Shenandoah Subordinates: Introduction to a Series

Skirmishing the Shenandoah Valley in the early autumn of 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Skirmishing the Shenandoah Valley in the early autumn of 1864.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Part one in a series.

The decision to place Maj. Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan in command of the Army of the Shenandoah in August, 1864 came as a surprise to many in the North. Sheridan had never before directed an army in the field. Fortunately, Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant equipped Sheridan with a proven veteran force. It would be officers from Sheridan’s new command that would have to, whether they realized it or not, compensate for their chief’s inexperience when they met the enemy on the field of battle. Through the course of the campaign, various officers within the infantry, at the Army and Division level would find themselves playing a critical role at a critical moment that would influence the outcome of a battle.

This should not, however, downplay the role of the cavalry arm of the Army of the Shenandoah. With an upgrade in leadership, equipment and weaponry, the Union cavalry had undergone a complete transformation by the autumn of 1864. Gone were the old days of picketing and reconnaissance. By the beginning of the Valley Campaign of 1864, these horse soldiers had become a mobile strike force with the ability to effectually stand toe to toe with enemy infantry and cavalry by utilizing the horse as a mode of transportation between points on the battlefield. Sheridan’s cavalry would play a decisive role at Third Winchester in September and again at the all cavalry battle of Tom’s Brook in October (of which Wesley Merritt’s role will be discussed in further detail in a future post, outside of this series).

With the approaching 150th Anniversary of the Valley Campaign of ’64, I have been considering how to address it on the blog. I had long come to the conclusion that Phil Sheridan’s saving grace, both as commander of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac and of the Shenandoah army, was that he had subordinates who were equal to if not superior to his own ability. From that perspective, I had planned on writing posts for each of the battle anniversaries, but had been struggling on how to bring it all together.

That was until a recent conversation with another Phil, Phill Greenwalt. Mr. Greenwalt is another contributor to Emerging Civil War. He is also my co-author for Savas Beatie’s Emerging   Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 and Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor, May 26-June 5, 1864 in Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War series.

We both agreed that Sheridan’s most important ability was that he had an uncommon talent for inspiring his men to action. At the same time, his subordinates were able to perform at a high level to compensate for his tactical shortcomings. Through the course of our discussion, I decided to narrow my focus on the Anniversary to the actions of these officers and their contributions to the overall context of the action. Thus, I have narrowed the series to this introduction, posts on 3 officers (one on the anniversaries of  Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek) and a concluding post. I can only hope it does justice to these three individuals who have themselves remained in the shadow of Phil Sheridan’s accomplishments.

6 Responses to Shenandoah Subordinates: Introduction to a Series

  1. I am anxious also to read more about Sheridan’s Cavalry subordinates. Even the infamous George Custer had a role at Third Winchester.

  2. I agree with your assessment of Gen. Sheridan. However, I’m interested on what his shortcomings were regarding his being a tactician. In your opinion, did he have shortcomings with him being a strategist too?

    1. I believe so. Sheridan was unable to see the larger picture. I think a good example is after Fisher’s Hill when the Federals push Early out of the Valley and occupy the area around Harrisonburg. Having cleared the Valley of enemy forces, Grant orders Sheridan to move into central Virginia, pursue Early and wreak havoc on that area which is a source of sustenance for Lee’s army defending Richmond and Petersburg. Sheridan balks at the idea of leaving the Valley. Instead, he goes about destroying crops around Harrisonburg before withdrawing north toward Winchester. His halt effectively relinquishes the initiative to Early, who is in turn allowed to re-enter the Valley and strike Sheridan at Cedar Creek on October 19. It also leaves Central Virginia as a resource for Lee for the near future.

  3. I am hoping to hear about George Washington Getty, a greatly under rated general officer in the VIth Corps.

    1. Getty’s actions at Cedar Creek are indeed the subject of one of the posts. I will, however, refrain from disclosing the other two until the anniversaries.

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