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5. Valley Battlefields: The Magnitude of Conflict

All of the conflicts selected for inclusion in the Shenandoah Valley Study have been referred to by historians as battles, but the range of comparison among these battles is so large that use of the term ``battle'' to describe all equally could be questioned.

The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century archivists who compiled the Official Records, and other event lists and chronologies used a ranking system of ``battle,'' ``engagement,'' and ``action'' based on the command structure of the forces engaged (typically the Union forces engaged). Rather than providing guidance as to the size and intensity of an encounter, these terms tell us only that: a battle was directed by the ranking general of the military district and involved the bulk of the forces under his command; an engagement might be directed by a subordinate leader or involve only a portion of the armies in the field; an action was a conflict, typically limited in scope, that could not be easily labeled a battle or an engagement. This early ranking system was not designed to describe or interpret events but to award appropriate plaudits to the commanding officers and the units involved.

Figure 10 portrays a range of comparison among the battlefields selected for the Shenandoah Valley Study, ranking them according to the relative size of the forces engaged and indicating their traditional ranking of battle (B), engagement (E), or action (A). The figures provided are the best approximations that can be offered, considering the uneven reliability of the sources. Confederate strengths, in particular, are often only estimated since many Confederate records were lost. Also, the full forces of one army or the other were not always brought to the field and were not all engaged. The number of troops on the field and actively engaged must be estimated, and existing estimates often differ widely.

A second way to compare battles is to rank the number of fatalities incurred at each. More deaths in a conflict typically equated to determined, close-quarters fighting. Battles of maneuver and surprise, on the other hand, often resulted in lower numbers of fatalities and higher numbers of captured and missing. Figure 11 shows the Shenandoah Valley battlefields ranked according to the approximate number of fatalities.

A third way to compare the battles is to rank attrition (total killed, wounded, captured, and missing) of the forces engaged, a useful measure of a battle's influence on the progress of its campaign. High attrition rates incurred by one side or the other in a single battle might cripple its force and compel a retreat. In many cases, higher than average attrition rates resulted from a disastrous rout by one side or the other with large numbers of prisoners falling into enemy hands. Figure 12 provides a ranking by estimating the combined attrition of the forces engaged.

The battles of Opequon and Cedar Creek stand out in terms of size, fatalities, and attrition. Although the size of Confederate armies in the Valley remained surprisingly consistent from 1862 to 1864, averaging 16,000-24,000 men, the size of the Union armies increased dramatically under Sheridan's command in 1864, to nearly 40,000. At Opequon, Sheridan outnumbered Early 2.6 to 1, and both armies were fully engaged. Together, Opequon and Cedar Creek accounted for nearly 52 percent of the fatalities of the fifteen battles and 43 percent of the combined attrition. Considering that these two battles were fought only a month apart, the toll, in the context of Valley warfare, is staggering.

In the six representative battles of Jackson's 1862 Campaign, the Confederate army inflicted 393 fatalities at a cost of 367 dead (total 760). This ratio is near parity. Looking at attrition, the tally diverges more dramatically. The Union armies suffered about 6,400 casualties compared to Confederate losses of 2,745 (total 9,145). Many of the surplus Union casualties were prisoners taken at First Winchester and Front Royal.

In the six representative battles of the Early-Sheridan 1864 campaign, the Confederate army inflicted 1,587 fatalities at a cost of 776 dead (total 2,363), a two-to-one ratio. Overall, however, the Union armies closed the gap somewhat, suffering about 12,890 casualties compared to Confederate losses of 9,130 (total 22,020), a ratio of about three-to-two. These figures provide a useful comparison of scale between the 1862 and 1864 campaigns.

Numbers engaged, fatalities, and attrition rates are indicators of how intensely a battle was fought. Yet these indicators tend to obscure the strategic significance of some of the smaller conflicts. While it is true that the larger battles achieved significance by sheer firepower and weight of numbers, the significance of a battle is best determined by its campaign context, a context that must be carefully assessed as to its influence on regional and national events. Often it was the battle that was not fought or the conflict cheaply won, that determined the course of a campaign and the ultimate strategic and political outcome. Thus a battle, such as Front Royal, which was won at little cost to Stonewall Jackson, attains a heightened importance when examined in light of his strategy of flanking the main Union army at Strasburg. Jackson's tactical loss at First Kernstown, for example, achieved strategic success by diverting thousands of Union soldiers as reinforcements to the Valley. Future historians will continue to debate the relative significance of these events.


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Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC