Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/March/General Early's Valley Campaign

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General Early's Valley Campaign.

By General A. L. Long, Chief of Artillery Second Corps Army Northern Virginia.

[The history of this campaign has been ably and fully presented in General Early's "Memoirs"—a book that should be in the library of every one desiring to know the truth concerning General Lee's splendid campaign of 1864—but we are glad to be able to present the following outline from the pen of the accomplished soldier who served as Early's Chief of Artillery.]

In compliance with his instructions, General Early, on the 13th of June, withdrew his corps, consisting of about eight thousand infantry and twenty-four pieces of artillery, from the Army of Northern Virginia, and proceeded towards Staunton. The artillery was subsequently increased to forty guns, and his forces were further augmented by the addition of about fifteen hundred cavalry and two thousand infantry. At Charlottesville Early received intelligence of the rapid advance of Hunter upon Lynchburg with a force of twenty thousand men.

Promptly shifting his objective point, and availing himself of the Orange and Alexandria railroad, he moved with such rapidity that he reached Lynchburg in time to rescue it. At that time the only force at hand for the defence of Lynchburg was the division of Breckinridge, less than two thousand strong, and a few hundred home guards, composed of old men and boys whose age exempted them from active service. Hunter, finding himself unexpectedly confronted by Early, relinquished his intended attack upon the city, and sought safety in a rapid night retreat.

The next day Early instituted a vigorous pursuit, which continued with uninterrupted pertinacity, until Hunter was overtaken in the neighborhood of Salem, a small town on the Virginia and Tennessee railroad, where he was defeated and forced to a hazardous and disorganizing retreat through the mountains to the Ohio river.

Having at a single blow liberated the Valley, Early determined upon an immediate invasion of Maryland and a bold advance on Washington City. As his instructions were discretionary, he was at liberty to adopt that course, which at the time was both in a political and military point of view the best plan of action that could have been assumed.

The defence of Richmond being the settled policy of the Confederate Government, General Lee had on two occasions assumed . the offensive in order to relieve that place from the paralyzing influence of the Federals.

The invasion of Maryland in 1862 and the campaign into Pennsylvania the following year had relieved Richmond of the presence of the enemy for more than a year, but the tide of war had again returned, and that celebrated city was gradually yielding to the powerful embrace of her besiegers, which could only be loosened by a strong diversion in her favor.

This Early undertook with the force at his command, after the disposal of Hunter's army. By uniting with his own corps the division of Breckinridge and Ransom's cavalry, Early found himself at the head of about twelve thousand men. Though he knew this force to be inadequate to the magnitude of the work in hand, nevertheless he determined to overcome his want of numbers by the rapidity of his movements, thus hoping to acquire a momentum by velocity that would enable him to overcome that produced by the superior gravity of his opponents.

After the dispersion of Hunter's forces, one day in preparation sufficed Early for the commencement of his advance upon Maryland. His route through the Valley extended over a distance of two hundred miles or more, but the road was good, and although the country had been laid waste a short time before by Hunter, the genial season and fertile soil had already reproduced abundant subsistence for the horses and mules of the expedition; but the greater part of the supplies for the troops were necessarily drawn from Lynchburg and Richmond. To prevent delay, therefore, orders were sent to these places directing supplies to be forwarded to convenient points along the line of march. Staunton was reached on the 27th of June. This was the most suitable point at which to supply the army, and there Early made a short halt to make the necessary arrangements to insure the uninterrupted continuance of his march. In this he was ably assisted by Colonel Allan, Majors Harman, Rogers, Hawks, and other members of his staff. The beautiful Valley of Virginia everywhere gave evidence of the ravages of war. Throughout the march down the Valley the unsparing hand of Hunter was proclaimed by the charred ruins of the once beautiful and happy homes. At Lexington the cracked and tottering walls of the Virginia Military Institute, the pride of Virginia and the Alma Mater of many of the distinguished sons of the South, were seen, and near them appeared the blackened remains of the private residence of Governor Letcher. Mrs. Letcher, with an infant hardly a week old, had been moved from her bed to witness the destruction of her house.

