In the latter part of 1863, General U. S. Grant became the supreme commander of all Federal troops. For the 1864 campaigning season, Grant and Lincoln developed a grand strategy designed to push Lee's Army of Northern Virginia back to Richmond and crush it.
Meanwhile General Lee was developing his own plans to destroy the Federal Army and drive them out of Virginia. Both strategies initially focused on the area of central Virginia. The fact that the plans of both Grant and Lee focused on the area between Richmond and Washington, D.C. left the Shenandoah valley as merely a sideshow. However, neither side could afford to ignore the region completely.
The valley was called the "Breadbasket of the Confederacy". Harvests from the farms in the valley were sorely needed by the often hungry Army of Northern Virginia.
For the north, it represented an arrow pointed directly at the capitol of the United States. Jackson's campaign in 1862 had been so terrifying to Washington that troops were kept at Washington in defense of the capitol rather than sending them south to take part in McClellan's campaign against Richmond.
The South knew that an army of any size in the Shenandoah, if successful, could exert an influence far greater than their numbers alone could justify.
In early May of 1864, Major General Franz Sigel was ordered to take a sizable army and move up (south) through the Shenandoah, with his opposite number, John C. Breckenridge preparing to stop him.
The Lynchburg Campaign
General Henry Halleck
"It seems little better than murder to give important commands to men such as Sigel."
Franz Sigel was to move south through the Shenandoah and link up with Grant for the drive on Richmond. Grant had to depend on a General in whom he placed little confidence. Franz Sigel represents one of the first applications of affirmative action.
The Union army had a great deal of German immigrants. They felt that they should be commanded by one of their own. German origin mattered most. Other attributes (i.e. competence on the battlefield) were secondary. Sigel reaped the benefits of this philosophy, for, throughout his military career, in Germany as well as in the United States, he had shown very little competence on the battlefield.
Due to his popularity among the German immigrants, he was appointed head of the department which included the Shenandoah Valley by President Lincoln. This appointment was due to the fact that, as one cynic said, "the Dutch vote must be secured."
For this reason, Grant decided that Sigel's role would be one of support. "If Sigel can't skin himself," Grant said, "he can hold a leg whilst someone else skins."
The commander facing Sigel was John C. Breckenridge. Vice President under James Buchanan, he proved to be a very able politician. Politicians should usually stay away from deciding strategy of any sort, however, Breckenridge had proven himself a fairly able general in the West.
Upon Breckenridge's appointment, he began drilling the troops under his command and preparing them for combat. Sigel, out manning Breckenridge four to one, moved south toward New Market. Realizing that he was in dire straights, Breckenridge called up a reserve he had hoped he would never have to use: 250 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. Jefferson Davis had called them "the seed corn of the Confederacy." VMI was to the South what West Point was to the North. Twenty Confederate Generals were graduates from VMI.
Breckinridge's pieced together forces defeated Sigel in the Battle of New Market on May 15,1864. Sigel withdrew back to his base on the banks of Cedar Creek, making his headquarters at Belle Grove. In Washington, Lincoln and Grant realized that Sigel had to go.
The events following the battle were a boon for the Union. Breckenridge's Division was called east to reinforce Lee's army at Hanover Junction. David Hunter replaced Sigel and pushed further south through the Shenandoah, successfully engaging the Confederates near Piedmont on June 5th.
Hunter quickly moved into action, rebuilding the morale of his force and prepared to get on road to crush the Southern forces. The army, now in a somewhat better condition moved out from camp but soon halted for several days just north of Winchester while that awaited a large shipment of shoes. Hunter managed to spend a little time on his favorite hobby-burning the homes of his former friends and family.
Hunter's army moved on again, up the Valley Pike into Rockingham County where they turned east and headed down the Port Republic road.
The little Confederate Army, once again made up a second class units and local forces, waiting for the Federals along the Valley Pike.
