Virginia's Shenandoah Valley became a battleground more than once during the Civil War. In this lesson, we will explore the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1862 and 1864.
The Strategic Shenandoah
Located in Northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley runs about 140 miles northeast to southwest from the Potomac River south to Rockbridge County. It is bordered by two mountain ranges, the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Alleghenies on the west. The Valley was a Civil War strategic hotspot. The Union wanted it because it offered a road to Richmond, the Confederate capitol. Further, if the Union controlled the Valley, the Confederates would be penned in, unable to move north.
The Confederacy also desired to take charge of the Valley. For Southerners, this little stretch of land provided a road into the North, especially Washington, D.C. The Valley also offered an abundance of much-needed agricultural resources. The Union and Confederacy battled for the Shenandoah Valley in two major campaigns, one in 1862 and another in 1864.
The Valley Campaign of 1862
In 1862, Confederate General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson recognized the significance of the Shenandoah Valley when he remarked, 'If this valley is lost, Virginia is lost!' Jackson led a four-month-long campaign in March through June of 1862 to secure the Valley for the Confederacy.
Jackson and his men clashed several times with Union troops. Typically, the Northerners outnumbered the Confederates, but Union efforts often proved to be uncoordinated, flimsy and filled with strategic errors. This gave Jackson, who was an excellent strategist, the advantage.
Five major battles took place during the 1862 Valley Campaign: Kernstown on March 23, Front Royal on May 23, Winchester on May 25, Cross Keys on June 8, and Port Republic on June 9. Kernstown was the only Union victory. The other four battles were triumphs for the Confederacy. When it was all over, Jackson had secured the Valley and its resources for the South, boosting Confederate morale and giving Southerners the time they needed to build up defenses around Richmond.
Back to the Shenandoah in 1864
By 1864, the war was heading in a very different direction for the Confederacy. Jackson was gone, killed by friendly fire in 1863. Union General Ulysses S. Grant was marching through Virginia and bearing down on Richmond. The Confederates were losing men and resources every day with no way to replace them. The Shenandoah Valley was more important than ever for the South.
The Union, however, was determined to finally seize the Valley for itself. On May 15, 1864, Union troops, under Major General Franz Sigel, clashed with General John C. Breckinridge's Confederates at New Market. The battle was intense, and the Union finally poked a hole in the Confederate line. Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute rushed in to fill the gap. These young men, who were between the ages of 15 and 25, saved the day for the Confederacy as they plowed ahead into heavy Union fire. Eventually, Sigel's troops retreated. Breckinridge held the field victorious.
Next in for the Union was Major General David Hunter. He took his revenge for the Confederates' victory at New Market by burning his way through part of the Valley and reducing the Virginia Military Institute to a pile of burned rubble. Confederate General Jubal A. Early stepped up to challenge Hunter, forced him back and made it all the way to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where he was finally stopped by reinforcements sent up by Grant.
Battles and Burning
The Union desperately needed someone who could force Early back toward the south. General Philip Sheridan seemed like just the right man for the job. By 1864, Sheridan, whom one newspaperman had called 'little mountain of combative force,' had built up an army of 30,000 soldiers, and he was ready to fight. On September 19, the Union defeated Early's Confederates at Winchester. Sheridan won a second victory at Fisher's Hill on September 22. He was already pushing Early's men south. Now he had another task to accomplish.
Over the next month, Sheridan's men tramped through the Valley, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Following a scorched earth policy, they took or burned everything that the Confederates might find useful. Sheridan reported that his soldiers slaughtered thousands of animals and destroyed 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements and over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat. The Valley's residents would long resent what came to be known as 'The Burning.'
On October 19, the Union and Confederacy clashed again, this time at Cedar Creek. Early's men took the Union by surprise at 5 a.m. when they struck with a chilling rebel yell. Many Union soldiers, caught off guard, fled in terror. For some reason, however, the Confederates paused during their attack, which allowed the Union to regroup.
Then, Sheridan arrived on the field. He had been away, attending a meeting, but now he was back, riding up and down the battle line and shouting encouragement to his men, who responded with vigor. At 4 p.m., Sheridan's forces charged the Confederates head on. The Confederate line broke, and Early's troops beat a hasty retreat that one Union soldier described as 'a great, rushing, turbulent, retreating army, without line or apparent organization, hurrying and crowding.'
The battle at Cedar Creek marked the end of Early's army as a successful fighting force. Early took one last stand in the Valley in March 1865, but was quickly defeated by Union cavalry. After four years and two major campaigns, the Shenandoah Valley was finally secure in Union hands.
Virginia's strategic Shenandoah Valley was coveted by both the Union and the Confederacy, so much so that they fought their way through two major campaigns in the Valley in 1862 and 1864. In 1862, Confederates under General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson defeated the Union army and secured the Valley.
In 1864, however, the Union turned the tables on the Confederacy. Even with a sharp defeat at New Market, the Union was able to bounce back under the leadership of General Philip Sheridan and gain victory over Confederates led by General Jubal A. Early. Sheridan won two battles in September, burned the Valley to deprive the enemy of much-needed resources and then decisively defeated Early at Cedar Creek in October. The Shenandoah Valley was now secure in Union hands.
When this lesson is finished, you should be able to:
- Identify the military players on both sides in the battles for the Shenandoah Valley
- Recognize the significance and importance of the valley to both sides