Virginia's Shenandoah Valley was a secondary theater for most of the Civil War.
After a series of defeats at the hands of Stonewall Jackson in 1862, the Federals were in no rush to return to the valley. For most of 1863, the area remained a backwater, but an important one, for the Shenandoah Valley was a vital food-producing area for the Confederacy and a potential highway for any Confederate invasion of the North.
The situation changed in 1864. Gen. Robert E. Lee, eager to force the Yankees to divert forces from the Richmond front, sought to distract the enemy with movements in the valley. The Federals, on their part, recognized the importance of the area as a granary and sought to destroy, if not occupy, it.
The Federal campaign against the valley in the summer of 1864 is the subject of a detailed study by Scott Patchan, a Civil War guide and historian.
The campaign began with a high-profile Confederate attack on Washington, no less. Gen. Jubal A. Early's ragged army of 15,000 crossed the Potomac from the valley into Maryland on July 6 and headed south for Washington — a capital that was, remarkably, almost undefended. Early was delayed for a day by a scratch Federal force gathered at Monocacy, but on July 10, he was able to resume his march virtually unopposed.
Early reached the outskirts of Washington — close to present-day Walter Reed Army Medical Center — before he learned that a fresh Federal corps had just reached the capital from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's lines outside Richmond. Early decided it was time to return to Virginia, as indeed it was.
In strictly military terms, the raid was a rather tepid threat because the most the Confederates could have done would have been to occupy a small part of Washington for a day or so. Early himself remarked, "We haven't taken Washington, but we've scared Abe Lincoln like hell."
The Confederates had scarcely returned to Virginia when Early received intelligence that the eastern valley was occupied by just 8,000 Federals under Gen. George Crook. On July 24, Early assaulted the Yankees at Kernstown. Confederate infantry swept through to Winchester, and the Federal defeat turned into a rout.
However, Early's victory at Kernstown, following his foray against Washington, sowed the seeds of his destruction. It shocked the Lincoln administration and assured that the valley would receive the Federals' full attention.
For most of the summer, however, Early's Army of the Valley operated freely. Following his victory at Kernstown, Early sent two cavalry brigades to Chambersburg, Pa., to demand compensation for Yankee depredations in the valley. When the town failed to meet Confederate demands, it was put to the torch.
On Aug. 7, Grant put the aggressive Gen. Philip Sheridan in command of 40,000 men with instructions to defeat Early and devastate the valley. "Wherever the enemy goes let our troops go also," Grant wrote. In September, Sheridan defeated Early at Winchester and Fisher's Hill, driving the Confederates down the valley. At Winchester, the Confederates lost 4,000 men whom they could ill afford to lose.
On Oct. 19, however, Early perceived an opportunity and suddenly attacked Federal forces at Cedar Creek. The Confederates were successful at first but fell to looting the Federal camp and were routed by an enemy whose morale had been restored by Sheridan following his famous ride. Driven from the valley by a vastly superior force, Early was relieved by Lee, largely to appease public opinion. The Valley Campaign of 1864 was over.
Mr. Patchan's book provides a great deal of detail on a campaign that heretofore has received relatively little attention. He concludes that Early did well with the resources available to him. "Early's campaign represented Robert E. Lee's last effort to wrest the initiative away from Grant. Old Jube did his best and for a while rekindled some hope of Southern victory."
John M. Taylor, the author of several books on the Civil War, lives in McLean.