Phil Sheridan determined to show the rebels a hot time in the Shenandoah Valley.
Philip Sheridan surveyed his awful handwork with satisfaction.
Plumes of black smoke smudged the Shenandoah Valley’s fairytale landscape of rolling green hills and brooks. In places, yellow flames could be seen shooting from a barn’s gambrel roof or racing through a grain field. Distance muted the crackle of burning fires, the crash of barns and outbuildings collapsing in heaps of charred timbers, and the cries of women and children as the bluecoats shot down their livestock.
Ulysses Grant had ordered the destruction in his initial instructions to Sheridan. “Nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return,” Grant wrote.
On August 17, 1864, two weeks after his appointment to command of the new Army of the Shenandoah, Sheridan first acted on this directive—when Grant specifically ordered him to burn Virginia’s Loudoun County, the sanctuary of Lt. Col. John Mosby. Mosby’s mounted partisans, with maddening regularity, swooped down on Union wagon trains, bushwhacked Yankee couriers and scouts, and then melted back into the populace. Mosby’s Rangers had recently attacked one of Sheridan’s wagon trains, burning 40 wagons and seizing 430 mules, 36 horses and 200 head of cattle.
Sheridan also ordered Brig. Gen. Alfred Torbert to deploy his cavalry divisions along a line running southeast from Winchester. Fields and farm buildings were to be burned, livestock destroyed and slaves set free. “No houses will be burned, and officers in charge of this delicate but necessary duty must inform the people that the object is to make this valley untenable for the raiding parties of the rebel army,” said Sheridan’s orders. Many Union cavalrymen loathed this duty; they had not gone to war to destroy the life’s work of noncombatants. “It was a phase of warfare we had not seen before,” wrote a Pennsylvania cavalryman, “and though we admitted its necessity, we could not but sympathize with the sufferers.” From a hill, Matthela Harrison counted 50 fires. “The sky was lurid and but for the green trees one might have imagined the shades of Hades had descended suddenly,” she wrote. “Large families of children were left without one cow.”
Over the following six weeks, “the Burning”—the inhabitants’ bitter shorthand for the ruthless purging of the Valley—ceased as Sheridan and Jubal Early contended militarily. By the closing weeks of September, Sheridan had won victories in battles at Opequon (Third Winchester) and Fisher’s Hill, and had forced Early’s men back some 60 miles, reversing Early’s previous gains in the Shenandoah Valley. Then Sheridan’s men resumed executing Grant’s orders, and the scope of the devastation in the Valley was greatly enlarged.
Abraham Lincoln, William Sherman, Grant and Sheridan shared the belief that prosecuting a total war was the shortest path to peace. The drift toward total war began in 1863, when Lincoln exhorted his Eastern commanders to focus on destroying Robert E. Lee’s army and not on geographical gains, which could be fleeting. A year later, Grant became the first to put this policy into practice by prosecuting the bloody Overland Campaign and by suspending prisoner exchanges, denying the Confederacy tens of thousands of veteran troops.
But killing Confederate soldiers on battlefields and locking up enemy captives indefinitely were slow agents of victory, Grant and Lincoln soon recognized; the war’s awfulness must also be carried to the doorsteps of Southern civilians, whose defiance kept the Confederacy alive. This was not just a war of armies; it was a war of cultures, to be fought to the death. Moreover, Lincoln and Grant, like Sherman and Sheridan, also believed that the advent in the South of guerrilla warfare justified their jettisoning the old rules. They reasoned that by systematically targeting civilian property—unprecedented on the North American continent (except toward Native Americans)— they might psychologically break the enemy, thereby shortening the war and saving lives.
And so Lincoln and Grant chose to sow ruin throughout the enemy homeland, wrecking the South’s war industries, despoiling its farmlands and bringing hunger into the homes of its people. This new guiding principle was never set down as policy, but its outlines were clearly visible in the actions of Sheridan and Sherman. The two would later bring this kind of warfare to a wicked apotheosis on the Great Plains when they wiped out villages of Indian warriors, women and children in order to stop depredations against white settlers.
