The Union Destroyers: Philip Sheridan

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series The Union Destroyers

General Philip Sheridan seatedMajor General Philip Sheridan was Ulysses S. Grant’s protege and moved with him to the Eastern Theater from the West. Grant transferred Sheridan from command of an infantry division in the Western Theater to lead the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac in the East.

Fully grown, he reached only 165 cm (5 feet 5 inches) tall, a stature that led to the nickname, “Little Phil.” Abraham Lincoln described his appearance in a famous anecdote: “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”

At the start of the war the 30-year old Sheridan, a West Point graduate, was a captain in the Regular Army. He was ordered to report to Jefferson Barracks in the St. Louis area for assignment to the 13th U.S. Infantry. But Major General Henry W. Halleck commandeered his services to audit the financial records of his immediate predecessor, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, whose administration of the Department of the Missouri was tainted by charges of wasteful expenditures and fraud that left the status of $12 million in doubt. Sheridan sorted out the mess, impressing Halleck in the process.

In December, Sheridan was appointed chief commissary officer of the Army of Southwest Missouri, but convinced the department commander, Halleck, to give him the position of quartermaster general as well. In January 1862, he reported for duty to Maj. Gen.Samuel Curtis and served under him at the Battle of Pea Ridge.

Sheridan soon discovered that officers were engaged in profiteering. They stole horses from civilians and demanded payment from Sheridan. He refused to pay for the stolen property and confiscated the horses for the use of Curtis’s army. When Curtis ordered him to pay the officers, Sheridan brusquely retorted, “No authority can compel me to jayhawk or steal.” Curtis had Sheridan arrested for insubordination but Halleck’s influence appears to have ended any formal proceedings.

Sheridan performed aptly in his role under Curtis and, now returned to Halleck’s headquarters, he accompanied the army on the Siege of Corinth and served as an assistant to the department’s topographical engineer, but also made the acquaintance of Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman, who offered him the colonelcy of an Ohio infantry regiment. This appointment fell through, but Sheridan was subsequently aided by friends (including future Secretary of War Russell A. Alger), who petitioned Michigan Governor Austin Blair on his behalf. Sheridan was appointed colonel of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry on May 27, 1862, despite having no experience in the mounted arm.

After the Battle of Booneville on July 1, 1862 Sheridan was promoted to brigadier general. By the fall of 1862 he was in command of a division at the Battle of Perryville. For his actions at the Battle of Stone’s River Sheridan was promoted to major general on April 10, 1863. In six months, he had risen from captain to major general.

At the Battle of Chickamauga Sheridan’s division made a gallant stand on Lytle Hill against an attack by the Confederate corps of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, but was swamped by retreating Union soldiers. The Confederates drove Sheridan’s division from the field in confusion. He gathered as many men as he could and withdrew toward Chattanooga, rallying troops along the way. He returned to the field but took no part in the further fighting.

During the Battle of Chattanooga, at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, Sheridan’s division and others in George Thomas’s army broke through the Confederate lines in a wild charge that exceeded the orders and expectations of Thomas and Ulysses S. Grant. Just before his men stepped off, Sheridan told them, “Remember Chickamauga,” and many shouted its name as they advanced as ordered to a line of rifle pits in their front. General Grant reported after the battle, “To Sheridan’s prompt movement, the Army of the Cumberland and the nation are indebted for the bulk of the capture of prisoners, artillery, and small arms that day. Except for his prompt pursuit, so much in this way would not have been accomplished.”

In April of 1864 General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant transferred Sheridan to the Army of the Potomac as Cavalry Corps commander. When Meade quarreled with Sheridan for not performing his duties of screening and reconnaissance as ordered, Sheridan told Meade that he could “whip Stuart” if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”

Meade deferred to Grant’s judgment and issued orders to Sheridan to “proceed against the enemy’s cavalry” and from May 9 through May 24, sent him on a raid toward Richmond, directly challenging the Confederate cavalry. The raid was less successful than hoped; although his raid managed to mortally wound Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern on May 11 and beat Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee at Meadow Bridge on May 12.

The Cavalry Corps fought in a number of engagements the most significant being holding the critical crossroads at Cold Harbor and withstood a number of assaults until reinforced. Grant then ordered Sheridan on a raid to the northwest to break the Virginia Central Railroad and to link up with the Shenandoah Valley army of Maj. Gen. David Hunter. He was intercepted by the Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton at the Battle of Trevilian Station (June 11–12), where in the largest all-cavalry battle of the war, he achieved tactical success on the first day, but suffered heavy casualties during multiple assaults on the second. He withdrew without achieving his assigned objectives.

