Sheridan’s James River Campaign: Background

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The James River Campaign

Following the Battle of Cedar Creek in October of 1864, both armies went into winter quarters. Grant ordered the VI Corps and a cavalry division back from Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan‘s force to the Army of the Potomac at the end of November. A second Union cavalry division was ordered to Cumberland, Maryland for the winter.

General Philip Sheridan seatedIn November, Robert E. Lee ordered one division to return to the siege lines around Petersburg. In mid-December, the remainder of the Second Corps also returned to Petersburg. Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and what remained of his army went into winter quarters at Staunton. Early had about 2,000 men at the time. The Federals stayed in the camps at Cedar Creek for a time until they moved to winter quarters in Winchester.

As the spring approached, General Sheridan prepared for further offensive actions. He had some 10,000 cavalry at his disposal. His cavalry corps was commanded by 28-year old Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt, who was also Sheridan’s second-in-command. Merritt had two divisions, each with three brigades of veteran cavalrymen.

One division was commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Devin. Known as “Buford’s Hard Hitter” when he served under the late John Buford, Devin had commanded cavalry units from the Battle of Fredericksburg. At Gettysburg, his brigade successfully delayed the arrival of Jubal A. Early’s division. Devin was known to his men as “Uncle Tommy”, a sign of their affection for him.

The second cavalry division was commanded by Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, a 25-year old Wolverine. Custer had commanded cavalry from his commissioning at the start of the war. At Gettysburg, he led his Michigan brigade in a series of reckless charges against J.E.B. Stuart’s superior cavalry. Leading from the front, he inspired his men with his signature Michigan yell, “C’mon you Wolverines.”

With this finely tuned instrument of cavalry, Sheridan was ready for the end game in Virginia.

Meanwhile, General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant was at City Point, east of Petersburg and Richmond, directing his armies all across the South. The Siege of Petersburg had been going on since June 1864 with the Union armies getting an increasingly tighter grip on the city. Petersburg was the main rail hub of central Virginia and Grant understood that he would need to cut off all of the Confederate supply lines to drive Lee from the city.

Two of the main Confederate supply lines were the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River and Kanawha Canal. As long as these two conduitsGeneral Wesley Merritt remained open and functioning supplies and reinforcements continued to flow to Robert E. Lee’s besieged forces in Richmond and Petersburg.

The Virginia Central was one of the Confederacy’s most important railroads during the war. It linked the fertile Shenandoah farmland of Virginia to Richmond and points eastward, enabling supplies and troops to easily be transported back and forth to nearby campaigns.

The James River and Kanawha Canal was was built to facilitate shipments of passengers and freight by water between the western counties of Virginia and the coast. By 1851, this expensive project was only half completed, eventually extending 196.5 miles west of Richmond to Buchanan  in Botetourt County, near the city of Roanoke.

Cutting the two supply lines had long been a priority of Grant’s In February 1865, he began to put the plan in effect. In October of 1864, Grant had wired Sheridan his desire that the two routes be destroyed. “What I want for you is to threaten the Virginia Central Railroad and canal in the manner your judgment tells you best.”

On February 8, 1865, Grant reiterated his views, “I believe there is no enemy now to prevent you from reaching the Virginia Central Railroad and possibly canal, when the weather will permit you to move.” 

And if Sheridan had missed his point, Grant sent another strongly worded message on February 20th, “As soon as it is possible to travel I think that you will have no trouble reaching Lynchburg with a cavalry force alone. From there you could destroy the railroad and canal in every direction, so as to be no further use to the rebellion.”

The stage was now set for Sheridan’s James River Campaign and the final endgame in the Civil War in Virginia.

Series NavigationThe James River Campaign: Winchester to Charlottesville >>

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