January 5, 1864 (Tuesday)
“It now appears that Lee has detached a large force and sent them into the valley,” wrote Union General Benjamin Kelley. From his headquarters in Cumberland, Maryland, he had been overseeing the Department of West Virginia, but mostly focusing upon the growing number of Rebel cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley. He had sent several raids south, and was finding not only cavalry, but infantry as well – a lot of infantry. He was convinced that it was all of General Richard Ewell’s Corps; that Robert E. Lee had sent away nearly half of his army for the winter.
“If General Meade would send a strong cavalry force into the Luray Valley, it would be an important movement to us,” he wrote to Washington on the 3rd of January. He feared for the railroad and an outpost of his troopers at Petersburg, West Virginia, along the South Branch of the Potomac River, forty or so miles southwest of Romney.
Under Col. Joseph Thoburn, the 1st (West) Virginia Cavalry had been assisting General William Averell, who had conducted a raid in December to cut the rail lien between Richmond and Tennessee. Averell destroyed myriad supplies, but found his return trek blocked by a host of enemy infantry and cavalry. Hoping to make his escape, Averell used Thoburn’s command to make a diversion. Averell escaped, but Thoburn did not, and was currently holed up in Petersburg because of it.
Thoburn’s command caught the attention of Confederate cavalry commander Fitz Lee. By the time he noticed them, the Federals had the opportunity to dig entrenchments and even install abatis. “The greater part of my ammunition being wet, owing to starting in a snow and rainstorm, and having no artillery,” reported Lee to Early, “I decided not to attack them, and moved upon their line of communication toward New Creek Depot.” There, Fitz Lee’s troopers captured a wagon train laden with supplies before moving on to Burlington.
Lee’s objective wasn’t actually to thrash Thoburn, but to fall upon the B & O Railroad at New Creek. From Burlington, the Rebels moved farther north, coming within an easy ride of their target on the night of January 4th. “Marched at 4 o’clock next morning [this date] in a hail storm, and though a point was reached within 6 miles of the depot, on account of the sufferings of my men and the impassibility of the mountain passes to my smooth-shod horses was unable to proceed farther.” Lee and his band would soon return to Harrisonburg.
At any rate, from what Kelley could gather, the Rebel infantry was commanded by Jubal Early, and was currently encamped near Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley. This was true. Early left one brigade at Mt. Jackson, while he trudged north toward Strasburg with another. But they had been stopped by the poor road conditions and abysmal weather atop Fishers Hill, a few miles south of the town.
Though Kelley did not overreact, J.W. Garrett, President of the B & O Railroad was in a panic. On the 4th, he was convinced that a battle was raging at New Creek. “It is stated that General Ewell is in the [Shenandoah] valley with 20,000 men,” he wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. Kelley halted rail traffic west from Harpers Ferry to be to sure, and called up an additional regiment from Baltimore. Garrett, in turn, called upon Halleck “to judge whether considerable re-enforcements are not required to prevent disasters.”
On this date, after a long night sleep, General Halleck contacted George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. “It is now reported that Ewell’s corps is in the Shenandoah Valley,” he began, “Have you any information to that effect? I think another brigade should be sent here [Washington], … for transportation to Harper’s Ferry.”
Less than a half hour later, Meade gave his response. “Our scouts have returned from the valley,” wrote Meade, “and report that Early’s command, consisting of five brigades of infantry, estimated at 7,000, together with [Fitz] Lee’s, [Thomas] Rosser’s, [John] Imboden’s, and [Albert] Jenkin’s cavalry, and some artillery, passed down the valley about Friday last with the intention of making a raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad….”
Meade then argued against a point that Halleck had not made. He saw it as “impracticable” to send troops – even cavalry – directly to the Shenandoah Valley where they might fall upon Early’s rear. “I am still of the opinion that the operations against Early, to be effective, should be from the [B & O] Railroad and defensive, and the character of the season and roads, together with the difficulty of procuring supplies, after exhausting those carried with them, will render nugatory any effort made from this army to cut off Early’s retreat….”
Halleck, however, wasn’t asking Meade to do this, but was asking for a brigade to be sent north so that it could, in fact, defend against Early’s advance against the B & O Railroad. So then, they both seemed to agree that a defensive plan, as Meade concluded, “would require a smaller detachment than an independent movement into the valley.”
By the end of the day, all seemed to be calm. Halleck replied that the single brigade would “probably be sufficient to supply General Kelley’s wants.” The latest reports along the rail line indicated “no immediate danger.”
Meade’s information also shed a more pleasant light upon things. “Further examination of scouts … would lead to the conclusion that the infantry of Early’s command in the lower valley was only two brigades and some detached regiments.” This was true – Early had two brigades totaling around 4,700 men, though the cavalry with him added another 3,000 or more.
It was considerable, especially for General Kelley, whose command was spread out. He was preparing for the worst, but perhaps Meade’s reinforcements would serve well enough. By this date, the threat seemed to actually be diminished. Still, all that Rebel infantry so far north in the Shenandoah Valley couldn’t be a good thing.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p7-8, 1075; Autobiographical Sketch by Jubal Early. [↩]