As the summer of ’64 wore on, Grant returned to the business of muscling his army in the direction of Petersburg’s two remaining railroads. In the West Sherman was marching and fighting his way to the gates of Atlanta, while in the lower Valley Sheridan had been ordered to follow Jubal Early’s wiry legion to the death. In the middle of September an impatient U. S. Grant went to the Valley himself to urge an uncharacteristically cautious Sheridan to action. One battle-wise Vermont non-com was none too pleased to see the general-in-chief on the scene: “I hate to see that old cuss around. When that old cuss is around there’s sure to be a big fight on hand.” Sheridan and Early had been skirmishing in the Valley for six weeks now without either side attempting a decisive blow. In hardheaded fighting from August 18 to 22, Grant had managed to break the Weldon railroad from Wilmington to Petersburg, forcing Lee to extend his thinning line once more. That extension also forced him to recall one of Early’s Valley divisions. Now was as good a time as any for Sheridan to get his 37,000 men in motion and strike Early a blow, the old cuss supposed. He gave Sheridan his orders, an exemplum of brevity uncommon even for a man as laconic as Grant: “Go in.”
Early’s 15,000 men just then were scattered between Winchester and Martinsburg. Roughly a third of them, however, were lined up behind Opequon Creek, and their destruction was Sheridan’s first intent. At two o’clock on the morning of September 19 James Wilson’s bluecoat cavalry splashed across the creek in search of the Rebel line. Wright’s VI Corps was to come up hard behind with the corps of William Emory and George Crook behind them. At the same time the remaining cavalry would wheel to the right and sweep down on the Rebels from the north. It was a tidy enough plan, but the movement almost immediately ground to a halt in one of the most vexed traffic jams since soldiers in blue had fled from the field of First Bull Run. They weren’t fleeing, it was true, but they weren’t advancing either. As it was, Sheridan’s 6:00 a.m. attack didn’t get off until noon, and by then Early had recalled his scattered forces and was ready to make a fight of it. Having bungled on their way to the front, the Federals didn’t do a great deal better once the attack was under way. The three divisions of the VI Corps went forward with one of Emory’s divisions in line on their right, but as they came to grips with the Rebel position, Emory’s division drifted to the right, opening a gap in the Union advance. Old Jubal was quick to send Robert Rodes to drive a counterattack into it. Rodes had led Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville and knew something about hard blows. Before long Wright’s assault was stalled and Emory’s men were in headlong flight. (It was Rodes’ last fight; he was shot from the saddle leading the attack.) But the Federals were by now getting their rear-area trouble resolved and bringing the weight of numbers to bear. Emory’s second division came up to fill the gap, and Crook’s two divisions were soon up in support of it. Although the Federal advance was stalled for the moment, Sheridan managed to get his broken line shored up and straightened out.
It was late in the afternoon by now, but Sheridan’s five-mile front was beginning to press Early steadily and overlap his left. Worse yet for Early, Sheridan now sent two divisions of cavalry in support of the flank attack. In full view of the advancing blue infantrymen, the troopers came crashing down on the Confederate left, sabers flashing in the sunset. Rebel artillery pounded canister into their columns, but they were not be resisted this day. Early’s left collapsed as the Yankee horsemen galloped in, scooping up guns and colors and hundreds of prisoners. Old Jubal had seen enough. As dark drew on, he withdrew in good order up the Valley Turnpike headed for Fisher’s Hill just beyond Strasburg twenty miles to the south. Early would have to be satisfied with knowing that he had put up a hard fight against a much larger force and made a skilled withdrawal. He had in fact given better than he got, inflicting 5,000 casualties on Sheridan’s force against 4,000 of his own–half of those prisoners. Still, Sheridan, despite the morning’s mismanagement, had good reason to be elated. The Army of the Shenandoah had fought with skill and determination in the afternoon and won its first battle. “We have just sent [the Rebels] whirling through Winchester,” Sheridan’s chief of staff wired to Washington, “and we are after them tomorrow.” (Winchester was to earn the unenviable distinction of having changed hands more often than any other piece of American real estate in the conflict.) In Petersburg, as he had after Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Grant ordered a hundred shotted guns fired into the Confederate works in honor of Sheridan’s victory. Sheridan, however, was not one to rest on his laurels, or indeed to rest at all until he had followed Early to the death.
