Events Leading Up to Sheridan’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, DC, 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 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.
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 short-lived operation, known as the Lynchburg Campaign, ended on June 17 and 18 when Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early and the Army of the Valley moved into the Shenandoah Valley from the south and defeated the Federals at the Battle of Lynchburg.
Early’s Raid on Washington
Early then launched his own offensive, marching his 14,000-man Army of the Valley north through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland, threatening Washington, DC. Grant sent enough reinforcements to Washington to halt Early’s advance on the capital and to drive his army back into the Shenandoah Valley, where the Confederates remained a threat during July.
Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah
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 7, 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.
Battles of Opequon and Fisher’s Hill
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.”
Battle of Tom’s Creek — the Woodstock Races
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 harassed the Union rearguard. Annoyed by the Rebel forays against the retreating Union soldiers, Sheridan ordered his cavalry commander, Brigadier General Alfred Torbert, to “either whip the enemy or get whipped yourself.” Accordingly, on the morning of October 9, Torbert ordered two Union cavalry divisions 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.
Battle of 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 until Sheridan arrived from nearby Winchester and rallied his troops in the afternoon. Sheridan launched a counterattack that drove the Confederates from the field.
The surviving units of Early’s army 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. Coupled with Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Sheridan’s success in the valley helped ensure Lincoln’s re-election and the continuation of the war. Sheridan rejoined the Army of the Potomac in March 1865, hastening the end of the Civil War by relentlessly pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia during the Appomattox Campaign.
Aftermath of Sheridan’s Valley Campaign
Sheridan’s Valley Campaign was the last of three campaigns that comprise the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864. The other two campaigns were the Lynchburg Campaign (May-June) and Early’s Valley Campaign (July-August).