The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 6
A Scholarly Monograph by Stephen G. Smith
22 December 1997
In the early morning light of August 7, 1864, gunfire broke the stillness of West Virginia’s South Branch Valley of the Potomac; but the origins of the fighting and its significance lay in events far beyond the valley’s walls. In Virginia, Petersburg was under siege, and Robert E. Lee’s famed Army of Northern Virginia was fighting for its existence. To Ulysses S. Grant, who earlier in the year had been appointed to the rank of lieutenant-general in command of all Union forces, the destruction of Lee’s army was essential in order to achieve victory in the long and devastating struggle. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1864, the Union and Rebel forces had rarely been out of direct contact because of Grant’s stated objective to destroy Confederate armies.
In order for Grant to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia he had to keep the other major armies of the Confederacy occupied so that they could not send troops to Lee. He also realized that he must apply overwhelming force directly against the Army of Northern Virginia by using all of the troops at his disposal. Finally, he had to find a way to stop food and other supplies from reaching the Confederate armies.
Because of poor execution, Union strategy failed to keep the other Confederate Armies occupied. General Nathaniel P. Banks’ Army of the Gulf suffered reversals and had to abandon its campaign up the Red River. This distraction prevented the capture of the Confederate port of Mobile, Alabama. As a result of tactical blundering, General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James was “bottled-up” by a much smaller Confederate force at Bermuda Hundred and was unable to attack Richmond. Grant’s major effort in the Shenandoah Valley was foiled when the General Franz Sigel was defeated at New Market, Virginia.
Sigel’s failure created the immediate requirement to reprogram Grant’s efforts in order to close that Confederate “Bread basket”.
Subsequently, Grant ordered Major General David Hunter to take command in the Shenandoah Valley. Hunter pursued his mission with a vengeance. He destroyed both private homes and public buildings, such as the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, thus earning the undying hatred of the citizens of the Valley and the troops who opposed him. Lee, realizing the significance of the Shenandoah to his position at Petersburg, ordered General Jubal Early to halt Hunter’s advance and, if possible, drive him out of the Valley.
In a series of stubborn delaying movements, young Brigadier General John McCausland, an 1857 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, contested the advance of Hunter’s 18,000 men. Felling trees, burning bridges and harassing the enemy force, McCausland bought time for the defenders of Lynchburg–a critical transportation hub and the Federal objective. In appreciation for his defense of their homes, the citizens of Lynchburg awarded McCausland a pair of silver spurs, a new sword and the title “Savior of Lynchburg.”
Thanks to McCausland’s effective delaying actions and the meticulously slow nature of Hunter’s arsonist march, Early was able to reach Lynchburg before Union troops could attack the town. After a brief but sharp fight. Hunter fell back before the smaller Confederate force. By this time, the Federals were short of both food and ammunition. Since the path they had taken to Lynchburg, through Staunton and Lexington, was so thoroughly despoiled by the march southward, it was not a viable retreat route. Consequently, Hunter was forced to retire into the mountains of West Virginia. This move effectively took his force out of the war, leaving the Shenandoah Valley open to
Confederate occupation and the north open to invasion. Jubal Early was just the man to exploit this opportunity.
Major General Jubal Anderson Early was a native of Franklin County, Virginia and a Class of 1837 graduate of West Paint. In the Mexican War, he served as a Major in the Virginia volunteers. Even though he had voted against secession in 1861, “Old Jube” became an ardent Confederate, supporting the South with his sword during the war and the “lost cause” with his pen after it. Early acted immediately upon the opportunity which the flight of Hunter presented and moved northward, down the Shenandoah Valley. On July 9, 1864, Early’s army met and defeated General Lew Wallace’s troops in sharp fighting at Monocacy, Maryland. By July 11th, Early’s troops were at the gates of Washington.6
The significance of Early’s movement was quite apparent. The presence of Rebel troops at the defenses of Washington sent a signal to the battered Confederacy that the war was not yet over and that the South could still lash out at its Northern foes. It also meant that the Shenandoah Valley remained open and supplies would continue to flow to Lee’s veterans in the trenches at Petersburg. Grant understood the serious nature of the Southern move in the Valley. In response to Early’s offensive, Grant telegraphed Union Chief of Staff, Henry W. Halleck on July 4, 1864: “Under the circumstances, I think it advisable to hold all of the forces you can about Washington, Baltimore, Cumberland and Harpers Ferry ready to advance against any advance of the enemy.”