Prelude to the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
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, DC, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and to 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 near Richmond, Virginia; 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 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 soldiers into the valley with orders from Grant to destroy the railroad center at Lynchburg, Virginia. Sigel’s operations, known as the Lynchburg Campaign, were the first of three campaigns in the valley that year. Together, the campaigns comprised the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. The other two campaigns were Early’s Valley Campaign (June—August) and Sheridan’s Valley Campaign (August—October).
Lynchburg Campaign (May–June 1864)
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 out-numbered, the Confederates drove the Federals from the field. After retreating to Strasburg, Virginia, Grant 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 to use scorched earth tactics in the Shenandoah Valley. On June 5 and 6, Hunter defeated a Confederate force at the Battle of Piedmont. After the Union victory, Hunter moved south to Lexington, where he burned the Virginia Military Institute and plundered the town on June 12, in retaliation for the Union loss at New Market. 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 back 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 to be relieved of his duties.
Early’s Valley Campaign (June–August 1864)
After driving Hunter’s forces out of the Shenandoah Valley following the Battle of Lynchburg, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched his own offensive. Without opposition, his 14,000 soldiers marched north through 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, DC, 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 he lost the battle, Wallace 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.” It is possible that Early could have occupied Washington in early July 1864, but in the face of mounting Union reinforcements, he decided instead to return to the Shenandoah Valley, where he fought an inconclusive series of engagements with Federal troops throughout the month.
Sheridan’s Valley Campaign (August–October)
Early’s successes in Maryland threatened President Lincoln’s re-election bid in November. 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 8, placed him in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah. Grant’s orders for Sheridan were twofold: 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.”
After a slow beginning, which concerned both Lincoln and Grant, 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.”
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 until Sheridan arrived from nearby Winchester and rallied his troops in the afternoon. Sheridan launched a counterattack at the Battle of Cedar Creek that drove the Confederates from the field. The Yankees shattered Early’s army, and the surviving units retreated to eastern Virginia to assist Lee in his struggle with Grant. The Shenandoah Valley no longer would be a source of sustenance for the Confederacy.
Outcome of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
The outcome of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 helped ensure President Lincoln’s re-election. Sheridan’s success in the valley, coupled with Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, also ensured the continuation of the war. Sheridan rejoined the Army of the Potomac in March 1865 and hastened the end of the Civil War by relentlessly pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia during the Appomattox Campaign.