Confederate scouts learned of the Federal position near Port Republic and moved the various rebel units under General Imboden and Vaughn to tiny hamlet called The Piedmont. It was there on the morning of June 5, 1864, that the two armies clashed in the Battle of The Piedmont.
The Capture of Staunton finally came about on June 6, 1864, a destination the Federals had been trying to reach for more than three years. During his brief stay in Staunton, Hunter's troops burned many military stores and visited his own brand of a fiery greeting for his former friends. Hunter's army now continued south to Lexington.
Brushing aside a small cavalry force at Lexington, he occupied the town on June 11 and burned the Virginia Military Institute. Throughout the rest of the Lynchburg campaign, Hunter would prove himself to be far better at arson than at strategy.
Hunter's actions in the Shenandoah forced Lee to release Breckenridge to move to the defense of Lynchburg, while the famous old II Corps, commanded by Jubal Early moved from Petersburg. Their arrival at Lynchburg, came just in time to save that city from an assault by Hunter on June 17th.
Following this brief engagement, Hunter retreated back to West Virginia. Early followed and caught the end of Hunter's trains at a place called Hanging Rock. After a few days Early turned army northeast and returned to the Valley Pike with the Valley now wide open for an assault on the gates of Washington.
Early's Army was exhausted from a spring of constant campaigning including major battles at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, North Anna River and Cold Harbor. These men had been rushed to Lynchburg, and then followed Hunter through the rugged mountains of southwestern Virginia. Still, Early pushed ahead marching down the Valley toward the Potomac.
On July 2nd, Early’s army crossed the Potomac into Maryland. For the third time in as many years, a Rebel army had moved north of the Potomac River. Early threatened to burn the towns of Hagerstown and Fredrick and managed to get ransom from the two towns amounting to $220,000. It was said that Early liked cities, because they burned so well.
A makeshift Union force from Baltimore under command of Lew Wallace, opposed Early just west of Fredericks along the banks of the Monocracy River and held them up for a day. This day bought Grant the time to rush the VI Corps from the trenches around Petersburg to protect Washington. After finally defeating Wallace’s troops in what must be deemed a strategic defeat, Early again hit the hot dusty roads of Maryland in the heat of July to push on for Washington.
On July 11, Early reached Silver Spring Maryland and began an attack on the outer defenses of Washington at Fort Stephens. Early was the only Confederate commander to place a sizable force within the boundaries of the District of Columbia.
The next day, elements of VI Corps linked up with XIX Corps, the normal garrison of Washington, and struck at Early's position. Early quickly retreated back toward the valley re-crossing the Potomac and making his way back to safety. Confused orders from Washington prevented an effective pursuit of the retreating army, the only major action coming at the Battle of Cool Spring along the Shenandoah River.
Early was now back in the Valley, his only real opposition being the Federal VIII Corps under General Cooke. After taking a few days to rest and bring his forces together, Early was once again on the move.
Early’s four depleted divisions struck north from his base around Fisher’s Hill. In his initial encounter with Federal forces on July 20, 1864 near Winchester, one of Early’s divisions “got its ears pinned back” in an engagement at Rutherford's Farm, July 20, 1864.
Early next attacked the Union forces at Second Kernstown on July 24, 1864, smashing the Federal defenses and driving the remainder north and west.
Early next sent his cavalry on a raid into Pennsylvania in hopes of drawing more Federal forces away from the Petersburg area. On July 30th, Confederate Cavalry captured the town of Chambersburg. When the town’s officials refused to pay the $100,000 ransom demanded by the Confederates, the town to the torch in revenge for Hunter's burning of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
The Federal cavalry were unable to stop the Confederate at Chambersburg but followed their path as moved south west. On August 7, 1864, the Federals caught the Confederate cavalry and in a brilliant move caught the Southerners in camp at Moorefield, (West Virginia) and extracted some measure of retribution.
Battle of Staunton River Bridge
The Battles of Saltville
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Sheridan's Valley Campaign
Battles of 1865
The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley
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