June 23, 1864 (Thursday)
Jubal Early, commanding nearly a third of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, set out from the defenses at Cold Harbor ten days prior. Lee’s instructions were clear. He was to move first to Lynchburg to save the railroad hub from the Federal troops under David Hunter. But behind the orders was another, more desperate directive – one that perhaps the South might have considered prior to the summer of 1864.
If General Grant’s Union horde could be kept from taking Richmond, Early was to storm down the Shenandoah Valley, cross the Potomac River, enter Maryland and stab toward Washington. Lee understood that while Grant wanted to hold the Valley, he wouldn’t exactly be losing sleep if it were reoccupied by the Rebels. However, if the capital was threatened, undoubtedly the Lincoln administration would force Grant to pull back to protect Washington.
By the 16th, Early’s 9,000 arrived near Charlottesville – a distance of over seventy miles. Though many of the railroads had fallen victim to Federal cavalry, the rails from Charlottesville to Lynchburg were more or less in tact.
Prior to Early’s egress, Lee had dispatched John Breckinridge’s Division, now little larger than a brigade. Since leaving, Lee had heard little from the band as the enemy’s cavalry had severed telegraph lines between them. But it was from Charlottesville that Early was able to establish contact. “My first object is to destroy Hunter,” wrote Early, “and the next it is not prudent to trust to telegraph. Hold on and you will be amply supported.”
And so with both objectives in his mind, he and his men boarded boxcars bound for Breckinridge and Lynchburg. But this was a slow and frustrating affair. “The trains were not in readiness to take the troops on board until sunrise on the morning of the 17th,” remembered Early after the war, “and then only enough were furnished to transport about half of my infantry.” The remainder would have to wait, while the artillery marched the sixty miles along the roads.
Early arrived at Lynchburg on the afternoon of the 17th, finding Breckinridge bedridden. Nevertheless, he seemed more than willing to help Early anyway in which he could. Since he was still recovering, he sent D.H. Hill in his stead. Hill had been apparently just visiting the town and agreed to accompany Early for a bit of campaigning.
Together, they surveyed the defenses of Lynchburg and determined to defend the town against Hunter’s forces, who had for a time moved into West Virginia, but were now advancing from Staunton to the west.
There was a bit of shelling by Hunter’s forces, who now found themselves facing upwards of 17,000 Rebels, while their own number was nearly its equal. Through the night of the 17th, Hunter’s men could hear trains arriving and all the noise of a growing army before them.
The following morning, Hunter’s artillery opened once more, and two divisions of infantry stepped forward only to find it impossible to attack. For a time, he tested the Confederate flanks, but was met with the same conclusion. The Rebels counterattacked, but the forces were so evenly matched, no victories were in the stars for either.
On the 19th, Hunter decided to retreat, but to do so west, heading for Charleston in the Kanawah Valley. He passed along the railroad to Roanoke, passing Liberty and tramping through Buford’s Gap.
But it was not merely a retreat. All along the way, Hunter destroyed the railroad and the bridges. By the 21st, Hunter had crashed his way to Salem [just off the map], and it was then that Early caught up to the Federal rear guard, still holding Buford Gap. There was little Early could do.
“As the enemy had got into the mountains, where nothing useful could be accomplished by pursuit,” wrote Early, “I did not deem it proper to continue it farther. […] I had seen my soldiers endur a great deal, but there was a limit to the endurance even of Confederate soldiers.”
Early was more than happy to let Hunter scurry away past Lewisburg to the Kanawha River. “I determined, therefore, to rest on the 22nd, so as to enable the wagons and artillery to get up, and prepare the men for the long march before them.”
This long march, he determined, would not be back to Lee’s main strength at Petersburg, but would be toward Washington.
“On the 23d, the march was resumed and we reached Buchanan that night, where were we struck again the route over which Hunter had advanced.” Early, in a long footnote in his memoirs, detailed the conditions he discovered in Hunter’s wake:
‘The scenes on Hunter’s route from Lynchburg had been truly heart-rending. Houses had been burned, and helpless women and children left without shelter. The country had been stripped of provisions and many families left without a morsel to eat. Furniture and bedding had been cut to pieces, and old men and women and children robbed of all the clothing they had except that on their backs. Ladies’ trunks had been rifled and their dresses torn to pieces in mere wantonness. Even the negro girls had lost their little finery.
We now had renewed evidences of the outrages committed by Hunter’s orders in burning and plundering private houses. We saw the ruins of a number of houses to which the torch had been applied by his orders. At Lexington he had burned the Military Institute, with all of its contents, including its library and scientific apparatus; and Washington College had been plundered and the statue of Washington stolen.
The residence of Ex-Governor Letcher at that place had been burned by orders, and but a few minutes given Mrs. Letcher and her family to leave the house. In the same county a most excellent Christian gentleman, a Mr. Creigh,had been hung, because, on a former occasion, he had killed a straggling and marauding Federal soldier while in the act of insulting and outraging the ladies of his family.
These are but some of the outrages committed by Hunter or his orders, and I will not insult the memory of the ancient barbarians of the North by calling them “acts of vandalism.” If those old barbarians were savage and cruel, they at least had the manliness and daring of rude soldiers, with occasional traits of magnanimity. Hunter’s deeds were those of a malignant and cowardly fanatic, who was better qualified to make war upon helpless women and children than upon armed soldiers. The time consumed in the perpetration of those deeds, was the salvation of Lynchburg, with its stores, foundries and factories, which were so necessary to our army at Richmond.’
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 1, p764; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; The Shenandoah Valley in 1864 by George Pond; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. [↩]