These melancholy scenes are almost too sad to relate; nevertheless they are facts that must stand in evidence of the cruelty with which the war was prosecuted by the North against the South.

When Early reached Winchester he learned that there was a Federal force at Harper's Ferry and another at Martinsburg, which it was necessary to dislodge before attempting the passage of the Potomac; and this was effected by the 4th of July without much opposition, the Federals having withdrawn without waiting an attack. The way being now clear, the passage of the Potomac was made on the 5th at Shepherdstown, and the army advanced to Sharpsburg.

Since the defeat of Hunter the advance of Early had been so rapid that his design to invade Maryland had not reached the Federal authorities in time to oppose his passage of the Potomac. But his entrance into Maryland being now known, it had produced great consternation as far as Baltimore and Washington. The boldness of this movement caused Early's forces to be greatly exaggerated, and rumor soon magnified it to four or five times its real strength.

The invasion was considered of such magnitude that the cities of Washington and Baltimore were thought to be in such imminent danger, that the greatest alacrity was instituted in every direction to collect troops for the defence of those places.

The object of General Early being simply a diversion in favor of the operations about Richmond, he remained a day or two at Sharpsburg, in order that the impression created by his invasion might have time to produce its full effect before he exposed his weakness by a further advance. At this time all the troops in the vicinity of Washington had been collected, besides which a large number of quartermaster's employees had been improvised as soldiers, thus making the force at hand exceed twenty thousand men, while two corps from the army besieging Richmond and a part of another corps from North Carolina, intended to reinforce that army, had been detached and put in rapid motion for the defence of the Capital.

In the face of these odds Early continued his advance into Maryland. At Frederick he found General Wallace, with about ten thousand men, in position to oppose the passage of the Monocacy. Immediate preparations were made to dislodge Wallace and effect a crossing of that stream. Rodes was thrown forward on the Baltimore and Ramseur on the Washington City road, while Gordon and Breckinridge, with a portion of Ransom's cavalry inclining to the right, moved to the fords a mile or two below the railroad bridge. At the same time the heights contiguous to the river were crowned by Long's artillery (consisting of the guns of Nelson, Braxton, King and McLaughlin), to cover the movement of the other troops.

When the troops had gained their position, the crossing at the lower fords was promptly accomplished, and Breckinridge and Gordon, quickly forming their line of battle, advanced rapidly up the stream toward the Federal position, and, after a short but spirited conflict, defeated Wallace, whose army soon fell into a panic and fled in wild confusion, spreading dismay for miles in every direction by the terrible accounts they gave of the tremendous force Early was leading through the country. The route being now open, Early proceeded by rapid marches to within cannon-shot of the walls of Washington. Since his entrance into Maryland his force had been exaggerated by the inhabitants and the soldiery he had met, until in their terrified imagination it was magnified to thirty or forty thousand men.

On his arrival before the Federal Capital, the exaggerated rumor of his strength having preceded him, its occupants were variously affected. The Federal authorities and all of their adherents were in a state of consternation, while the Southern sympathizers were full of exultation—for at the time it was thought by many he would take the city. Had he had twenty or thirty thousand men he would have done so, with a prospect of holding it, and giving a new turn to subsequent military operations. But Early was too prudent and sagacious to attempt an enterprise with a force of eight thousand men which, if successful, could only be of temporary benefit. He was therefore content to remain in observation long enough to give his movement full time to produce its greatest effect, and then withdrew in the face of a large army and recrossed the Potomac without molestation.

This campaign is remarkable for having accomplished more in proportion to the force employed, and for having given less public satisfaction, than any other campaign of the war. The want of appreciation of it is entirely due to the erroneous opinion that the City of Washington should have been taken; but this may be passed over as one of the absurdities of public criticism on the conduct of the war.