In August of 1864 Grant appointed Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah. His mission was not only to defeat Early’s army and to close off the Northern invasion route, but to deny the Shenandoah Valley as a productive agricultural region to the Confederacy. Grant told Sheridan, “The people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. … Give the enemy no rest … Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”

On September 19, Sheridan beat Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s much smaller army at Third Winchester and followed up on September 22 with a victory at Fisher’s Hill. As Early attempted to regroup, Sheridan began the punitive operations of his mission, sending his cavalry as far south as Waynesboro to seize or destroy livestock and provisions, and to burn barns, mills, factories, and railroads. Sheridan’s men did their work relentlessly and thoroughly, rendering over 400 miles uninhabitable.

The destruction presaged the scorched earth tactics of Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia—deny an army a base from which to operate and bring the effects of war home to the population supporting it. The residents referred to this widespread destruction as “The Burning.” The destruction of the Valley is still remembered today. It is believed that Sheridan’s troops burned every barn in the northern end of the Valley. The Confederates were not idle during this period and Sheridan’s men were plagued by guerrilla raids by partisan ranger Col. John S. Mosby.

At Cedar Creek Sheridan made his well-documented ride from Winchester ten miles to rally his men and reverse the Confederate tide. Early had been dealt his most significant defeat, rendering his army almost incapable of future offensive action. Sheridan received a personal letter of thanks from Abraham Lincoln and a promotion to major general in the regular army as of November 8, 1864, making him the fourth ranking general in the Army, after Grant, Sherman, and Meade.

In February 1865 Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps moved out of their winter quarters and headed East. The orders from Gen. Grant were largely discretionary: they were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal, capture Lynchburg if practicable, then either join William T. Sherman in North Carolina or return to Winchester. They destroyed everything of value to the Confederate government in their path.

Sheridan interpreted Grant’s orders liberally and instead of heading to North Carolina in March 1865, he moved to rejoin the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. He wrote in his memoirs, “Feeling that the war was nearing its end, I desired my cavalry to be in at the death.” His finest service of the Civil War was demonstrated during his relentless pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army, effectively managing the most crucial aspects of the Appomattox Campaign for Grant.

Sheridan’s aggressive and well-executed performance at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek on April 6 effectively sealed the fate of Lee’s army, capturing over 20% of his remaining men. President Lincoln sent Grant a telegram on April 7: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” At Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865, Sheridan blocked Lee’s escape, forcing the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia later that day. Grant summed up Sheridan’s performance in these final days: “I believe General Sheridan has no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps not an equal.”

The thirteen-day burning of the richest agricultural counties in Virginia by Sheridan’s troops is only mentioned in passing in the regimental histories that were written after the war. Stephen Starr wrote in his Union Cavalry in the Civil War: “The deliberate planned devastation of the Shenandoah Valley has deservedly ranked as one of the grimmest episodes of a sufficiently grim war. Unlike the haphazard destruction caused by (Gen. William T.) Sherman’s bummers in Georgia, it was committed systematically, and by order.” The residents of the Valley remembered. If nothing else stuck in their minds, the time the burners came did, and individual stories of the sufferings of the people were passed from generation to generation.

From September 26 to the close of October 8 there were thirteen days of continuous burning of property and confiscation of livestock in four Valley counties; Augusta, Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Page. As the top two wheat-producing counties in Virginia, Augusta County and Rockingham County deserved the nickname of the Breadbasket of the Confederacy.

The campaign of destruction, misunderstood from the very beginning, continues to be little understood today. It is often referred to as a “raid,” although it was well planned and involved 5,000 cavalrymen and a brigade of infantry doing the actual destruction, while thousands of additional soldiers in blue were called upon to drive off or kill livestock. To an individual farm family watching hogs slaughtered in the pens and barn and other outbuildings going up in smoke, it must have seemed a random orgy of destruction. In reality, Sheridan had given specific orders: barns and mills containing grain or forage were to be reduced to ashes; but, the properties of widows, single women, and orphans were not to be molested and private homes were not to be harmed. Evidence shows that most of the soldiers followed orders, though there were a number of instances of looting.

From a hill near Mt. Jackson Union cavalrymen counted 168 barns burning at one time. When it was all over Sheridan’s men had systematically destroyed around 1,400 barns, countless other farm structures, seventy mills, several factories, three iron furnaces, warehouses and railroad buildings, and hundreds of thousands of bushels of wheat, oats and corn, and crops standing in the fields. In Rockingham County alone over 10,000 head of livestock were driven off.


Post Civil War Narratives: Other Points of View

Confederate surrender at AppomattoxThe ‘Lost Cause’ myth is probably the best-known post civil war narrative. It permeates through the writing of Douglas Southall Freeman and other Civil War historians. it can also be found interspersed throughout Ken Burns’ Civil War mini-series.

But there are at least three other post civil war narratives that we should consider.

