June 5, 1864 (Sunday)
“To aid the expedition under General Hunter,” wrote Grant on June 3 to his corps commanders, “it is necessary that we should detain all the army now with Lee until the former gets well on his way to Lynchburg. To do this effectually it will be better to keep the enemy out of the intrenchments of Richmond than to have them go back there.”
General Grant now understood the impact the Shenandoah Valley had upon the Army of the Potomac. In May, Union forces under Franz Sigel were soundly defeated at New Market by a much smaller force under John Breckinridge. Following the southern victory, Breckinridge rapidly moved his troops and appeared by Lee’s side, adding to the Army of Northern Virginia and to Grant’s losses at Cold Harbor, where the two armies now stood in chest-high trenches peering across a sea of bloated and blackening bodies.
In the Shenandoah Valley, Franz Sigel was replaced by David Hunter, who was ordered to throw his small army at Staunton, Virginia, with an eye upon Gordonsville and Charlottesville “if he does not meet too much opposition. If he can hold at bay a force equal to his own, he will be doing good service.”
This would mean holding 8,000 Rebels in the Valley and away from Lee’s ranks. These 8,000 Hunter quickly threw into order, replacing brigadiers, tightening security, and generally polishing the brass of the Army of the Shenandoah.
Though Martinsville, West Virginia on the B&O Railroad was his supply base, he had decided, like Grant, to live off the land as much as possible. When Grant learned for certain that Breckinridge had joined Lee, he bade that Hunter open his campaign. Three days later, on May 26, Hunter’s men stepped off from Belle Grove plantation south of Middletown.
Following south the Valley Turnpike, he passed the former battlefield at New Market, before arriving before Harrisonburg, a distance of around fifty miles. Their march had been tarried by want of shoes and the Confederate cavalry under John Imboden, who kept in close contact with both General Lee and Grumble Jones, now commanding Confederate forces in the southwestern Virginia.
“Is it possible for you to aid me?” wrote Imboden to Jones, realizing that his small force could not stave off the Yankees from Staunton, their suspected objective. Grumble Jones acted immediately, gathering no more than 2,000, who arrived in Lynchburg on the 31st. While they marched north, Imboden had to hold his own.
It was at Harrisonburg, reached on June 3rd, that Hunter “found the enemy occupying a strong intrenched position at Mount Crawford, on the North River.” Before them was arrayed Imboden with 3,000.
On the 3rd, Hunter made his move toward Mount Crawford, but upon seeing the defenses, he thought better. He greatly outnumbered the Rebels, but their position was so placed that it would spill more blood than it might be worth.
That night, as Hunter decided to slide southeast toward Port Republic, Grumble Jones’ scant force arrived. A day later, 800 more men showed up, and Imboden was gravely disappointed. On the morning of the 4th, Imboden set aside his dismay and prepared to receive Hunter’s attack. But no attack came. Shortly, Hunter’s southeasterly move was discovered, and Imboden, a Valley resident, was certain that he could find perfect ground to defend.
This he did, eight miles northeast of Staunton, at Mowry’s Hill three miles south of the village of Piedmont. This hill was cut through by the East Road, which Hunter must follow to reach Staunton. From this ridge, a stout defense could be established and Imboden was sure that almost anything that Hunter threw against him, he could defeat.
Hunter’s vanguard rode from Port Republic come the dawn of the 5th, skirmishing as they went, edging closer to Piedmont. But even Hunter’s advance had little contest with Imboden’s. The Rebel skirmishers retired to Mowry’s Hill. Grumble Jones, however, had a differing vision. Mowry’s Hill was resplendent, to be certain, but he believed that better ground lay to the north upon Round Top Hill, on the other side of Piedmont. Imboden was furious, but Jones’ ground was formidable. Even Hunter described their number as “advantageously posted.”
To the Confederate front, Gumble Jones’ force faced the coming Federals, while at right angels, and forming an “L,” Imboden was facing east, making use of the hill and protecting the flanks. It was a position as solid as could be had.
It started with artillery, the repeatition sounding and exchanging for an hour until Hunter released a brigade into Jones’ front, scattering the Rebel skirmishers back to their main lines. There had been no time to entrench, but the Confederates had pieced together an embrasure of fallen timber and fence rails.
The affair was slow as another brigade was edged closer to the Rebel position. Hunter seemed to be hoping that the enemy might simply retreat as his artillery pounded as they could their southern counterparts. Around 11am, Hunter ordered the general attack.
But as the Federals advanced, Grumble Jones hurled his own counterattack at the coming lines. This unexpected surge threw back the Northern advance, splitting it and flacking one of the brigades. But with artillery and fortitude, the Rebels were refused their victory.
Hunter could see that his force might not be worthy of the Confederate works. But it was Col. William Ely, commanding the 18th Connecticut, who saw something Hunter could not. “Seeing an excellent opportunity to use cannon,” wrote Ely, “I dispatched an orderly with a request for two howitzers, which came promptly and did excellent service, in knocking the rail pens in splinters amid great slaughter.”
Again, Grumble Jones swung back. The fighting swirled through the the battery. It was vicious, but in turn, the Rebels were driven with great slaughter. Uncertain he could withstand another blow, Hunter began to consider his retreat. But he noticed the gap between Jones and Imboden and instead decided to see if something might not be accomplished.
Tramping hidden through woods, a Federal brigade appeared seeming out of nowhere before a single Confederate regiment. “Here for a short time,” wrote Col. Jacob Campbell of the 54th Pennsylvania, “a most desperate struggle took place, bayonets and clubbed guns were used on both sides, and many hand-to-hand encounters took place. So sudden and apparently so unexpected to the enemy was our movement on their flank that they were soon compelled to give way in great confusion, despite all efforts of their officers to rally them.”
With his men faltering, Grumble Jones hurried to their fading lines, shouting and trying to rally his command. But in so doing, he was struck and killed.
Seeing the clear advantage, General Hunter loosened a brigade once more into the Rebel front. At the double-quick the Federals were upon and within the fortifications. The fight was short, but heated, until the Confederates could withstand no more of it.
Their lines broken and their commander dead, the Rebels were nearly routed, as Federal cavalry swooped upon them, driving them like cattle. But all was not fully lost. Imboden, with the aide of the mostly-intact brigade under John Vaughn, managed to piece together a rear guard to hold back the Union cavaliers and steady their panicked ranks. At the village of New Hope, they were finally able to turn back the pursuing enemy.
That night, General Vaughn wrote to General Lee. “My command is much scattered,” he wrote at 10pm, “The enemy is pursuig. I fear I will be forced to leave the Valley. Staunton cannot be held.” The next morning, Vaughn would tally only 3,000 men, including Imboden’s cavalry, numbering but 800. To make matters worse, another column of Federals under George Crook, 10,000-strong, was rumored to be joining with Hunter within a day or so.
There were a handful of Rebels holding Crook back, but when they heard of the defeat at Piedmont, they too retreated and Crook was able to augment the Federal numbers. “On the next day, June 6,” wrote General Hunter in his report, “I occupied Staunton without opposition.”
What this might mean to General Lee’s Army, still holding at Cold Harbor, was still unknown. But if this combined force might pry their way east across the Blue Ridge Mountains, through Charlotte, they could fall upon General Lee’s left and rear.
For now, Hunter would wait for Crook, who would finally arrive on the 8th. After much pillaging and destruction, they would cast their gaze not upon Lee, but upon Lynchburg, seventy-five miles south.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 1, p94, 117, 118, 150-151, 749, 751; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; The Battle of Piedmont and Hunter’s Raid on Staunton by Scott C. Patchan; The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 by Jack H. Lepa. [↩]