American Civil War: The Shenandoah Valley

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The Shenandoah Valley was the second main battle ground in Virginia. Separated from the rest of the state by the Blue Ridge Mountains, its crops were a key part of the Confederate supply chain, especially for the crucial army of North Virginia. After flowing north east from the centre of old Virginia, the Shenandoah River joined the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, on the border between Virginia and Maryland. It gave the Confederacy a potential launching point for invasions of the North that gave them the chance to cut off Washington, vulnerable at the southern end of Maryland. All of the major battles on Lee’s invasions of the North were to happen north of the Federal Capitol.


While the Shenandoah Valley didn’t see any important battles in the first year of the war, the decisions made by the Union commander in the valley were to have a significant impact on the outcome of the First Battle of Bull Run. The Federal commander, General Robert Patterson, slightly outnumbered his Confederate opponent, Joseph E. Johnston, but many of his men were 90 day volunteers who were about to leave the army.

Although Patterson was expected to prevent Johnston from leaving the valley, his orders could be interpreted as giving him the choice to follow the Confederate force. He decided this was the better option, but Johnston was able to give him the slip. The railways were to play a major part in the American Civil War. They now had their first starring role. Johnston’s army moved by railway to Manassas, where they arrived just in time to ensure the Confederate victory at First Bull Run (21 July 1861).


1862 saw the most dramatic Confederate victories in the Shenandoah Valley. In the main Virginia theatre, McClellan was threatening Richmond from the Peninsular, while a second major Union army was poised at Fredericksburg under McDowell, ready to move on Richmond from the north. If this had happened, even Lee would have struggled to save the Confederate capitol.

Shenandoah Valley
in 1862 showing
Stonewall Jackson's

The key to this appeared to be ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, now commanding Confederate forces in the valley. On 23 March, Jackson had attacked the Union army in the valley, mistakenly thinking he had isolated the rearguard while part of the army was being transferred to McClellan (First Battle of Kernstown). Although he lost the battle, Jackson succeeded in stopping the transfer and also pinned McDowell at Fredericksburg, partly because Union commanders became convinced that Jackson must have a sizable army.

Inspired by this, Lee decided to reinforce Jackson. With 10,000 men from Ewell’s Division, Jackson now had 17,000 men to oppose two Union forces. General Banks had 20,000 men in the middle of the valley, while part of the Union army of West Virginia (under Frémont) was threatening Staunton, towards the southern end.

Jackson dealt with this threat with a masterful campaign that took full advantage of the railway system. At the start of May, he marched east across the Blue Ridge Mountains to Charlottesville. The Union commanders assumed that he was heading east to reinforce Richmond. Instead, he was heading west, using the railway to reach McDowell, where with 9,000 of his men he defeated the vanguard of Frémont’s army (8 May). This defeat stopped Frémont in his tracks, and allowed Jackson to march back to the valley to deal with Bank’s single division (the rest of his army having been sent east).

Banks had realised that he was in danger and had retreated to Strasburg, in the main valley. Between Harrisonburg to the south and Strasburg the valley is split in two by the Massanutten Mountains. The main road travels up the western part of the valley. Jackson started up that road, but half way to Strasburg (at New Market) he crossed over the mountains with most of his army to head up their eastern side (The Luray Valley), while his cavalry continued up the main road, hoping to fool Banks into stopping at Strasburg until Jackson could hit him from the rear.

Unfortunately for Jackson, Banks had not entirely neglected the Luray Valley, and had placed a small force at Front Royal, near to the junction of the two valleys. While Jackson was able to brush the force aside (battle of Front Royal, 23 May), it did serve to warn Banks of the threat. Banks retreated north to Winchester, with Jackson hot on his heels. Banks’s outnumbered troops reached the town first, but were then defeated in battle (First Battle of Winchester, 25 May) and fled back to the Potomac.

Jackson had succeeded in preventing reinforcements reaching McClellan, but now he had to survive the Federal response. Frémont had been ordered to cross the mountains to Harrisonburg, while two divisions from McDowell’s army were ordered west. If these orders had been followed, Jackson would have been in a great deal of trouble, but luckily for him, Frémont was deterred by a small Confederate force in the passes west of Harrisonburg, and rather than attack them, he marched forty mile north and crossed into the valley near Strasburg.

