Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864/1865
Union: Major General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Middle Military District including the Federal Army of the Shenandoah.
Confederate: Lieutenant General Jubal Early, commanding a corps of the Army of Northern Virginia on detached duty in the Shenandoah Valley.
Prelude: Early was resting his forces after his Washington DC raid of 11-12 July, 1864, followed by the burning of Chambersburg, PA on 30 July, 1864. During this time, three Federal commanders were embarrassed to say the least, as well as getting very close to US President Abraham Lincoln, who was visiting a fort at the time. Both Lincoln and his Commander of all Union Armies, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, got tired of having Confederate forces running roughshod over them in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln gave Grant the authority to appoint any commander he wanted for the operation. Grant was busy pinning General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, VA so he wanted a commander that could get the job done with little supervision. On 7 August, 1864 he had his man, Sheridan. Grant’s cavalry commander would lead the army that would not only take Early out, but would have the additional mission of rendering the Shenandoah Valley incapable of providing food for the now starving Confederate Army.
Sheridan, graduated from West Point in 1853, was in the Regular Army when the Civil War broke out. He started in a staff position but was soon commanding cavalry units in the West. After getting swept back at Chickamauga, he redeemed himself at the Battle of Chattanooga by storming and capturing Missionary Ridge. When Grant went east, he took Sheridan with him, at first assigning him to the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps. It was Sheridan’s cavalry that engaged Lieutenant General J.E.B. Stuart’s force at Yellow Tavern, where Stuart fell.
Sheridan took command on a force that included Union troops that were defeated at New Market, Monocacy, and Winchester, having been led by mediocre commanders. He brought these forces together and named them the Army of the Shenandoah.
10 August, 1864: Sheridan orders his command to Harper’s Ferry to prepare for the operation. Early gets wind of this and begins moving his forces to Winchester to act as a blocking force.
11 August, 1864: Early decides to fall back on the lessons taught by his mentor, the late Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson and use maneuver to confuse Sheridan. What helps is many of Jackson’s veterans now march with Early. His first move is to leave Winchester and head for nearby Cedar Creek in order to draw Sheridan in.
14 August, 1864: After a skirmish at Cedar Creek, Sheridan decides to pull back and await reinforcements.
16 August, 1864: Sheridan reaches Winchester, the speed of his maneuver threw off Early. He orders an advance to catch Sheridan.
17 August, 1864: Sheridan orders his forces to pull back toward Berryville as his rear guard skirmish with Early at Winchester.
18 August, 1864: It seems that Sheridan is the one trying to draw Early in. The Federals head for Charles Town while the Confederates head for Bunker Hill, north of Winchester.
21 August, 1864: Sheridan and his army reach Harper’s Ferry, where they prepare strong defensive positions. Early believes that he has another timid Federal commander in front of him.
27 August, 1864: Early spent several days probing the Federal lines at Harper’s Ferry without success. He orders a withdrawal.
For the next several weeks there is skirmishing, but no real action. With Early still a threat, soon even Lincoln was getting concerned. He orders Grant to provide whatever assistance he can provide Sheridan. Grant decides to see Sheridan personally and departs Petersburg on 15 September to do just that.
Sheridan, on the other hand, has decided that the time was right to go on the offensive.
17 September, 1864: Early receives reports that Union forces are working on rail lines in preparation for an advance. He orders his troops to Bunker Hill in response.
18 September, 1864: Early marches to Martinsburg, where he learns of the Grant/Sheridan conference. The Confederates are ordered back to Bunker Hill.
The Campaign Begins
19 September, 1864: Battle of Winchester: Early pulled back his forces to Winchester and deployed them in an angle northeast of the town. He has his cavalry cover the north, anchored on two forts. Sheridan attacks from the east and was held by Early’s defensive line. He then sends in his cavalry, which crushes the Confederate left flank. Early is forced from the field.
Early withdraws south, with Sheridan in pursuit.
