Sheridan in the Shenandoah

CIVIL DISCOURSE, SEPTEMBER 1864

Alfred Waud, Custer at Mount Jackson, October 1864, Library of Congress

Alfred Waud, Custer at Mount Jackson, October 1864, Library of Congress

Prior to Early’s raid on Washington in July, the Yankees he had driven out of central Virginia had pursued a policy of burning the homes of prominent Confederates.   Payback comes at the end of July, when Early’s cavalry pushes north into Pennsylvania to ransom Chambersburg in reparation for this destruction. When the townsfolk not produce the ransom, the Confederates burn about 500 buildings.

It is apparent the Early’s little army of 13,000 is more than an annoyance. In early August, Early achieves Lee’s objective to draw off a disproportionate number of Federal troops. Grant sends General Phil Sheridan with 43,000 men. It bears mention that Sheridan was given abundant cavalry, including Custer’s veterans – and Early has few troopers to respond. Sheridan’s mission is simple: drive Early out of the Valley and destroy the “bread-basket of the Confederacy”, leaving nothing but scorched earth behind. Hence Sheridan’s boast, “If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him.” Never mind that the Valley is inhabited largely by peaceful Quakers and Mennonites, many of whom voted against secession in April of 1861.

Thus in the early morning darkness of September 19th, Yankee cavalry moves on the fords of Opequon Creek near Winchester, with other units moving straight up the Valley Road (modern Route 11). McCausland’s cavalry, the boys who burned Chambersburg, wait on the opposite bank, entrenched and supported by artillery. Threatened by perhaps 8,000 Yankee troopers, McCausland also has to deal with a frontal assault by infantry, which goes well for the Confederates as artillery chews them up as they break from the trees. After this initial assault recedes, two divisions of Yankee cavalry hit the line in the afternoon. A frontal assault by one cavalry division supported by a flanking attack by the other puts troopers armed with Spencer repeating rifles in the Confederate rear, quickly rendering McCausland’s position untenable. The Battle of Opequon, also known as the Third Battle of Winchester, is a clear Yankee win. Though Sheridan loses about 5,000 men to Early’s 3,500, Sheridan can afford it – perhaps 12,000 Confederates oppose roughly 40,000 Federals.

Early falls back to Strasburg, where he throws up breastworks to even the odds. Despite a strong position with one flank anchored on the North Branch of the Shenandoah and the other on Fisher’s Hill, Early is badly outnumbered at roughly 30,000 to 9,500. When Sheridan hits him again on September 22nd, the dismounted cavalry that is supposed to protect Early’s flank beyond Fisher’s Hill breaks before Federal infantry; then the rest of his line collapses under Sheridan’s 3 to 1 advantage. Early’s only luck is that 1,200 of his troopers manage to chase off the 6,000 cavalrymen Sheridan has dispatched to his rear to cut off his retreat. Early lives to fight another day, but loses about 1,200 to Sheridan’s 500 or so casualties.

A vicious cycle of retaliation and escalation had begun as soon as Custer entered the Valley. On August 18th, Custer learned that a local house is being used to signal Mosby’s guerillas. Custer burns this house and some neighboring farmhouses for good measure. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Mosby’s men catch them in the act. The rangers charge down a ridge, through the Shenandoah and straight into Custer’s myrmidons, yelling, “No quarter.” The Yankee raiding party instantly disintegrates into every man for himself. And no quarter is given – the rangers bring off thirty horses, but no prisoners. Some of Custer’s men are gunned down in their hiding places; others are stood up before a firing squad.

Now, with Early out of the way in Waynesboro, Sheridan’s cavalrymen spread out over the upper Valley like locusts, terrorizing the civilian population with thousands of torches. Houses burn, granaries burn, livestock are carried away – the wise and merciful Lincoln deliberately inflicts misery and starvation upon the residents of the Valley. Everyone remembers Sherman’s March, but Sheridan was not less barbarous.

The Confederates primarily blame Custer for burning out civilians, referring to him as “Attila the Hun.” It is understood that Custer had better not let himself be taken alive. One of Custer’s aides is found with his throat slit. In response, the Yankees burn every house, barn and outbuilding within a five mile radius of the body.

