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.
The Breadbasket of the Confederacy
The Shenandoah Valley runs in a north-south direction through about 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.
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 roughly 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 Replaces Sigel
After retreating to Strasburg, Virginia, Union officials relieved Sigel of his command and replaced him with Major General David Hunter. Grant ordered Hunter to resume the offensive, live off of the land, and exercise scorched earth tactics in the valley.
June 5, 1864 — Clash at Piedmont, Virginia
On the morning of June 5, Hunter engaged a Confederate force under the command of Brigadier General William Jones at Piedmont, Virginia. Hunter’s advance column, comprising General Julius Stahel’s cavalry, advanced southward along Staunton Road towards Mount Meridian. The Federals drove the Southerners before them until the Confederacy’s 18th Virginia Cavalry Regiment engaged the Northern soldiers at Mount Meridian. The Rebels briefly drove the Yankees back, but reinforcements quickly broke the Southerners’ assault. The Confederates retreated to Piedmont, where they established a strong defensive position.
Strong Confederate Position
Union Colonel David Strother described the Confederate position:
The enemy’s position was strong and well chosen. It was on a conclave of wooded hills commanding an open valley between and open, gentle slopes in front. On our right in advance of the village of Piedmont was a line of log and rail defenses very advantageously located in the edge of a forest and just behind the rise of a smooth, open hill so that troops moving over this hill could be mowed down by musketry from the works at short range and to prevent artillery from being used against them. The left flank of this palisade rested on a steep and impracticable bluff sixty feet high and washed at its base by the Shenandoah.
Federals Drive Rebel Forces from the Field
At noon, Hunter began his assault on the Southerners’ position. His infantry attacked each flank, but the Rebels easily repulsed the Northern advance. A Union artillery bombardment soon crippled most of the Confederates’ artillery pieces, prompting another Northern assault that the Southerners repulsed. Jones then transferred much of his force to his left flank, unwittingly leaving a part of the Confederates’ center undefended. Hunter took advantage of Jones’ oversight and ordered an assault on the Rebel center. The Northerners divided the Confederate force, forcing the Southerners to flee from the battlefield.
Aftermath of the Battle
At the Battle of Piedmont, the Confederacy suffered about 1,500 casualties to the North’s 875 losses (killed, wounded, captured, or missing).
On June 6, Hunter’s force advanced into Staunton, Virginia. Confederate General Robert E. Lee countered Hunter’s movements by sending a force of roughly 8,000 soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant General Jubal Early, into the valley to halt the Union advance.
On June 17 and 18, Early stopped Hunter’s attempt to occupy Lynchburg, driving the Federals into West Virginia. After Hunter’s defeat at the Battle of Lynchburg, he resigned his commission.