Grant puts focus on Shenandoah

Strategy: The commander of the Union armies issued orders to destroy the Confederate breadbasket in the Great Valley of Virginia, setting off a campaign of fire and destruction that is remembered to this day.

October 12, 2003|By Nick Alexopulos | Nick Alexopulos,SUN STAFF

Occupied by the summer heat and a siege at Petersburg, Va., Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant underestimated the importance of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign's role as part of his grand military offensive in 1864.

According to Jeffry D. Wert in his 1987 book From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864, it was not until late summer that Grant understood "if the summer stalemate in Virginia were to be broken, it would be beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley."

From August to December 1864, the Union army clashed with Confederate forces along Shenandoah Valley in an effort to complete the third prong of Grant's strategy for winning.

The Union's first two objectives received the most attention from Grant because of their high-profile: an advance on Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and on Atlanta, the Confederacy's railroad hub. The bulk of the Union troops were sent to these two fronts.

Grant's objectives for the Shenandoah campaign were focused on logistics rather than on crippling powerful cities in the South.

In his article "The Battle of Cedar Creek" published in 1998, Dan Reigle of the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table summed up Grant's strategy: "Grant's objectives in the Valley were primarily logistical, aimed at breaking the Virginia Central Railroad which carried food to the Petersburg-Richmond front, or alternatively aimed at destroying the food supplies themselves."

The eventual success of the Shenandoah campaign in meeting these objectives marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, saw the Shenandoah Valley as more than just a supply route, and he set objectives for his forces in the Valley.

Lee directed his forces, led by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, to attack Union opposition in the Shenandoah Valley and move north through the Valley into Maryland and threaten Washington.

According to Wert, Lee's commitment to the Valley "was a bold scheme, a willingness to restrict his own mobility by giving up a fourth of his undermanned infantry force if the outcome might match the accomplishments of two years earlier."

The geographical significance of the Shenandoah Valley was not lost on either Grant or Lee.

The Valley was a "natural warpath," pointing to Washington, D.C., from southwest to northeast, lined by the Allegheny Mountains to the west and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east.

Its 165-mile stretch from Harpers Ferry to Lexington is described by a Union officer in Wert's book as "a sort of back alley, parallel to the main street, wherein the heavy fighting must go on."

Grant ordered a Northern advance on the Shenandoah Valley after a summer of defeats at the hands of the South.

On August 7, 1864, Grant combined several forces to establish the Army of the Shenandoah, commanded by Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan.

The newly formed army combined forces from the Army of the Potomac, the Department of the Gulf and the Army of West Virginia to total roughly 48,000 troops. The Confederate Army only totaled 14,000 troops, according to Wert.

Under the command of Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, the 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac provided Grant's newly assembled army with most of its brute force. The 6th Corps was made up of three infantry divisions and six artillery batteries, stocked for the most part with men from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New England.

Two divisions of the 19th Corps came from the Department of the Gulf. This corps was far less efficient and disciplined than the 6th Corps. Led by Maj. Gen. William Hemsley Emory, the two infantry divisions and three batteries of light artillery had suffered greatly in the Louisiana Red River Campaign that June.

The soldiers in the Army of West Virginia were "veterans of the Valley, who ... wanted another go at Early's Confederates," according to Wert.

Maj. Gen. George Crook, Sheridan's then close friend and roommate at West Point, commanded the two divisions of the Army of West Virginia along with its three artillery batteries.

Grant rounded off the Army of the Shenandoah with three divisions of cavalry one week after Sheridan took command of the forces entering the Valley. All 29 cavalry regiments in these three divisions were directed by Brig. Gen. Alfred Thomas Archimedes Torbert and were roughly 8,000 in number, according to Wert.

A full confrontation of the forces on both sides in the Shenandoah Valley occurred at Cedar Creek, a battle that both Grant and Sheridan knew could finally break the back of the Confederate army if the Army of the Shenandoah could prevail.

According to the American Battlefield Protection Program, almost 32,000 Union soldiers engaged roughly 21,000 Confederates in that battle, with twice as many Union casualties as Confederate casualties.

A Union defeat in the morning of Oct. 19 was quickly forgotten when Sheridan arrived in the early afternoon and rallied his troops. Later that day, Union forces counterattacked the Confederates and drove them south, crippling Lee's hopes to keep the Valley open for Confederate supply routes.

Dr. Burton Wright III, command historian of the Army Chemical School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., believes that "the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864 demonstrates that sometimes attacking logistics support is the proper objective of military action" because succeeding in such an objective could force the enemy to surrender.

Grant's Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 pushed the Confederate army down a road to surrender, thus proving, to Grant's surprise, how important the Valley was to his strategy.

Nick Alexopulos is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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