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Chapter XXIII

When the attempt to take Petersburg in conjunction with the mine explosion resulted in such a dismal failure, all the operations contemplated in connection with that project came to a standstill, and there was every prospect that the intensely hot and sultry weather would prevent further activity in the Army of the Potomac till a more propitious season. Just now, however, the conditions existing in the Shenandoah Valley and along the upper Potomac demanded the special attention of General Grant, for, notwithstanding the successful march that MajorGeneral David Hunter had made toward Lynchburg early In the summer, what he had first gained was subsequently lost by strategical mistakes, that culminated in disaster during the retreat he was obliged to make from the vicinity of Lynchburg to the Kanawha Valley. This route of march uncovered the lower portion of the Valley of the Shenandoah, and with the exception of a small force of Union troops under General Franz Sigel posted at Martinsburg for the purpose of covering the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, there was nothing at hand to defend the lower valley.

The different bodies of Confederates which compelled Hunter's retreat were under command of General Jubal A. Early, who had been sent to Lynchburg with Ewell's corps after the defeat of the Confederate General W. C. Jones near Staunton on the 5th of June, to take command of the Valley District. When Early had forced Hunter into the Kanawha region far enough to feel assured that Lynchburg could not again be threatened from that direction, he united to his own corps General John C. Breckenridge's infantry division and the cavalry of Generals J. H. [252] Vaughn, John McCausland, B. T. Johnson, and J. D. Imboden, which heretofore had been operating in southwest and western Virginia under General Robert Ransom, Jr., and with the column thus formed, was ready to turn his attention to the lower Shenandoah Valley. At Early's suggestion General Lee authorized him to move north at an opportune moment, cross the upper Potomac into Maryland and threaten Washington. Indeed, General Lee had foreshadowed such a course when Early started toward Lynchburg for the purpose of relieving the pressure in front of Petersburg, but was in some doubt as to the practicability of the movement later, till persuaded to it by the representations of Early after that general had driven Hunter beyond the mountains and found little or nothing opposing except the small force of Sigel, which he thought he could readily overcome by celerity of movement.

By rapid marching Early reached Winchester on the 2d of July, and on the 4th occupied Martinsburg, driving General Sigel out of that place the same day that Hunter's troops, after their fatiguing retreat through the mountains, reached Charlestown, West Virginia. Early was thus enabled to cross the Potomac without difficulty, when, moving around Harper's Ferry, through the gaps of the South Mountain, he found his path unobstructed till he reached the Monocacy, where Ricketts's division of the Sixth Corps, and some raw troops that had been collected by General Lew Wallace, met and held the Confederates till the other reinforcements that had been ordered to the capital from Petersburg could be brought up. Wallace contested the line of the Monocacy with obstinacy, but had to retire finally toward Baltimore. The road was then open to Washington, and Early marched to the outskirts and began against the capital the demonstrations which were designed to divert the Army of the Potomac from its main purpose in front of Petersburg.

Early's audacity in thus threatening Washington had caused some concern to the officials in the city, but as the movement was looked upon by General Grant as a mere foray which could have no decisive issue, the Administration was not much disturbed till the Confederates came in close proximity. Then was repeated the alarm and consternation of two years before, fears for the safety of the capital being magnified by the confusion and discord existing among the different generals in Washington and Baltimore; and the imaginary dangers vanished only with the appearance of General Wright, who, with the Sixth Corps and one division of the Nineteenth Corps, pushed out to attack Early as soon as he could get his arriving troops in hand, but under circumstances that precluded celerity of movement; and as a consequence the Confederates escaped with little injury, retiring across the Potomac to Leesburg, unharassed save by some Union cavalry that had been sent [253] out into Loudoun County by Hunter, who in the meantime had arrived at Harper's Ferry by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. From Leesburg Early retired through Winchester toward Strasburg, but when the head of his column reached this place he found that he was being followed by General Crook with the combined troops of Hunter and Sigel only, Wright having returned to Washington under orders to rejoin Meade at Petersburg. This reduction of the pursuing force tempting Early to resume the offensive, he attacked Crook at Kernstown, and succeeded in administering such a check as to necessitate this general's retreat to Martinsburg, and finally to Harper's Ferry. Crook's withdrawal restored to Early the line of the upper Potomac, so, recrossing this stream, he advanced again into Maryland, and sending McCausland on to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, laid that town in ashes, leaving three thousand non-combatants without shelter or food.

When Early fell back from the vicinity of Washington toward Strasburg, General Grant believed that he would rejoin Lee, but later manoeuvres of the enemy indicated that Early had given up this idea, if he ever entertained it, and intended to remain in the valley, since it would furnish Lee and himself with subsistence, and also afford renewed opportunities for threatening Washington. Indeed, the possession of the Valley of the Shenandoah at this time was of vast importance to Lee's army, and on every hand there were indications that the Confederate Government wished to hold it at least until after the crops could be gathered in to their dep6ts at Lynchburg and Richmond. Its retention, besides being of great advantage in the matter of supplies, would also be a menace to the North difficult for General Grant to explain, and thereby add an element of considerable benefit to the Confederate cause; so when Early's troops again appeared at Martinsburg it was necessary for General Grant to confront them with a force strong enough to put an end to incursions north of the Potomac, which hitherto had always led to National discomfiture at some critical juncture, by turning our army in eastern Virginia from its chief purpose — the destruction of Lee and the capture of the Confederate capital.

This second irruption of Early and his ruthless destruction of Chambersburg led to many recommendations on the part of General Grant looking to a speedy elimination of the confusion then existing among the Union forces along the upper Potomac, but for a time the authorities at Washington would approve none of his propositions. The President and Secretary Stanton seemed unwilling to adopt his suggestions, and one measure which he deemed very important — the consolidation into a single command of the four geographical districts into [254] which, to relieve political pressure no doubt, the territory had been divided-met with serious opposition. Despite Grant's representations, he could not prevail on the Administration to approve this measure, but finally the manoeuvres of Early and the raid to Chambersburg compelled a partial compliance, though Grant had somewhat circumvented the difficulty already by deciding to appoint a commander for the forces in the field that were to operate against Early.

On the 31st of July General Grant selected me as this commander, and in obedience to his telegraphic summons I repaired to his headquarters at City Point. In the interview that followed, he detailed to me the situation of affairs on the upper Potomac, telling me that I was to command in the field the troops that were to operate against Early, but that General Hunter, who was at the head of the geographical department, would be continued in his position for the reason that the Administration was reluctant to reconstruct or consolidate the different districts. After informing me that one division of the Cavalry Corps would be sent to my new command, he went on to say that he wanted me to push the enemy as soon as this division arrived, and if Early retired up the Shenandoah Valley I was to pursue, but if he crossed the Potomac I was to put myself south of him and try to compass his destruction. The interview having ended, I returned to Hancock Station to prepare for my departure, and on the evening of August 1 I was relieved from immediate duty with the Army of the Potomac, but not from command of the cavalry as a corps organization.

I arrived at Washington on the 4th of August, and the next day received instructions from General Halleck to report to General Grant at Monocacy Junction, whither he had gone direct from City Point, in consequence of a characteristic despatch from the President indicating his disgust with the confusion, disorder, and helplessness prevailing along the upper Potomac, and intimating that Grant's presence there was necessary.

In company with the Secretary of War I called on the President before leaving Washington, and during a short conversation Mr. Lincoln candidly told me that Mr. Stanton had objected to my assignment to General Hunter's command, because he thought me too young, and that he himself had concurred with the Secretary; but now, since General Grant had “ploughed round” the difficulties of the situation by picking me out to command the “boys in the field,” he felt satisfied with what had been done, and “hoped for the best.” Mr. Stanton remained silent during these remarks, never once indicating whether he, too, had become reconciled to my selection or not; and although, after we left the White House, he conversed with me freely in regard to the campaign [255] I was expected to make, seeking to impress on me the necessity for success from the political as well as from the military point of view, yet he utterly ignored the fact that he had taken any part in disapproving the recommendation of the general-in-chief.

August 6 I reported to General Grant at the Monocacy, and he there turned over to me the following instructions, which he had previously prepared for General Hunter in the expectation that that general would continue to command the department:

Headquarters in the field, Monocacy Bridge, Md., Aug. 5, 1864.
General: Concentrate all your available force without delay in the vicinity of Harper's Ferry, leaving only such railroad guards and garrisons for public property as may be necessary.

