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.

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