On June 17 and 18, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early and his Army of the Valley moved into the Shenandoah Valley from the south and drove Major General David Hunter’s Union forces into West Virginia following a decisive victory at the Battle of Lynchburg. Early then went on the offensive.
Early’s 14,000 soldiers marched north through the valley, past the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown on July 5 and 6. Desperate to halt a possible Confederate assault on Washington, DC, Federal leaders hastily assembled a small army commanded by Major General Lew Wallace to delay Early until Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant could send reinforcements to protect the capital.
On July 9, Early’s army defeated Wallace’s 5,800 soldiers at the Battle of Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland. Although he lost the battle, Wallace bought precious time for Grant to shift troops from eastern Virginia to check Early’s advance. It is possible that Early could have occupied Washington in early July 1864, but in the face of mounting Union reinforcements, he decided instead to return to the Shenandoah Valley, where he fought an inconclusive series of engagements with Federal troops throughout the month.
By the end of July, Confederate operations in the Valley had become a political liability for President Abraham Lincoln, who was running for reelection in November. They also vexed Grant, who was engaged with Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia outside of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia.
In early August, Grant advised President Lincoln and War Department officials to merge Union forces near the Shenandoah Valley to put an end to Early’s Raid. Washington officials concurred, and Grant began assembling troops at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia under the command of Major General David Hunter. Although Hunter was in charge of the overall operation, Grant stipulated that Major General Philip Sheridan would command the troops in the field. Hunter objected to that arrangement and resigned. Consequently, on August 7, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders No. 240, creating the Middle Division, comprising the Middle Department the Department of Washington, the Department of the Susquehanna, and the Department of West Virginia. The order also announced that President Lincoln assigned Sheridan as the temporary command of the new division.
The combined forces under Sheridan’s command, which became known as the Army of the Shenandoah, totaled somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 soldiers. Grant dispatched the 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac and two divisions of the 19th Corps from Louisiana to Harpers Ferry to join units already in the area that officials merged to form the 8th Corps. Two cavalry divisions from the Army of the Potomac joined the unit to complete a powerful new force.
Grant’s orders for Sheridan were twofold: destroy Early’s army and to
Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions . . . so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.
In a letter dated August 7, 1864, the day that Sheridan assumed command, Grant advised Sheridan
What we want is prompt and active movements after the enemy in accordance with instructions you already have. I feel every confidence that you will do the very best, and will leave you as far as possible to act on your own judgment, and not embarrass you with orders and instructions.
After a slow start, which concerned both Lincoln and Grant, Sheridan’s soldiers defeated Early’s highly outnumbered army at the Battle of Opequon (September 19) and the Battle of Fisher’s Hill (September 22). With Early’s army nearly neutralized after those two battles, Sheridan spent the next few weeks attending to his other task—laying waste to the Shenandoah Valley. During an operation of destruction known as “The Burning,” Sheridan claimed to have slaughtered thousands of sheep, hogs, and cattle and to have burned, “2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements [and] over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat.”
Battle of Cedar Creek
As Sheridan advanced in the Valley, Early prepared for one last stand. Reinforcements boosted the size of his Army of the Valley to 21,000 soldiers. Although still outnumbered, Early launched a surprise attack on Sheridan’s troops encamped at Cedar Creek at dawn on October 19, 1864. The assault against the unsuspecting Federals went well until Sheridan arrived from nearby Winchester and rallied his troops in the afternoon. Sheridan launched a counterattack that drove the Confederates from the field. The defeat at the Battle of Cedar Creek shattered Early’s army and the surviving units retreated to eastern Virginia to assist Lee in his struggle with Grant.
With Early forced out of the Shenandoah Valley, Union officials gradually dismantled the Army of the Shenandoah over the next few months. In December, the 6th Corps returned to the Army of the Potomac near Petersburg, Virginia. The War Department transferred portions of the 8th Corps to the Army of the James. In January 1865, the army sent the 2nd Division of the 19th Corps to Savannah, Georgia, followed by the 1st Division in April.
On February 27, 1865, Major General A.T.A. Torbert replaced Sheridan as commander of the Middle Division, and Sheridan returned to the Army of the Potomac with his cavalry. Two weeks later, on March 7, 1865, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock replaced Torbert and served as division commander until June 27, 1865, when the War Department issued General Orders, No. 118 announcing that President Andrew Johnson directed “that the United States be divided into military divisions, and sub-divided into military departments.” Johnson’s directive transformed the Middle Division into the Middle Department and the Army of the Shenandoah ceased to exist.