Use in this concentration the railroad, if by so doing time can be saved. From Harper's Ferry, if it is found that the enemy has moved north of the Potomac in large force, push north, following and attacking him wherever found; following him, if driven south of the Potomac, as long as it is safe to do so. If it is ascertained that the enemy has but a small force north of the Potomac, then push south the main force, detaching, under a competent commander, a sufficient force to look after the raiders and drive them to their homes. In detaching such a force, the brigade of cavalry now en route from Washington via Rockville may be taken into account.

There are now on the way to join you three other brigades of the best of cavalry, numbering at least five thousand men and horses. These will be instructed, in the absence of further orders, to join you by the south side of the Potomac. One brigade will probably start to-morrow.

In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, as it is expected you will have to go first or last, it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy. It is not desirable that the buildings should be destroyed — they should, rather, be protected; but 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.

Bear in mind, the object is to drive the enemy south; and to do this you want to keep him always in sight. Be guided in your course by the course he takes.

Make your own arrangements for supplies of all kinds, giving regular vouchers for such as may be taken from loyal citizens in the country through which you march.

Very respectfully, U. S. Grant, Lieut.-General. Major-General D. Hunter, Commanding Department of West Virginia.

When I had read the letter addressed to Hunter, General Grant said I would be expected to report directly to him, as Hunter had asked that day to be wholly relieved, not from any chagrin at my assignment [256] to the control of the active forces of his command, but because he thought that his fitness for the position he was filling was distrusted by General Halleck, and he had no wish to cause embarrassment by remaining where he could but remove me one degree from the headquarters of the army. The next day Hunter's unselfish request was complied with, and an order was issued by the President, consolidating the Middle Department, the Department of Washington, the Department of the Susquehanna, and the Department of West Virginia.

Under this order these four geographical districts constituted the Middle Military Division, and I was temporarily assigned to command it. Hunter's men had been bivouacking for some days past in the vicinity of MonocacyJunction and Frederick, but before General Grant's instructions were written out, Hunter had conformed to them by directing the concentration at Halltown, about four miles in front of Harper's Ferry, of all his force available for field service. Therefore the different bodies of troops, with the exception of Averell's cavalry, which had followed McCausland toward Moorefield after the burning of Chambersburg, were all in motion toward Halltown on August 6.

Affairs at Monocacy kept me but an hour or two, and these disposed of, I continued on to Harper's Ferry by the special train which had brought me from Washington, that point being intended as my headquarters while making preparations to advance. The enemy was occupying Martinsburg, Williamsport, and Shepherdstown at the time, sending occasional raiding parties into Maryland as far as Hagerstown. The concentration of my troops at Halltown being an indication to Early that we intended to renew the offensive, however, he immediately began counter preparations by drawing in all his detached columns from the north side of the Potomac, abandoning a contemplated raid into Maryland, which his success against Crook at Kernstown had prompted him to project, and otherwise disposing himself for defense.

At Harper's Ferry I made my headquarters in the second story of a small and very dilapidated hotel, and as soon as settled sent for Lieutenant John R. Meigs, the chief engineer officer of the command, to study with him the maps of my geographical division. It always came rather easy to me to learn the geography of a new section, and its important topographical features as well; therefore I found that, with the aid of Meigs, who was most intelligent in his profession, the region in which I was to operate would soon be well fixed in my mind. Meigs was familiar with every important road and stream, and with all points worthy of note west of the Blue Ridge, and was particularly well equipped with knowledge regarding the Shenandoah Valley, even down to the farm-houses. He imparted with great readiness what he knew of [257] this, clearly pointing out its configuration and indicating the strongest points for Confederate defense, at the same time illustrating scientifically and forcibly the peculiar disadvantages under which the Union army had hitherto labored.

