It’s time to launch into the beginning of the military campaign which resulted in the Union final occupation of the Shenandoah Valley during the American Civil War. (If you missed the introduction last week, you can find it here.)
There were conflicts in the Valley in the spring of 1864 (including the famed Battle of New Market), but we’re going to focus on the situation in the autumn. During the summer Confederate General Jubal Early and his army had marched north and actually fired some shots toward the fortifications protecting Washington City (District of Columbia).
Frustrated by the raid and the audacity of the Confederates, General Ulysses Grant – commander of all Union armies – put General Philip Sheridan in command of the Army of the Shenandoah, which was a combination of infantry and cavalry divisions. Grant gave orders for Sheridan to follow Early “to the death.
1. Sheridan Enters the Valley
In the early autumn Sheridan was ready. A series of relatively small scale battles were fought between August 16 and September 4 in the region between the Potomac River and the town of Winchester. They are traditionally called Guard Hill, Summit Point, Smithfield Crossing, and Berryville. The Battle of Berryville opened the road toward Winchester as the Confederates retreated to that town. (Winchester was the largest town in the northern end of the Valley).
The Confederate defense of the Valley was not going well. Though they had managed to delay the Union army for almost a month, the gray-clad soldiers were still forced to retreat. For many a retreat with total defeat looming on the horizon was something they had never considered.
2. The Decisive Battles
The 3rd Battle of Winchester (sometimes called the Battle of Opequon) was fought on September 19, 1864. The Union attacked, the Confederates defended. Sheridan cleared away wagon trains hindering the advance of his troops, and, ultimately, his army swept the field. The Confederates retreated through Winchester; for many this was the first time their lines had broken into a disorderly retreat. Early lost 1/4 of his army, including the service of five high ranking officers. The Confederates withdrew to Fisher’s Hill, approximately 22 miles to the south.
The Union army followed. In the Battle of Fisher’s Hill on September 21-22, 1864, Sheridan devised several flank attacks and, once again, the Confederates were forced to retreat. At this battle Sheridan had approximately 30,000 troops and the Confederates had less than 10,000. Five Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their actions at Fisher’s Hill.
General Early and his army retreated a long 60 miles to the town of Waynesboro, leaving the entire northern area of the Valley open to raids and destruction. Early had tried his best, but there were simply too many enemy soldiers and too many casualties for a continued defense at this time.
3. The Outcome
With many miles of farmland virtually undefended, Sheridan could unleash his cavalry to destroy the crops and cripple the agricultural society by burning mills. This time is Shenandoah history is simply called “The Burning.” Confederate cavalry tried to retaliate using guerilla tactics, but ultimately over 400 square miles of the Valley would be left blackened and desolate.
Though the Confederate army desperately resisted, there were outnumbered and overwhelmed. General Sheridan’s relentless “press forward” tactics wore down the already weary Southerners. Sheridan and army gained possession of the Shenandoah Valley and though they would make stubborn attempts, the Confederates would never regain this land.
A former defender of the Valley for the Confederate was General “Stonewall” Jackson. He said, “If the Valley is Lost, Virginia is Lost.” With the Shenandoah Valley firmly in the Union grasp, Virginia and the Confederacy faced numbered days.
Oh, but this isn’t the final conclusion – we still have two more weeks. Next week we’ll discuss The Burning and an unpleasant surprise for Mr. Sheridan, and then conclude with an examination of the total war strategy that the Union employed and its harsh effects on civilians.
P.S. I’m off to a Civil War Re-enactment this weekend – not attending in living history character, but going on a research trip. I’ll probably share some photos and maybe a short list of new CW facts that I learned. But for now I need to go pack my backpack… see ya’ll later!