The highpoint of General David Hunter’s Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864. Having defeated the Confederate forces present in the valley itself, Hunter crossed over the Blue Ridge Mountains and advanced on Lynchburg, a crucial link in the railroad network supplying Lee’s armies around Richmond.
Lee regarded this threat as so serious that he detached Stonewall Jackson’s old corps, now under General Jubal Early, to reinforce the garrison of Lynchburg and if possible restore the Confederate position in the Shenandoah Valley.
The two armies were now roughly equal in strength, each numbering around 15,000 strong. However, Hunter had already suffered two setbacks. Sheridan’s cavalry was meant to be joining him after Lynchburg, but on 11 and 12 June the Union cavalry had suffered a rebuff at Trevilian Station, and Sheridan had returned to Grant’s main army around Richmond and Petersburg. More seriously, Hunter’s supply lines were being ravaged by Confederate guerrillas – between May 20 and his attack on Lynchburg only one supply wagon reached the Union army. By the time they reached Lynchburg they were short of supplies and ammunition.
Hunter’s men demonstrated an old Union failing – they moved too slowly to Lynchburg. On 16 June they appeared before the hastily constructed defences of the city, and prepared to attack the next day. On 17 June the first Union attack was pushing back the badly outnumbered Confederate defenders of the town when Early’s first units arrived on the railroad from Charlottesville. The Confederate reinforcements managed to stop the Union attack. Hunter contented himself with an artillery bombardment, and then went into camp.
On the following day Early was happy to stay on the defensive and wait for the rest of his men to arrive. Hunter launched a series of probing attacks that resulted in skirmishes along the line, and one attack on the Confederate right, which was repulsed. Overnight, Early prepared to launch his own attack, but at the same time Hunter was pulling back from the town.
Early launched a pursuit, which lasted until 21 June, at which point Hunter’s men had entered the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Early’s had marched sixty miles in three days. Early called off the chase, and rested his troops while deciding what to do next. Hunter helped him make his decision. Low on ammunition, Hunter chose to cross the Shenandoah Valley and retreated into West Virginia. While this made a certain amount of sense from Hunter’s point of view, it was almost disastrous for the North. Early’s orders had included the possibility of a third invasion of the north, although on a much smaller scale than Lee’s attempts in 1862 and 1863. With Hunter out of the way, Early was free to march up the Shenandoah Valley, and launch his own invasion of Maryland, where he managed to reach the defences of Washington D.C., and put an almighty scare into many in the Federal Capitol.