By glancing at the operations of Early from the 13th of June to the last of July, it will be seen that in less than two months he had marched more than four hundred miles, and with a force not exceeding twelve thousand men, had not only defeated but entirely dispersed two Federal armies of an aggregate strength of more than double his own; had invaded Maryland, and by his bold and rapid movement upon Washington, had created an important diversion in favor of General Lee in the defence of Richmond, and had re-entered Virginia with a loss of less than three thousand men. After remaining a short time in the neighborhood of Leesburg, he returned to the Valley by way of Snicker's Gap, and about the 17th of July occupied the neighborhood of Berryville.

Early had no sooner established himself at Berryville, than a considerable force of the enemy appeared on the Shenandoah, near Castleman's Ferry, and partially effected a crossing, but were promptly driven back with heavy loss, after which they retired to the neighborhood of Harper's Ferry.

About the same time a large force under General Averill was reported to be advancing from Martinsburg to Winchester. Being unwilling to receive an attack in an unfavorable position, Early sent Ramseur, with a division and two batteries of artillery, to Winchester, to retard Averill, while he withdrew with the main body of the army and supply trains by way of White Post and Newtown to Strasburg.

Ramseur, having encountered the enemy a few miles east of Winchester, was defeated, with a loss of four pieces of artillery, and forced to retire to Newtown, where he rejoined Early.

Averill, being arrested in his pursuit of Ramseur near Newtown, fell back to Kernstown, where he was soon joined by General Crook, with the forces from Harper's Ferry.

From Newtown, Early continued his march to Strasburg without interruption. On the 23d he was informed of the junction of Crook and Averill, and of their occupation of Kernstown; thereupon, it was determined to attack them without delay. The security of the trains having been properly provided for, the army was put in motion early on the morning of the 24th towards the enemy.

About noon a position was gained from which it was observed that the enemy was in possession of the identical ground which had been occupied by Shields when encountered by Stonewall Jackson in March, 1862. The memory of that battle evidently did much to inspire the troops to deeds of valor in the approaching conflict.

Early quickly made his disposition for battle. The divisions of Breckinridge and Rodes were thrown to the right of the turnpike, and those of Ramseur and Gordon were deployed to its left, the artillery being disposed of so as to cover the advance of the infantry, while the cavalry received instructions to close behind the enemy as soon as defeated.

Perceiving that the left flank of the enemy was exposed, Breckinridge, under cover of a wooded hill, gained a position from which he bore down upon it, and in gallant style doubled it upon the centre. This success was so vigorously followed up by the other troops, that the Federals gave way at all points, and were soon in rapid retreat, which was accelerated by a vigorous pursuit. In this battle the losses on the part of the Confederates were insignificant, while those of the Federals in killed, wounded and prisoners were considerable. While on the retreat a large number of their wagons and a considerable quantity of their stores were destroyed to prevent capture.

Finding that the enemy had again sought safety behind his defences, Early determined to re-enter Maryland, for the double purpose of covering a retaliatory expedition into Pennsylvania, and to keep alive the diversion which had already been made in favor of the defence of Richmond. Therefore, about the 6th August, he crossed the Potomac in two columns—the one at Williamsport, and the other at Shepherdstown—and took a position between Sharpsburg and Hagerstown.

This occupation of Maryland was destined to be of short duration, for since Early's audacity had caused his strength to be so greatly magnified, and the importance of his operations so exaggerated, Grant had considered it necessary to largely increase the Army of the Shenandoah, and to supersede Hunter, whose incapacity had long been obvious, by Phil. Sheridan, one of the most energetic and unscrupulous of his Lieutenants. Being aware of the great increase of force prepared to be brought against him, Early recrossed the Potomac and returned up the Valley, being slowly followed by Sheridan, who had now taken command of the Middle Department.

