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The Confederates then retired to the neighborhood of Staunton, and further operations were suspended on account of the inclemency of the season.

Sheridan then occupied the lower Valley, where he employed himself in completing the work of destruction so bravely begun by Hunter, in which he seemed to vie with Alaric. His work of devastation was so complete that he exultingly reported to his superior that a ‘crow in traversing the Valley would be obliged to carry his rations.’ Before the spring was open Sheridan was in motion with a cavalry, or rather mounted infantry, force nine thousand strong, his objective point being Staunton. The force of Early, having been greatly reduced, was entirely inadequate for an effective resistance. Staunton was therefore evacuated, and Early retired to Waynesboroa. His entire force now only consisted of Wharton's division of infantry, six pieces of artillery, and a small body of cavalry, making in all about eighteen hundred men. With this force he took a position to protect an important railroad bridge over the south branch of the Shenandoah, and at the same time to cover Rockfish Gap, a pass connecting the Valley with Eastern Virginia. This pass was doubly important, as it gave passage both to the Charlottesville turnpike and Central railroad.

As Sheridan was without artillery, and the ground being unfit for the operation of cavalry, Early could have easily maintained his position with reliable troops: but, contrary to his belief, there was considerable disaffection in Wharton's division. Therefore, without his knowledge, his little army harbored the elements of defeat, for at the first show of an attack the malcontents threw down their arms, and, almost without opposition, Sheridan carried the position, compelling Early with his faithful few to seek safety in retreat. A number of these, however, were captured before they could make their escape.

Sheridan, having now removed all opposition, passed through Rockfish Gap into Eastern Virginia, traversed the interior of the State, and formed a junction with Grant almost without interruption.

On reaching Gordonsville Early collected a handful of men and threw himself upon the flank and rear of Sheridan, but his force was too small to make any impression. He was only induced to make this effort by his extreme reluctance to witness an unopposed march of an enemy through his country.

It has been said that Early, at the head of his faithful band, hovering like an eagle about the columns of Sheridan, displayed

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Philip Sheridan (7)
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