July 23, 1864 (Saturday)
The pursuit of Jubal Early’s Confederates, who had raided to the gates of Washington, had come to an end. Chief of Staff Henry Halleck sent a message to General Grant near Petersburg to tell him the news. Horatio Wright, who had led the chase, had “left the enemy retreated on Front Royal and Strasburg.” It was up to Grant to decide whether they should remain near Washington to co-operate against the Rebels with another Federal army, under David Hunter, near Harpers Ferry. “In my opinion,” offered Halleck, “raids will be renews as soon as he leaves; but you are the judge whether or not a large enough movable force shall be kept here to prevent them.”
Apparently, Halleck’s passive-aggressive assault upon Grant’s better judgment was a successful means of assailing the army’s highest ranking official. In reply, Grant reminded Halleck that he had told him to retain Wright until Jubal Early’s retreat “was fully assured.” He had even suggested that they attack the enemy.
“You need not send any troops back until the main force of the enemy is known to have left the [Shenandoah] Valley,” relented Grant. “Is Wright still where he can act in conjunction with Hunter? If the two can push the enemy back and destroy railroads from Charlottesville to Gordonsville, I would prefer that service to having them here.”
By this date (the day after the above exchange), General Wright had arrived in Washington and his forces were not far behind. Halleck replied to Grant with a long list of woes. General Hunter was warning that if Wright left, he would not be able to defend the capital on his own. Word on the pike had it that Early’s force was much larger than the Federals gathered. “The rebels generally said to the country people that as soon a they secured their plunder they would return to Maryland and Pennsylvania for more, and that they expected to meet a force from Richmond to receive their plunder.” Halleck believed that it seems a bit too well-rehearsed to be true. President Lincoln, however, was leaving it all up to Grant. Whatever the general wanted to do would be done.
Grant concluded that Early would not be returning to the Potomac, but would soon be heading to Petersburg so that General Lee could detach troops for service in Georgia. If Wright was in Washington, Grant figured that he might as well be sent back to the Army of the Potomac, though he agreed to keep a couple of divisions from the Nineteenth Corps around the capital. He knew that Hunter’s men probably needed a rest, and so instructed that he take up some advanced defensive positions to protect the line of the Potomac. If on the off chance that Wright and Hunter had restarted their pursuit of Early, they were to continue.
Now that he was no longer pursued, Jubal Early rested his men across Cedar Creek in the direction of Strasburg. There they remained all of this day. Early dispatched his cavalry in an attempt to deduce the Federal position. It was then that he learned of Wright’s return to Washington. All that was before him was the Army of West Virginia, commanded in the field by George Crook (this was most commonly referred to as Hunter’s Army since Hunter was the department commander). Crook had come together with the cavalry under William Averill at Kernstown, just south of Winchester, about fifteen miles away.
Early had no mind to retreat, and wanted desperately to not only hold the Shenandoah, but to enter Maryland and Pennsylvania. If the Valley could be held until harvest, the crops would be a great boon for the Confederacy. And if he could make his way to the newly-repaired B & O Railroad to utterly thrash it, all the better.
It all seemed to be coming together. Wright and his troops were gone, leaving only three divisions under Crook less than a day’s march away. He could strike, destroy the Yankees and disappear before reinforcements could be sent from Washington.
For some reason, this possibility had not occurred to many. President Lincoln, however, paid it some mind, wiring General Hunter: “Are you able to take care of the enemy, when he turns back on you, as he probably will, on finding that Wright has left?”
“My force is not strong enough to hold the enemy should he return upon us with his whole force,” came Hunter’s reply. “Our latest advices from the front, however, do not lead me to apprehend such a movement.”
All the better for Early. But this had been written in the morning, well before Early’s cavalry had fallen upon Averell’s skirmish line at Kernstown. It was an incredibly minor scrap. Such skirmishing had taken up the past few days. And yet, this was different. Unknown to Crook, Hunter, Averell or anything in Washington, Early’s Army of the Valley had turned and was now marching north once more.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, 2, p413-414, 422, 423; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. [↩]