The section that received my closest attention has its northern limit along the Potomac between McCoy's ferry at the eastern base of the North Mountain, and Harper's Ferry at the western base of the Blue Ridge. The southern limit is south of Staunton, on the divide which separates the waters flowing into the Potomac from those that run to the James. The western boundary is the eastern slope of the Alleghany Mountains, the eastern, the Blue Ridge; these two distinct mountain ranges trending about southwest inclose a stretch of quite open, undulating country varying in width from the northern to the southern extremity, and dotted at frequent intervals with patches of heavy woods. At Martinsburg the valley is about sixty miles broad, and on an east and west line drawn through Winchester about forty-five, while at Strasburg it narrows down to about twenty-five. Just southeast of Strasburg, which is nearly midway between the eastern and western walls of the valley, rises an abrupt range of mountains called Massanutten, consisting of several ridges which extend southward between the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River until, losing their identity, they merge into lower but broken ground between New Market and Harrisonburg. The Massanutten ranges, with their spurs and hills, divide the Shenandoah Valley into two valleys, the one next the Blue Ridge being called the Luray, while that next the North Mountain retains the name of Shenandoah.

A broad macadamized road, leading south from Williamsport, Maryland, to Lexington, Virginia, was built at an early day to connect the interior of the latter State with the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, and along this road are situated the principal towns and villages of the Shenandoah Valley, with lateral lines of communication extending to the mountain ranges on the east and west. The roads running toward the Blue Ridge are nearly all macadamized, and the principal ones lead to the railroad system of eastern Virginia through Snicker's, Ashby's Manassas, Chester, Thornton's Swift Run, Brown's and Rock-fish gaps, tending to an ultimate centre at Richmond. These gaps are low and easy, offering little obstruction to the march of an army coming from eastern Virginia, and thus the Union troops operating west of the Blue Ridge were always subjected to the perils of a flank attack; for the Confederates could readily be brought by rail to Gordonsville and Charlottesville, from which points they could move with such celerity through the Blue Ridge that, on more than one occasion, the Shenandoah Valley had been the theatre of Confederate success, due greatly to the advantage of possessing these interior lines. [258]

Nature had been very kind to the valley, making it rich and productive to an exceptional degree, and though for three years contending armies had been marching up and down it, the fertile soil still yielded ample subsistence for Early's men, with a large surplus for the army of Lee. The ground had long been well cleared of timber, and the rolling surface presented so few obstacles to the movement of armies that they could march over the country in any direction almost as well as on the roads, the creeks and rivers being everywhere fordable, with little or no difficulty beyond that of leveling the approaches.

I had opposing me an army largely composed of troops that had operated in this region hitherto under “StonewallJackson with marked success, inflicting defeat on the Union forces almost every time the two armies had come in contact. These men were now commanded by a veteran officer of the Confederacy-General Jubal A. Early-whose past services had so signalized his ability that General Lee specially selected him to take charge of the Valley District, and, notwithstanding the misfortunes that befell him later, clung to him till the end of the war. The Confederate army at this date was about twenty thousand strong, and consisted of Early's own corps, with Generals Rodes, Ramseur, and Gordon commanding its divisions; the infantry of Breckenridge from southwestern Virginia; three battalions of artillery; and the cavalry brigades of Vaughn, Johnson, McCausland, and Imboden. This cavalry was a short time afterward organized into a division under the command of General Lomax.

After discovering that my troops were massing in front of Harper's Ferry, Early lost not a moment in concentrating his in the vicinity of Martinsburg, in positions from which he could continue to obstruct the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and yet be enabled to retire up the valley under conditions of safety when I should begin an offensive campaign.

When I took command of the Army of the Shenandoah its infantry force comprised the Sixth Corps, one division of the Nineteenth Corps, and two divisions from West Virginia. The Sixth Corps was commanded by Major-General Horatio G. Wright; its three divisions by BrigadierGenerals David A. Russell, Geo. W. Getty, and James B. Ricketts. The single division of the Nineteenth Corps had for its immediate chief Brigadier-General William Dwight, the corps being commanded by Brigadier-General Wm. H. Emory. The troops from West Virginia were under Brigadier-General George Crook, with Colonels Joseph Thoburn and Isaac H. Duval as division commanders, and though in all not more than one fair-sized division, they had been designated, on account of the department they belonged to, the Army of West Virginia. General Torbert's division, then arriving from the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, represented the mounted arm of the service, and in [259] the expectation that Averell would soon join me with his troopers, I assigned General Torbert as chief of cavalry, and General Wesley Merritt succeeded to the command of Torbert's division.

