Could Early have duplicated Jackson’s performance in 1862?
Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign has been widely hailed as a brilliant military event. Jubal A. Early’s operations in the Valley two years later conjure more negative images of multiple defeats and the destruction of the region’s agricultural productivity. Jackson certainly performed well, winning a series of small victories between May 8 and June 9 that inspirited the Confederates at a time of widespread pessimism. Early’s activities in the Valley, though ending in undeniable failure, measure up well against Jackson’s. Several comparative dimensions of the two operations suggest why. The quality of Union leadership heavily favored Jackson. Nathaniel P. Banks compiled a record of unbroken futility in theaters from the Shenandoah Valley to Louisiana’s Red River. John C. Frémont mirrored Banks’ ineptitude in the Valley, a record matched or only modestly improved upon by other Federals such as Robert H. Milroy and James Shields. Perhaps most important, no Union officer exercised overall control in the Valley in 1862, which virtually guaranteed problems of coordination.
Although Early’s opponents proved equally inept during the first phase of his Valley Campaign (David Hunter and Lew Wallace came to grief, respectively, at Lynchburg and the Monocacy), Philip H. Sheridan brought impressive military gifts to the climactic phase of operations in 1864. Sheridan stumbled tactically at both Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, but he had an ability to rally troops rivaled by few other officers. “God damn you, don’t cheer me! There’s lots of fight in you men yet!” he shouted to Unionists upon reaching the battlefield at Cedar Creek after his army had been driven from successive positions. His fiery example more than once brought impressive results in the Shenandoah.
Sheridan also knew how to use his superior strength, pressing Early relentlessly and carrying out U.S. Grant’s orders to destroy the Valley’s logistical riches. Talented subordinates assisted Sheridan, including George Crook, Horatio Wright and George Custer. “Little Phil” also wielded overall control in the Valley, answering only to Grant, who gave him a free hand, and the secretary of war. During his entire Confederate career, Jackson never faced an opponent of Sheridan’s caliber.
Jackson enjoyed an edge over Early in the troops he both commanded and faced. On the Confederate side, he possessed a slight advantage in numbers and quality of soldiers. He led just more than 17,000 men for most of the campaign, almost all of them original volunteers. Early’s Army of the Valley counted just more than 15,000 soldiers at its peak and often fought with considerably fewer. These men served well but were neither as fresh nor as well supplied as Jackson’s men. Early did have talented subordinates in Robert Rodes, John Gordon, Stephen Dodson Ramseur and Joseph Kershaw (Rodes and Ramseur died during the campaign), whose accomplishments in the Valley exceeded those of Richard Ewell, Richard Taylor and Jackson’s other principal lieutenants. Neither Jackson nor Early enjoyed competent cavalry support.
Jackson fought against much weaker foes. Writers frequently state that he defeated more than 60,000 of the enemy, but there never were nearly that many Union troops together in the Valley. The number 60,000 includes troops with Irvin McDowell or other commanders stationed far from the Shenandoah. Union strength in a single force seldom reached even 20,000 against Jackson, and the men often suffered from low morale, exhibited little confidence in their leaders and contended with supply problems.
Early labored under more difficult circumstances. He fought a Federal army of 35,000–45,000 directed by the aggressive Sheridan, including the veteran VI Corps and the competent XIX Corps. Even after their brilliant flanking movement at Cedar Creek, Old Jube’s troops assaulted more numerous Federals. Jackson receives well-earned plaudits for placing the bulk of his small army in a position to strike fragments of the Union forces; no Rebel leader, including Jackson, could have duplicated that achievement against Sheridan in September and October 1864. And Jackson’s tactical efforts at McDowell, First Winchester and Port Republic add no luster to his reputation.
The scale of marching and fighting offers a final point of comparison. Cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss served under both Jack son and Early, and by his reckoning Early’s soldiers marched more than 1,500 miles, a distance about 2½ times greater than Jackson’s men covered in 1862. Casualties tell a similar story. Jackson’s six largest engagements— First Kernstown, McDowell, Front Royal, First Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic—resulted in approximately 5,500 Union and 2,750 Confederate casualties (prisoners accounted for half the U.S. total). Of the six, only First Winchester and Port Republic should be called battles. The rest ranked as largescale skirmishes, with fewer than 1,000 casualties for each side. Early’s six largest engagements—Lynchburg, the Monocacy, Second Kernstown, Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek—produced more than 15,000 Union and about 10,000 Rebel casualties. Third Winchester and Cedar Creek each cost Sheridan approximately as many men in one day as lost by all Jackson’s opponents combined in 1862.
Against weak opponents leading second-line troops, Jackson won a series of small victories and accomplished the strategic goals laid out by Robert E. Lee. Against equally weak Union officers in June and July 1864, Early also won victories and achieved Lee’s strategic goals. He managed far less success against Sheridan, though for three months he denied the services of more than 40,000 Federals to Grant on the Richmond/Petersburg front.
Could Early have duplicated Jack son’s fabled performance in the spring of 1862? Probably not— though he almost certainly would have bested the undistinguished Union commanders. Would Jackson have defeated Sheridan in 1864? Again, probably not, because Sheridan had the ability and numbers to vanquish any opponent laboring under the handicaps imposed on Early. Both Jackson and Early deserve high marks for their work in the Valley. But if forced to choose one or the other operation to command, most reasonable people would choose to be in Jackson’s rather than Early’s position.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.