Events Leading Up to the Lynchburg 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 New Market
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. 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 at the Battle of New Market.
Battle of Piedmont
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 and to live off of the land and use scorched earth tactics in the valley. On June 5 and 6 Hunter defeated a Confederate force at the Battle of Piedmont.
Battle of Lynchburg
Following the Union victory, Hunter moved south to Lexington, Virginia, where he burned the Virginia Military Institute and plundered the town on June 12. Robert E. Lee countered Hunter’s movements by sending a force of approximately 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, Grant dispatched Major General Philip Sheridan to take command of federal forces in the Valley. Relegated to subordinate administrative duties, Hunter asked Union officials to relieve him of his duties.
Aftermath of the Lynchburg Campaign
The Lynchburg Campaign was one of three campaigns that comprised the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864. The other two campaigns were Early’s Valley Campaign (July to August) and Sheridan’s Valley Campaign (August to October).