The primary narrative on the Northern side can be called the ‘Union Cause’ narrative. It is the direct opposite of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth. This narrative has Daniel Webster as one of its heroes. Even though he died in October of 1852, Webster is looked upon as the defender of the Union in the antebellum years. He along with fellow Whig, Henry Clay of Kentucky, worked for compromises to stave off the sectionalism that threatened war between the North and the South.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is seen as another great hero of the Union. Lincoln is looked upon as the man who saved the Union by his determination to do anything to thwart the secessionists. In a letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Lincoln is followed in this pantheon of Union heroes by Ulysses S. Grant. The General-in-Chief is looked upon as the instrument of the destruction of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Through Grant, Lincoln’s policies were carried to fruition. William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan held the same place in the Union pantheon as Stonewall Jackson held in the ‘Lost Cause’ pantheon.

The ‘Union Cause’ narrative celebrated the restoration of the Union. This was the paramount reason for the Civil War and it accomplished its objectives.

Among the freed slaves they is yet another narrative. For them the Civil War was referred to alternately as the Freedom War or the Slavery War. Their entire focus was, understandably so, about emancipation from bondage. All else pales by comparison.

Even today African-Americans celebrate Emancipation Day on April 16th and Juneteenth on June 19th. The former celebrates the day of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act while the latter is the day that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865. Along with the obvious celebrations of freedom, the courage and service of the black soldiers who fought for the Union cause is also celebrated.

Finally, there is the Reconciliation Cause that celebrated the valor and courage of soldiers on both sides. All other causes of the war are in the background. The surrender at Appomattox is the primary symbol of the Reconciliation Cause. How Ulysses Grant treated Robert E. Lee and Chamberlain’s order for his troops to salute the surrendering Confederates are highlights of the Reconciliation Cause.

Two former opponents who later became friends, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Brown Gordon personify this narrative. On many occasions after the war these two often presided over veteran’s reunions throughout the country.

Chamberlain explained his decision to order a salute to the defeated Confederates on his own:

The decision “was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?”

The following morning, April 12th, the Confederates marched past the victorious Union troops, stacked their arms, folded their flags and disappeared into history.


The Opposing Sides’ Strategies

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant and LeeStarting with the Overland Campaign and continuing until the end of the war, the two sides had diametrically opposing military and political strategies. 1864 was not only a year with military objectives but also political ones.

The Union government and their army, now completely under the control of Ulysses S. Grant, had one military goal and one political one. Grant’s military goal was to defeat the armies of the Confederacy in the field.

Grant had proposed and Abraham Lincoln had approved a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond, Virginia; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia, defeat Joseph E. Johnston, and capture AtlantaGeorge Crook and William W. Averell to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; and Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. This was the first time the Union armies would have a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of theaters.


In the east he gave George Meade one overriding command: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Richmond was no longer the primary goal of the Army of the Potomac. Their primary goal was to be the destruction and surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant knew that with the defeat of Lee’s army would precipitate the fall of Richmond.

In the Western Theater, Sherman had been tasked with the capture of the rail center of Atlanta. He would then seek the destruction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Finally, Sherman would wreak destruction through Georgia, South Carolina and South Carolina, gutting the Deep South and preventing the supplying of the various Confederate armies.

Not all of Grant’s armies were led by professional soldiers and they would fall short of his goals. Butler’s mission was to deploy his 33,000-man army via the James River to the Virginia Peninsula and strike northwest to Richmond. His objective was to cut the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, a critical Southern supply line, and force Lee to send reinforcements to that front, weakening him against Grant and Meade. Ben Butler would be bottled up at Bermuda Hundred by General P.G.T. Beauregard with a force of 18,000.

Sigel would be defeated at the battle of New Market by John C. Breckinridge. Sigel staged a rapid retreat northward to Strasburg, leaving the field and the Valley to Breckinridge’s army. After learning of the Union defeat, Grant became furious and replaced Sigel with David Hunter.

Hunter waged an aggressive campaign in the southern Valley forcing Lee to dispatch Jubal Early and his Second Corps to face the Union Army. Early forced the Union forces out of the Valley and proceeded to march north into Maryland. He eventually threatened Washington, forcing Grant to send a corps to protect the city.

He returned to the Valley but Grant appointed Philip Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan conducted an aggressive campaign against Early, eventually annihilating the Second Corps and forcing the remnants to rejoin Lee. The Valley was lost as a breadbasket for the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee had a purely defensive strategy. His initial goal was two-fold: preserve his army from attrition and defend Richmond. With an army that on occasion half the size of the Army of the Potomac, Lee would become the master of the terrain of his native state. He used every topographical feature that was available to his army.

He fought a masterful defensive campaign during May and June of 1864. Battles in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and North Anna featured the Confederates skillful use of the terrain to bleed the Union Army. Outnumbered almost 2-to-1 his army inflicted 55,000 casualties on their enemy while sustaining 33,600. However, the Confederate losses represented about half of their army.

Grant knew that he could bleed Lee’s army while his own armies had a much larger pool of manpower available. However, looming in November was the Presidential election. Lincoln needed victories in the field in order to fend off the challenge from George McClellan, the Democrat nominee. The rising casualty lists would drive the voters into the arms of the Democrats unless they saw the hope of victory on the horizon.

Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee realized that their only hope of achieving independence was the defeat of Abraham Lincoln at the polls.  1864 would therefore become the most important year of the war. Victory would hang in the balance for the greater part of the year.





The Case of Gouvernour K. Warren

This entry is part 7 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Gouverneur K. WarrenMany of the general officers on both sides during the Civil War were simply fired, relieved or shunted aside by their superiors in Washington and Richmond. A few were either charged with dereliction of duty or demanded courts of inquiry. One such officer was Gouvenour K. Warren who was relieved by Philip Sheridan during the Battle of Five Forks and later urgently requested a court of inquiry to exonerate himself from the stigma of his treatment by Sheridan.

Gouvenour K. Warren entered the United States Military Academy at age 16 and graduated second in his class of 44 cadets in 1850. In the decade before the Civil War, Warren worked on engineering projects along the Mississippi River, mapping projects in the Trans-Mississippi region and transcontinental railroad surveys. He saw his first combat in Nebraska in 1855 during the First Sioux War.

The start of the Civil War found Warren at West Point as a first lieutenant and mathematics instructor. It had taken him almost eleven years to rise in rank from second lieutenant to first lieutenant. He would rise to the rank of major general of volunteers in a little over two years.

He helped to raise a local regiment, the 5th New York Infantry, and was named its lieutenant colonel on May 14, 1861. They first saw action at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10th. He was promoted to colonel of the regiment by September 10th.

At the start of the Peninsula Campaign he not only commanded his regiment but assisted the chief topographical engineer of the Army of the Potomac by leading reconnaissance missions and drawing topographical maps for the advance of the army up the Peninsula. He was promoted to brigade command before the Seven Days Battles and was wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill but refused to leave the field.

At the Battle of Malvern Hill his brigade stopped an attack by a Confederate division. He continued to lead the brigade at the Second Battle of Bull Run, suffering heavy casualties in a heroic stand against an overwhelming enemy assault, and at Antietam, where V Corps was in reserve and saw no combat. On September 28, 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general. He led his brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker named Warren his chief topographical engineer and then chief engineer. As chief engineer, Warren was commended for his service in the Battle of Chancellorsville. At the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign, Warren advised Hooker on the routes that the army should take in their pursuit of the Confederates.

On July 2nd, Warren recognized the importance of Little Round Top as an anchor for the Union Army’s defensive position. He ordered the Gouvernour K. Warren's statue on Little Round Topbrigade of Colonel Strong Vincent to occupy it just minutes before it was attacked. He took a minor neck wound during the battle. After Gettysburg he was promoted to major general of volunteers.

From August 1863 until March 1864, he commanded the II Corps, replacing the gravely wounded Winfield Scott Hancock. He led the corps at the the Battle of Bristoe Station and the Mine Run Campaign. At Mine Run, he refused an order from General Meade when he detected a trap that had been laid for his corps. Initially, Meade was furious but he later acknowledged that Warren had taken the correct action.

In the spring of 1864, Warren assumed command of the V Corps and led it through the Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. During these Virginia campaigns, Warren had a reputation of bringing his engineering traits of deliberation and caution to the role of infantry corps commander.

He won the Battle of Globe Tavern, August 18 to August 20, 1864, cutting the Weldon Railroad, a vital supply route north to Petersburg. He also won a limited success in the Battle of Peebles’ Farm in September 1864, carrying a part of the Confederate lines protecting supplies moving to Petersburg on the Boydton Plank Road.

Unfortunately, this was the direct opposite of immediate superior, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan. The mercurial Sheridan was quick to anger at his subordinates and demanded immediate compliance with his every order. Warren came under Sheridan’s command at the beginning of the pursuit of Lee’s army in March 1865.

Sheridan asked for the VI Corps but General Grant gave him Warren’s V Corps instead, insisting that it was better position. At the same time, Grant gave Sheridan written permission to relieve Warren if he felt it was justified “for the good of the service.”

Grant later wrote in his Personal Memoirs:

I was so much dissatisfied with Warren’s dilatory movements in the battle of White Oak Road and in his failure to reach Sheridan in time, that I was very much afraid that at the last moment he would fail Sheridan. He was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.

I had sent a staff officer to General Sheridan to call his attention to these defects, and to say that as much as I liked General Warren, now was not a time when we could let our personal feelings for any one stand in the way of success; and if his removal was necessary to success, not to hesitate. It was upon that authorization that Sheridan removed Warren. I was very sorry that it had been done, and regretted still more that I had not long before taken occasion to assign him to another field of duty.

At Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Sheridan became enraged when Warren didn’t move his corps fast enough to his liking. His corps of 16,000 was needed to close the trap on General George Pickett’s force and get into his rear areas. Despite Sheridan’s continuous prodding, it took Warren’s corps three hours to get into position.

