September 25, 1864 (Sunday)
“If you feel strong enough,” wrote General Lee to Jubal Early, “better move at once after the enemy and attack him, and if possible destroy him.”
This was, of course, a brilliant idea. If Early would destroy Philip Sheridan’s army, the Valley of the Shenandoah would once more be in Confederate hands, and the crops not already destroyed by the Federals could be used to feed the army. But Lee knew how many men Early had – perhaps no more than 15,000 once joined again by Joseph Kershaw’s Division. Sheridan had over twice that number, though of this Lee could not be certain.
Two days prior, Lee had urged Early to encourage his troops, warning him “do not bring on battle until Kershaw joins you and your troops are rallied.” To that end, Early had to once more retreat.
Since the battle along the Opequon on September 19th, Early had retreated nearly seventy miles south and was now about to march at least ten more. Before the dawn, his small army moved from near Harrisonburg nearly east to Brown’s Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, he would wait for Kershaw.
From his headquarters in Port Republic, Early expressed the dire position of his army. “My troops are very much shattered,” he wrote to General Lee, “the men very much exhausted, and many of them without shoes.” Lee had already called for reinforcements to pour out of every garrison and crevasse in or near the Valley, but it was only a drop of what was needed.
Attempting to predict Sheridan’s next move, Early continued: “I think Sheridan means to try [David] Hunter’s campaign again, and his superiority in cavalry gives him the advantage.” Knowing his lack, Early asked Lee to spare Wade Hampton’s Division from Petersburg. Early had agreed that Sheridan must be beaten, and he vowed to at least try it upon Kershaw’s arrival. “I shall do the best I can, and hope I may be able to check the enemy, but I cannot but be apprehensive of the result.”
Hunter’s campaign had a policy akin to scorched-earth, and Sheridan was indeed planning such a campaign once Early was vanquished. Thus far, there had been some destruction, but for the post part, Early’s troops, even in retreat, were enough to keep the Federals busy. But now that they were sequestered in Brown’s Gap, unless they attacked, they were as good as defeated.
The day following, Grant would reassure Sheridan, informing him that Lee had dispatched no troops from the Petersburg defenses to reinforce Early. “Your victories have created the greatest consternation,” he concluded. “If you can possibly subsist your army to the front for a few days more, do it, and make a great effort to destroy the roads about Charlottesville and the canal wherever your cavalry can reach it.”
Over the ensuing week, Sheridan would plot his course. But until then, he would remain in Harrisonburg to rest his hard-traveled army.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p557-558; Part 2, p170-171, 177, 879; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. [↩]