Early’s Army in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign


This was Ranger Eric Campbell’s presentation at the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and the Burning Sesquicentennial Conference at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia.

Eric started off by reminding us that these operations took place after an extremely successful campaign Early’s forces had conducted that summer, which included an invasion of Maryland, and threatening Washington, D.C.  On July 24 at Second Kernstown, Early completely routed Crook and cleared the Shenandoah Valley of Union troops.  This was the high point of Early’s campaign, and he followed it with the burning of Chambersburg on July 30.  These events would help bring Northern morale to its lowest ebb of the war.  Less than 90 days later, though, was the Battle of Cedar Creek.  Early’s forces suffered a series of humiliating defeat.  It was a complete and stunning reversal of that earlier success.  There is no one single reason to explain that reversal.

The top three reasons were a disparity of strength, leadership, and the performance of the troops.

Diversity of Strength:  The Army of the Shenandoah had a significant advantage in numbers.  The exact numbers are hard to determine.  The best sources state that at the beginning of the campaign the Union Army of the Shenandoah had about 35,000 infantry and artillery and 8,000 cavalry for a total of about 43,000.  The Army of the Valley under Early had approximately 9,000 infantry and artillery and 4,000 cavalry for about 13,000 total.  That’s about a 3:1 advantage.  By the end of the campaign at the Battle of Cedar Creek the numbers are slightly changed.  Sheridan is now down to about 24,000 infantry and artillery and about 7,500 cavalry for a total of approximately 31,500.  The Army of the Valley, Early’s force, numbered about 10,500 infantry and artillery and about 3,000 cavalry, so he had somewhere between 13 and 14 thousand.  That’s about a 2.5:1 advantage for Sheridan.  This fits nicely into the general postwar lost cause mentality.  Confederate soldier John Worsham wrote, “The battle of Winchester was as hotly contested as any of the war, and was a regular stand-up fight; but we were so outnumbered that we could not prevent the flanking by the enemy.”  For some reason, the true size of Sheridan’s forces was one reality General Lee couldn’t grasp.  While he continued to send Early reinforcements, it’s obvious from his correspondence that he simply didn’t believe Early’s claims that he was greatly outnumbered.  The best example comes from a September 27, 1864 letter to Early following the disasters at Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill.  Lee’s response to Early’s report was, in part, “The enemy’s forces cannot be so greatly superior to yours.  His effective infantry, I do not think, exceeds 12,000 men.”  Obviously Lee was completely off.  At that point Sheridan probably had close to 35,000.  Even the renowned Southern historian Douglas Southall Freeman wrote about Lee’s miscalculation, “No other mathematical calculation made by Lee during the entire war was so much in error.”  We can only imagine Early’s frustration when he continued to receive words of advice and wisdom from Lee about how to reverse his fortunes instead of the much-needed men, supplies, horses, and materiel.  The best example of this comes from the same September 27 letter from Lee to Early.  “I very much regret the reverses that have occurred to the army in the Valley, but trust they can be remedied.  The arrival of Kershaw will add greatly to  your strength, and I have such confidence in the men and officers that I am sure all will unite in the defense of the country.  It will require that every one should exert all his energies and strength to meet the emergency.  One victory will put all things right.  You must do all in your power to invigorate your army.  Get back all absentees; maneuver so, if you can, as to keep the enemy in check until you can strike him with all your strength. … It will require the greatest watchfulness, the greatest promptness, and the most untiring energy on your part to arrest the progress of the enemy in his present tide of success. … I have given you all I can; you must use the resources you have so as to gain success.”  Facing long odds was something all confederate leaders faced during the war.  The best examples of this were Chancellorsville and Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign.  Major General John B. Gordon, one of Early’s harshest critics, didn’t think it was fare to compare Early to Jackson.  He wrote, “unfair contrasts have been drawn between the results achieved by these two generals in the same Valley. It is only just to General Early to call attention to the fact that General Jackson was never, in any one of his great battles, there, so greatly outnumbered as was General Early at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill. Early had in neither of these battles more than 10,000 men, including all arms of the service, while the Official Reports show that General Sheridan brought against him over 30,000 well-equipped troops.”  Nonetheless, the comparison between Early and Jackson is common, is natural in that both fought in the Valley, and it leads to the second point leading to confederate defeat, leadership.