But after all of this time two of his three forward divisions were out of position. It took Sheridan riding into the battle to encourage the lead division of Brig. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres in the attack. Horace Porter, of Grant’s staff, rode behind Sheridan in the charge, marveling. The little general, he said, was ‘the very incarnation of battle.’ It took Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, like Warren a true hero at Gettysburg, to smartly lead his brigade into the breach caused by the misalignment.

The Confederate line disintegrated. Many surrendered and the rest streamed away from the fighting. It was at this point that Sheridan relieved Warren. Next Sheridan sought out Griffin, the senior division commander in the V Corps, and brusquely gave him command of the entire corps.

White-faced and shaken, the hero of Little Round Top asked Sheridan to reconsider his order relieving Warren of command. ‘Reconsider, hell!’ said Sheridan. ‘I don’t reconsider my decisions. Obey the order.’ Sheridan could forgive the occasional blunder by youngsters such as Custer who fought like hell when the time came. But slowness, timidity, or caution, these Sheridan could not excuse.

Warren was reassigned to the Petersburg defenses and then briefly to the command of the Department of Mississippi. On May 27, 1865 Warren resigned his commission as major general of volunteers and reverted to his permanent rank as major in the Corps of Engineers. For the next 17 years he worked on engineering projects in the west. In 1879 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

He asked on numerous occasions for a court of inquiry but until Ulysses S. Grant left the presidency he was refused. President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered a court of inquiry that convened in 1879 and, after hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses over 100 days, found that Sheridan’s relief of Warren had been unjustified. Unfortunately for Warren, these results were not published until after his death.

As long as there is Gettysburg National Battlefield, Gouvernour K. Warren will be remembered as the man who saved the Union Army at Little Round Top where his statue stands.



The Campaigns of 1864

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

1864 was a year that saw fighting across all areas of the South. Many of the campaigns would be of critical importance to the final outcome of the American Civil War. For those who would like to review the major campaigns the following list provides links to the first post of of each campaign series.

Western Theater

The Shenandoah Valley

The Eastern Theater


Civil War Tactics: Cavalry

This entry is part 5 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Cavalry chargeAs infantry tactics evolved over the long four years of the American Civil War, so too did cavalry tactics. The use of cavalry by both sides began with them being employed mostly in a reconnaissance role. In addition, they were used to guard supply lines and be advance elements of the army. General Robert E. Lee told J.E.B. Stuart that his cavalry were the “eyes and ears of the army”.

During the Civil War there were four types of cavalry units:

  • Pure cavalry forces carried carbines, pistols and sabers. Only a small number of cavalry met this definition, primarily Union cavalry in the Eastern Theater. Confederate forces in the Eastern Theater carried only pistols but in the Western Theater some were armed with shotguns, especially early in the conflict.
  • The most common use of cavalry forces was as Mounted Infantry. They rode to battle on horseback but fought dismounted. The armed principally with rifles. In the second half of the war Union cavalry were armed with repeating rifles, weapons that multiplied their firepower exponentially.
  • Dragoons were a hybrid force that were armed and mounted as cavalrymen but were expected to fight on foot. The fighting tactics of the forces deployed by Union General Philip Sheridan in 1864, and by Confederate General Wade Hampton after the Battle of Yellow Tavern, fit the dragoon model, although those units did not adopt the term.
  • Irregular forces, also known as partisan rangers and guerrillas, were usually mounted. Their weapons were as varied as their uniforms, anything available would do. The Confederacy produced the most famous irregular leaders, including William Clarke QuantrillJohn S. MosbyNathan Bedford Forrest, and John Hunt Morgan.

At the time of the Civil War, the cavalry had five major missions, in rough priority:

  1. Reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance screening
  2. Defensive, delaying actions
  3. Pursuit and harassment of defeated enemy forces
  4. Offensive actions
  5. Long-distance raiding against enemy lines of communications, supply depots, railroads, etc.

Cavalry was used extensively in a reconnaissance role. In an era when armies were essentially blindly groping for the enemy, cavalry was the paramount tool that military commanders used to find and identify the enemy. They were also used to screen their own forces from enemy reconnaissance.

Cavalry used in an offensive role was a rare occurrence but most cavalry battles were at key points in the war. They include the massive cavalry Battle of Brandy Station where over 20,000 cavalrymen were engaged, the Gettysburg cavalry battles and the Battle of Yellow Tavern where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded.

Cavalrymen most desired the long-distance raid for two reasons: the fame that a successful raid would bring and the practical value of disrupting the enemy’s rear areas.

J.E.B. Stuart became the darling of the Confederacy for twice circling around the Army of the Potomac in 1864 but his extended raid before Gettysburg left Robert E. Lee blind to the Union Army’s whereabouts.

