The Shenandoah Valley - 1864 Avenue of Invasion

The Shenandoah Valley: 1864 Avenue of Invasion

"If the Valley is lost, Virginia is lost." - General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson

An important theater of operations throughout the entire war, the Shenandoah Valley witnessed its most significant campaigning and bloodiest fighting throughout 1864. The Valley runs roughly 140 miles southwest to northeast with a breadth from a few miles to 30 miles east to west. The majestic mountain ranges of the Alleghenies to the west, and the Blue Ridge to the east define theValley. The two forks of the Shenandoah River flow north to connect above the Massanutten Mountain which is a massive topographical range that bisects the Valley nearly 50 miles. Since the river flows downhill, the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley is considered the "lower" Shenandoah Valley. While heading south, one is heading upriver, therefore heading into the "upper" Shenandoah Valley.

The Valley's strategic importance was due to several key factors. The corridor of the Valley leading northeast made it an important backdoor approach for Confederates to the Union capital of Washington, D.C. This region was a top producer of wheat and grains in the decades leading up to the war. These vast agricultural resources helped feed the Confederate war effort, earning the nickname "Breadbasket of theConfederacy." The Valley also provided the Confederacy with raw resources of iron and ore for its industrial war manufacturing. The transportation network of railroads and roads supplied these much needed goods to General Robert E. Lee's army operating around Richmond. Especially important was the macadamized Valley Turnpike, which ran the length of theValley. It became an avenue for the rapid movement of troops and supplies and was a great route of invasionfor Confederates into the North.

In 1862 Stonewall Jackson conducted a brilliant campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, using itas a diversionary tactic to keep the Federals away from their main objective of capturing Richmond, during Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign. TheFederals were swept from the Valley in 1863 with Lee's advance on Pennsylvania,which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg. With these defeats the Shenandoah Valleybecame known as the "Valley of Humiliation" for Northern commanders.

As the years of conflict unfolded, war-weariness increased as Valley residents suffered the loss of livestock and food taken by both armies. Little did they realizethat 1864 would become even more destructive.After the war, a Valley residentreported, "Yankees were here in '62…We could not keep anything that was good,and we thought we were having a hard time, but affairs weren't quite so dizzy those days as they were later in the war."

President Lincoln knew that many northerners were also growing weary of the war, and that could have a negative consequence for his reelection. More than anything, military success on the battlefield would secure his reelection in November. In March of 1864, Lincoln promoted Ulysses.S. Grant to General in Chief of all Union armies andGrant quickly organized an offensive across the entire Confederacy. In the Shenandoah Valley and the new state of West Virginia, Union forces were ordered to disrupt all transportation networks, including railroads. Grant also ordered the destruction of all agricultural resources that supported the Confederate resources, including fields, barns, and mills, ushering inthe Lincoln Administration's new "Total War" policy.

The 1864 Valley Campaign began in May with Grant's orders to have General George Crook and General FranzSigel's men converge in Staunton, Virginia. Crook's men were ordered to advance south through West Virginia and to cut all rail links from Virginia to the west. Sigel's 10,000 men were ordered to move south through the Shenandoah Valley. This strategy would keep Confederate forces engaged in the Valley, rather than heading east to reinforce Lee as Grant advanced south towards Richmond.

While Grant and Lee were battling at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Sigel's army was blocked by the Confederate force commanded by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge in the town of New Market on May 15, 1864. As the battle raged, and fearful the Federals wouldspot a weakness inhis line, Breckinridge needed to fill a dangerous gap. There were no veteran troops available, and after a pause Breckenridge ordered the cadets from the Virginia Military Institute to move into position saying, "Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for that order." Breckinridge made the right move. Sigel was defeated at New Market, and here treated down the Valley to Strasburg, crossing Cedar Creek by dusk on May 16.

After thediscouraging loss at New Market, Grant, his Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck, andSecretary of War Edward Stanton agreed to replace Sigel. Halleck suggested Gen. David Hunter to take command of the Army of West Virginia. Hunter was given the same plan as Sigel, destroy the rails and supplies as he moved south to meet Crook in Staunton. Meanwhile, Gen. Lee movedBreckinridge's division east to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia at Hanover Junction. This left Gen. William E. "Grumble'' Jones to command only asmall Confederate force in the Valley.

The Battle of Piedmont occurred on June 5 while Hunter was making his way to Staunton. Hunter crushed the smaller Confederate army,killing Jones and taking nearly 1,000 prisoners. Moving on to Staunton, Hunter was joined by Crook's army marching from West Virginia. Hunter implemented "Total War"destroying everything that was useful to the Confederatewar effort. The Federals targeted mills, barns, and public buildings, and Hunter even allowed widespread looting by his troops. This devastation earned him the nickname "Black Dave." On June 11, Hunter occupied Lexingtonand the following day, ordered the Virginia Military Institute and the home of former Virginia Governor John Letcher to be burned. With Lexington destroyed, Hunter turned his sights on Lynchburg.

This threat in the Valley caused Lee to make a decision that would impact his ability to take offensive action against Grant in the Richmond/Petersburg area. In a bold move, Lee decided to send his Second Corps, 14,000 strongand under the command of Gen. Jubal A. Early, to face Hunter. The mission laid out by Lee was threefold; first, to protect Lynchburg, the second was to drive Hunter's army out of theValley and, if successful, thirdly to invade Maryland and threaten Washington,DC.

Breckinridge returned to the Valley reaching Lynchburg on June 15 and started to fortify the city. Early arrived in Lynchburg on June 17. Hunter had been slowly making his way to Lynchburg as he laid waste tothe houses and farm land, giving the Confederates time to reinforce Lynchburg.The Battle of Lynchburg commenced on June 18 and allowed Early to accomplish his first two missions; he protected Lynchburg, and Hunter fled the Valley over the mountains into West Virginia. With the Valley free of Federal troops, Lee's final order to Early could now be carried out. The Valley, a naturalavenue of invasion into Maryland, lay completely open. Early boldly marched North.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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