Closing the Back Door: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864


This was Jeff Wert’s presentation at the 2014 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and The Burning Sesquicentennial Conference held at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, VA.

On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River and with that crossing the war in the East changed.  The man who led them, Ulysses S. Grant, seized the initiative and grabbed the Army of Northern Virginia by the throat and choked them to death over the next ten months.

Robert E. Lee understood the confederacy had to be audacious because they had limited manpower and resources.  They had to take the war to the Yankees.  And, by the way, the Southern people wanted that.  Lee knew that the most important enemy was the will of the Northern people.  The confederacy could not win a military victory in the Civil War.  They had to achieve a political settlement, and to do that Lee needed to break the Northern will, and he had to put together a series of wins on the battlefield to do that.

The 1864 Presidential election hung over every battle in 1864.  For the confederates to have a chance at this stage of the war, Lincoln had to be defeated at the polls.  In order to do that, Lee had to achieve at least a stalemate in all the theaters.  But Lee is faced with a difficult problem.  Another Union army is moving up the Valley toward Lynchburg under David Hunter.

Lee sends Jubal Early to the Valley, to deal with Hunter and if the opportunity arises to march north down the Valley to cross the Potomac and threaten Washington, hoping that Grant will be forced to detach troops to deal with that threat.  Early goes to the outskirts of Washington, he retreats back, he whips one Federal force at Cool Springs, he routs George Crook’s army at Second Kernstown on July 24, and then he dispatches two cavalry brigades into Pennsylvania and they burn Chambersburg on July 30.  At this time, the New York Times editorializes that, “It was the old story over again.  The back door by way of the Shenandoah Valley had been left open.”  There is at this time an aura of confederate invincibility in the Valley.

Grant never paid much attention to the Valley.  Lincoln can’t neglect the Valley any longer after Early’s raid on Washington.  Lincoln personally travels to meet Grant and they discuss the Valley situation.  They discussed consolidating the departments and putting them under a new commander.  Grant recommended William B. Franklin.  Lincoln wanted nothing to do with that because Franklin was one of George B. McClellan’s closest allies, and McClellan was Lincoln’s likely opponent in the election.  The Grant recommended George G. Meade, the current commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Lincoln said the Republicans in Congress had been pressuring him to get rid of Meade and this would look like that’s what he was doing.  No decision was made, but the next day, Grant chose Philip Sheridan, 33 years old.  Stanton was against Sheridan.  He was only 33, but this was what Grant wanted.  Sheridan goes to Washington and meets with Halleck and Stanton.  He’s told to be cautious because the President can’t stand another defeat in the Valley.  So initially, Sheridan is burdened with this.  David Hunter graciously steps aside to let Sheridan take command.  Sheridan takes command of an amalgam of forces.  It’s the Army of West Virginia, which will be the VIII Corps, the VI Corps, and two divisions of the XIX Corps that had been intended to go to Petersburg but were now routed to the Valley.  Grant initially releases one cavalry division to the Valley, but by the end of August he’ll release the second division.  For the first six weeks nothing much happens.

Jubal Early’s burden was greater in a sense.  First, he’s outnumbered 2:3.  The II Corps is no longer Jackson’s foot cavalry, because they’ve gone through the Gettysburg Campaign and the Overland Campaign.  The II Corps began the Overland Campaign with a little over 17,000 men.  When they marched out of the lines at Cold Harbor they had 8200 men.  His greatest burden is what Lee expected.  Lee didn’t send him to just occupy the Valley.  Lee expected victory, and he upped the ante in the middle of the campaign by sending Joseph Kershaw’s division along with Richard Anderson and the cavalry division under Fitz Lee.  He expects results.  Another burden of Early’s is the Valley cavalry, which wasn’t very good.  Early had a bias against the cavalry.  He thought he couldn’t get good results from them.  There was a desperate scarcity of horseshoes.  They are more like mounted infantry than actual cavalry, except for Fitz Lee’s division.

In this early “mimic war” period, Early makes a critical misjudgment.  He looks at what Sheridan is doing, which is not much, and assumes that Sheridan is not an aggressive general.

Things change in Georgia because on September 2 Atlanta falls.  This changes the whole political landscape in the North.  Just ten days earlier, on August 23, based on what he’s hearing from Republican operatives throughout the North, Lincoln believes he can’t be re-elected and has his Cabinet sign the blind memorandum.  But Sherman’s capture of Atlanta changes things.

Grant goes to see Sheridan at Charles Town on September 17, where he gives Sheridan what is arguably the shortest order in history.  Sheridan explains what he wants to do and Grant says, “Go in.”  In the meantime word reaches Early that they are rebuilding the B&O Railroad at Harper’s Ferry on September 18.  Early decides to send his two best divisions under Robert Rodes and John B. Gordon to Martinsburg to break up the railroad again.  Early finds out that Grant was in the area and concluded that something must be going on.  He hurries Rodes and Gordon back from Martinsburg.  What Early desperately needed on the morning of the 19th of September was time, which the Federal army gave him.  Horatio Wright brought his wagons with him through Berryville Canyon, which gives the confederates the time they need.  Stephen Dodson Ramseur fought a delaying action which allowed the confederates to consolidate.  Third Winchester was a stand-up fight and the confederates were forced to retreat and they fell back to Fisher’s Hill.

Early is in a situation where he can’t make a mistake and he makes mistakes.  He shouldn’t have fought at Winchester, he should have fought at Fisher’s Hill to start with, but he retreats to Fisher’s Hill minus the casualties he took at Winchester.  Then he puts his cavalry in a place where the Federals can get at them, on his left flank.  On September 22 the Federals crush that flank and it will be a stampede.  Just south of Fisher’s Hill, Sandie Pendleton, arguably the soul of the II Corps, is mortally wounded.  Early is forced out and heads to Brown’s Gap.

Sheridan assumes that Early is defeated, and he moves back to Cedar Creek.  Early attacked.  Lee was still expecting victory.  Lee didn’t know how many men Early faced.  Cedar Creek is unique.  The army marched at night, crossed two streams, and got into position and attacked on time.  Early attacks but he makes a critical mistake.  He routed two corps.  He drove back the VI Corps.  He did this by surprise and maneuver.  He got drawn into a fight at the cemetery and instead of marching Gordon’s division through the town and down the road to outflank the position he didn’t do so, and that gave the Federals time to move their cavalry in on that road, and Early is defeated.

This campaign closes the back door.  It takes the aura of confederate invincibility away from the Shenandoah Valley.  And it seals the election for Lincoln.

As you’d expect, this was a really good presentation.  Jeff does have a tendency to go off on tangents, though.  He usually makes his way back, but it does take a bit away from his presentation.


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