‘My Orders Were to Destroy…’ – Dispatches from Sheridan’s March

February 27, 1865 (Monday)

From General Philip Sheridan’s Report:
On the morning of February 27, 1865, we marched from Winchester up the Valley pike, with live days’ rations in haversacks, and fifteen days’ rations of coffee, sugar, and salt in wagons, thirty pounds of forage on each horse, one wagon for division headquarters, eight ambulances, and our ammunition train; no other wagons, except a pontoon train of eight boats, were permitted to accompany the command.

Sheridan's troopers fording a stream in the Shenandoah Valley.
Sheridan’s troopers fording a stream in the Shenandoah Valley.

My orders were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, the James River Canal, capture Lynchburg if practicable, and then join Major-General Sherman wherever he might be found in North Carolina, or return to Winchester; but in joining General Sherman I must be governed by the position of affairs after the capture of Lynchburg.

The command was in fine condition, but the weather was very bad, as the spring thaw, with heavy rains, bad already come on. The valley and surrounding mountains were covered with snow which was fast disappearing, putting all the streams nearly past fording.

On our first day’s march we crossed Cedar Creek, Tumbling Run, and Tom’s Brook, and went into camp at Woodstock, having marched thirty miles.

From the report of Bvt. Maj. Ocran H. Howard, Signal Officer:
At Cedar Creek Lieutenant Ellis was sent ahead to find the rebel signal stations which had been designated a few days before by a deserter from the rebel signal corps, with instructions to call for a cavalry force if the stations were found, and to capture the officers and men thereon. Lieutenant Ellis proceeded with the advance as far as Woodstock, but saw no stations, and learned from citizens that they had been abandoned some days before.

During our march up the Valley a signal officer was kept with the advance with instructions to find, if possible, the rebel signal stations. Owing to the rapid march of the column and the small space occupied by the command when encamped at night it was deemed inexpedient to establish any communication by signals.

From General Philip Sheridan’s Memoirs:
General Torbert being absent on leave at this time, I did not recall him, but appointed General Merritt Chief of Cavalry, for Torbert had disappointed me on two important occasions — in the Luray Valley during the battle of Fisher’s Hill, and on the recent Gordonsville expedition — and I mistrusted his ability to conduct any operations requiring much self-reliance.

The column was composed of Custer’s and Devin’s divisions of cavalry, and two sections of artillery, comprising in all about 10,000 officers and men. On wheels we had, to accompany this column, eight ambulances, sixteen ammunition wagons, a pontoon train for eight canvas boats, and a small supply-train, with fifteen days’ rations of coffee, sugar, and salt, it being intended to depend on the country for the meat and bread ration, the men carrying in their haversacks nearly enough to subsist them till out of the exhausted valley.

From the report given by Bvt. Maj. Gen. Wesley Merrit, commanding Cavalry:
The bridge over Cedar Creek having been carried away by the winter freshets, the fording was deep, but attended with but little difficulty. From Woodstock a force of 500 men was sent in advance to hold the bridge at Edenburg during the night.”

From the report of Brig. Gen. Alfred Gibb, commanding Reserve Brigade:
The Sixth U.S. Cavalry and the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry were sent, under comand of Major Morrow, Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, to Edenburg, drove the enemy’s pickets from the town, and secured the bridges at that place.

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

From General Jubal Early’s Memoirs:
On the 27th, Sheridan started from Winchester up the Valley with a heavy force, consisting, according to the statement of Grant in his report, of two divisions of cavalry, numbering about 5000 each. I had been informed of the preparations for a movement of some kind, some days previous, aid the information had been telegraphed to General Lee.

As soon as Sheridan started, I was informed of the fact by signal and telegraph, and orders were immediately sent by telegraph to Lomax, whose headquarters were at Millboro, on the Central railroad, forty miles west of Staunton, to get together all of his cavalry as soon as possible. Rosser was also directed to collect all of his men that he could, and an order was sent by telegraph to General Echols, in Southwestern Virginia, to send his brigade by rail to Lynchburg.

My own headquarters were at Staunton, but there were no troops at that place except a local provost guard, and a company of reserves, composed-of boys under 18 years of age, which was acting under the orders of the Conscript Bureau.

__________________

Meanwhile, along the Petersburg lines, Major William Ryder, a provost-marshall, wrote about a liberated slave who had just escaped:

A colored refugee, just escaped from the rebel lines, 4 p. m., reports that the enemy is moving his heavy guns from the lines in front of Petersburg toward Richmond, via the Chesterfield route. Last Tuesday he saw the guns moved through the streets of Petersburg himself, and knows that advantage is taken of every dark night to get guns to the rear. They are also moving cotton and tobacco to Lynchburg. His name is John Roberts, and appears intelligent; was servant to officer in signal corps, and was afraid of being put in the rebel ranks as a soldier (though he says he knows the niggers there will not fight). A company was formed of niggers who all voted not to fight the Yankees. They were then whipped and the company disbanded.
((Trying something a bit different today…. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p475, 483, 485, 488, 500; Part 2, p720; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early.))

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2 thoughts on “‘My Orders Were to Destroy…’ – Dispatches from Sheridan’s March

  1. “On our first day’s march we crossed Cedar Creek, Tumbling Run, and Tom’s Brook, and went into camp at Woodstock, having marched thirty miles.”

    Granted that they were largely cavalry, thirty mile marches in wet weather, fording streams, etc. sounds like one heckuva march. Especially for troops who had been in the field for a long time. I doubt that any troops today could do thirty mile marches.

    And just to get 10,000 troops all moving in the same direction must have taken an hour or two from the head of the column to the end.

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