The Shenandoah Valley Campaign

Sheridan's performance against Stuart convinced Grant that he should use the steady cavalry commander against other troublesome Confederate cavalry forces. In the summer of 1864, he sent Sheridan into the Shenandoah Valley, an area of northern Virginia that had been a favorite Confederate invasion route and supply source since the war's early days.

Sheridan's main target in the Shenandoah Valley was a fifteen thousand-strong Confederate cavalry force led by Lieutenant General Jubal Early (1816-1894). But Grant also wanted to eliminate the valley as a source of food and supplies for the South. He thus ordered Sheridan not only to drive Jubal Early's cavalry out of the region, but also to destroy the farmlands that had been used to supply Confederates with needed food and supplies. "Carry off stock [livestock or supplies] of all descriptions and negroes so as to prevent further planting," Grant ordered. "If the War is to last another year we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste."

Armed with a forty thousand-man force of cavalry and infantry, Sheridan moved through the valley with grim determination. In August, his army—designated the Army of the Shenandoah by Grant—began their assault on the valley's pro-Confederacy farms and villages. They burned barns, destroyed crops, and captured livestock wherever they went, obeying Sheridan's declaration that "the people [of the Shenandoah Valley] must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war." Confederate guerrillas (armed raiders) led by John Singleton Mosby (1833-1916; see entry) repeatedly struck against Sheridan's army during this time, but their efforts proved useless in stopping the destructive Union advance.

^^ George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876)

General Sheridan's favorite officer in his command was George Armstrong Custer, a cavalryman who became known for his bravery and daring during the Civil War. But while Custer's Civil War exploits made him a familiar figure to American newspaper readers, he became even more famous in 1876, when Sioux warriors killed him and all 264 soldiers under his command at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Born in Ohio in 1839, Custer moved to Michigan as a youngster. In 1857, he enrolled at West Point. He graduated in 1861, but ranked last in his class. Three weeks after graduating from the academy, he fought at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) in the cavalry of the Union's Army of the Potomac.

Over the next four years, Custer fought in many of the Civil War's biggest and bloodiest battles. During this time, the young officer built a reputation as a bright strategist and a fearless soldier. In fact, Custer once said that he would "be willing . . . to see a battle every day during my life." Everyone who knew the dashing young soldier knew that such statements accurately represented his feelings about the war. But Custer was not universally loved. Some of the soldiers in his command viewed him as an unnecessarily harsh disciplinarian. Even people who liked Custer admitted that his thirst for publicity and fame sometimes got out of hand.

Nonetheless, Custer's battlefield performances impressed Sheridan. After Sheridan took command of the Army of the Potomac's cavalry in 1863, he quickly promoted Custer through the ranks. Custer eventually became the youngest

By late September, Sheridan's army had smashed much of the valley's farmland and claimed two victories over Early's dwindling cavalry force. But Early was not forced to leave the valley until mid-October, when Sheridan showed the entire country the strength of his military leadership. Confident that his army could maintain control over the valley in his absence, Sheridan and some members of his staff traveled to Washington for a conference. On the morning of October 19, however, Early's cavalry launched a surprise attack on the Army of the Shenandoah's camp at Cedar Creek. The assault shocked the Union soldiers. They fled the camp in a disorganized retreat, leaving behind food, artillery guns (large guns too heavy to carry), and other supplies.

George Custer. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

major general in American military history. During Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864, Custer's cavalry led many of the Union offensives (attacks) on

Confederate foes. The performance of Custer's troops made it much easier for Sheridan to seize control of the valley by the end of the year.

After the Civil War ended, Custer stayed in the U.S. military. When federal efforts to seize lands from Native American tribes heated up, Custer transferred to military posts in the West. In 1876, he led the army's Seventh Cavalry in a campaign against Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in southern Montana. But on June 25, Custer stumbled into a large war party led by the legendary chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831 — 1890) near the Little Bighorn River. Custer and his cavalrymen were wiped out in the resulting battle, which remains the most famous Indian military victory in American history.

Unfortunately for Early, though, Sheridan ran into his fleeing soldiers on his way back from Washington. "There burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army," Sheridan recalled. "Hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others unhurt but utterly demoralized, and baggage-wagons by the score [groups of twenty], all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion."

The sight of Sheridan, however, immediately changed the attitude of his frightened troops. Using a combination of encouragement and verbal abuse, Sheridan stopped the retreat. He then reorganized his troops and led a furious charge back into their Cedar Creek camp. Sheridan's counterattack crushed Early's cavalry. By the time the Confederate cavalry was able to escape, it had been torn to pieces. Sheridan's victory at Cedar Creek established Union control over the Shenandoah Valley for the remainder of the war.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment