≡ Menu

Sheridan’s Success in Shenandoah Valley

While Sherman was going thus, first to Atlanta, then to Savannah, and finally north again, Grant had been very busy. No sooner had he got into the Wilderness—where woods and underbrush were so dense that one could not see far ahead—than he met the Confederate forces there; and he also met them at Spottsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor.

About fifty thousand Union soldiers were killed or wounded in these three battles. But Grant knew this was the quickest way to end the war, and wrote to Lincoln “Our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy; but I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” The news of these losses was hard for the country to bear, and after one of these engagements Lincoln despairingly cried: “My God! My God! Twenty thousand poor souls sent to their account in one day. I cannot bear it! I cannot bear it.”

Next, Grant went southward to besiege Petersburg, hoping that Lee would come out of Richmond, which he intended to attack next. But Lee now sent General Jubal A. Early into the Shenandoah valley, to make a raid there. Early swept down the valley with a large force of cavalry, came within about five miles of Washington, then suddenly rushed up the valley again, carrying off large numbers of horses and supplies of all kinds.

This first raid was soon followed by a second, equally successful, the Confederates this time pushing on into Pennsylvania, where they set fire to Chambersburg. Knowing that these raids filled the hearts of Washington people with great terror, Grant now determined to stop them once for all. He therefore sent General Sheridan into the Shenandoah valley, with orders to burn and destroy everything, so that the enemy would find no food there for either man or beast.

General Sheridan set out in August, and after burning many barns and fields of grain, he found and defeated General Early at Winchester. The Confederate army retreated up the valley, while Sheridan followed, halting at Cedar Creek. On his way he destroyed everything, until he could say: “If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him.” As all seemed quiet, Sheridan went to Washington, where he had been summoned; but on coming back to Winchester, he fancied he heard distant sounds of firing.

Mounting his horse, Rienzi, which had been his faithful companion for many months, Sheridan rode quickly out of Winchester in the direction of the noise. Before long he met the first fugitives, who told him that the army had been attacked and defeated by General Early, at break of day.

Sheridan now put spurs to his steed, and galloped along the road, swinging his cap to the soldiers, who watched him dashing past. He cheerily called out to them: “Face the other way, boys; we’re going back.” The men, who had great confidence in him, now cheered him loudly, and, wheeling around, hurried after him to join in the coming fray.

Galloping thus for twenty miles, rallying the troops as he went, jumping fences and dashing through fields when the road was blocked by wagons or fugitives, Sheridan rode on, mile after mile. But all through that long gallop his noble steed never faltered, and the men, hearing his “Turn, boys, turn; we ‘re going back.” followed him blindly.

When Sheridan finally came up to the troops, he encouraged them by crying: “Never mind, boys; we’ll whip them yet. We shall sleep in our old quarters tonight.” At these words the army quickly formed again, and when all was ready, Sheridan, at his officers’ suggestion, rode down the line, to make sure that all the men would see him.

The sight of their familiar and trusted leader on his noble black steed roused the enthusiasm of the soldiers. When the signal came, they renewed the battle with such spirit that Early was defeated and sent flying out of the valley with a shattered army. This victory created a great sensation throughout the country. In speaking of it, Grant wrote: “Turning what bade fair to be a disaster into a glorious victory stamped Sheridan—what I have always thought him—one of the ablest of generals.”

It may interest you to hear that the noble horse Rienzi, which so bravely galloped from Winchester to Cedar Creek, was treated with great kindness until his death in 1878. Then his skin was carefully stuffed and mounted, and placed in the Military Museum on Governors Island, New York, where it can still be seen.

Although Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah valley was the shortest, it was also the most brilliant in the whole war, for, while it lasted only one month, it put an end to all raids in the direction of Washington.