The latter wasn’t hard to find. He was at Fisher’s Hill, precisely where he had been six weeks earlier when Sheridan took command. At that time Sheridan had prudently declined to give battle. Now he wanted nothing better than to give his army, flush with victory and confidence, another chance to close with Early’s embattled Rebels. Early’s position on Fisher’s Hill was a good one, a four-mile front on its slopes. The rub for Early was that it had to be held by just some 10,000 men. Still, if Sheridan’s men tried to bully him off the high ground by a frontal assault, he felt confident that his veteran riflemen would do their destructive best. Despite the outcome of the fighting on the 19th, Old Jubal had slight regard for his adversary. For reasons best known to Early, he saw in the cavalryman turned army commander an “excessive caution which amounted to timidity.” Sheridan’s men, who had seen him everywhere in the whir and whine of the Minie balls at Winchester, knew better. Sheridan was more than a mere battler, however, and just now was making a cool appraisal of the tactical possibilities before him. He proposed to hold Early’s front with Wright and Emory’s two corps, five divisions in all. Their job was to make a racket and give every show of aggressive intent against Fisher’s Hill. At the same time Crook’s two divisions would march for all they were worth around to the west behind Little North Mountain and fall with a shock again on Early’s left. Near sunset on September 22, Early’s veterans were beginning to think their commander was right–maybe Sheridan was timid. The bluecoats on the far side of Tumbling Run had been banging away all day and apparently massing for an attack, but they had yet to get their feet wet on their way to Fisher’s Hill. Then Crook’s divisions struck and struck hard on Early’s left. As it happened, Early, not seeing danger from that quarter, had posted dismounted cavalry there, troopers in whom he had slight confidence and whom he had once characterized as “buttermilk rangers.” He was a good deal closer to being right about them than about Sheridan. They folded up at the first shock, though in fairness it was a hard enough shock. With the Confederate left collapsing fast, Sheridan then gave an order of blunt brevity worthy of his boss’s economy of speech: “Forward! Forward everything!” With Sheridan, battle orders were delivered with an Irishman’s passionate intensity, and his men were soon on fire with it. Wright’s men were the first across Tumbling Creek, and now Early’s whole line was collapsing left to right.
Early was beaten and he knew it. His men were beaten and they knew it. Together they started south up the Valley Turnpike. Sheridan attempted to complete his destructive work by cutting off their retreat, but neither of the two cavalry commands sent to bring the Rebels to bay were very capably handled, and Early made good his escape. On July 12 his men had been close enough to shoot at Abraham Lincoln on the outskirts of Washington. When they stopped hiking after Fisher’s Hill, they were south of Staunton, Virginia, sixty miles from where they started, now seeking no more than refuge in the gaps of the Blue Ridge. Early counted nearly 1,500 killed, wounded, and captured at Fisher’s Hill; Sheridan slightly more than 500. Between the fighting on the 19th and the rear-guard actions on the 22nd and 23rd, Early had lost a third of his army. Sheridan, despite his losses, was creating an army in the crucible of battle. Although there is no reason to think that Sheridan was aware of it, Stonewall Jackson had shown him how. Repeated victory, Jackson had preached, will make an army invincible. Like Jackson, Sheridan was a driver and an implacable fighter who had the absolute confidence of his men. Unlike Jackson, however, Sheridan had the strength of numbers and behind him the vast resources of the Federal government. While Early licked his wounds southeast of Staunton, Sheridan would turn that power to the execution of Grant’s second directive: see to it that the Valley of the Shenandoah can never sustain another Confederate army.