This diversion allowed Jackson to escape the trap. His men earned the nickname ‘Jackson’s Foot Cavalry’ because of their rapid movement in this campaign. To escape the Union trap they had marched at twice the speed of their opponents, just passing through Strasburg in time. Nevertheless, they were still in danger. Frémont’s 15,000 men were chasing them down the western valley, while 10,000 men from McDowell’s army (under General Shields) were on a parallel course across the Massanuttens.

The three armies came together in the vicinity of Port Republic, at the southern end of the Massanutten Mountains. Jackson turned to face his pursuers. On 8 June he inflicted a defeat on Frémont (Battle of Cross Keys), before turning to deal with Shields’s advance force on 9 June (Battle of Port Republic). Although a planned final attack on Frémont had to be abandoned after unexpectedly stubborn resistance by Shields’s men, Jackson had caused enough damage to cause Lincoln to order both of his commanders to withdraw.

Jackson’s Valley campaign is deservedly one of the most admired of the entire civil war. Outnumber heavily by the total Union forces he faced, he had managed to move in such as way as to make sure that in four of the five battles he outnumbered his enemy. At the end of the campaign, the Union forces withdrew from the area, leaving Jackson free to head east to Richmond (where he was to play a less impressive role in the Seven Days Battles). More important to the outcome of the Peninsular Campaign was that Jackson’s actions in the Shenandoah Valley had probably kept as many as 60,000 Union soldiers away from Richmond.


The Shenandoah Valley saw less combat in 1863 than in any other year. Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville handed the initiative to Lee, who decided to launch his great invasion of Pennsylvania. His invasion route passed through the valley. The northern part of the valley was back in Union hands, so Lee’s invasion began with a victory on home soil, when the Confederate vanguard captured the garrison of Winchester (2nd Battle of Winchester, 14-15 June). After that, the centre of attention moved north.


1864 saw Ulysses S. Grant arrive in Washington as commanding general of the Union armies. While his main campaign was aimed at Richmond, he also planned a series of diversions intended to prevent the Confederates shifting troops to reinforce Lee. The army in West Virginian and the Shenandoah was commanded by General Franz Sigel, a political general who had performed well in several battles. His role was to campaign in the valley and deny its resources to Lee.

The forces involved in Sigel’s campaign were tiny. He had 6,500 men to oppose a Confederate army of 5,000 commanded by John C. Breckinridge (another political general and a former vice-President). While Sigel moved south up the valley, Breckinridge attacked him at New Market, and inflicted an embarrassing defeat that ended Sigel’s time in command.

His replacement, General David Hunter, started well. He marched down the entire length of the valley, winning a minor victory at Piedmont (5 June) and reaching Lexington, where he burnt the Virginia Military Institute. From there he crossed out of the valley to attack Lynchburg. There, he found 8,000 men under Jubal Early sent by Lee to stop Hunter’s destruction in the valley, and after a brief attempt to attack (18 June) decided to retreat.

Extraordinarily, he decided to retreat west, into West Virginia. Despite his best attempts to justify this move, it soon cost Hunter his command. It also provided the Confederates with one of their best moments of 1864. Early marched north down the Shennandoah Valley, and on 5 July crossed into Maryland. The last Confederate invasion of the North had begun.

Early even managed something Lee did not – he won a clear victory on Northern soil, against a hastily gather Union army at the Monancy River (9 July). The next day (a Sunday), Early’s 10,000 men approached the defences of Washington. His army was not big enough to actually occupy Washington, but the garrison had been massively reduced to help Grant’s offensive, and there were only 9,600 men (mostly invalids or militiamen) in the defences of the federal capitol. If Early had attacked on the morning of 11 July, it is quite possible that he could have broken into the city, and caused incalculable damage to Lincoln’s chances in the upcoming Presidential elections.

Sadly for the Confederacy, Early did not take his chance. While he pondered, veteran Union soldiers of the Sixth Corp began to arrive in the city.  As they appeared on the ramparts, Early realised that his chance was lost and that he had better retreat before he was overwhelmed by the Union response. After a brief attack on 12 July, he turned back towards the Shenandoah.

Early’s raid was an acute embarrassment to Lincoln. Grant’s great offensive against Richmond had failed to take the city and had lost 65,000 men. Public opinion in the North can be forgiven for not seeing how badly weakened Lee’s army had been by the same fighting, and now a tiny Confederate army had approached the gates of Washington!

