Prelude to the Battle
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 have 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 and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; 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.
Breadbasket of the Confederacy
The Shenandoah Valley runs in a north-south direction through approximately 140 miles of western Virginia between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Because of its exceptionally fertile farmland, the valley served as the breadbasket for the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
Battle of New Market
In May 1864, Sigel marched 9,000 to 10,000 Union soldiers into the valley with orders from Grant to destroy the railroad center at Lynchburg, Virginia. Known as the Lynchburg Campaign, Sigel’s campaign was short-lived and ill-fated. Upon learning of Sigel’s advance from the north, Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge cobbled together a force of approximately 4,000 men, including cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, to oppose the Yankees. On May 15, 1864, the Rebels engaged Sigel’s army at New Market, Virginia. Despite being outnumbered, the Confederates drove the Federals from the field.
Hunter’s Scorched Earth Offensive
After retreating to Strasburg, Virginia, Grant relieved Sigel of his command and replaced him with Major General David Hunter. Grant ordered Hunter to move to Charlottesville and Lynchburg “living on the country.” He also ordered Hunter to destroy the railroads in his path “beyond possibility of repairs for weeks.”
On June 6 Grant wrote to Hunter:
The complete destruction of this Central Road and of the canal on the James River are of great importance to us. According to the instructions I sent to General Halleck, for your guidance, you were to proceed to Lynchburg and commence there. It would be of great value to us to get possession of Lynchburg for a single day.
Instead of hurrying to Lynchburg, however, Hunter moved first to Lexington, Virginia, where he burned the Virginia Military Institute and plundered the town on June 12.
Had Hunter moved quickly to Lynchburg he would have faced a garrison comprising the Lynchburg Home Guard (old men and boys), backed up by 600 to 700 wounded Rebel soldiers recuperating in the city’s hospital. Instead, his tardiness enabled Lee to order Breckinridge and Lieutenant General Jubal Early to hasten to Lynchburg’s defense.
June 17, 1864 — Hunter Attacks at Lynchburg
On June 16, Breckinridge’s forces arrived in Lynchburg and began constructing defensive lines. The next day, Hunter’s Union soldiers arrived on the western edge of Lynchburg in the late afternoon and assaulted the Confederate defenses.
Unable to halt the initial Union advance on their position around the Quaker Meeting House, Brigadier Generals John D. Imboden and John McCausland’s cavalry troopers fell back about one mile to a hastily constructed earthen redoubt known as Fort Early. When it seemed that Hunter’s soldiers might break the Confederate line, Early arrived with reinforcements. With darkness approaching, Hunter called off the assault and established his headquarters at a nearby plantation known as “Sandusky.”
That night, within earshot of “Sandusky,” the Confederates ran a train back and forth along the tracks in Lynchburg while the town’s citizens created an uproar as if celebrating the arrival of large numbers of Rebel reinforcements. The ruse may have created some doubt in Hunter’s mind regarding the size of the Confederate force his men would face the next day.
On June 18, Early remained on the defensive as he waited for the rest of his 2nd Corps to arrive. Meanwhile, Hunter ordered Brigadier General George Crook to turn the Confederate left flank with his infantry division. After marching a few miles, Crook determined that the movement was not feasible. Hunter spent the rest of the day unsuccessfully probing Early’s lines for a weak point. That night, still unsure of the size of the Rebel force he faced and running short on supplies and ammunition, Hunter withdrew toward West Virginia.
Aftermath of the Battle
Early pursued Hunter’s army for the next three days, but could not force a major engagement. On June 21, with Confederate control of the Shenandoah Valley restored, Early called off the pursuit and rested his army for an invasion of Maryland known Early’s Valley Campaign, or Early’s Raid.
Casualties at the Battle of Lynchburg were minimal for each side. The Confederacy lost about six soldiers (killed, wounded, captured/missing) compared with seventy-five Union casualties.
The failure of the Union assault on Lynchburg kept Lee’s supply lines open and enabled him to continue fighting for another eight months.