The Valley was then and is today a lovely stretch of the American landscape. Before the war, it had been quietly prosperous, both garden and granary of the South. In wartime, though partisan fighting had been bitter, it had been spared many of the ravages that had turned much of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge into a wasteland. On October 6, however, Sheridan ceased his pursuit of Early. Now he began to march back down the Valley, putting it to the torch as he went. The people of the Valley were not the slave-holding aristocrats Sheridan despised. In fact, many were peace-loving Dunkers and Mennonites who had refused Confederate conscription. As far as Sheridan was concerned, though, everything that sustained rebellion was to go up in flames. “The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war,” said Sheridan. Though private homes were to be spared and the citizenry left enough food to endure the coming winter, crops, barns, stables, and mills all went up in flames. Sheridan reckoned he had burned 2,000 barns and 70 mills and driven off or butchered 7,000 head of livestock in October alone. While Confederate cavalry was weakening fast for lack of horses, Federals in the Valley were making off with its horseflesh and all the forage they could carry. What they couldn’t carry fed the fire. It was war, remorseless and ruthless. Nearly a hundred miles of Valley, from Winchester to Staunton, became a vast ashen waste. An English visitor a year later thought the Valley looked like a barren moor.
Early did what he could to harass the Federal destroyers in the Valley, which was not much, little more than sending cavalry raids against the enemy’s rear. Sheridan, in annoyance, wanted even these stopped, and sent Alfred Torbert with his horsemen after the Confederate cavalry with this blunt order: “Whip or get whipped.” Although Torbert hadn’t had much luck in cutting off Early’s retreat up the Valley, on October 9 he struck the Rebel riders head-on near Strasburg and sent them reeling more than twenty miles in retreat, leaving men, horses, and eleven guns behind. One Southern horseman later frankly confessed that the brief engagement was “the greatest disaster that ever befell our cavalry during the whole war.” The Union riders remembered their furious pursuit of the routed Rebels with relish as the “Woodstock Races.” The days when Rebel cavalry rode ironshod over their blue counterparts were as dead as Jeb Stuart. It would appear that Sheridan had done very nearly precisely as he’d been ordered: although a self-reliant crow might still find provender here, the Valley would support no more men or horses for the balance of this season. As for Early, whipped twice in the space of four days, he appeared to be dead in his tracks. Sheridan withdrew down the Valley and in mid-October put his men in camp behind Cedar Creek, twenty miles south of Winchester. Since there was no consensus in the Federal high command about what Sheridan ought to do next, Sheridan turned his army over to Wright and went to Washington to confer.
Just then, however, Early was preparing to play what looked like his last card. One thing was clear to him: with the Valley reduced to a desert, he could not very well stay where he was and starve. He could either yield the Valley entirely or go back on the offensive. The Valley had been Old Jubal’s schoolhouse and Stonewall Jackson his schoolmaster. Attacking an army twice the numbers of Early’s own would make for fearfully long odds, but like Jackson before him, Early was prepared to take them. Reinforced by one division and one brigade from Lee, Early headed back down the Valley to give battle with some 15,000 veterans. The Union line ran northwest to southeast along Cedar Creek, with Wright, Emory, and Crook from right to left. The creek itself flowed southeast in broad loops where it joined the North Fork of the Shenandoah. Just here Early thought he could make those long odds pay. The gorge, nearly due south of Crook’s two divisions, Wright had left undefended, presuming it to be impassible. Early thought otherwise. First he sent cavalry and some infantry off to the west to make a show of turning the Federal right. Then he advanced on Wright and Emory’s front and prepared a third column on the Valley Turnpike that separated Crook from the rest of the Federal army. At last, on the night of October 18-19, he sent John B. Gordon’s corps on a night march headed for Bowman’s Ford on the North Fork. As the dawn of the 19th drew near, Gordon’s men were filing silently through the impassible gorge. It was not yet full dawn when an entire army corps came spilling out of the misty gorge and tearing into the exposed left and rear of Crook’s two sleepy divisions. So sudden and shocking was the blow that it took only minutes for Crook’s corps to become 7,000 fugitives running down the pike toward Winchester. It was a brilliant stroke.