From the time Sheridan received Grant’s August 17 order to visit destruction upon Loudoun County, he had also quietly carried out another, more sinister program: the cold-blooded killing of guerrillas, wherever he encountered them. These killings—and the Rebel response to them—added an extra dimension of horror to the destruction sweeping the Valley.
On September 23, a band of Mosby’s Rangers led by Captain Samuel Chapman pounced on a Union ambulance train outside Front Royal. Too late, they spotted a brigade from Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s 1st Cavalry Division nearby; Merritt’s men came to the train’s rescue. As the partisans raced toward Chester Gap, a small Union detachment led by Lieutenant Charles McMaster tried to block their escape. In the melee, McMaster fell to the ground, riddled with bullets, and was trampled by the partisans’ horses during their flight.
When Union cavalrymen found McMaster’s body, they concluded that he was killed after he had surrendered. In retribution, the Yankees shot four partisan captives and hanged two others on a hill overlooking Front Royal. A placard was draped over one of the hanged men. It read, “This will be the fate of Mosby and all his men.” Mosby would not forget this.
On October 3, Lieutenant John Meigs, one of the Union Army’s most talented mapmakers and chief engineering officer of the Shenandoah, was killed in a skirmish with Mosby’s men. Meigs had tutored Sheridan in the area’s topography and had since become one of the general’s favorite subordinate officers.
Meigs and two orderlies had spent the daylight hours in rain slickers, mapping the Harrisonburg area and plotting the Army of the Shenandoah’s positions. At dusk, while riding on a public road between Dayton and Harrisonburg on their way to camp, they overtook three mounted men dressed in blue uniforms. Believing the riders to be comrades, Meigs and his companions joined them. The strangers, however, were Rebel scouts from Brig. Gen. William Wickham’s cavalry brigade.
Accounts differ over what happened next, but the outcome was clear: When the gun smoke cleared, Meigs lay dead in the muddy road, and one of his companions had been taken prisoner. The third surveyor managed to escape. He raced to Sheridan’s headquarters to report that the Rebels had killed Meigs without warning as he cried, “Don’t shoot me!”
Sheridan believed the surveyor’s account, true or not. Not only had he lost his prized topographer, who had become somewhat like a son to the bachelor general, but the shooting had occurred a mere mile and a half from headquarters and inside Union lines—suggesting to Sheridan that the Confederates had been visiting their homes in the area. Sheridan vowed to “teach a lesson to these abettors of the foul deed—a lesson they would never forget.” The next day, he ordered all the homes within five miles burned to the ground.
Included in the burn area was the town of Dayton, which erupted in frenzied activity when residents were told what was planned. Some of the women threw their arms around the necks of the Yankees, begging for mercy. Before long, Dayton’s main street was jammed with wagons piled high with furniture and clothing—all streaming out of the village.
In anticipation of such an order, the Rebels had released their prisoner on the condition that he tell Sheridan what had actually happened. According to the Confederate scouts, they had gotten the drop on Meigs and his assistants. The two survivors had thrown up their hands, but Meigs had fired a pistol from beneath his slicker, wounding Private George Martin in the groin. Martin’s companions had then shot Meigs.
Sheridan—persuaded either by the released prisoner’s report or, according to another account, by the pleadings of his subordinate officers—rescinded the burn order. Instead, he ordered buildings burned near the site where Meigs was shot and the arrest as war prisoners of all able-bodied men in the area. But the Yankees’ hatred of the Rebel partisans and their protectors continued to boil.
On October 6, Sheridan’s infantry marched down the Valley toward Winchester, with Torbert’s cavalry fanning behind. One of the bleakest chapters of the war now began.
