Events Leading Up to Early’s Valley Campaign
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 act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and his Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and his 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.
Battle of Lynchburg
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. 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. Sigel’s short-lived operation, known as the Lynchburg Campaign, ended on June 17 and 18 when Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early and his Army of the Valley moved into the Shenandoah Valley from the south and defeated the Federals at the Battle of Lynchburg.
Battle of Monocacy – the “Battle that Saved Washington”
After driving Federal forces out of the Shenandoah Valley following the Battle of Lynchburg, Early launched his own offensive. His operations got off to a good start as he marched his 14,000-man Army of the Valley, past the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown on July 5 and 6. Desperate to halt a possible Confederate assault on Washington, Federal leaders hastily assembled a small army commanded by Major General Lew Wallace to delay Early until Grant could send reinforcements to protect the capital. On July 9, Early’s army defeated Wallace’s 5,800 soldiers at the Battle of Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland. Although Wallace lost the battle, he bought precious time for Grant to shift troops from eastern Virginia to check Early’s advance. For that reason, Monocacy became known as the “Battle that Saved Washington.”
Battle of Fort Stevens
On July 11, Early’s army advanced on weakly defended Fort Stevens near the outskirts of Washington. Overnight, Union reinforcements arrived and repulsed Early’s assault the next day. During the Battle of Fort Stevens, President Lincoln came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters as he watched the engagement. When Early realized that veteran Union soldiers defended the capital, he returned to the Shenandoah Valley, ending the last Confederate offensive fought on Union soil. Throughout July, Early’s soldiers fought an inconclusive series of engagements with Federal troops in the Shenandoah Valley.
Outcome of Early’s Valley Campaign
The outcome of Early’s Valley Campaign threatened President Lincoln’s re-election bid in November, thanks to Early’s successes in Maryland and presence in the Shenandoah Valley. 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. Outside of the political arena, Confederate operations in the valley had become a source of irritation to Grant. On August 1, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan to the valley and, on August 7, placed him in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah, with orders to neutralize Early’s operations. After a slow beginning, Sheridan’s soldiers defeated Early’s outnumbered army at the Third Battle of Winchester (September 19) and the Battle of Fisher’s Hill (September 22), ending the Confederate offensive.
Early’s Valley Campaign was one of three campaigns that comprise the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864. The other two campaigns were the Lynchburg Campaign (May to June) and Sheridan’s Valley Campaign (August to October).