Emory and Wright’s men could hear the racket off to their left as they boiled their coffee, but they were slow to realize that Gordon’s corps was already in their rear. When they did, they withdrew as quickly as possible with Rebels front and rear. Their retreat of course took them directly into the wreckage of Crook’s corps. One remembered “the universal confusion and dismay” along the pike that day. Wright, bareheaded and bleeding from a wound under the chin, was doing what he could to stem the rout on the pike, and Emory sent a brigade on a desperate headlong attack into the charging Confederates. Here men seemed to one survivor “more like demons than human beings as they struck fiercely at each other with clubbed muskets and bayonets.” The brigade bought some time for the Federals but at a cost of two-thirds its number. By mid-morning Early’s attack had pushed the Federals four full miles to the north. He had captured some 1,300 Yankees and 18 of their guns and wrecked an entire corps. Just a month before, Sheridan had sent his men whirling through Winchester. Now any number of bluecoated fugitives were on their way back in a hurry. In their abandoned camps Early’s hungry men were enjoying Yankee rations so charitably left behind. It had been quite a morning’s work.
Redoubtable John B. Gordon, who had commenced that work so ably, thought it should be brought to a conclusion. Though some thousands perhaps were on their way to Winchester, just two miles ahead Wright’s men had stopped running. They were in line of battle and throwing up breastworks. Early was sure that they were simply a rear guard that would vanish like that morning’s mist before long. Gordon thought otherwise: “That is the VI Corps, general. It will not go unless we drive it from the field.” But Early was not convinced. He paused to enjoy his victory and let his men enjoy their breakfasts. Miles away on the road from Winchester, Sheridan was riding toward Cedar Creek and just beginning to learn what had befallen his army from its fugitives. Then transpired a scene that points to something about the power of personal leadership. As Sheridan galloped toward the sound of the firing ahead, he met clumps of stragglers–men who had been utterly surprised and thoroughly routed just hours before. Now Sheridan shouted to them as he rode: “Turn back, men! Turn back! Face the other way, boys!… You’ll have your own camps back before night!” And that was all it took. A bullet-headed man on a great black horse, waving an improbable black hat and shouting “Turn back!” The response was immediate and electric. “Sheridan! Sheridan!” they shouted in return, grabbed their muskets, and followed him back to the fight.
Up ahead, Wright’s veterans were in line waiting to see what Early intended to do on their front. Then in their rear they got their second astonishment of the day, this immeasurably more pleasant. It was the clamorous cheering of the stragglers and fugitives following Sheridan back to the firing lines. Now the VI Corps joined in, raising a racket like it had never raised before. Repeated success, Jackson had counseled, will make an army invincible. It looked now as if even a morning’s disaster could help make it so. Sheridan was everywhere on that lathered black, Rienzi, swearing, pushing men into line, waving that funny black hat. “Boys, we’ll get the tightest twist on them they ever saw,” he vowed. “We’ll get all those camps back.” One faint-hearted officer ventured to say that Early might drive them clear out of the Valley. In a good Irish rage now, Sheridan exploded: “What? Three corps of infantry and all of my cavalry; Jubal Early drive me out of the valley? I’ll lick him like blazes before night! I’ll give him the worst licking he ever had!” For all his combative rage, however, Sheridan kept a cool head. It was four o’clock before he was ready. Then his lines of battle went forward in an irresistible wave. No one knows how many of Early’s men were still in the rear plundering the Yankee camps, but very shortly those at the front were headed there likewise.
Turnabout is fair play, and now the Confederates were falling back in the same disorder as the Yanks had that morning. The heavy blue battle lines bore down on the Rebel front while cavalry sliced at both flanks and rear. Early might wisely have listened to Gordon’s advice about striking the VI Corps when he had the chance, for they were doing the lion’s share of the pushing. When Emory drove through a gap between two of Gordon’s brigades and George Armstrong Custer’s horsemen burnt a bridge at Spangler’s Mill in the Rebel rear, the rout was on. The winded blue infantrymen didn’t stop pushing until they were back in their camps. Not only did they have their camps back, they had prisoners by the hundreds, the 18 guns lost that morning, and 25 Rebel guns for good measure. “We’ve got the God-damnedest twist on them you ever saw!” Sheridan crowed in the gathering darkness. Early had been driven in defeat for the third time in a month, and this–begun with so brilliant a stroke–was, as Sheridan had predicted, the worst licking yet. Although his casualties were just under three thousand and Sheridan’s nearly six, he was compelled to retreat all the way up the Valley to New Market with the wreckage of his army. In fairness, he had been outnumbered more than two-to-one throughout the campaign, and his troopers could not hope to counter the growing strength of Union cavalry. Though few in the South were willing to recognize it, he had inflicted more than 16,000 casualties on the enemy against 10,000 of his own. In addition, he had kept two full corps from going to Grant who was trying to throttle Petersburg. Still, it was defeat, final and irrevocable in the Valley, which was closed as an avenue of invasion and finished as the granary of the Confederacy. Early was riding off to unmerited disgrace and Sheridan into legend. In Petersburg Grant ordered a second salute of a hundred shotted guns in his honor.