The cavalrymen drove off all livestock and destroyed crops, barns and outbuildings in their path, at last fulfilling Grant’s August 26 instructions to the letter. “If the war is to last another year,” he had written, “we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”
The invaders “came up the Valley sweeping everything before them like a hurricane,” wrote one resident. “There was nothing left for man or beast from the horse down to the chicken.” Taking burning brands from victims’ fireplaces, the Yankees set fire to their barns, mills and outbuildings. A newspaper correspondent wrote, “The atmosphere, from horizon to horizon, has been black with the smoke of a hundred conflagrations, and at night a gleam brighter and more lurid than sunset has shot from every verge….The completeness of the devastation is awful.”
Spared ruin were the homesteads of Dunkards and Mennonites. They were loyal to the Union, as were members of those sects everywhere, because of their unbending hatred of slavery. But many of them wanted to leave the Valley and asked for Sheridan’s assistance; they feared that if they remained, the Rebels would return and draft them into the Confederate Army. Peter Hartman, one of the supplicants, described Sheridan as “the most savage looking man I ever saw” but approvingly observed that he gave each of them a horse from the army’s herd.
Sheridan watched the methodical destruction with approval. “As we marched along the many columns of smoke from burning stacks, and mills filled with grain, indicated that the adjacent country was fast losing the features which hitherto had made it a great magazine of stores for the Confederate armies,” he wrote. Like Grant and Sherman, he believed that by obliterating the Confederate granary, destroying the fighting spirit of its people and crippling the Confederacy’s ability to recover, they would end the war sooner and save lives. “There is more mercy in destroying supplies than in killing their young men….If I had a barn full of wheat and a son, I would much sooner lose the barn and wheat than my son,” Sheridan wrote. Until the end of his life, Sheridan remained convinced that this was the right choice.
Not all the combat veterans obeyed the orders to burn and destroy. Lacking a taste for vandalism, some of them applied the torch sparingly. A detachment from the 2nd Ohio Cavalry left many barns standing in its area of operation, and other units, too, made less than a clean sweep.
Some residents fought back. One man shot and killed a Union officer and threw the man’s body into his burning barn. Another farmer stood on a haystack and fired steadily at a column of Yankees until they riddled him with bullets.
At the end of the second day of the scorched-earth march, Sheridan was able to report to Grant from Woodstock:
In moving back to this point the whole country from the Blue Ridge to the North Mountain has been made untenable for a rebel army. I have destroyed over two thousand barns filled with wheat, hay & farming implements, over seventy mills filled with flour & wheat, have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock and have killed & issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep….Tomorrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage Etc., down to Fisher’s Hill. When this is completed the valley from Winchester up to Staunton, 92 miles, will have but little in it for man or beast.
Loyal Confederate citizens bitterly denounced the systematic ruin of the Valley. Mrs. Hugh Lee of Winchester wrote in her diary, “Sheridan—Sheridan, what demon of destruction has possessed you? God grant that you may meet with a righteous compensation.”
The Richmond Whig urged reprisals. “They chose to substitute the torch for the sword. We may so use their own weapon as to make them repent.” The Whig proposed burning a Northern city in retaliation. “It is a game at which we can beat them. New York is worth twenty Richmonds.”
The calculated destruction had an immediate impact on Early’s army. He reported to Lee on October 9 that because nearly everything in his area of operation had gone up in smoke, “I will have to rely on Augusta [Georgia] for my supplies, and they are not abundant there.” Until those supplies arrived, the Rebels were reduced to picking corn in the countryside and bartering labor for food. “Our mess is shucking corn for a farmer who will pay us for our services in flour,” wrote Confederate Private Creed Davis in his diary.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser’s Laurel Brigade trailed Sheridan’s army as the Yankees burned and destroyed. Rosser, 27, was a West Point classmate and friend of George Custer. Until he was severely wounded in 1862, Rosser was an artillery officer and best known for having shot down a Union observation balloon. Returning to duty, he was given command of a cavalry regiment and quickly made a reputation for daring attacks, much like his former classmate.