Leadership:  Nearly all the discussion concerning this factor centers on Lt. General Jubal A. Early.  We have to look at Early’s leadership as a whole, starting before the Shenandoah Valley campaign, to give him a fair evaluation.  Before the 1864 Valley Campaign, Early gained command of the II Corps in May of 1864 following the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.  He was notoriously quick-tempered and profane.  He was stooped by arthritis and appeared much older than his 47 years.  That and his temper caused Lee, who really admired Early, to call him “My bad old man.”  Early was described in the summer of 1864 succinctly as “He is as brave as he is homely, and is as homely a man as any man you ever saw.”  The campaign Early had just conducted through Maryland to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. was a great success, and he followed that with bold maneuvering in fighting numerous battles in the Upper Valley, which cleared the Valley of Union troops in July and August, adding to Early’s reputation.  Jedediah Hotchkiss, the famous confederate cartographer, described the campaign in a letter to his wife that summer just after the confederates got back into the Valley:  “We have been over 3/4 of the State of Maryland, scared ‘Old Abe’ so that he has ordered a good portion of his force away from Richmond, captured thousands of horses and cattle, whipped the enemy in a regular battle and with small loss, returned safely to a position that threatens Washington and Pa. at the same time, and are ready to move in any direction.  By all odds this is the most successful expedition we have ever made into the enemy’s country.”  The confederate artillerist Robert Stiles, who later wrote a book about his experiences after the war, Four Years Under Marse Robert, also described in glowing terms Early’s command style.  Stiles wrote, “Lee showed the utmost confidence in Early by selecting him so frequently for independent command and to fill the most critical, difficult, and I had almost said hopeless positions in the execution of his own great plans.”  Early was also praised by Union soldiers.  Capt. Russell Hastings, a member of Rutherford B. Hayes’ staff, said Early was “always watchful, alert, ready to seize upon such an opportunity as now presented itself; a hard fighter, full of vim and subtle cunning, able to maneuver his troops in such a way as completely to deceive our commanders.”  Despite this praise, the hard analysis of the entire 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign does reveal, of course, that Early wasn’t perfect.  He did make mistakes.

At Third Winchester he completely misjudged Sheridan, seeing Sheridan as timid.  Early admitted his mistake, saying, “The events of the last month had satisfied me that the commander opposed to me was without enterprise, and possessed an excessive caution which amounted to timidity.  If it was his policy to produce the impression that his force was too weak to fight me, he did not succeed, but if it was to convince me that he was not an energetic commander, his strategy was a complete success.”