More purposefully, Grant also ordered attacks against both ends of Lee’s line near the end of October, striking at Richmond and southwest of Petersburg simultaneously. Although Lee had been unable to use his army as an offensive weapon since the Wilderness, it was as fierce as ever on the defensive and blunted both assaults. But Grant had once more compelled him to extend his lines. They now ran in a great arc thirty-five miles long. The arithmetic was inexorable. Even as Lee lengthened his lines, the manpower to hold them was diminishing daily. He had sent a division and a brigade to stiffen Early, but all that had come of that effort were two stinging defeats and a disaster. If his army could not be somehow reinforced, Lee told Jefferson Davis, “I fear a great calamity will befall us.”
Calamities had in truth befallen the South that summer. In the first week of August Admiral Farragut had steamed into Mobile Bay; two weeks later Grant had tightened his grip on Petersburg by seizing the Weldon line. September had been ushered in by Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta. Now Sheridan had devastated the Shenandoah Valley and wrecked Early’s army. One more calamity was in the making, and it was the clear consequence of those Union victories. It would unfold in the polling places of the Union. The North was going to try the greatest experiment in the history of republican government: a free presidential election in the midst of a bitter and bloody civil war. Bolder still, it was going to let virtually all the fighting men vote by the nation’s first absentee ballot. Those who had to do the actual marching and steaming and bleeding and dying were going to have a say in whether they would go home in some kind of negotiated peace as the Chicago platform held or on to more bloodletting. The dearest hope of the South was that George B. McClellan, the Democratic standard bearer who had come close enough to Richmond to hear its clocks sound the hours back in ’62, would make his way to Washington by ballot in ’64. Grant, no politician himself, knew this much: “The enemy are exceedingly anxious to hold out until after the Presidential election.” Deserters coming into his lines brought the same tale. Whatever Little Mac had said about Union being the price of peace, most Southerners believed that McClellan’s election would mean both peace and independence. On November 8 most of the North went to the polls. (Not all states held federal elections on the same day in that time.) Lincoln earlier in the summer had asked his cabinet to sign, sight unseen, the back of the envelope that held his famous “blind memorandum.” It stated frankly that he expected to be defeated in November and that the only hope for the Union was to win the war between November and the inauguration in March.
On election day, November 8, in what was virtually a referendum on the war, Northerners sustained Lincoln by an electoral vote of 212 to 21 and a popular majority of a half a million votes. He carried every state but Delaware, New Jersey, and Kentucky, the place of his birth. The soldier vote was not, as it turned out, decisive, but it was overwhelming. In the twelve states where their vote was counted separately very nearly eight in ten voted for Lincoln. They loved Little Mac, but they were not willing to make him commander-in-chief. Once more McClellan grieved for his country’s loss of himself and then went into a self-imposed exile in Europe. (He would return to become governor of New Jersey.) Lincoln carried with him into Congress a Republican majority of three-fourths. Publicly Lincoln told a cheering crowd that he gave “thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by the rights of free government and the rights of humanity.” Privately he supposed that the people, in whom he confided as they in him, had decided not to swap horses in midstream. Jefferson Davis, now in the fourth year of his six-year term as chief executive of the Confederate States of America, addressed his Congress in defiant language: “There are no vital points on the preservation of which the continued existence of the Confederacy depends…. Not the fall of Richmond, nor Wilmington, nor Charleston, nor Savannah, nor Mobile, nor all combined, can save the enemy from the constant and exhaustive drain of blood and treasure that must continue until he must discover that no peace is attainable unless based on the recognition of our indefeasible rights.” It was sound enough rhetoric but not sound strategy. Mobile Bay was already in Union hands, and Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington were next in harm’s way.