Union General George Stoneman led a number of long-distance raids behind enemy lines. His first long-distance raid was a key component of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Chancellorsville plan. It accomplished very little and its lack of success was one of the main reasons for the Union defeat in the eyes of Hooker.

In December 1864, Stoneman led a raid from East Tennessee into southwestern Virginia. He led raids into Virginia and North Carolina in 1865, took Salem and other towns, destroyed Moratock Iron Furnace (a Confederate foundry) and at Salisbury attempted to free about 1,400 prisoners, but the prisoners had been dispersed by the time he arrived in Salisbury.  His command nearly captured Confederate president Jefferson Davis during his flight from Richmond, Virginia.

The raid led by Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson from LaGrange, Tennessee to Baton Gauge during the Vicksburg campaign was considered a strategic masterpiece that diverted critical Confederate forces away from Ulysses S. Grant’s army. During this 800-mile foray through the heart of the South destroyed railroad lines, supply depots and generally disrupted the Confederate Army at a time when they were trying to defeat the Union forces around Vicksburg.

During the early part of the Vicksburg Campaign, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn led 3,500 cavalry on a daring raid to Holly Springs, Mississippi where they destroyed Grant’s key supply depot forcing him to restart his campaign from Memphis.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan was one of the most gifted Union cavalry commanders. Promoted by Grant to overall cavalry commander of the Army of the Potomac, he led his forces through a number of battles large and small during the Overland campaign and the subsequent Petersburg campaign. At the Battle of Trevilian Station(June 11–12), the largest all-cavalry battle of the war, he achieved tactical success on the first day, but suffered heavy casualties during multiple assaults on the second.

Given command of the Army of the Shenandoah in August 1864, Sheridan led his combined arms army in a successful clearing of Confederate forces from this strategic area. After defeating Jubal Early in a number of engagements, he unleashed his cavalry forces  to seize or destroy livestock and provisions, and to burn barns, mills, factories, and railroads. Sheridan’s men did their work relentlessly and thoroughly, rendering the Valley a wasteland.

Cavalry were organized into companies of 100 men with ten companies in a regiment. Two or more companies might be organized into ad hoc battalions. Civil War regiments were rarely near authorized strength so that they were commonly brigaded with two to four other regiments. Two to four brigades were combined into divisions. By the end of the war, 272 cavalry regiments were formed in the Union army and 137 in the Confederate army. In both armies, the cavalry was accompanied by batteries or battalions of horse artillery, as well as its own train of ammunition and supply wagons.

Both sides had a number of notable cavalry commanders who are too numerous to mention. Some began their service in the infantry and later transitioned to the cavalry arm. Others began in the cavalry but ended up leading combined arms units.




The Hard Hand of War

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The James River Campaign

On March 3, 1865, Union Cavalry under the command of Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer occupied the city of Charlottesville in Albemarle County, Virginia. From this base the conducted operations against their main objectives: the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River and Kanawha Canal. The hard hand of war was inflicted on an area of the Virginia Piedmont that had not seen a “Yankee” (other than wounded prisoners) up until then.

Up until late 1862, the Union government of Abraham Lincoln had conducted what has been referred to as a “war of conciliation” against the Confederacy. The major proponents of this approach were the Generals Winfield Scott and George McClellan. They were constantly hoping for a peaceful settlement to the war.

The Hard Hand of WarAfter the Battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, it became apparent to the Union authorities that the war would be settled only one way: by the use of hard war against every institution on the South. That included a hard war against civilians and their capacity to supply the Southern armies.

After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the “war in earnest” began. Union forces, particularly those in the Western Theater, found it necessary to sustain themselves off the fat of the land and to deal more harshly with Confederate communities abetting behind the lines.

Union policy further intensified in 1864 as Union armies, in conjunction with Grant’s multi-pronged offensive, launched large scale raids into the Confederate interior, including Sheridan’s and Sherman’s famous campaigns. These raids served the purposes of targeting the Confederacy’s manufacturing, agricultural, and transportation means of supplying its troops as well as demonstrating to Southern civilians the inability of Jefferson Davis’ government to defend them.

Thus by late 1864 and into 1865, parts of the Southern Confederacy were laid waste in order to deny much-needed supplies to the Confederate armies. The “Burning” in the Shenandoah Valley that was conducted by the Union army under the command of Maj. General Philip Sheridan was a precursor of coming events. General Ulysses Grant told Sheridan to “eat out Virginia clean and clear…. So that crows flying over it will have to carry their own provender”.

Now Sheridan was ordered to carry out the same level of destruction on the Virginia Piedmont. And his veteran cavalry forces did so with a vengeance, sensing that the end was near in Virginia.

The 2nd Ohio Cavalry had fought in many major engagements starting in the Western Theater and eventually moving to the East. They had been with Sheridan in the Valley and knew how to conduct hard war. On the night of March 6th along the Lynchburg Road towards Lovingston in Nelson County south of Charlottesville, they set fire to the split rail chestnut fences on each side of the road. The did this, according to one trooper, “to keep from freezing and towards midnight we could trace our path by the reflection of light for miles.”

