image_pdfimage_print
06/18/15

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.

04/11/14

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.

 

 

 

02/7/14

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

01/18/12

The Shenandoah Valley: Granary of the Confederacy

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series The Shenandoah Campaigns of 1864

The Shenandoah Valley: 

Granary of the Confederacy

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was called the Granary of the Confederacy. The people of the Valley of Virginia would pay for that reputation over the four long years of war.

The Granary of the ConfederacyPrior to the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley had flourished as a prime producer of grains and livestock for a variety of reasons. In the previous post we pointed out that the growth of roads and rail lines had contributed to the increase in production by giving growers the financial incentives to expand their yields.

The soil of the Valley was considered the richest in Virginia and some said in the entire country. The production of corn, oats, rye, barley and wheat had grown into major enterprises by 1820. Using the latest in agricultural advances, the iron plow and fertilizers, Valley farmers experienced wheat yield that were more than double the state average by the 1830s. By 1850, the Valley with 8 of the top 10 wheat-producing counties in the state, produced 28% of the wheat harvested in Virginia.

By then, the farmers in the Valley had a standard of living that twice as high as other farmers around the Commonwealth. Between 1850 and 1860 a number of farmers in the Valley saw the cash value of the farms increase by more than 35%. Prior to the onset of the war, Valley wheat farmers exported over one and a half million bushels of wheat annually to markets outside of the region.

One of the reasons for the explosive growth in the harvesting of grain was the invention of Rockbridge County native, Cyrus McCormick. The son of The Virginia Reapera Valley farmer, McCormick invented  a machine that came to known as the Virginia reaper. This invention could harvest 2 acres of wheat an hour. The reaper revolutionized farming across America.

Valley farmers were not limited to the growing of only grains. They also grew a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. They excelled in the breeding and raising of livestock. Cattle herds grazed in the lush grasslands of the Shenandoah Valley. By the 1850s the Upper Valley was acknowledged as one of the finest livestock-producing areas of the state of Virginia.

Cow herds produced large quantities of milk for drinking and the making of a variety of dairy products. Horses, swine and sheep were also raised on the rich farmlands of the Valley. The manure produced by the Valley’s livestock was plowed back into the soil to enrich it before planting.

Much of the rich products of the Valley were produced without the use of slaves. In 1850 slaves constituted 20% of the Valley’s population. This declined to less than 18% by 1860. Most every religious denomination in the Valley condemned the practice. Ministers preached against the use of slaves, saying that it was against Christian beliefs.

Most farms in the Valley were small family-run operations that cultivated less labor-intensive crops. During planting and harvesting, those who Farming in the Shenandoah Valleyneeded additional assistance hired temporary workers or were helped by neighbors. Slavery was simply not cost-effective for this type of farming operation.

The people of the Shenandoah Valley had more in common with their northern neighbors than with their fellow Virginians to the east. The two main eastern crops, tobacco and cotton, were non-existent in the Valley. Most of their produce was shipped to northern markets rather than across the Blue Ridge Mountains or further south.

Residents of the Shenandoah Valley stayed in touch with their northern relatives and in many cases agreed with their views on slavery and secession. They believed that the Southern states could defend their way of life by staying in the Union, rather than creating a separate nation.

John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry was to shock many Valley residents. Many were stirred into a passion of Virginia patriotism. They loved their land and were willing to defend it. Many would do so to their deaths.