On reaching Fisher's Hill, a position three miles west of Strasburg, Early halted and offered battle, which Sheridan made a show of accepting until the morning of the 17th, when he was discovered to be retreating towards Winchester. He was immediately pursued by Early, and being overtaken near Kernstown, a spirited skirmish ensued while he continued to retire. Night coming on the combatants separated, Early bivouacking in the neighborhood of Winchester, while Sheridan crossed the Opequon.

About this time Lieutenant-General Anderson joined Early with one division of infantry and a division of cavalry, thus increasing his force to about twelve thousand men, while that of Sheridan exceeded forty thousand. Notwithstanding the great disparity of numbers, the campaign was characterized by a series of skilful movements and brilliant skirmishes, which resulted on the 19th of September in the battle of Winchester, which had doubtless been hastened to a conclusion by the departure of Anderson from the Valley on the 15th with Kershaw's division for Richmond. Anderson had no sooner turned his back on the mountains, than Sheridan threw his whole force against Early at Winchester and defeated him, not so much by force of numbers, as by one of those chances of war which sometimes beset the ablest commander; for after having gallantly contested the field, and firmly maintained their position until near the close of the day, a portion of his troops was seized with a panic, which rapidly spread until the greater part of the infantry and cavalry fell into confusion, and troops who had never before turned their backs upon the enemy retired in disorder from the field. The artillery alone remained firm, and covered with distinguished gallantry the retreat of the other troops, until a place of safety was gained and order restored, and then retired fighting, step by step, until it extricated itself from overwhelming numbers, leaving heaps of dead to testify to its matchless conduct and power. Sheridan's forces were so shattered that he could not immediately avail himself of the success he had gained, and Early was permitted an uninterrupted retreat to Fisher's Hill.

Notwithstanding his force had been considerably weakened by its late disaster, Early determined to maintain his position on Fisher's Hill. He could not realize that every man was not as stout-hearted as himself, nor that the troops he had so often led to victory were not invincible; and, besides his reluctance to abandon the rich and beautiful Valley, there were other and stronger reasons for his decision. It was evident that, if left unopposed in the Valley, Sheridan would immediately concert a plan of co-operation with Grant, either by advancing directly upon Richmond or by operating on its lines of communication with a powerful cavalry until a junction was formed with him below Petersburg; in which case the important diversion in favor of Lee would have come to naught. Therefore the object of detaining Sheridan with his formidable force in the Valley sufficiently warranted Early, on the soundest military principles, in his determination to oppose him at all hazard.

The defiant attitude assumed by him was the most effective he could have adopted for accomplishing his object, and it created a deception as to his strength that made his opponent cautious, but which was quickly dissipated by a collision. His force at this time was less than seven thousand men, while that of Sheridan was greater by at least four to one.

Sheridan's forces having sufficiently recovered from the effect of the battle, pursued Early, and on the 22d attacked him in his position on Fisher's Hill. The thin Confederate ranks could offer but feeble resistance to the overwhelming force brought against them, and the conflict was consequently of short duration; and, owing to the extent and difficulty of the position, the Confederates sustained considerable loss before they could extricate themselves.

Early then retired up the Valley to a position above Harrisonburg, while Sheridan pursued as far as New Market. Both armies then remained inactive for some days, in order to rest and reorganize their forces.

About the first of October, Sheridan retraced his steps down the Valley to the neighborhood of Middletown, where he took up a position on an elevated plateau behind Cedar creek. Early, perceiving that his adversary had retired, pursued him to the neighborhood of Strasburg, where he took up a position from which he might be able to attack with advantage. Sheridan had unwittingly assumed a position that gave his adversary admirable advantages and opportunity to execute a surprise.

Early entrusted a considerable force to General Gordon for that purpose. Having made himself familiar with the work in hand, Gordon, on the night of 18th October, proceeded to its execution. Crossing Cedar creek sufficiently below the Federal pickets to avoid observation, he cautiously proceeded in the direction of the Federal encampments without accident or discovery. A favorable point for the accomplishment of his plans was gained just before daybreak on the 19th. The camp was reached, and in the midst of quiet sleep and peaceful dreams the war-cry and the ringing peels of musketry arose to wake the slumbering warriors and call them affrighted to their arms. The drums and bugles loudly summoned the soldier to his colors, but alas! there was no ear for those familiar sounds! The crack of the rifle and the shouts of battle were upon the breeze, and no other sounds were heeded by the flying multitude.

