By 1864 Ulysses S. Grant had been named as General-in-Chief of the Union Army with the rank of Lieutenant-General, only the third man after Washington and Winfield Scott to hold that rank. As overall commander of all of the Union Armies Grant knew that he had to destroy both the Confederate armies in the field and the means to allowed them to continue, namely farms, mills and railroads.
Grant ordered his forces to make a coordinated attack on the Confederate armies in the Western Theater, the Shenandoah Valley and the Eastern Theater in early May 1864. He hoped to overwhelm the Confederates by not allowing them to reinforce from one theater to another. His strategy had mixed results due to the generals that commanded them and not the men under their commands.
The Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley were commanded by Major General Franz Sigel. He was a German military officer, revolutionist and immigrant to the United States where he was a teacher, newspaperman and politician.
At the start of the Civil War Sigel was living in St. Louis. He was commissioned as the colonel of the 3rd Missouri Infantry. Throughout the summer of 1861, Abraham Lincoln was actively seeking the support of anti-slavery, pro-Unionist immigrants.
Sigel, always popular with the German immigrants, was a good candidate to advance this plan. He was promoted to brigadier general on August 7, 1861, to rank from May 17, one of a number of early political generals endorsed by Lincoln.
By 1864 Sigel was in command of the new Department of West Virginia. In his new command, Sigel opened the Valley Campaigns of 1864, launching an invasion of the Shenandoah Valley. He was soundly defeated by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge at the Battle of New Market, on May 15, 1864. After the battle, Sigel was replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter.
Hunter was a 62-year old major general when he was given command of the Army of the Shenandoah and the Department of West Virginia on May 21, 1864.
Previous to that appointment Hunter was a controversial officer in the Union Army. He was appointed the fourth-ranking brigadier general of volunteers, commanding a brigade in the Department of Washington. He was wounded in the neck and cheek while commanding a division under Irvin McDowell at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.
In August, he was promoted to major general of volunteers. He served as a division commander in the Western Army under Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, and was appointed as commander of the Western Department on November 2, 1861, after Frémont was relieved of command due to his attempt to emancipate the slaves of rebellious slave holders.
That winter, Hunter was transferred to command the Department of Kansas and, in March 1862, was transferred again to command the Department of the South and the X Corps.
Hunter served as the president of the court-martial of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter (convicted for his actions at the Second Battle of Bull Run, but for which he was exonerated by an 1878 Board of Officers), and on the committee that investigated the loss of Harpers Ferry in the Maryland Campaign. He also served briefly as the Assistant Inspector General of the Department of the Gulf.
Hunter was a strong advocate of arming blacks as soldiers for the Union cause. After the Battle of Fort Pulaski, he began enlisting black soldiers from the occupied districts of South Carolina and formed the first such Union Army regiment, the 1st South Carolina (African Descent), which he was initially ordered to disband, but eventually got approval from Congress for his action.
A second controversy was caused by his issuing an order emancipating the slaves in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida:
The three States of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, comprising the military department of the south, having deliberately declared themselves no longer under the protection of the United States of America, and having taken up arms against the said United States, it becomes a military necessity to declare them under martial law. This was accordingly done on the 25th day of April, 1862. Slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States — Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina— heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.
— Maj. Gen. David Hunter, Department of the South, General Order No. 11, May 9, 1862
President Lincoln immediately rescinded the order because he was concerned about the political effects that it would have in the border states and who advocated instead a gradual emancipation with compensation for slave holders.
Undeterred by the president’s reluctance and intent on extending American freedom to potential black soldiers, Hunter again flouted orders from the federal government and enlisted ex-slaves as soldiers in South Carolina without permission from the War Department. This action incensed border state slave holders, and Kentucky Representative Charles A. Wickliffe sponsored a resolution demanding a response.
Hunter quickly obliged with a sarcastic and defiant letter on 23 June 1862, in which he delivered a stern reminder to the Congress of his authority as a commanding officer in a war zone.
The War Department eventually forced Hunter to abandon this scheme, but the government nonetheless moved soon afterward to expand the enlistment of black men as military laborers. Congress approved the Second Confiscation Act in July 1862, which effectively freed all slaves working within the armed forces by forbidding Union soldiers to aid in the return of fugitive slaves.
Hunter was given command of the Army of the Shenandoah by Ulysses S. Grant with orders to employ scorched earth tactics similar to those that would be used later in that year during Sherman’s March to the Sea. He was to move through Staunton to Charlottesville and Lynchburg, “living off the country” and destroying the Virginia Central Railroad “beyond possibility of repair for weeks.”
On June 5, Hunter defeated Maj. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones at the Battle of Piedmont. Following orders, he moved up the Valley (southward) through Staunton to Lexington, destroying military targets and other industries (such as blacksmiths and stables) that could be used to support the Confederacy.
After reaching Lexington, his troops burned down VMI on June 11 in retaliation of that institution sending cadets to fight in at New Market. Hunter ordered the home of former Governor John Letcher burned in retaliation for its absent owner’s having issued “a violent and inflammatory proclamation … inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerrilla warfare on my troops.”
Hunter also wreaked havoc on Washington College in Lexington (later Washington and Lee University). According to Fitzhugh Lee’s biography of his uncle, Robert E. Lee,
[Hunter] had no respect for colleges, or the peaceful pursuits of professors and students, or the private dwellings of citizens, though occupied by women and children only, and during his three days occupancy of Lexington in June, 1864, the college buildings were dismantled, apparatus destroyed, and the books mutilated.
Hunter’s campaign in the Valley came to an end after he was defeated by Early at the Battle of Lynchburg on June 19. Grant brought in Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, making him Hunter’s subordinate, but making it clear that Sheridan would lead the troops in the field and that Hunter would be left with only administrative responsibilities.
Hunter, feeling that Grant had a lack of confidence in him, requested to be relieved. He would serve in no more combat commands. He was promoted to brevet major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865, an honor that was relatively common for senior officers late in the war.