The Last Battle of Winchester

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While true that Sheridan eventually had overwhelming numbers, “He faced a skillful and battle-hardened opponent.  Prior Union commanders in the Valley and elsewhere had proven that having more men and supplies did not guarantee victory.  Indeed, no Union general had achieved anything more than temporary success in the Valley.  Jubal Early’s Second Corps from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia continued to use the Valley to instill fear in the halls of Washington.  Qualitatively speaking, Early’s Southerners outmatched Sheridan’s disparate army in both experience and espirit de corps.  Simply put, Sheridan’s new command was an army in name only, and he had yet to mold his varying commands of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and support services into an efficient and effective fighting force.  Sheridan’s most formidable challenge was to reconstruct the Army of the Shenandoah into a cohesive fighting force from several disparate commands that had little shared history.” [p. 37]

Patchan does an excellent job describing the forces arrayed on both sides.  Early’s force was generally extremely good with one exception.  “The Confederacy’s mounted arm in the Shenandoah Valley was the weak link of Early’s army.  Five poorly equipped brigades composed the outfit, and they were only nominally led by Maj. Gen. Robert Ransom who spent more time sick in an ambulance than actually leading his division in the field.  Early in the campaign, the Confederate cavalry’s performance was adequate.  Brigadier General John McCausland was praised for his delaying tactics during Hunter’s march on Lynchburg and his aggressive role in locating and attacking the Union left flank at Monocacy.  Brigadier General John Imboden’s brigade received praise for its herculean efforts during the New Market campaign against Franz Sigel.  Brigadier General Bradley Johnson’s brigade had ridden into the suburbs of Baltimore during Early’s Washington raid, creating much consternation at the U.S. War Department.  Yet Ransom had been unable to take these five brigades of mountaineers who excelled in ‘the silly practice of whooping and hallooing’ and turning them into a cohesive cavalry division.  Johnson called them his ‘wild western Virginians.’  Ransom’s ill health had precluded him from taking an active role in operations much of the time.  The inefficient Brig. Gen. John C. Vaughn substituted for Ransom until a battlefield injury sent him to the rear and necessitated a change in command.  Jubal Early did not help matters as he took little or no action to rectify the situation, although he was well aware of his horsemen’s shortcomings both from the summer campaign and his time in western Virginia the previous winter.” [p. 49]

Patchan discusses all the actions that occurred during this time, including fights that most students of the war don’t usually read about, such as the Battle of Guard Hill, the Union’s rear guard action at Bower’s Hill, and the Charlestown Offensive the confederates conducted on 21 August.  He also covers the political pressures of the campaign.  “Military campaigns in the United States of America are fought at the direction of duly elected political leadership.  As such, politics played a major role in every campaign of the Civil War.  Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley was o exception.  In fact, his army’s proximity to Washington and the recent Union failures in that region only heightened the political impact upon Sheridan’s operations.  With direct responsibility for the defense of the national capital and the Potomac River crossings, the political consequences of Sheridan’s actions in the Shenandoah assumed an importance that went well beyond their actual military significance.” [p. 129]  It’s no exaggeration to say that President Lincoln’s reelection was going to be impacted by what happened in the Shenandoah Valley.

The bulk of the book deals with the Third Battle of Winchester.  Patchan gives us an in-depth view of the preliminaries, the various parts of the battle, and its aftermath.  If you’re interested in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, you must have this book.  I highly recommend it.  Another great feature it has are the tremendous maps by Hal Jespersen, making it easy to follow the action.  I believe I found a typo on one map, though.  On page 283 the map shows the 75th New York, the 14th Maine, the 12th Maine, the 26th Massachusetts, and the 14th New York in the Second Woods.  I believe that instead of the 14th New York it should read the 14th New Hampshire.  The book is well illustrated, not only with the maps but also with photos and period sketches.  The appendices include an order of battle, detailed strength and casualty reports for both sides, a compilation of the Medals of Honor awarded during the time period covered in the book, and some selected soldier accounts.  This book is really well done and an asset to any student of the war’s bookshelf.

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5 comments

  1. jfepperson · · Reply

    I have this—it is nearing the top of MountToBeRead.

    1. Make sure you’ve already read Shenandoah Summer first, Jim.

      1. Yes, I have. Read that last year, I think. I did not know much about the period between Lynchburg and Sheridan’s appointment, other than Monocacy/Ft. Stevens. Quite an informative read, as a result. In particular, I was unaware that Sigel was still around after Lynchburg.

        1. Yep, there was a lot of good stuff in it.

  2. jfepperson · · Reply

    Just an FYI—I started this the other night, and so far think it is very good.

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