A newspaper reported the raiders near Norwood in Nelson County on March 8-9th, “They burned every mill that they could find along the James General Thomas DevinRiver, destroyed all tobacco and tobacco houses and carried away all the horses and negroes they could lay their hands on. They shot about 300 of their broken down horses…”

At Scottsville in southern Albemarle County, the Brig. Gen. Thomas Devin‘s Union troops burned the tobacco warehouses along the James River. To this day, Sheridan’s Raid is still remembered in the small James River town. Several years ago the local weekly ran a front page story that featured a picture of General Sheridan with the screaming headline “Townburner” in large type. (Note: I live about 10 miles north of Scottsville.)

Another local resident along the James River reported,” We had the full benefit of seeing Sheridan’s ruthless raiders possess themselves of everything of value on the place. What they could not take off, they destroyed. The house was ransacked, from top to bottom by the relentless foe, who with rough words and clashing swords were passing in and out, riding into the porch, crowding into the house, and quarreling at such a rate that they even went so far as to draw their swords…”

Sheridan’s original plan was to move south to the city of Lynchburg. However, he received information that the city had been reinforced. Between that news and the fact that the James River was impassable due to high water, he changed the direction of his movement. Dividing his force, his various columns spread out from Charlottesville to create havoc in the surrounding area.

On March 6th, Custer’s three brigades rode south down the Charlottesville & Lynchburg Railroad towards Amherst Court House. Custer’s and Devin’s columns reunited at New Market (now Norwood) in Nelson County. Everything that was remotely of military value in their path was put to the torch: bridges, fences, mills, factories, government facilities.

Tan yards, barns, candle factories, flour mills, woolen mills, machine shops, tobacco warehouses and saddle makers all were considered legitimate targets for the hard hand of war. Livestock and fowl were either killed or eaten. Horses, mules and donkeys were either confiscated or shot. It is believed that as many as 2,000 freed slaves joined the Union cavalry column.

Of particular attention were the railroad facilities along the route. Every railroad bridge was burned. Rail were pulled up and methodically burned, melted and twisted into bowtie shapes to prevent their further use. The Union army had learned the lessons of hard war well.

The army was unable to damage the James River and Kanawha Canal itself because of the permanent nature of its construction. However, at several points along the way, lock gates, swivel posts and balancing beams that were made of wood were destroyed. The canal could also be emptied by diverting water from it.

Sheridan’s march through the Virginia Piedmont was rather swift because he was determined not to miss the end game around Petersburg. By March 10th, his forces passed through Columbia in Fluvanna County and four days later they were at Hanover Junction (now Doswell), north of Richmond. On March 27th, Sheridan’s forces arrived at Petersburg. On April 1st, Sheridan commanded the victorious Union V Corps at the Battle of Five Forks.

Sheridan offered his philosophy of hard war to German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck when he visited Europe as an observer, “The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with.” Although hard war was a harsh way of conducting warfare it became the standard of modern warfare from the American Civil War to the present day.


The James River Campaign: Winchester to Charlottesville

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series The James River Campaign

Maj. Gen Philip Sheridan needed very little prodding from General Ulysses S. Grant to conduct his James River Campaign. He could sense that the end was near in Virginia and he wanted to be in on the ‘kill’. There would be very little in the way of resistance to prevent him from cutting through central Virginia like a hot knife through butter.

On February 7, 1865, the Union cavalry force left Winchester and headed south up the valley (up and down are reversed in the Shenandoah Valley because the river runs north) toward Staunton. Grant had given him orders to join Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in the Carolinas.

George Armstrong CusterSheridan’s 10,000-man cavalry force was described as “the best equipped large body of horsemen ever seen on this continent.” As they moved south they received information that Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s force of  between 1,500 and 2,000 was situated at Waynesboro.

After crossing the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on February 28th, Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer‘s division encountered some 300 Confederate cavalrymen under Brig. Gen.Thomas Rosser guarding the Middle River near the village of Mount Crawford. Rosser set a long covered bridge on fire, hoping to delay the Federals.

Custer ordered two of his regiments to swim across the river and strike Rosser’s flank, while additional regiments stormed the bridge. Custer successfully drove off Rosser’s meager force, extinguished the fire, and rode on to Staunton, where they were joined by the bulk of Sheridan’s force the next day.

Custer’s division slogged through muddy roads in cold downpour, and on March 2 encountered the last remnant of Early’s Army of the Valley at Waynesboro. Aligned in a defensive position along a ridge in front of the South River, Early had placed his artillery (11 to 14 guns) in a good position to contest any Federal advance.