At Winchester, Early allowed his forces to be dispersed over a wide area prior to the battle, which caused a desperate scramble on Early’s part to reassemble his army.  At Fisher’s Hill the arrangement of his battle line was poor.  The line was too long for his small army to cover the entire length in strength, and he put his most questionable troops, the cavalry under Lunsford Lomax, on the most vulnerable position of his line, the left flank.  At Tom’s Brook Early left his outmanned and outnumbered cavalry far from the support of his infantry, leading to a total rout of his cavalry.  He also used his cavalry very poorly throughout the entire campaign.  He was very critical of the cavalry and its leaders throughout the campaign, which is not going to inspire them, and he took very few steps to remedy the situation.  He also badly misused his cavalry in several situations.  At Cedar Creek he assigned nearly 1/3 of his cavalry to a mission that took them completely off the battlefield.  The most controversial decision Early made was the halt at Cedar Creek.  Following his brilliant surprise attack that morning where Early’s forces were able to rout two of the three Union corps completely out of their camps and drive the entire Union Army off the battlefield north of Middletown, Early decided to halt his command just north of Middletown, feeling he’d won an incredible victory.  His most vocal critic was General John B. Gordon, who gave this critical decision its name, the “Fatal Halt.”  Gordon wrote, “And so it came to pass that the fatal halting, the hesitation, the spasmodic firing, and the isolated movements in the face of the sullen, slow, and orderly retreat of this superb Federal corps, lost us the great opportunity, and converted the brilliant victory of the morning into disastrous defeat in the evening. … Impartial history must declare that, under these conditions, if one more heavy blow had been delivered with unhesitating energy, with Jacksonian confidence and vigor, and with the combined power of every heavy gun and every exultant soldier of Early’s army, the battle would have ended in one of the most complete and inexpensive victories ever won in war.”  As we know, that final blow never occurred.  Instead, Sheridan made his famous ride back from Winchester.  He rallies his forces, orders a counterattack that afternoon which completely drove Early’s forces off the field, and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.  Early later tried to justify his reasons for halting his advance.  Feeling his reasons were very solid for not continuing the advance, this is how Early explained it: “It was now apparent that it would not do to press my troops further. They had been up all night and were much jaded. In passing over rough ground to attack the enemy in the early morning their own ranks had been much disordered and the men scattered, and it had required time to re-form them. Their ranks, more-over, were much thinned by the absence of the men engaged in plundering the enemy’s camps. The delay which had unavoidably occurred had enabled the enemy to rally a portion of his routed troops, and his immense force of cavalry, which remained intact, was threatening both of our flanks in an open country, which of itself rendered an advance extremely hazardous. I determined, therefore, to try and hold what had been gained, and orders were given for carrying off the captured and abandoned artillery, small-arms, and wagons.”  He couldn’t, at that moment, fathom the idea of the Army of the Shenandoah, which he had routed that morning, having any chance of rallying itself to launch an attack by that evening.  Nightfall was only a few hours away, Early assumed incorrectly he would be able to conduct a withdrawal under cover of darkness and the Army of the Shenandoah would have no choice, as badly beaten as it was, but to conduct its withdrawal back to Winchester, and thus he had won a great victory.  Early’s assumptions were reasonable.  No army, such as the Army of the Shenandoah here, so badly defeated, had ever rallied itself under similar circumstances.  But of course, Early didn’t count on the impact of Sheridan’s arrival and return to the field, which almost singlehandedly turned the battle around.  While he never publicly or officially admitted the blame for the Fatal Halt, Early did seem to admit that blame privately or behind the scenes.  The best example of this comes from the diary of Jedediah Hotchkiss, who wrote in his account of Cedar Creek, “Thus was one of the most brilliant victories of the war turned into one of the most disgraceful defeats, and all owing to the delay in pressing the enemy after we got to Middletown; as General Early said, ‘The Yankees got whipped and we got scared.’ ”  A few days later, Early sent Hotchkiss with maps and other sources on the battle to visit Lee in person in the battle lines outside Richmond where he was to explain to Lee what happened and what caused this disastrous defeat outside Cedar Creek.  Apparently, the last thing he told Hotchkiss before he left was, “General Early told me not to tell General Lee that we ought to have advanced in the morning at Middletown, for, said he, we ought to have done so.”

In Early’s defense, the question has to be asked, even if he tried to push his troops further the morning of October 19, could his troops have realistically accomplished more?  We must consider that they were utterly exhausted. They had been up all night on an 8-9 hour march, including two night crossings of the Shenandoah River followed by six hours of fighting across five miles of battlefield by the time they reached Middletown.  By the time they got to Middletown they were also completely disorganized, and they were ill-equipped.  Sheridan turned out to be a very capable commander.  Jackson had never faced any commander as good as Sheridan.

While Early had made mistakes, he also achieved tremendous battlefield success.  He showed boldness throughout the campaign, the willingness to take risks even though he knew he was outnumbered.  He kept taking risks when they seemed to be working.  The plan Early used to attack Sheridan’s army at Cedar Creek was nothing short of brilliant.  It’s one of the boldest, most audacious and riskiest attack plans ever developed.

Another way to judge Early’s leadership and performance in the Valley is to analyze the overall objectives he was facing in the campaign.  He explained the objectives as he saw them:  “The object of my presence there was to keep up a threatening attitude towards Maryland and Pennsylvania, and prevent the use of the Baltimore& Ohio Railroad, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, as well as to keep as large a force as possible from Grant’s army to defend the Federal Capital.”  A critical analysis reveals that despite his ultimate defeat and the loss of the Shenandoah Valley, Early did complete some of those objectives successfully, at least throughout most of the campaign.  Early was able to tie up over 40,000 Union soldiers who could have been used somewhere else, using only 15,000 of his own soldiers to do it.  If you compare that with what Jackson did in 1862, those numbers are very similar.  Early also inflicted great loss on the various Union commands he faced.  From June to October, it’s estimated he inflicted 20,000 Union casualties while suffering 10,000 of his own.  Early later summed up his attitude toward his actions in the Shenandoah Valley by simply writing, “when the difficulties under which I labored are considered, I think I may confidently assert that I had done as well as it was possible for me to do.”  Ultimately, history is a harsher judge.  Most historians and students will look at the final result of the campaign.  Early was decisively defeated, the Valley was firmly in Union control and its resources were destroyed.  Victory is the final determination in many cases.  Jackson won victory in the Valley in ’62; Early did not.

