August 7, 1864 (Sunday)
General Grant had arrived at Monocacy Station on the 5th, bypassing Washington and its politics. There he saw first hand the 16,000 men under General David Hunter’s command. They were made up of the entire Army of West Virginia (a small corps, really), the Sixth Corps, and part of the Nineteenth Corps. Following a month or more of dogging the Confederates under Jubal Early to and from Washington and the Shenandoah Valley, the forces were in great need of rest. But for this rest, Grant resolved, there was little time.
It had been ordered by Grant that Philip Sheridan was to command the troops in the field, while David Hunter retained overall command of the department. Most believed Hunter would be too proud not to resign. Grant, however, was willing to take the chance, after all, a department head was technically a higher position than a field commander.
While Sheridan met with President Lincoln, who expressed his satisfaction and “hoped for the best,” Grant met with Hunter at Monocacy, asking if Hunter knew the location of Jubal Early’s Rebels. At this point, nobody -least of all Hunter- had a clue where the enemy was encamped. This could not stand, and at 8pm on the 5th, Grant wrote out a long series of orders for Hunter to follow so that he might soon find the Confederates.
First, Hunter was to concentrate his troops at Harper’s Ferry. Second, if the enemy was found to have crossed north into Maryland, he was to pursue him and attack; if the enemy was instead south of the Potomac, Hunter was to move south. Hunter was promised three additional brigades of cavalry – 5,000 men.
Whether Early’s Confederates were north or south of the Potomac mattered little. He knew that the enemy could not remain long in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and would soon have to return to the Valley, when Hunter would then follow. Upon entering the Valley, Grant related that it was “desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command; such as cannot be consumed, destroy.” He warned him, however, not to burn buildings, but “they should rather be protected.”
In closing, Grant reminded him to always keep the enemy in sight, shadowing the Confederates wherever they moved. Hunter immediately started the troops on the road, and the reached Halltown by evening.
These orders were all well and good, but Hunter wasn’t at all comfortable with the young Sheridan taking his command. Sometime during the conversation, he (according to Grant) “expressed a willingness to be relieved from command.” It’s not like it was unexpected.
Grant easily acquiesced and wired Washington to send Sheridan the next morning (the 6th). When Sheridan arrived, Grant had much the same conversation that he had had with Hunter, even handing the new commander the identical orders.
Hunter would remain for another day, leaving, it seems, without ceremony on this date (the 7th). But by the evening of the 6th, Sheridan was already getting things in order. This was no simple task.
“I find affairs somewhat confused,” he wrote to Grant that evening, “but will soon straighten them out.” By this time, he was fairly certain that there was no large Rebel force north of the Potomac – just some cavalry. The next day, he would send south his own cavalry to sniff out Jubal Early.
But on this date, everything changed for Sheridan. Grant had wished for the several departments around Washington to be combined into one, and today he got his wish.
“The Departments of Washington, the Middle, the Susquehanna, and of Western Virginia, have been formed into a military division called the Middle Division, and you have been assigned to the temporary command,” wrote Grant to Sheridan. “You can assume command without any further authority.”
And so now Sheridan wasn’t simply a field commander, or even a department commander, but a military division commander, similar to the post held by Grant immediately before coming east. The department commanders would remain, but they would all be reporting to Sheridan.
Sheridan immediately got to work, discovering that Early had actually crossed the Potomac and had dinner in Sharpsburg, around which his troops were harvesting wheat. The bulk of the force, however, appeared to be around Winchester. And it was to Winchester the newly-formed Army of the Shenandoah would now march.
Though Sheridan’s reports held that Jubal Early’s main force had not crossed to the northern shores of the Potomac, that was not true. Early had crossed at Sharpsburg on the 5th, where they encamped for the night. On the 6th, they marched to Boonsboro and then to Williamsport, crossing over to the south side of the Potomac. They returned to Bunker Hill, just north of Winchester on this date.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p40, 567-568, 695-696, 710, 719-720; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling; Sheridan in the Shenandoah by Edward Stackpole. [↩]