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The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864

edited by Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, 416 pages, $45.

In a conflict replete with drama, few if any campaigns of the American Civil War could claim as many drastic turns of fortune, or as many extremes of wartime experience, as the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864. It began in June with the arrival of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, under Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, to help defend Lynchburg and drive back Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s Union army, after which Early led a counteroffensive down the Valley that drove through Maryland and to the very outskirts of Washington in July. In so doing, Early came arguably closer than General Robert E. Lee had in two previous campaigns toward pressuring a nervous U.S. government into recognizing the Confederacy. Insufficient troop strength and stiffening defenses compelled Early to abandon his designs on Washington, but before withdrawing, his troops committed the only major Rebel atrocity on Northern soil when they burned Chambersburg, Pa., in reprisal for Hunter’s destruction of the Virginia Military Institute.

A calm before the storm ensued while Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to take charge of the Army of the Shenandoah but held him in check until his forces were ready—and until the Federals learned that Lee had recalled Maj. Gen. Richard A. Anderson’s Division to Petersburg, weakening Early’s force (now called the Army of the Valley). Then Sheridan was unleashed, mauling Early’s army in the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19, and at Fisher’s Hill on the 22nd, and ignominiously routing Early’s cavalry corps at Tom’s Brook on October 9.

In spite of those defeats, Early’s army managed to lick its wounds, regroup and prepare to strike back. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s occupation of Atlanta was not enough to offset concern about the stalemate between Grant and Lee at Petersburg in the minds of still-uncertain Northern voters, as President Abraham Lincoln defended his policies against Democratic candidate George B. McClellan, who favored a more conciliatory approach to the Confederacy. At that point a spectacular Rebel victory could still have affected the presidential election, and the Army of the Valley came closer to achieving that goal than Early could possibly have realized when it surprised and routed two Union corps at Cedar Creek on the morning of October 19. With equal suddenness, however, Sheridan arrived in time to rally his men and launch a devastating counterattack that smashed Early’s army—and with it the Confederacy’s last best hope, as Lincoln went on to win the election and prosecute the war to ultimate Union victory. Describing the battle to his former commander in Richmond, Daniel A. Wilson summed it up by writing, “Success is so blended with defeat—the shout of victory so mixed with the cry of ‘all’s lost’ that I find myself totally unable to sift the details and place them upon paper in anything like form or method.”

Although Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Valley campaign may have received more publicity, the 1864 campaign had a more decisive effect on the war’s outcome, produced many more casualties on both sides and was attended by exponentially greater destruction, as Sheridan carried out a systematic program of looting and ravaging farms to eliminate the “Confederate commissary.” That in turn left lasting bitterness among the Valley’s populace, as well as an often-ugly sideshow of skirmishes and raids between the Union cavalry and Confederate mounted guerrillas led by men like John Mobberly, the O’Neill brothers and Lt. Col. John S. Mosby.

The 1864 campaign has seen its fair share of overviews, so the latest compendium on the subject, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, proceeds on the assumption that the reader already knows the basics. Instead of a rehash, one gets a series of essays focusing on various aspects of the campaign by editor/contributing writer Gary W. Gallagher and other experts on the subject. Their specialized treatments range from military analysis such as Gallagher’s look at how Early and Sheridan executed their command decisions in the Valley, to Andre M. Fleche’s political analysis of the campaign’s effects on the Northern Democratic press in the months leading up to the election.

Some of the more hardcore readers of Civil War Times may feel a sense of déjà vu reading the 11 chapters, possibly having heard them before in lecture form at his local Civil War roundtable. That is probably no coincidence—author Robert K. Krick, for one, has certainly done his share of lecturing, and offers essays here on “The Confederate Disaster at Fisher’s Hill” and “The Confederate Pattons,” a survey of the many forebears of the legendary World War II general, including the first George S. Patton, killed at Third Winchester. One perennial source of debate at the roundtables, the question of who was to blame for the fatal two hours of inactivity—during which the Rebels failed to either follow up on their attack or execute a controlled withdrawal (complete with badly needed supplies from the overrun Union camps)—that cost the Army of the Valley its fleeting chance for victory at Cedar Creek, is reviewed for further discussion by Keith S. Bohannon. On the Union side, Joseph T. Glatthaar reveals how Grant had to deal with Early’s threat to Washington—and the unwelcome political pressures it brought down on his head.

Other aspects include examinations of Confederate morale at various junctures in the campaign, with William G. Thomas covering the civilians and Aaron Sheehan-Dean the soldiers. Finally, two less-remembered Union heroes of the campaign get their due as Joan Waugh reviews the life and death of Charles Russell Lowell and William W. Bergen gives due credit to the less-than-brilliant but thoroughly professional Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, “The Other Hero of Cedar Creek.”

As a complement to other histories of this somewhat underrated facet of the Civil War, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 accomplishes its mission. It adds to the general Civil War scholar’s understanding of the campaign, and will give him or her a greater appreciation of its importance. For Civil War buffs (and you know who you are), it is the closest thing to attending a roundtable in book form—read a chapter en masse and let the debating begin!


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here