February 26, 1865 (Sunday)
The Shenandoah Valley was a desolate place through this long, harsh winter. Jubal Early remained in command, but his command, like the supplies, forage and hope, was dwindled to a shadow of its former self.
General Lee had stationed Early in the Valley with a small command trusting that the Federals would believe it to be much larger than in truth. Some of his troops had been sent back to Lee, while others were shuffled off into West Virginia and southwest Virginia. Other companies were dispersed for the season. This left Early with two small brigades, a smaller battalion, and a dozen or so pieces of artillery – about 1,600 men. They encamped themselves near Fisherville, a small railroad town between Staunton and Waynesboro.
The late February thaw had commenced, and with that came rumors that the enemy was preparing to move. Early had sent north pickets to New Market and even beyond the Federal lines. Crossing swollen streams and fords, they gleaned these rumors to be true. Philip Sheridan was stirring.
General Grant had several reasons for Sheridan to begin another campaign up the Shenandoah Valley. As it was, William Tecumseh Sherman, now tramping north through South Carolina, was incredibly deficient in cavalry. Sheridan’s entire force, based in and around Winchester, Virginia, was nothing but – 10,000 troopers in the finest shape.
“The main object,” wrote Grant, is to re-enforce Sherman in that arm of service.” While Grant was still dabbling with the idea of simply shipping them by rail to the coast and by water transport to Wilmington, he also favored the Valley idea. “Going by Lynchburg would give us great advantages” in cutting several railroads and a canal.
It was decided to let Sheridan clear the Valley and link up with Sherman at some point, but when Washington caught wind of this on the 25th, there was a bit of apprehension. “I will leave behind about 2,000 men,” wrote Sheridan to Grant, “which will increase to 3,000 in a short time.” This caused Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to take notice.
Less than a week prior, two Union generals had been captured in Cumberland, Maryland by a few dozen Rebels. This happened on Sheridan’s watch and Washington was fuming. They could little understand how Sheridan’s absence would help in this matter. “Have you well considered whether you do not again leave open the Shenandoah Valley entrance to Maryland and Pennsylvania,” asked President Lincoln of Grant, “or at least to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad?”
“His movement,” replied Grant to Lincoln on this date, “is in the direction of the enemy, and the tendency will be to protect the Baltimore and Ohio road and to prevent any attempt to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania.” Lincoln would approve the decision two days later, which was appropriate, since Sheridan had left that morning. Both Grant’s and even Sheridan’s letters “have relieved my anxiety, and so I beg that you will dismiss any concern you may have on my account in the matter of my last dispatch.”
Before leaving, Sheridan had a few questions of his own. “Where is Sherman marching for?” being the biggest. He also wanted to know “any definite information as to the points he [Sherman] may be expected to move on this side of Charlotte.”
Grant, however, didn’t really know. It would depend upon how much opposition Sherman had to face down. “If you reach Lynchburg,” wrote Grant to Sheridan, “you will have to be guided in your after movements by the information you obtain.” And so Sheridan was more or less on his own.
To replace Sheridan, who was in command of the Middle Military Division, Washington selected Winfield Scott Hancock for the post. This hero of Gettysburg had served through the Overland Campaign and on the Petersburg lines, but met with an embarrassing defeat at Ream’s Station. Soon after, he retired from field service, helming thereafter the Veteran Reserve Corps (the old Invalid Corps) until this date, when he was placed in command of the Middle Military Division. He arrived in Winchester by train and would there serve out the rest of the war.
Sheridan’s command consisted of two divisions under the immediate generalship of Wesley Merritt. The First was commanded by Thomas Devin, and the Third by George Armstrong Custer, with roughly five thousand in each.
Though Jubal Early’s forces near Fisherville and Staunton were slim, there were others around that might give aide if notified soon enough. Forty miles to the west of Staunton, where Early made his lonely headquarters, was Lumsford Lomax, in command of dispersed cavalry. William Rosser, leading widelly dispsersed scouts, might also gather together troops dispersed or sent home. General John Echols had a full brigade stationed in Southwestern Virginia, which could be shuttled north to Lynchburg by rail.
This was hardly reliable. Though rumors of Sheridan had been growing, just how many men each of Early’s subordinates could bring together would remain a mystery until they were facing the enemy.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p474-475; Part 2, p609, 685, 701, 717; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan. [↩]