Performance of the Troops:  Throughout his numerous explanations, Early directly and forcefully stated the bad conduct of his troops was a major reason for his defeat.  Not surprisingly, this generates a lot of controversy.  The troops in question, the II Corps, were some of the best troops who had ever fought for the confederacy.  They are seasoned veterans.  They’re battered, much under strength, but still have extremely high morale.  Yet, they suffered humiliating defeats.  They’re routed at Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek.  From his earliest accounts of these engagements, Early is bluntly laying a lot of the blame for these disasters on the shoulders of his own men.  In his report of Fisher’s Hill, he wrote, “In the affair at Fisher’s Hill the cavalry gave way, but it was flanked. This could have been remedied if the troops had remained steady, but a panic seized them at the idea of being flanked, and without being defeated they broke, many of them fleeing shamefully.”  When it comes to Cedar Creek Early described the rout of his soldiers as, “my left gave way, and the rest of the troops took a panic and could not be rallied, retreating in confusion. But for their bad conduct I should have defeated Sheridan’s whole force.”  He also said the “men ran without sufficient cause.”  Another Cedar Creek account says, “Gordon’s division, on the left, subsequently gave way, and Kershaw’s and Ramseur’s did so also, when they found Gordon’s giving way, not because there was any pressure on them, but from an insane idea of being flanked. Some of them, however, were rallied, and with the help of the artillery the army was checked for some time, but a great number of the men could not be stopped, but continued to go to the rear. The enemy again made a demonstration, and General Ramseur, who was acting with great gallantry, was wounded, and the left again gave way, and then the whole command, falling back in such a panic that I had to order Pegram’s and Wharton’s commands, which were very small and on the right, to fall back, and most of them took the panic also. I found it impossible to rally the troops. They would not listen to entreaties, threats, or appeals of any kind. A terror of the enemy’s cavalry had seized them, and there was no holding them. They left the field in the greatest confusion. … the panic was so great that nothing could be done.”  Lastly, he said, “the rout was as thorough and disgraceful as ever happened to our army.”  These accounts of bad conduct by Early introduced another accusation against his soldiers, being undisciplined.  He’s talking about the plundering of Union camps at Cedar Creek following the morning victory.  This accusation of confederates leaving their ranks against orders and plundering Union camps goes directly back to the controversy over the Fatal Halt.  Early claimed that hundreds, if not thousands of his men were not with their units at the front line when the counterattack came that afternoon.  This caused great controversy.  Some leaders, like Gordon, denied it ever happened, or that it was not to the extent that Early claimed.  Most accounts do, however, seem to indicate that up to a third of the confederate army had left their units and were plundering the Union camps.  Plundering did occur.  Numerous accounts of confederate soldier admit it occurred.  One of the best comes from Sgt. Worsham of the 21st Virginia.  He said, “The world will never know the extreme poverty of the Confederate soldier at that time! Hundreds of the men who were in the charge and captured the enemy’s works were barefooted, every one of them was ragged, many had nothing but what they had on, and none had eaten a square meal for weeks! In passing through Sheridan’s camp they had a great temptation thrown in their way; many of the tents were open, and in plain sight were rations, shoes, overcoats and blankets! The fighting continued farther and farther, and some of the men stopped, secured well-filled haversacks, and as they investigated their contents, the temptation to stop and eat was too great, as they had had nothing since the evening before, and they yielded. Others tried on shoes, others put on warm pants in place of the tattered ones, others got overcoats and blankets, articles so much needed for the coming cold! They had already experienced several biting frosts to remind them of the winter near at hand. In this way half of Early’s men were straggling, and this accounts for his thin line in front.”  Early’s claim that his troops broke without cause is also hotly debated.  Some troops admitted to breaking while those like Gordon denied it.  One South Carolinian in Kershaw’s division recalled it.  “Someone raised the cry and it was caught up and hurried along like all omens of ill luck, that ‘the cavalry is surrounding us.’ In a moment our whole line was in one wild confusion, like ‘pandemonium broke loose.’ If it was a rout in the morning, it was a stampede now. None halted to listen to orders or commands.”  Of course, Early didn’t help his own cause when he decided to make this same accusation of bad conduct by his troops public.  In an extremely poor decision, Early had a document called “An Address From General Early to His Troops” released to the newspapers just days after the disaster at Cedar Creek before his troops even saw it.  They read about it in the newspapers.  Early pulled no punches.  “I have the mortification of announcing to you that, by your subsequent misconduct, all the benefits of that victory were lost, and a serious disaster incurred. Had you remained steadfast to your duty and your colours, the victory would have been one of the most brilliant and decisive of the war; you would have gloriously retrieved the reverses at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, and entitled yourselves to the admiration and gratitude of your country. But many of you, including some commissioned officers, yielding to a disgraceful propensity for plunder, deserted your colours to appropriate to yourselves the abandoned property of the enemy; and, subsequently, those who had previously remained at their posts, seeing their ranks thinned by the absence of the plunderers, when the enemy, late in the afternoon, with his shattered columns made but a feeble effort to retrieve the fortunes of the day, yielded to a needless panic, and fled the field in confusion, thereby converting a splendid victory into a disaster. Had any respectable number of you listened to the appeals made to you and made a stand, even at the last moment, the disaster would have been averted, and the substantial fruits of victory secured; but under the insane dread of being flanked and a panic-stricken terror of the enemy’s cavalry, you would listen to no appeal, threat or order, and allowed a small body of cavalry to penetrate to our train and carry off a number of pieces of artillery and wagons, which your disorder left unprotected.”  Not surprisingly, the men reacted with universal disgust at their commander, and the address was roundly condemned in many newspapers.

