Early’s right flank north of Middletown. At the same time, George Custer maneuvered his men into position on the Union right flank, opposite Gordon’s men. Thirty minutes later, Custer’s division of cavalry along with infantry from XIX Corps attacked Early’s vulnerable left flank. The assault quickly overran and scattered Gordon’s entire division. Within minutes, Early’s Army of the Valley, so flush with apparent victory, unraveled from west to east.

As Gordon’s men fled, Sheridan ordered a general advance of VI Corps and the remainder of XIX Corps. As the blue wave surged forward, Sheridan rode among his men, waving his hat, shouting, “Give them hell!” and ‘Put a twist on ‘em!” The fighting in the center of the line soon grew fierce and Ramseur’s division stubbornly resisted in the center, despite the fact that both Kershaw and Gordon had abandoned his flanks. As the fighting raged, young Ramseur fell mortally wounded from his horse while leading his men. With this, Confederate resistance completely collapsed and another hasty retreat began. Early’s men were able to fight a delaying action in the rear as the army fell back in fairly good order, up the Valley Pike, through the Union camps they had captured in the morning, and eventually back across Cedar Creek. Union cavalry now joined the pursuit and pressured Early’s army even after nightfall, finally ending the chase when the shattered Southern army once again reached Fisher’s Hill. With that, the fight for the Shenandoah Valley was at an end.

That night, Union soldiers did, indeed, return to their camps. On the lawn in front of Belle Grove, a bonfire was lit, as Sheridan and his officers celebrated. They all congratulated the bandy Irishman and, in fact, the praise was deserved. This victory was truly Sheridan’s, as he had wrested it literally from the jaws of defeat using his own charisma, courage, and tenacity.

image_thumb43 But, a few yards away inside Belle Grove, a different story was being played out. There, in the main floor library, Union surgeons battled to save the life of one of their enemies, 27-year old General Stephen Dodson Ramseur. But, the wound to his lungs was too severe for their skills to overcome. Ramseur lay on a bed, dying. While in the Shenandoah, his wife had given birth back home to their first child, and he had longed for the furlough that would allow him to see them both. Now, that would never come. His old friends from West Point, George Custer among them, came to his bedside, talking to him, providing what comfort they could. In his last conscious moments, Ramseur asked that a lock of his hair be sent to his wife and the new baby he would never see. Early on the morning of October 20, he died and, while he was in a Union hospital, he still died among his friends.

In the years following the war, Cedar Creek enjoyed great notoriety and was, arguably, as famous as Gettysburg or Shiloh. The Northern public’s imagination was captured by the story of a defeat turned into victory by Sheridan’s magnificent ride on Rienzi up the Valley Pike. It became immortalized by poet Thomas Buchanan Read, who wrote the poem “Sheridan’s Ride” a few months after the battle. The poem was printed in almost all the basic school readers of the late 19th century and it has often been said that there wasn’t a schoolboy north of the Mason-Dixon Line who did not memorize its dramatic passages.

image_thumb62 On a personal note, I would like to add that this campaign and its battles have long held great interest for me because three of my ancestors served under Sheridan in the Valley Campaign and fought at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and, finally, at Cedar Creek. My great-great grandfather, George W. Shimer was a sergeant in Company C, 11th West Virginia Infantry Regiment, which was a part of Thoburn’s division of Crook’s Army of West Virginia. He served in the valley alongside his lifelong friend and another great-great grandfather, image_thumb9 John Snider, who was a private in Company C. Both men would muster out in December 1864, and return home to their families. While they would spend the rest of their lives in peace, raising their families and working their farms in the mountains of West Virginia, they both were active members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of Union veterans. For his part, John Snider would remember his service in the valley by naming his first son Benjamin “Sheridan” Snider. In fact, in the only photograph I have of him, taken when he was in his seventies, he is still proudly wearing his service medals.

Meanwhile, my great-great-great uncle, James Pollen, also served in the valley. He was George Shimer’s brother-in-law and a corporal in the 122d Ohio Infantry Regiment of Rickett’s Division of VI Corps. When he arrived in the Shenandoah, he was already a veteran, having fought at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Monocacy. At Cedar Creek, he was wounded by a Confederate bullet that entered and exited his right forearm, luckily not damaging any bone as it passed through.  He would be sent to Harewood Army Hospital in Washington to be treated and recuperate. In February 1865, he was discharged from the hospital and returned to his regiment, which was now outside Petersburg. He would go on to participate in the breakthrough at Petersburg and the pursuit of Lee to Appomattox. On June 28, 1865, he was discharged from the army, given a disability pension, and returned to his family farm in Coshocton County, Ohio.image_thumb13

As a result of the service of these men, my ancestors, I feel I have a personal stake in saving and preserving the fields on which they, their Union comrades, and their brave Confederate foes battled in the Shenandoah Valley. While I realize some would argue that these lands have been paid for and are owned by people who should be rightfully allowed to develop them for commercial use, I would argue that these lands have already been paid for with something far more valuable than mere money. As a result, they are a part of our common heritage as Americans and to allow them to be buried underneath strip malls and houses is criminal. To allow this to happen, denies the sacrifice of those who fought and diminishes us all as a people. Therefore, I would ask all my readers to please support organizations such as the Civil War Trust in protecting and preserving these remaining pieces of our history. For, if we allow these fields to disappear, we will allow the memories they hold to disappear was well.


Posted January 17, 2012 by bobtexstl in Uncategorized

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