Gordon's surprise had been complete, and when the dawn appeared long lines of fugitives were seen rushing madly towards Winchester. Such a rout had not been seen since the famous battle of Bull Run.

The Federals left artillery, baggage, small arms, camp equipage, clothing, knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, in fact everything, in their panic. The whole camp was filled with valuable booty, which in the end proved a dangerous temptation to the Confederates—many of whom, instead of following up their brilliant success, left their ranks for plunder.

If an apology for such conduct were ever admissible, it was so on this occasion—the troops having been so long unaccustomed to the commonest comfort while making long and fatiguing marches and battling against large odds, and being now broken down, ragged and hungry, they would have been superhuman had they resisted the tempting stores that lay scattered on every hand. Our censure of this conduct must be mingled with compassion, when we remember that instances arise when the demand of nature is irresistible.

The Federals finding that they were not pursued when they reached the neighborhood of Middletown, their spirits began to revive, and the habit of discipline and order assumed its sway, and the shapeless mass of the morning regained the appearance of an army.

Sheridan, having been absent, met his fugitive army a little below Newtown. Order having been restored, he reformed his troops, and, facing them about, returned to the scene of their late disaster. The Confederates being unprepared for an attack, were quickly defeated and forced to retire to Fisher's Hill; from there to New Market, where Early maintained a bold front for several weeks. By this return of fortune Sheridan not only recovered all that had been lost in the morning, but acquired considerable captures from the Confederates.

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 Waynesboro'. 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 a 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 more heroic valor than when at the head of his victorious army in Maryland.

Among some of those whom superior rank has not brought into special notice are Colonels Carter (Acting Chief of Artillery), Nelson, King and Braxton; Majors Kirkpatrick and McLaughlin, of the artillery, distinguished at Winchester; Captains Massey, killed, and Carpenter, wounded; Colonel Pendleton, Adjutant-General of Early's corps, killed at Fisher's Hill while gallantly rallying the fugitives; Colonel Samuel Moore, Inspector-General of Early's corps; Colonel Green Peyton, Adjutant-General Rodes' division; Captain Lewis Randolph, of Rodes' staff; Colonel R. W. Hunter, Adjutant-General Gordon's division: Colonel Carr, Inspector-General Breckinridge's division, captured near Cross Keys, Valley of Virginia; Major Brethard, artillery; Major S. V. Southall, Adjutant-General of Artillery, wounded at Monocacy; Captain Percy, Inspector of Artillery; Major Moorman, of artillery; Lieutenant Long, Engineer Corps, killed at Cedar creek while rallying fugitives; Lieutenant Hobson, of artillery, killed at Monocacy; Dr. McGuire, Medical Director of Early's corps; Dr. Strath, Chief Surgeon of Artillery; Major Turner, Chief Quartermaster of Artillery; Major Armstrong, Chief Commissary of Artillery. Besides these there are many others, whose names are not in my possession, worthy of the highest distinction.

In operations of the character above described long lists of casualties may naturally be expected, in which the names of the bravest, noblest and truest are sure to be found. While it is impossible for me to make separate mention of these, memory dictates the names of Rodes and Ramseur. From Richmond to the memorable campaign of the Wilderness they bore a conspicuous part, and their names rose high on the roll of fame. Rodes fell in the battle of Winchester, at the head of his splendid division, and Ramseur was mortally wounded at Cedar creek in his heroic attempt to retrieve the fortune of the day. Their fall was a noble sacrifice to the cause for which they fought, and their memory will ever remain green in the hearts of their countrymen.

A. L. Long.