A similar incident occurs on October 7th. Chief Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs’ son John is killed when he and two of Custer’s aides brush up against three of Mosby’s men in a storm, whom they mistake as fellows until the rangers pull their pistols at close range. The surviving aide reports Meigs has been murdered. Sheridan orders Custer to burn every building within five miles and soon smoke fills the air all around. Montgomery Meigs takes his own vengeance, designating Lee’s Arlington estate a national cemetery and burying soldiers near enough to Arlington mansion that it will never be a residence again. Meigs cannot plow salt into Lee’s land as the Romans had at Carthage, but this is close enough. Meigs buries his son at Arlington, joining him in 1892.

On September 23rd, the day after the battle at Fisher’s Hill, Yankee cavalry capture six of Mosby’s rangers near Front Royal. Four of the men are shot, the other two hang when they refused to reveal Mosby’s whereabouts. One of the men executed is a 17 year-old from Front Royal who had joined Mosby that morning; he is shot in a field in front of his mother as she begs for his life. Mosby, of course, is outraged and vows reprisals. In November, Mosby chooses seven Federals by lot to be executed, “measure for measure” (Custer has hanged a seventh guerilla in the interim by the bizarre method of bending a tree to the ground and catapulting the prisoner skyward). These executions are preapproved by Lee and the Confederate government. Two of the condemned Yankees escape, three are actually hanged, and the two who are shot survive their wounds. Mosby then writes a letter to Sheridan explaining what he had done and why, promising to hang one Yankee for each ranger executed. The executions stop.

By October Sheridan has laid waste to almost 100 miles of the Valley, from Winchester to Waynesboro and beyond, burning granaries, houses, barns and bridges, and tearing up railroad track. As Sheridan withdraws, 3,500 of Early’s cavalry shadow him. On October 9th, at Tom’s Brook, two Yankee cavalry divisions suddenly wheel and hit the pursuing Confederate troopers hard, utterly routing them and sending them galloping off to safety at Woodstock. Yankee cavalry has established complete dominance over their counterparts for the duration of the campaign.

The campaign does not last much longer. Ten days after Tom’s Brook, Early attempts to salvage the situation by hitting the Federal forces camped at Cedar Creek, near Middletown. At 5:30 a.m., Early’s forces achieve total surprise in the dark and fog. By 8:00 a.m. the Yankees are routed, abandoning artillery and wagons and falling back to Middletown where some make a stand at the town cemetery. Early pounds them with all his batteries.

Sheridan himself is a few miles away in Winchester. As it becomes clear that his army is engaged, he leaves Winchester at 9:00 for his famous ride, turning back his retreating troops and arriving at the fighting at around 10:30. Early has won a stunning victory, hurling back seven Federal divisions, capturing 24 guns and 1,300 prisoners. But Early’s attack stalls as his men plunder the Union camps and supply trains. Sheridan counterattacks at 4:00. As Early’s lines begin to crumble, Yankee cavalry gets into his rear and the Confederate infantrymen panic as they see their retreat being cut off. Then a bridge collapses, forcing the Confederates to abandon the guns and wagons captured earlier, plus many of their own guns and caissons. Night brings an end to Sheridan’s pursuit. While the Yankees take heavier casualties, about 5,600 to Early’s 3,000, Cedar Creek is a crushing defeat for the Confederates. Numerous and skilled Yankee cavalry render further defense of the Valley untenable.

Early’s men rejoin Lee at Petersburg, leaving the Valley in Sheridan’s hands. Mosby’ guerillas fight on, but the “bread-basket of the Confederacy” is in ashes.   The Valley will no longer serve as the invasion route into Maryland and Pennsylvania; secure in this knowledge, Sheridan joins Grant in March of 1865 for the final weeks of the war.

Sources: Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion; J. Wukovits, John Mosby and George Custer Clash in the Shenandoah Valley; http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/thirdwinchester/third-winchester-history-articles/john-mosby-and-george-custer.html; C. DeHaven, Cavalry in the Fall 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, http://www.nps.gov/cebe/historyculture/cavalry-in-the-1864-fall-shenandoah-valley-campaign.htm.

Written by: Douglas Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.    

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