‘Make All the Valley a Desert’ – Grant Proposes Some Drastic Measures

July 15, 1864 (Friday)

Jubal Early takes a breather.
Jubal Early takes a breather.

Jubal Early’s raid on Washington had sputtered to an unceremonious end. He and his Army of the Valley slipped away from the suburbs of Washington and were back across the Potomac by July 14th. So sluggish was the Federal pursuit that only a regiment of Rebel cavalry had to be dismounted to hold back its advance elements.

The 10,500 Union troops were led by Horatio Wright. As the Rebels crossed into Virginia, Wright established an encampment near Poolesville. There they would remain for two fully days, held back from the crossing by a relative handful of Confederates. Early’s main force, now at Leesburg, would also be stationary for two days, each side seemingly giving the other a respectful enough interval before continuing the war.

Meanwhile, the Federals were trying to figure out how to trap Early and destroy him before he could rejoin Robert E. Lee’s main body. While Wright was at Poolesville, another column under David Hunter was now somewhere between Harpers Ferry and the enemy at Leesburg. Still another corps, the Nineteenth under James Ricketts, was near Edwards Ferry. All told, there were, perhaps, 30,000 Union troops immediately poised to engage the Rebels.

But it wasn’t that simple. General Grant wished for Wright to come back at the “earliest possible moment after he ceases to be absolutely necessary where he is.” It was his hope that Hunter’s force could handle it without the help of either Wright or Ricketts. Just but Hunter’s presence, believed Grant, the enemy would be held in place, as they wouldn’t want such Federals in their rear.

Rebels retreating across the Potomac.
Rebels retreating across the Potomac.

There was also Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, who seemed a bit more concerned than Grant. He had heard nothing at all from General Hunter personally, but rumor had it that he was going to strike the enemy in the flank, but how that would happen was any body’s guess. “Message after message has been sent to him, but no reply has been received,” wrote Halleck to Grant. He was incredibly doubtful that Wright would be able to do the enemy much damage at all, though he had been ordered to continue following Early until specifically ordered by Grant to turn around.

That is not to say that Grant wasn’t concerned. The present raid was over, and the Rebels had slipped away. This was getting to be a yearly event. Grant was thinking to the future. “In view of the possible recurrence of the late raid into Maryland,” Grant proposed a few ideas.

First, all the troops that would be required should be called upon immediately. Second, “Washington City, Baltimore, and Harpers Ferry should be designated as schools of instruction , and all troops raised east of the State of Ohio should be sent to one of these three places as fast as raised.” If Grant had his way, there would be no more state-by-state training camps. If the new recruits were close to the capital, they would be close enough to fight off the next Rebel invasion.

In the same letter, Grant then jumped to how best to aid William Tecumseh Sherman before Atlanta. His greatest fear was that the South would somehow be able to send troops to reinforce Joe Johnston, still in command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Ruins of Montgomery Blair's house.
Ruins of Montgomery Blair’s house.

He wrote to Sherman’s methodology once Atlanta fell. The Western commander would “devote himself to collecting the resources of the country. He will take everything the people have, and will then issue from the stores so collected to rich and poor alike. As he will take all their stock, they will have no use for grain further than is necessary for bread.”

Grant wanted much the same to happen in the Shenandoah Valley, and he wished for Hunter to be its very own Sherman. Hunter was to storm south, up the Shenandoah River to cut the rail line at Charlottesville. If this could not be done, “he should make all the Valley south of the Baltimore and Ohio Road a desert as high up as possible. I do not mean that houses should be burned, but all provisions and stock should be removed, and the people notified to move out.”

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