The Battle of Tom's Brook was a cavalry engagement fought along Tom's Brook near Woodstock, Virginia on October 9, 1864 during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
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.
Lee Sends Early to the Shenandoah Valley
As Grant pressed Lee in eastern Virginia during the spring and summer, Lee devised a plan to divert Union forces away from his army. Lee designated Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s corps as the Army of the Valley, and in June, he ordered Early to re-deploy his army from Petersburg to the Shenandoah Valley.
Early Threatens Washington, DC
On June 17 and 18, Early’s army defeated Major General David Hunter’s Union forces at the Battle of Lynchburg, leaving control of the valley in Confederate hands. Early then launched his own offensive, invading Maryland and eventually threatening Washington, DC, before being forced to retreat into the Shenandoah Valley.
Lincoln’s Reelection Imperiled
Early’s successes in Maryland imperiled President Lincoln’s re-election bid in November 1864. Coupled with Grant’s mounting casualty totals in eastern Virginia, Southerners had good reason to hope that the Northern electorate might opt for a peace candidate and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy to end the war.
Grant Sends Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley
On August 1, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley to deal with Early. A week later, on August 8, Grant placed Sheridan in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah. Grant’s ordered Sheridan to 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.
Sheridan succeeded at both.
Initially, Sheridan was slow to act because false intelligence reports led him to believe that Early’s army was much larger than it really was. After receiving more accurate information regarding the size and deployment of Early’s army, Sheridan attacked the Rebels near Winchester, Virginia. On September 19, Sheridan’s army dealt the Confederates a severe blow at the Battle of Opequon, forcing Early to retreat south.
On September 20, Early established a new defensive line at Fisher’s Hill, south of Strasburg. On September 21 and 22, 1864, Sheridan’s army turned Early’s left flank and dealt the Confederates another severe defeat at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill. With the Rebel army decimated and demoralized by two overwhelming defeats within three days, Early had to get his army away from Sheridan or face annihilation. Thus, he retreated south nearly 100 miles to Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Early’s retreat from Strasburg opened the central Shenandoah Valley to Sheridan’s scorched earth offensive. Sheridan spent the next few weeks laying waste to the valley. During a foray 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.”
“Either Whip the Enemy or Get Whipped Yourself”
By October 6, Sheridan felt that his reign of destruction was complete, and he began withdrawing his army back north towards Cedar Creek. As the Federals moved north, Confederate cavalry divisions commanded by Major General Thomas Rosser and Major General Lunsford Lomax harassed the Union rearguard. Annoyed by the Rebel raids against the retreating Union soldiers, Sheridan ordered his own cavalry commander, Brigadier General Alfred Torbert, to “either whip the enemy or get whipped yourself.”
October 9, 1864 — Cavalry Clash at Tom’s Brook
The Woodstock Races
On the morning of October 9, Torbert ordered two Union cavalry divisions commanded by Brevet Major General Wesley Merritt and Brigadier General George A. Custer to turn and attack the Confederate cavalry camped along Tom’s Brook near Woodstock, Virginia. Completely surprised, the Rebel troopers briefly tried to make a stand, but they soon were galloping from the field. The retreat was so rapid that Union cavalrymen referred to the Confederate flight as the Woodstock Races.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Tom’s Brook was a relatively small engagement involving only 6,300 Federals and 3,500 Rebels. Losses were also light, with the Union suffering fifty-seven casualties and the Confederacy 350. The Union victory impaired the morale and effectiveness of the Rebel cavalry for the rest of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.