The real question is what factors could explain the complete reversal of the performance of such veteran soldiers.  One factor is the physical and mental condition of the men, considering all they’d been through.  Early described the condition of his men after the Overland Campaign on entering the Valley.  “The 2nd corps now numbered a little over 8,000 muskets for duty. It had been on active and arduous service in the field for forty days, and had been engaged in all the great battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, sustaining very heavy losses at Spotsylvania Court-House, where it lost nearly an entire division, including its commander, Major General Johnson, who was made prisoner. … Constant exposure to the weather, a limited supply of provisions, and two weeks’ service in the swamps north of the Chickahominy had told on the health of the men. Divisions were not stronger than brigades ought to have been, nor brigades than regiments.” Now on top of that you have to add on the campaign into Maryland to the outskirts of Washington, including the Battle of Monocacy, the constant campaign throughout the late summer in the Valley, and the fall campaign including the largest and bloodiest battles ever fought in the Shenandoah Valley throughout the entire war.  Jedediah Hotchkiss later calculated the II Corps alone in 1864 marched 1,670 miles and fought 75 battles or engagements.  So it’s no wonder these men were in poor condition by the time they faced the enemy in the Valley.

Although his wartime assessment of his troops was blunt and harsh, Early certainly understood the élan and capability of his troops.  In his postwar reminiscences, Early summed up this understanding by simply writing, “I have never attributed the result to a want of courage on their part.”  Gordon’s summary of his men’s ability in the ’64 campaign left no doubt that he always believed in their courage and bravery.  Gordon praised his men by saying “These men were not strangers to General Lee. He knew them. He had seen them in the past years of the war, performing deeds of valor and exercising a self-denial the simple record of which would rival the legends of the romantic era of chivalry. They had not changed, except to grow, if possible, into a more self-sacrificing manhood as the demands upon them became more exacting. Whatever they had been in the battles around Richmond, at Fredericksburg, at Chancellorsville, at Gettysburg, at Cold Harbor, in the Wilderness, and in the great countercharge at Spotsylvania, they were the same at Cedar Creek.”

Thus by closely examining the reasons or causes that often are stated to explain the confederate defeat in the Shenandoah Valley, it’s obvious there is no one simple answer, no black-and-white, clear-cut answer.  Even the most commonly accepted causes all involve complex interpretations and are intertwined.

Eric packed a great deal of detail into his presentation, but he misspoke on many occasions, and several times he rendered his quotations imperfectly.  Nonetheless, it was enjoyable to hear, and it’s obvious that Eric has a lot of knowledge to share.







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