The Valley’s Confederate loyalists anointed Rosser the “Savior of the Valley” before his men had even fired a shot—so desperate were they to believe that Sheridan might yet be driven off and their farmsteads preserved. Early demonstrated his confidence in Rosser by giving him Fitzhugh Lee’s two brigades while Lee recovered from wounds suffered at Winchester. With his division of 3,000 men, Rosser skirmished with Sheridan’s rear guard—Custer’s division—near Brock’s Gap on October 6, the day “the Burning” commenced. Operating nearby, but independently, was Early’s other cavalry division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax.
Sheridan had become increasingly exasperated with Rosser’s terrier-like rushes on his rear. During the night of October 8, Sheridan’s impatience boiled over, and the fiery general stalked off in search of Torbert, his cavalry commander, to prod him into acting “to open the enemy’s eyes in earnest.”
He stormed into Torbert’s headquarters as Torbert and his staff were finishing dinner. Captain George Sanford, a Torbert aide, wrote that Sheridan angrily burst out, “If you ain’t sitting here stuffing yourselves, general, staff and all, while the Rebels are riding into our camp! Having a party, while Rosser is carrying off your guns! Got on your nice clothes and clean shirts! Torbert, mount quicker than hell will scorch a feather! I want you to go out there in the morning and whip that Rebel cavalry or get whipped yourself!”
Until this was done, Sheridan continued, the infantry would not march another mile. He announced that he would ride at daybreak the next morning to the summit of Round Top Mountain to watch Torbert give Rosser his “drubbing.” To Grant, Sheridan wrote, “I deemed it best to make this delay of one day here and settle this new cavalry general.”
As the sun poked above the hills on October 9, Custer’s 3rd Division faced Rosser’s troopers at Tom’s Brook Crossing. Custer rode along his line, making sure his brigades were ready for battle. Then, turning toward where Rosser was watching through his field glasses, Custer raised his hat and made a deep bow to his old West Point friend. The men of both armies cheered loudly.
Bugles blared, and Custer’s men began to advance. One of Rosser’s brigades suddenly burst into the middle of the bluecoats, stopping their forward movement. Custer’s seasoned veterans regrouped and renewed their assault. Simultaneously, Merritt’s 1st Division fell upon Lomax’s two brigades nearby on the Valley Turnpike.
It was open country, ideal for an old-fashioned cavalry fight on horseback with sabers and pistols—as well as for artillery. From Round Top Mountain, Sheridan intently watched the charges and countercharges.
Two hours into the battle, Rosser’s flanks collapsed, and Merritt and Custer mounted a great concerted charge along the entire front. The Rebel cavalry, outnumbered two to one, buckled and sagged. Then there was, as Sheridan triumphantly noted, “a general smashup of the entire Confederate line.” A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who witnessed the battle wrote, “It was a square cavalry fight in which the enemy was routed beyond my power to describe.”
Some Rebel cavalrymen stopped along the way to offer brief, but futile, resistance before continuing their flight—past Woodstock, all the way to Mount Jackson, 20 miles away. Sheridan’s men nicknamed the rollicking pursuit the “Woodstock Races.”
The ignominious flight of the Rebel cavalry was an embarrassment to Rosser, Lomax, Early and everyone involved. George Neese, a gunner in the horse artillery, wrote, “The shameful way that our cavalry…fought, bled, and died a-running rearward was enough to make its old commander, General J.E.B. Stuart, weep in his grave.”
Having routed the “Savior of the Valley” at Tom’s Brook, Sheridan’s army resumed its march down the Shenandoah. On October 10, it crossed Cedar Creek and camped on its north bank, south of Middletown—all except Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps and William Powell’s 2nd Cavalry Division.
Powell’s troopers embarked on a raid toward Charlottesville and Gordonsville, while VI Corps marched into Middletown and then turned southeast toward Front Royal. Sheridan informed Grant on October 12 that Wright’s men were on their way to Alexandria, Va., and would thence travel by steamship to Petersburg to join Grant’s army. “I believe that a rebel advance down the valley will not take place,” he wrote.