General Wright, the commander of the Sixth Corps, was an officer of high standing in the Corps of Engineers, and had seen much active service during the preceding three years. He commanded the Department of the Ohio throughout the very trying period of the summer and fall of 1862, and while in that position he, with other prominent officers, recommended my appointment as a brigadier-general. In 1863 he rendered valuable service at the battle of Gettysburg, following which he was assigned to the Sixth Corps, and commanded it at the capture of the Confederate works at Rappahannock Station and in the operations at Mine Run. He ranked me as a major-general of volunteers by nearly a year in date of commission, but my assignment by the President to the command of the army in the valley met with Wright's approbation, and, so far as I have ever known, he never questioned the propriety of the President's action. The Sixth Corps division commanders, Getty, Russell, and Ricketts, were all educated soldiers, whose records, beginning with the Mexican War, had already been illustrated in the war of the rebellion by distinguished service in the Army of the Potomac.

General Emory was a veteran, having graduated at the Military Academy in 1831, the year I was born. In early life he had seen much service in the Artillery, the Topographical Engineers, and the Cavalry, and in the war of the rebellion had exhibited the most soldierly characteristics at Port Hudson and on the Red River campaign. At this time he had but one division of the Nineteenth Corps present, which division was well commanded by General Dwight, a volunteer officer who had risen to the grade of brigadier-general through constant hard work. Crook was a classmate of mine-at least, we entered the Military Academy the same year, though he graduated a year ahead of me. We had known each other as boys before we entered the army, and later as men, and I placed implicit faith in his experience and qualifications as a general.

The transfer of Torbert to the position of chief of cavalry left Merritt, as I have already said, in command of the First Cavalry Division. He had been tried in the place before, and from the day he was selected as one of a number of young men to be appointed general officers, with the object of giving life to the Cavalry Corps, he filled the measure of expectation. Custer was one of these young men too, and though as yet commanding a brigade under Merritt, his gallant fight at Trevillian Station, as well as a dozen others during the summer, indicated that he would be equal to the work that was to fall to him when in a few weeks he should succeed Wilson. But to go on down the scale of rank, describing [260] the officers who commanded in the Army of the Shenandoah, would carry me beyond all limit, so I refrain from the digression with regret that I cannot pay to each his well-earned tribute.

The force that I could take with me into the field at this time numbered about 26,000 men. Within the limits of the geographical division there was a much greater number of troops than this. Baltimore, Washington, Harper's Ferry, Hagerstown, Frederick, Cumberland, and a score of other points; besides the strong detachments that it took to keep the Baltimore and Ohio railroad open through the mountains of West Virginia, and escorts for my trains, absorbed so many men that the column which could be made available for field operations was small when compared with the showing on paper. Indeed, it was much less than it ought to have been, but for me, in the face of the opposition made by different interests involved, to detach troops from any of the points to which they had been distributed before I took charge was next to impossible.

In a few days after my arrival preparations were completed, and I was ready to make the first move for the possession of the Shenandoah Valley. For the next five weeks the operations on my part consisted almost wholly of offensive and defensive manoeuvring for certain advantages, the enemy confining himself meanwhile to measures intended to counteract my designs. Upon the advent of Torbert, Early immediately grew suspicious, and fell back twelve miles south of Martinsburg, to Bunker Hill and vicinity, where his right flank would be less exposed, but from which position he could continue to maintain the break in the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and push reconnoitring parties through Smithfield to Charlestown. These reconnoitring parties exhibited considerable boldness at times, but since they had no purpose in view save to discover whether or not we were moving, I did not contest any ground with them except about our outposts. Indeed, I desired that Early might remain at some point well to the north till I was fully prepared to throw my army on his right and rear and force a battle, and hence I abstained from disturbing him by premature activity, for I thought that if I could beat him at Winchester, or north of it, there would be far greater chances of weighty results. I therefore determined to bring my troops, if it were at all possible to do so, into such a position near that town as to oblige Early to fight. The sequel proved, however, that he was accurately informed of all my movements. To anticipate them, therefore, he began his retreat up the valley the day that I moved out from Halltown, and consequently was able to place himself south of Winchester before I could get there.

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