Lee Sends Early into the Shenandoah Valley
In June 1864, Robert E. Lee deployed Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s newly designated Army of the Valley to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Lee ordered Early to halt an advancing Union army commanded by Major General David Hunter. On June 17 and 18, Early’s army defeated 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.
Grant Sends Sheridan into the Shenandoah Valley
Early’s offensive prompted Union General Ulysses S. Grant to send Major General Philip Sheridan and the newly created Army of the Shenandoah to the Valley. Grant’s orders for Sheridan were twofold: destroy Early’s army and “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’s soldiers defeated Early’s 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.”
Sheridan Rallies His Troops at Cedar Creek
As Sheridan sacked 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 by over 10,000 men, 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 for the Confederates until Sheridan arrived from nearby Winchester and rallied his troops in the afternoon. Sheridan launched a counterattack that drove the Confederates from the field. After Sheridan’s men shattered Early’s army, most of his surviving units limped back to eastern Virginia to assist Lee in his struggle against Grant at Petersburg.
Sheridan Aims to Clear the Shenandoah Valley
After the Union victory at Cedar Creek, Sheridan’s army and the remnants of Early’s army went into winter quarters. Following one of the harshest winters in Virginia history, Sheridan’s army left its winter encampment on February 27, 1865, and marched south through the Shenandoah Valley.
Sheridan had orders from Grant to proceed to Lynchburg, to destroy the railroads and canals in the vicinity, and then to join Major General William T. Sherman’s army as it moved north out of the Carolinas. Sheridan, however, had other plans. Early still commanded a small Rebel force of about 1,500 cavalrymen near Staunton, Virginia in the southern part of the Valley. Sheridan intended to drive the Confederates completely out of the Shenandoah Valley before heading south.
Early Heads for Waynesboro
As Sheridan’s cavalry moved south, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer’s 3rd Division rode in the lead. The trip south through sleet and rain was miserable, but Union morale was high, and the federal soldiers were ready for action. On February 28, Early attempted to slow the Union advance by dispatching about 300 Confederate cavalrymen to burn the bridge over the Middle River. Brigadier General Thomas Rosser, Custer’s best friend at West Point, commanded the small Rebel force. Custer’s men arrived in time to extinguish the fire and to drive off the Rebels. With Sheridan’s entire force able to get across the river, Early abandoned his position at Staunton and made a stand at Waynesboro.
Early Exposes His Left Flank
When Early reached Waynesboro, he deployed his 1,600 men in a thin line on high ground facing west. Although outnumbered by Sheridan’s 10,000 cavalrymen, Early had eleven to fifteen artillery pieces in a good position to contest the Federals. Nonetheless, Early made a fatal error when deploying his troops by not extending his left flank all the way to the South River. Early incorrectly believed that dense woods between the end of his line and the river would prevent a federal flanking movement.
March 2, 1865: Clash at Waynesboro
Custer Rolls Up Early’s Exposed Flank
When Custer arrived at Waynesboro on March 2, he realized that a head-on assault on Early’s main line would be foolhardy. Custer instead sent out reconnaissance patrols and discovered Early’s unprotected flank. Custer ordered three regiments, the 2nd Ohio, the 3rd New Jersey and the 1st Connecticut, to move through the woods and to envelope Early’s exposed flank.
Early Escapes as His Forces Surrender
After Custer’s troopers rolled up the Confederate left flank, Early soon realized that his outnumbered troops could not match the Yankee cavalrymen armed with Spencer repeating rifles. With a swollen river to their back, leaving them nowhere to retreat, over 1,200 Confederate soldiers laid down their weapons and surrendered. Early, who was watching the battle from the rear, dashed for the bridge, crossing the river and escaping.
The Battle of Waynesboro ended any meaningful Confederate presence in the Shenandoah Valley at a small cost to the Union. Federal officials reported nine soldiers killed or wounded. Besides the 1,200 Rebel prisoners, Custer also captured all of Early’s artillery pieces, seventeen Confederate battle flags, and approximately 150 supply wagons, including Early’s headquarters wagon containing his records and personal papers.
After the battle, Sheridan’s forces moved on to the Petersburg front and rejoined the Army of the Potomac. Sheridan and Custer subsequently played significant roles in the climatic Appomattox Campaign that spring.