However, he left his left flank exposed, supposing (incorrectly) that a dense woods would impede any Union thrust in that direction. After a brief stand-off, a determined Federal attack rolled up Early’s left flank and scattered his small force. Confederate militia general William Henry Harman was killed attempting to rally the routing Confederates. Ironically, Harman was defending his home ground.

The Confederate force disintegrated under the relentless Union attack and was completely routed. More than 1,500 Confederates surrendered. Early and his staff evaded capture. Lee relieved Early of his command soon after the encounter, because he doubted Early’s ability to inspire confidence in the men he would have to recruit to continue operations. For Jubal Early, the war was over. Lee wrote to Early of the difficulty of his decision:

While my own confidence in your ability, zeal, and devotion to the cause is unimpaired, I have nevertheless felt that I could not oppose what seems to be the current of opinion, without injustice to your reputation and injury to the service. I therefore felt constrained to endeavor to find a commander who would be more likely to develop the strength and resources of the country, and General Jubal Earlyinspire the soldiers with confidence. … [Thank you] for the fidelity and energy with which you have always supported my efforts, and for the courage and devotion you have ever manifested in the service …

That night part of Custer’s Division camped on the eastern side of the Afton Gap. The following day, they captured Charlottesville and were able to collect supplies. They had left Winchester with only three days of supplies so they had been living off the land since then. With winter just ending, food was at a premium and they were forced to seize supplies from the civilian population.

The reports 0f Sheridan’s troopers are not flattering. This area of Virginia had never seen Union troops so their appearance and actions were a shock to the locals. Mrs. W.P. Maguire who lived in Ivy, Virginia (west of Charlottesville) left us with this description.

“We had never seen a live Yankee up to that time…and the fear of them was something terrible…we all sat up waiting breathlessly…when they came in full force, a lot of miserable drunken soldiers, who surrounded and filled the house, uttering oaths, brandishing swords, and pointing their pistols had the heads of the “damned women” as they called them and ordering them to give up everything in the way of provisions…our terror was beyond description not knowing what would happen next.”

The farm manager at Monticello, Joel M. Wheeler, wrote, “The property was carried away by squads of soldiers, sometimes a dozen or more together; they swarmed to the place like bees.” He later claimed compensation as a long-standing union supporting citizen.


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.


The Burning of the Valley

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Sheridan's 1864 Valley Campaign

The Burning of the Valley

General Ulysses Grant had given Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan very specific orders to deny the agricultural resources of the Shenandoah Valley. Starting in early October, Sheridan ordered his troops to wreak a swath of devastation on the Shenandoah Valley that to this day is still known simply as “The Burning.”

For ten days in early October 1864, The Union Army of the Shenandoah burned everything of military value with an area from Harrisonburg south to Staunton and east to Waynesboro. By day clouds of black smoke and by night orange and red flames marked the destruction of barns, mills, factories and farm fields. Lifetimes of labor were destroyed by the relentless Union troops. The area became known as “The Burnt District.”

The Burning of the ValleyOne Union soldier described the scene. “The whole country around is wrapped in flames, the heavens are aglow with the light thereof…such mourning, such lamentations, such crying and pleading for mercy I never saw or never want to see again, some were wild, crazy, mad, some cry for help while others throw their arms around yankee soldiers necks and implore mercy.” 

After carrying out the destruction Sheridan’s army withdrew to Woodstock. In an October 6th dispatch to Grant he reported that his troops had “destroyed over 2000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4000 head of cattle and have killed…not less than 3000 sheep.”

This was merely a portent of things to come. Starting on October 5th, the Army of the Shenandoah retreated northward. Their cavalry burned everything in their path, destroying $20 million worth of property (in depreciated Confederate currency). They rendered many Valley residents homeless and left a residue of bitterness that was to last for generations.

One young resident of Augusta County who witnessed the destruction later wrote, “How my soul filled with horror as I was compelled to stand and witness one building after another consumed to ashes…their lurid glare sent many a pang of hopelessness to houseless citizens…”

During this entire time, Major John S. Mosby and his 43rd Virginia Cavalry carried out a guerrilla war against the Union forces in northern John S. MosbyVirginia. He particularly preyed on the Manassas Gap Railroad, derailing a number of trains and disrupting the Union supply lines. They also disrupted service on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and attacked Union wagon trains in the Valley.

Meanwhile, at the Confederate camp at Brown’s Gap, Early and his army could only respond to “The Burning” of the Valley with isolated counterattacks against particular Units. They were able to stop Union cavalry from destroying iron railroad bridge and tunnel through the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Waynesboro, on September 29th.

On October 1st, they moved west to Mt. Sidney, near Staunton, where they stayed for 4 days. As the Federals moved down the valley, Early’s ordered his cavalry to pursue them, harass them and gather intelligence on their movements.

On October 5th, Maj. Gen. Thomas Lafayette Rosser arrived at Early’s camp with 600 cavalrymen. Rosser was to bring new hope to the Confederates in the Valley.