Night settled in across the Great Valley of Virginia on October 19, 1864. South of Middletown, fragments of the Confederate Army of the Valley were streaming southward in the darkness. The army’s commander, Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, admitted later, “The state of things was distressing and mortifying beyond measure.” What had begun earlier in the warmth of spring as the final struggle for the Shenandoah Valley ended on an autumn night. The campaign’s significance was not, however, “beyond measure.”
When a convention of Virginians voted for secession in April 1861 the Shenandoah Valley assumed a vital strategic importance in the East. Union and Confederate forces contended for control of its agricultural bounty and its natural avenue for movement. Angling from the southwest to the northeast and framed by the Allegheny Mountains to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east, the region appeared as a giant lance pointed toward the Union heart—the cities of Washington, D. C., Baltimore, Maryland, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Confederate Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson demonstrated the Valley’s strategic significance when his campaign in the region during May and June of 1862 altered the war’s course in the East. Then during the Maryland Campaign in September 1862 and during the Gettysburg Campaign in June 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia either conducted operations in the region or used it as the main line of advance into Pennsylvania. As late as May of 1864, the Shenandoah Valley stood unconquered by Union forces, its hollows and hills seemingly haunted by Stonewall Jackson and his renowned “foot cavalry.”
With the advent of the war’s fourth spring, the Federals undertook a three-prong offensive in the Old Dominion. The Union’s primary force, the Army of the Potomac, engaged Lee’s command in the Overland Campaign. A second Northern army advanced up the James River toward Richmond, while in the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Franz Sigel’s blue-coated troops marched south. Sigel’s movement up the Valley was halted at New Market by Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates on May 15. Weeks later, however, a reorganized Union army, under Gen. David Hunter, penetrated deeper into the region, defeating a Rebel force at Piedmont on June 5, and threatening Lynchburg, a vital Southern railroad center.
Hunter’s advance on Lynchburg ignited decisive events. By mid-June, the Overland Campaign had ended after three major battles and several lesser clashes resulted in fearful casualties on both sides. The Federals, under the overall direction of General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, had shifted the conflict from the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers to the Peninsula, east of Richmond. Grant had seized and maintained the strategic or operational initiative in the East, forcing Lee to fight defensively.
Since Lee had assumed command of his army on June 1, 1862, his generalship had been marked by boldness and a willingness to take risks. Not only must Lynchburg be saved, Lee decided, but he must wrest the initiative from Grant if Confederate fortunes were to be changed. In one of his boldest gambles of the war, Lee dispatched Jubal Early and the Second Corps to the Valley to confront Hunter. If circumstances allowed, Early could march north, down the Valley, cross the Potomac River, and enter Maryland. Despite the numerical odds against his army, Lee committed one-fourth of his mobile infantry to an audacious enterprise.
Early more than fulfilled Lee’s plans. He halted Hunter’s advance outside of Lynchburg, chasing the Federals into the Allegheny Mountains. Turning north, Early’s divisions—Jackson’s former command— raced across the Potomac, defeated a Union force at Monocacy on July 9, and threatened the defenses of Washington before withdrawing into the Valley. On July 24, Early routed another enemy command in the Battle of Second Kernstown. Six days later, Southern cavalrymen torched Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, destroying more than four hundred residences and businesses. These Confederate successes, editorialized the New York Times, “seemed so much out of keeping with the position of affairs elsewhere.” It was “the old story over again. The back door, by way of the Shenandoah Valley, has been left invitingly open.”
Chambersburg’s ashes had not cooled before the Federal administration acted. Wherever government officials looked, the war seemed stalemated. From their outset in May, Union military operations had unfolded amid the presidential election campaign. The successes or failures of Grant’s offensives could impact critically the re-election prospects of Abraham Lincoln. Lee understood the importance of Lincoln’s election upon Confederate hopes for independence and that understanding had fashioned, in part, his decision to send Early boldly into Maryland. As long as the “back door” remained open, much was at stake for the Lincoln administration.
Lincoln met personally with Grant on July 31, at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. The president and his senior general agreed to consolidate four military departments into a district that included Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley, with an army of sufficient strength to operate successfully in the region. The next day, Grant informed Lincoln that he had appointed Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to command the district.
On August 6 Sheridan arrived at Harper’s Ferry where he began organizing an amalgam of commands into the Army of the Shenandoah. In time, the army would be composed of the Sixth Corps and two cavalry divisions from the Army of the Potomac, two infantry divisions of the Nineteenth Corps, and one cavalry and two infantry divisions from the Army of West Virginia (VIII Corps). In turn, Lee augmented Early’s army with an infantry and a cavalry division. Lee’s willingness to reduce further his forces at Petersburg indicated the importance of Confederate success in the Valley. Despite the acquisition of reinforcements, Early faced numerical odds of perhaps three to one.
Early had not long to wait as Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah marched south on August 10. Ahead of both armies lay weeks of maneuver and bloody engagements. A new, grim-visaged warfare accompanied Sheridan’s army, and its primary victims were the residents of the Shenandoah Valley. When the campaign ended on an autumn night in October, its outcome could be measured. This vital Confederate region had been conquered and Lincoln’s re-election assured. The ghosts of Stonewall Jackson’s legions had been exorcised.
About the Author:
Jeffry D. Wert is among the nation’s most respected Civil War historians. The recipient of numerous awards for excellence in Civil War scholarship he is also a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominee. He is the author of seven books on Civil War history including From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864. He has authored more than 200 articles, essays, columns, and reviews for publications such as Civil War Times, Blue & Gray, America’s Civil War, American History Illustrated, Virginia Cavalcade and Pennsylvania History.
This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, “Give the enemy no rest!”: Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Campaign. Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.