Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga to capture Atlanta; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade Western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Operations in Western Virginia
Besides those major offensives, Grant ordered Brigadier General George Crook to deploy his Army of West Virginia to destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad in western Virginia, the last southern railroad connecting Virginia and Tennessee. Along with Crook’s assault, Grant directed Brigadier General William W. Averell to lead his cavalry in raids against lead and salt mines in western Virginia. After accomplishing their objectives, Crook and Averell were to merge their forces and join Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley.
By the time Crook and Averell began to move in early May 1864, Grant’s larger offensives created the expected result of drawing defenders away from western Virginia. Confederate Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins, commanding the few scattered units left in the area, attempted to block Crook’s advance by establishing a defensive position across a gap on Cloyd’s Mountain in Pulaski County.
May 9, 1864 – Crook Attacks Rebels on Cloyd’s Mountain
On the morning of May 9, Crook’s three brigades, totaling about 6,100 soldiers, approached the Confederates on Cloyd’s Mountain. Skirmishing began around 9 o’clock. Seeing the strength of the Rebel position, Crook decided against a frontal assault. Instead, he swung his soldiers around to the Confederate right flank and then attacked. A pitched battle began at around 11 o’clock, which lasted about an hour. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand and exceptionally violent. During the battle, gunfire ignited dry leaves, setting off a fire line the burned everything in its path, including wounded soldiers. Jenkins was mortally wounded and his 2,400 raw soldiers could not withstand the assault of Crook’s force.
Although a relatively small engagement, the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain featured unusually high casualty totals. The Confederates lost 538 men (killed, wounded, and captured/missing) — nearly 24% of their force. The Federals suffered 688 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured/missing). Crook’s victory at Cloyd’s Mountain enabled him to join forces with Averell and destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, as planned.
Among the Union soldiers who fought at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain were two future U. S. Presidents, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, and Major William McKinley.