But the next day, Early’s army unexpectedly appeared at Strasburg, just a few miles from Cedar Creek, and shelled XIX Corps’ camp. Fearing that Early intended to attack now that VI Corps had left, Sheridan recalled the corps to Cedar Creek and laid plans for an assault on Early. When Early abruptly withdrew his army to Fisher’s Hill, however, Sheridan canceled the attack.
Powell’s two brigades rode south toward Gordonsville but turned back 35 miles short of their objective without engaging the Rebel cavalry in the area. The raid accomplished nothing.
Sheridan’s actions during the weeks after Fisher’s Hill mystified Confederate Maj. Gen. John Gordon. “Why did he halt or hesitate, why turn to the torch in the hope of starving his enemy, instead of beating him in resolute battle?” Gordon wondered. “Why did General Sheridan hesitate to hurl his inspirited and overwhelming army on us?”
Sheridan had not taken the fight to Early, so Early intended to bring it to Sheridan. As the Army of the Valley settled into its old rifle pits on Fisher’s Hill, Brig. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur wrote to his brother-in-law: “We are all called on to show that we are made of the true metal. Let us be brave, cheerful, and truthful. Remembering that Might is not Right.”
For several hours on the morning of October 19, not far from Strasburg, Early’s army was on the verge of avenging Sheridan’s ruthless devastation of the Valley. With the Union commander 10 miles away in Winchester, having just returned from a strategy meeting in Washington with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, the Confederates launched a daring predawn attack on the Union camps north of Cedar Creek.
By 7:30 a.m., Early’s assault troops had swept away two of Sheridan’s three infantry corps. Five Union divisions, or nearly 20,000 men, had astonishingly been wiped from the battlefield by a smaller Rebel army. In only a few areas did the surprised Federals cobble together enough of a force to stem the onslaught.
Early’s gamble had succeeded brilliantly. But at 10 a.m., sensing a Union buildup of soldiers and cavalry along the Valley Turnpike, he abruptly called off the assault—a decision the Confederates quickly rued. Sheridan never hesitated when he learned of his army’s misfortune. He jumped on his steed Rienzi and rode frantically toward Cedar Creek, rallying his shaken troops and then leading a counterattack that chased the Rebels from the field. By evening Early’s army had fled to Mount Jackson, “broken up and demoralized worse than it ever has been.” The Confederate threat in the Shenandoah Valley had ended for good.
Cedar Creek silenced those who still doubted, after General William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta as well as Sheridan’s earlier victories at Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, that President Lincoln would be re-elected.
The president’s congratulatory note to Sheridan after the triumph at Cedar Creek conveyed his relief and gratitude. “I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation, and my own personal admiration and gratitude, for the month’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley; and especially for your splendid work of October 19, 1864.”
Two and a half years earlier, Sheridan was an unknown captain in Mississippi, commanding a cavalry regiment. He was now the fourth-ranking officer in the army, behind only Grant, Sherman and General George Meade.
Cedar Creek earned Sheridan not only accolades from Lincoln and Grant but also the respect and friendship of Sherman, the other member of the triumvirate that would ultimately win the war. In a letter to his father-in-law, former Ohio Senator Thomas Ewing, Sherman wrote, “Sheridan, as you rightly say, the poor Irish boy of Perry County, is making his mark….Sheridan is like Grant, a persevering terrier dog and won’t be shaken off. He too, is honest, modest, plucky and smart enough.”
Sheridan’s campaign against Early’s army concluded with Cedar Creek, as did the need to continue unabated “the Burning.” When the campaign began in August, he wrote, “we found our enemy boastful and confident, unwilling to acknowledge that the soldiers of the Union were their equal….When it closed…this impression had been removed from his mind.”
Adapted from Terrible Swift Sword: The Life of General Philip H. Sheridan, by Joseph Wheelan (Da Capo Press/A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2012).
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.