This was Jeffry Wert’s presentation at the 2014 Bridgewater College Civil War Institute, held on March 29, 2014 at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia.
On June 13, 1864 the II Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia headed west. They would go to Lynchburg. After chasing Hunter out of the Valley they would turn north. On June 25, they reached Lexington, Virginia. As they come into Lexington, they’ll pass the cemetery and the grave of Stonewall Jackson, which is covered in flowers. The band will start to play a funeral dirge, and the men will march by solemnly with reverse arms. These are Jackson’s old foot cavalry. But are they really Old Jack’s foot cavalry? A year earlier, in June of 1863 the II Corps led the confederate march toward Pennsylvania. They’ll rout Milroy at Second Winchester and go into Pennsylvania ahead of everyone else. If we look at that corps, of the 13 brigade commanders in the II Corps at Gettysburg, none of them were in the II Corps in 1864. Two of them, John B. Gordon and Stephen D. Ramseur, had been promoted. But the other 11 were all gone.
If we go ahead to May 4, 1864 and look at the II Corps, they numbered 17,229. On June 13 their number was 8,250. In those six weeks they had lost more than half their number. So when they go west, the II Corps is a shadow of what it had been. Most of the foot cavalry who had marched in 1862 and 1863 are gone. So when they marched past that grave, there are a lot of those soldiers who had never served under Jackson. Most of the foot cavalry is long gone.
Why did they go west? The answer probably begins on May 4, 1864. On that day the Army of the Potomac forded the Rappahannock River, and on that day it was more than the fording of a river, it was a passage, because on that day the war in Virginia changed. Since June of 1862, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had dictated the war in the east. Robert E. Lee had held the strategic initiative in the east. When the Federal army crosses the Rapidan, Ulysses S. Grant controls the war in the east for the rest of the war. He’s going to put a strangle hold on the Army of Northern Virginia, and he is going to choke it to death. It will take a while, and it’s not going to be easy. Lee understood he was being controlled and had to react. Arguably the great offensive prowess of the Army of Northern Virginia had been seriously if not irreparably harmed at Gettysburg, but from the time Lee took command of that army he understood something better than almost all other confederate generals–that the real enemy of the confederacy [yes, on the battlefield you have to defeat the armies] was the will of the Northern people. He had to break that will. The confederacy could not win militarily. Lee realized this. They had to win a series of battlefield victories to break the Northern will to sustain the war effort. When 1864 rolled around, Lee saw this. How to do it? Have the election of someone other than Abraham Lincoln. The election of 1864 hangs over everything.
One of Joe Johnston’s problems seems to be that in ’64 he was tone deaf to the politics. He kept retreating, but what does that mean to the public? There’s a possibility that if both he and Lee achieve a stalemate that the Northern people will quit the war. On August 23 Lincoln called his cabinet in and had them sign the famous “Blind Memorandum” acknowledging he probably won’t win and pledging support to the new administration. Lee takes his final bold gamble of the war. He’s thinking, “How can I turn the strategic initiative around?” He has to defend the crucial rail center of Lynchburg, but what if there was an opportunity to force Grant to react? He detaches 1/4 of his mobile infantry, the II Corps, with an artillery battalion, and heads them into the Shenandoah Valley. And during the course of this operation Lee will continue to up the ante. It’s a bigger and bigger gamble, and Lee wants to take it. He knows that if Grant crosses the James, it’s only a matter of time. Literally, Grant is crossing the James as the II Corps is heading toward the Valley. That’s why Early is given the opportunity to head north, to take the war into Maryland, to embarrass the Lincoln administration. And as they do that, the New York Times will write, “It’s the old story in the Shenandoah Valley again. The back door is left open.”
So when the II Corps goes into the Valley, led by Jubal Early, we have to keep in mind that as the campaign unfolds, Jubal Early will be faced with two burdens. First, he’ll be haunted by Stonewall Jackson. Everyone who leads troops in the Valley will be compared with Stonewall Jackson. Beyond that, the real burden he had was Lee’s expectations. Lee wanted victory in the Shenandoah Valley and will keep reminding Early of that.
Early certainly deserved his position. He started to shine as early as Williamsburg. He was even at First Manassas. At one point during the Overland Campaign he temporarily succeeded A. P. Hill, who got ill and couldn’t command for about a week, so Early took command of the III Corps. Then, as Ewell’s physical afflictions took effect and Lee saw an opportunity to shelve Ewell, Early was given command of the II Corps. Early is as irascible as the day is long, but he’s fearless and very capable.
The senior division commander is Robert Rodes. He’s highly capable and is in the top tier of division commanders under Lee. John B. Gordon was a Georgian who was another highly capable division commander. Jubal Early and John Gordon did not get along. The third division commander is Stephen Dodson Ramseur, 27 years old, the youngest West Pointer to obtain the rank of major general in the confederate army. He deserves it. He has performed very well and is a rising star.
There are very capable men as brigade commanders. In Rodes’ division there was Cullen Battle, Bryan Grimes, Phil Cook, and William Cox. In Gordon’s there was Clement Evans and William Terry. Gordon’s commanding what was Johnson’s division that was decimated at the Mule Shoe. The Stonewall Brigade as such ceases to exist and the Virginia regiments are combined with Louisianans. In Ramseur’s division there is Robert Johnson. The artillery was well served. Artillery chief Thomas Carter was excellent, and he has three battalions of artillery. Now, the cavalry. Early will growl about the cavalry and misuse it for the entire campaign. These aren’t Stuart’s men. They’ve been doing hit-and-run in the mountains, and they’re armed with Enfields. Then Fitz Lee came out.
Lee will up the ante and send Joseph Kershaw’s division. Maybe, Early had 17,000 men at Third Winchester. Sheridan came with anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000, so Jubal Early couldn’t make any mistakes because the numbers were against him, and he made mistakes. He mishandled his cavalry. He liked to tear up the B&O Railroad, but instead of sending his cavalry to do that he sent Rodes’ and Gordon’s infantrymen. Early goes into the telegraph office at Martinsburg and finds out that Grant has come to the Valley. Early is smart enough to realize that if Grant is around, something is going to happen, so he recalls his men, who had been strung out. What he desperately needed was time. Fortunately for him, Phil Sheridan gave him that time by sending all his men through Berryville Canyon. But Early had hung his army out and left it open to destruction. Third Winchester was a stand-up fight.
At Fisher’s Hill, Early misused his cavalry again.
John Mosby had volunteered his services to Early during Early’s retreat from Washington, and Early more or less dismissed him. He thought Mosby’s men were thieves and were no good.
At Cedar Creek, Lee had written to Early telling him he needed a victory in the Valley. Early had told Lee there was a large number of Union soldiers in the Valley, but Lee wouldn’t accept it. There is no comparable battle to Cedar Creek. Early conducted a night march, crossing two bodies of water, got his men in position on time to launch the attack, and swept the initial Union forces away. The critical moment of the battle came when Gordon’s division crossed over and is marching down the pike. Early rides up to Ramseur and Pegram. Getty’s division of the VI Corps had regrouped in the cemetery. Early is convinced they had to push them. All they had to do is march down the Valley Pike north of Middletown and that position is outflanked. But there is still fog. He had won that battle based on maneuver. The cavalry wasn’t there yet. Once Merritt and his men got across the Valley Pike and lined up, they weren’t going to be pushed out. Early performs a reconnaissance in force early that afternoon and tests the Yankee position. He stopped and the offensive was over. He should have pulled back, but he left them there. Sheridan wasn’t a good tactician, but he had taken various corps and made them into an army. They believed in him. When he came back, he galvanized them. They swept Early’s army away.
In the East, where all the newspapers were, where Stonewall Jackson and the confederates had dominated that region since the beginning of the war, there is a drum beat of Union victories, and the people were convinced the confederacy was finished. That solidifies Lincoln’s re-election.
In many ways Early faced far greater odds than Jackson did. Sheridan and Horatio Gates were not Nathaniel Banks and John C. Frémont.
Jeff is a very engaging and knowledgeable speaker, but he went on a number of tangents and in several places began a thought and never finished it because he went on several tangents and never returned to the thought he began to express.