Sheridan’s Rienzi

It’s not everyday that a horse is immortalized in patriotic poetry. Facts became legends when this horse and his general reached the battlefield at Cedar Creek in October 1864. Union General Philip Sheridan’s horse won lasting fame among soldiers, civilians, and veterans through a piece of publicity that guaranteed the steed a lasting place in the halls of history. Literally.

Meet Rienzi… Continue reading

Was It Right?

How do you answer those hard questions? I prefer to study a situation and make a decision for myself…because rarely is there an easy answer which everyone will agree on. In the past four weeks we’ve been discussing the Autumn Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley during 1864 and The Burning. So…was The Burning right?

Let’s try hear both sides of the case and then try to form our own opinion.

1. The Prosecution (The Confederate Story) The crops and fields are destroyed. It will take years for the agricultural community to recover. In some instances homes have been burned, leaving civilians without shelter. Food supply will be limited in the coming winter, and many may face starvation. There wasn’t any reason for this destruction – all we civilians did was grow our crops and sell them to the Confederate army, which, by the way, is only defending our homeland from invasion. Then there is the factor of mental fear and physical danger. The Yankee commanders can say that civilians were not to be molested, but let’s be honest: verbal abuse was common, possibly along with serious threats. Physical injury may have been more common than reported or recorded. Thus, the civilians were innocent, and The Burning was malicious and without specific military cause.

2. The Defense (The Union Story) The Shenandoah Valley is “the breadbasket of Virginia.” Farmers are growing crops and selling them to the Confederate army. If we’re going to win the war, we have to cut the supply lines. In an effort to bring the war to a rapid conclusion the commanders are using the strategy of Total War; this strategy acknowledges that the civilian population is supporting the army and limits their effectiveness, thereby reducing the strength of the army. This strategy is harsh, but will bring the war to a quicker end. The Confederates are in rebellion against the United States government and thus ending the rebellion as quickly as possible is desirable. Maybe at the end we will help the communities rebuild…and maybe we won’t. We’re accused of frightening or maybe harming civilians – scared people don’t want to continue a war. And, by the way, the civilians sold their crops to the Confederate quartermasters even during The Burning, so not all of them were “poor farmers.” Thus, the Union implements a total war strategy in hopes of ending the war, and civilians are involved in the destruction because they are involved in the war.

I highly recommend reading this in-depth blog post to gain perspective on the situation of selling crops and destroying crops during 1864: Shenandoah Burning Raids (Shared with permission from MarkerHunter’s blog author).

Confederate Children watching Union Cavalry near Sudley Ford (c. 1861). This photo summarizes the silent conflict between soldiers and civilians. (Public Domain).

Confederate Children watching Union Cavalry near Sudley Ford (c. 1861).
This photo summarizes the silent conflict between soldiers and civilians.
(Public Domain).

3. Judgment (this is my opinion) There’s right and wrong on both sides. (I know, I know…never a simple answer). The “military necessity” strategy employed by the Union for the destruction of the crops has some level of justification when it is considered that they were doing it to bring a hasty end to the war. However, when we evaluate the broader effects and destruction of other personal property, the Union definitely falls into the “bad guy category.” Now the Confederates weren’t necessarily wise in their actions either; seriously, what did you expect would happen when you sell crops to the army when the enemy is in the vicinity? (Ultimately, the whole argument could end up redirecting to state’s rights, coercion, etc., but let’s not get into that discussion today…)

4. Summary You get to make your own opinion, but here’s my conclusions. The destruction caused by the burning was devastating and long remembered by the Confederates. There is great cultural and societal impact as individuals are (or believe) they are wronged. The Union used an un-deniably harsh strategy which did target civilians who were supporting the war effort. Perhaps I could partly justify the destruction of the crops which would be sent to the armies, but other actions calculated to complete the devastation and instill fear are not excusable. Thus, the whole scenario reflects the larger conflicts and questions surrounding the Civil War and will accordingly be interpreted though your belief lens on the entire war.

5. What To Learn?  #1. Unfortunately, civilians are not immune to the destruction of war. #2. It must be admitted that the total war strategy used by Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan was effective. They realized that to win the war they had to cripple the support system of the Confederate army (the farms, factories, and civilian morale). There is something to be learned from the Win Mentality: we’re gonna win quickly which will ultimately result in less loss of life. (Seriously, if McClellan or Burnside had still been the commander in 1864 the war could’ve dragged on five more years).

Well, maybe this helped to answer some questions, maybe it prompted more. As I admitted at the beginning, the “was it right?” questions are very difficult to answer and everyone is probably going to have a different approach or opinion.

Next week we’ll lay aside the tough questions and simply focus on The Burning’s effect on the civilian population.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. So what do you think… Was it right? Who was right? Share your thoughts… I’m interested in your opinions on the topic.