Grant decided to try a different approach to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant realised that the Union gained no real benefit from occupation of the valley, and that the numerous gaps through the Blue Ridge Mountains made any Federal army in the valley vulnerable to being attacked in its rear by troops from the rest of Virginia. In contrast, the Confederates could use the valley both to feed their armies in Virginia and to launch embarrassing attacks into the north.

At the beginning of August, General Sheridan was put in charge of Union efforts in the Shenandoah (On 1 August he was given command of the field army, and on 8 August was given overall control of the area). Grant gave him two missions. First, he was to ‘put himself south of the enemy’ to destroy Early’s army, preferably by outmanoeuvring him.

Second, he was to take or destroy anything that might be of use to the enemy, especially the food that was supplying the Confederate armies and raiders in the valley. This was harsh warfare, but Grant’s aim was to win the war as quickly as possible. More lives would be lost if the war was prolonged by supplies from the valley than would be lost in the valley itself if Sheridan was able to turn the valley into a desert. While Sheridan’s devastation of the valley was to cause much hardship, his aim was to destroy the surplus crops that could feed an army, not to cause starvation amongst the population.

To do this, he had an army of 34,000 infantry and 6,400 cavalry, made up of units from a variety of different armies. As had happened so often in the past, Union intelligence overestimated the size of the Confederate army. Early’s army had been reinforced up to a strength of 23,000 men, but was estimated to be at least 40,000 strong. Accordingly, Sheridan prepared carefully for his campaign. An early August thrust down the valley reached Strasburg before retreating after receiving exaggerated news of Confederate reinforcements.

After this, Sheridan settled down close to the Potomac, and waited for his chance. This inactivity worried Lincoln, and eventually even Grant, who made two visits to the valley to prod Sheridan into action. On his second visit he found Sheridan about to move anyway. Some of Early’s reinforcements had left, while the rest of the army was spread out around Winchester. Sheridan planned to attack the town from the east, cutting Early off from the rest of the valley.

The attack did not go to plan. On 19 September (3rd Battle of Winchester), Sheridan’s 30,000 men jammed up the available roads, and the attack was chaotic. However, Early could only bring 12,000 men into the battle, and after a hard days fighting Sheridan’s superior numbers appeared to have caused a rout.

This was misleading. Early’s army had fled the battlefield, but it soon reformed. This time Early took up a position on Fisher’s Hill, twenty miles south of Winchester. Although potentially a strong position, Early did not have enough men to defend the four mile long position, and on 22 September (Battle of Fisher’s Hill), Sheridan was able to inflict another defeat on Early.

By now, Early had lost over 5,000 men. Grant was confident that he was beaten, and began to plan to move Sheridan’s army back to the Richmond theatre. However, Early demonstrated just how vulnerable Union armies could be in the Shenandoah Valley. His lost reinforcements were returned to him, and on 19 October he launched an attack on the Union camp at Cedar Creek.

The initial attack was spectacularly successful. Early’s army crashed into the Union camp, breaking two Corps almost without a fight. A third veteran Corp was also surprised, and was forced to pull back, but did not break. While this was happening, Sheridan was absent at Winchester, fourteen miles from the camp. Riding towards the noise of battle, he found large chunks of his army fleeing the scene. Sheridan’s greatest attribute was his ability in a crisis. As he rode south, he was able to rally his fleeing men, so that when he reached the battlefield he came with reinforcements. A well planned counterattack followed, and Early’s army shattered. His attack had always been a gamble – he was outnumbered two to one – and although he inflicted nearly twice as many casualties as he suffered, after Cedar Creek his army was effectively destroyed.

They were finally eliminated in the closing days of the war. On 2 March 1865, General Custer defeated the remains of the Confederate army of the Shenandoah at Waynesborough. Sheridan’s entire army was now available to take part in the final campaign around Richmond and Petersburg.   

Next: Invading the North 

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Shenandoah Valley 1862, Clayton and James Donnell. Looks at the campaign that established 'Stonewall' Jackson's reputation as a battlefield commander, and saw him defeat a series of larger Union armies in a series of battles where he was rarely outnumbered on the battlefield. A good account of the campaign, supported by a series of useful campaign and battle maps that help demonstrate Jackson's dizzying pace of movement. [read full review]
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Battle Cry of FreedomBattle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, OUP, 1988, 944 pages. One of the best single volume accounts of the Civil War era, taking in the decade before the war before moving on to the conflict itself. McPherson covers the military events of the war well, while also including good sections on politics North and South. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 May 2006), American Civil War: The Shenandoah Valley ,

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