21 September, 1864: Sheridan catches up with Early at Cedar Creek. The Federals immediately entrench and check out the Confederate line. Sheridan brings up Brigadier General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia and conceal them for an attack the next day.
22 September, 1864: Early sees the situation at Cedar Creek and begins to pull back. However, Crook attacks and Sheridan launches a general assault on Early. Despite the artillery holding their ground, the Confederate line breaks and Early has to order a retreat. He loses 1200 men and 12 cannon. The Union loses are 528.
24 September, 1864: As Early pulls back to New Market, Sheridan begins to implement the next phase of his plan. He orders the burning of farms, including crops and barns, which had supplied the Confederate armies since 1861.
For the next few weeks, Sheridan slowly advanced down the Shenandoah Valley, burning farms and skirmishing with Early. Port Republic, Brock’s Gap, and Brown’s Gap were among the places where minor engagements took place.
Sheridan decides to head back north, still burning farms along the way. He faces a determined Early as well as Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s Virginia Partisan Rangers, who were attacking his supply lines, in one instance losing a $173,000 payroll.
18 October, 1864: This day finds Sheridan at Cedar Creek. He is ordered to a conference in Washington. Early decides that if there is a good time to attack, that is now. He moves up his forces, now numbering 8800 infantry and 1200 cavalry, to Cedar Creek and wait for morning.
19 October, 1864; Battle of Cedar Creek: At around 5:40 a.m. Early launched his assault. Despite a few delays, surprise is achieved and the Federals are driven from their camps. Two Federal corps are overrun while a third tries to hold a defensive line. What helps the Union was that Early’s troops decide to loot the encampments, another sign of the desperate supply situation.
Sheridan was riding back from the conference when he hears the noise of battle and sees his troops running. After sizing up the situation, he begins riding forward on his horse, Rienzi, rallying his forces with the promise that they would be back in their camps that night. During the afternoon, the Union forces were able to launch an assault of their own. Early’s army was thrown back and forced to retreat. While directing a holding action, Confederate General Stephen Ramseur was killed. The Union causalities were 5762 while the Confederates lost 2910. The main difference was that Sheridan started out with 30,000, Early only had 10,000.
After a couple of more skirmishes, both armies went into winter quarters. Both forces were shrunk. Early was ordered to send most of his troops back to Lee at Petersburg. Sheridan sent his infantry back to Grant, who would need them for the final campaign.
As the spring of 1865 approached, Sheridan had 10,000 cavalry at his disposal. Early only had 2000. In February, Sheridan retakes the offensive.
27 February, 1865: Sheridan sends Brigadier General Wesley Merritt against the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal with orders to destroy both.
28 February, 1865: Sheridan’s cavalry cross the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. They carry 15 days worth of rations. The valley is so depleted that in the words on one Union officer, “a bird flying across the valley would have to carry their own provender.”
2 March, 1865: Sheridan’s cavalry assault Early’s lines at Waynesboro, puncturing the center and capturing most of the Confederate force. Early, his staff, and a few troops manage to escape. This ends any Confederate military presence in the Shenandoah Valley.
Following that last defeat, Lee was forced to relieve Early of command. As the war was coming to an end, he flees to Mexico, but returns later to practice law. He dies in 1894.
Sheridan received the Thanks of Congress for his actions at Cedar Creek as well as the permanent rank of Major General of Regulars. He rejoins Grant and was instrumental at Five Forks, forcing the Confederates to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg. At Appomattox, he blocked all remaining avenues of retreat that Lee had left, forcing the final surrender. Post-war, Sheridan commanded a force that was sent to the Rio Grand River to keep an eye on the Imperial Mexican Government, headed by the Emperor Maximillian. Afterwards, he commanded the Department of the Missouri. While on active duty he was an observer of the Franco-Prussian War and worked for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. He achieved the rank of Full General in 1884 and died while on active duty in 1888.
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