Shenandoah Autumn News Report (1864)

Welcome to the morning news report on the Shenandoah Valley 1864. (No they didn’t have radio back then, but let’s play along just for the fun of it…) The Union army has successfully driven back the Confederates and now have access to the entire Northern half of the valley. Some Confederate guerilla cavalry are proving a bit troublesome, but nothing the blue-clad troops can’t manage.

The Union Cavalry played a significant role in "The Burning" (Photo by Miss Sarah at Moorpark Re-enactment 2012)

The Union Cavalry played a significant role in “The Burning” (Photo by Miss Sarah at Moorpark Re-enactment 2012)

1. The Burning

And so the systematic work of destruction begins. The Valley has been feeding the Confederate armies, and now it’s time to cut this supply line. Union cavalry has been turned loose in the farm land and are destroying the ripe crops in the fields and barns. These are the orders which General Grant gave General Sheridan when Sheridan was first sent to the Valley:  “The people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. … Give the enemy no rest … Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions…prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”

5,000 cavalry and a brigade of infantry take part in this organized destruction. Livestock are slaughtered; fields, barns, or mills with crops are systematically burned. Sheridan has issued orders that no property of single women, widows, or orphans is to be destroyed, but, unfortunately, looting is common among the soldiers. In retaliation for the supposed civilian bushwhacker ambush near the town of Dayton, Virginia, Sheridan ordered the surrounding homes to be burnt, forcing about 400 civilians – mostly women and children- to refugee, looking for shelter or a place to stay during the coming winter.

Sometimes the flames accidentally spread to the nearby houses. In total over 1400 barns were burned. Someone counted 168 burning structures at one time. The valley is flame and smoke.

“Military necessity” demanded the destruction of the crops. But we shall be honest reporters and admit that un-necessary atrocities have been committed against the civilian population. It will be years – if not eternity – before the residents of the Shenandoah forget the destruction caused by the Union troops; in their annuals of local history they will simply call this time “The Burning.” Think solemnly of the two words and all that it represents.

2. Military Response

This following broadcast is brought to you by Confederate Cavalry Morning Report (yes, this radio stuff is still just for fun – not at all authentic.)

John Mosby Confederate Cavalry and Partisan Leader in the Shenandoah Valley during 1864 (Public Domain)

John Mosby
Confederate Cavalry and Partisan Leader in the Shenandoah Valley during 1864 (Public Domain)

Colonel John S. Mosby has been leading his daring scouts and guerilla fighters and is harassing the Yankee cavalry. He has recovered from a rather serious wound received in mid-September and is once again causing great annoyance at Yankee headquarters. Supply lines are cut, couriers are captured, and the Yankees have hung several of Mosby’s men. In an exclusive interview with CCMR (Confederate Cavalry Morning Report) Mosby admitted that in November he hopes to arrange with Union commanders for more humane treatment of prisoners on both sides.

3. Battle of Cedar Creek

This is Yankee News in Washington and I’m Mr. Reporter. This is morning edition on October 19, 1864, and we have a flash news report from General Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. It seems that Confederate General Early moved quietly northward to the Fisher’s Hill area and has surprise attacked the Union army at Cedar Creek. General Sheridan is en route to the battlefield from his Winchester headquarters and he expresses full confidence that a Union counterattack will be successful. Stay tuned for the outcome –

This is Yankee News in Washington and I’m Mr. Newsman. We have a full and complete report on the Battle of Cedar Creek. Despite a Confederate surprise attack and great disorder among the Union troops, when General Sheridan arrived, the tide began to turn. Sheridan rallied the Union men. In the meantime the Confederates made a providential (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) halt to plunder captured camps. Thus, when the Union counterattack began, it was quite successful and they drove the Confederates from the battlefield. It is believed that the Rebels will try to reorganize at Fisher’s Hill and then retreat. There will probably not be any significant fighting in the Valley in the coming months.

Artist's Depiction of Sheridan's Ride at Cedar Creek  (Public Domain)

Artist’s Depiction of Sheridan’s Ride at Cedar Creek
(Public Domain)

General Sheridan’s actions of courage and gallantry upon arriving at the Cedar Creek battlefield are the stuff of legends. Already we have been notified that a famous poet is working on a patriotic tribute. The tale of Sheridan’s arrival and rallying of the troops will become a defining and glorious moment in Civil War history.

4. Conclusion

This is Gazette665 and I’m Miss Sarah – I’d like to make sure you realize that there wasn’t radio during the Civil War era. I was a little bored while writing this and couldn’t tolerate the idea of a “typical” information post! So I hope you enjoyed the serious history shared in a light-hearted way.

Join us next week for a solemn discussion about how the events of the Shenandoah 1864 conflict directly affected civilians. And, as always, please leave any comments or questions below…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Don’t forget – less than two weeks left in the Historical Snowmen Creative Writing Contest

The Valley Is Lost and Won – 1864

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.

Map of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in Autumn 1864 Attribution: Map by Hal Jespersen,

Map of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in Autumn 1864
Attribution: Map by Hal Jespersen,

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.

4. Conclusion

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.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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!