Conference at Charlestown

Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The fall of Atlanta in early September, 1864 sent shockwaves through the Northern states. Sitting at his headquarters at City Point on the James River outside Petersburg, Virginia, Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, hoped that his subordinate in the Shenandoah Valley, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, would launch an offensive and capitalize on the Union success. For the better part of a month, Sheridan had marched his command up and down the Valley, having nothing to show for his maneuvers except an indecisive skirmish at Charlestown. For two weeks, Grant waited for Sheridan to take the offensive and deal a blow to Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. When none came, Grant decided to pay Sheridan a visit.

Grant would write later “on the 15th of September I started to visit General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. My purpose was to have him attack Early, or drive him out of the valley and destroy that source of supplies for Lee’s army…I therefore, went directly…to Charlestown and waited there to see General Sheridan, having sent a courier in advance to inform him where to meet me”.

Sheridan would recall that dispatch was received on the evening of September 16 from Grant to meet with him at Charlestown. Interestingly enough, in the days prior to the requested conference, Sheridan had been exchanging letters with a Union sympathizer then living in Winchester, Rebecca Wright. The school teacher had been sending correspondence through a local slave, Tom Laws to Sheridan. Wright informed him that Kershaw’s division had departed Early’s army and was returning to Winchester. This news finally prompted Sheridan to take action. Little Phil planned to move from his camps at Berryville toward Newtown and turn Early’s flank. First, however, he would have to convince Grant that his plan was sound.

Grant remembered “when Sheridan arrived, I asked him if he had a map showing the positions of his army and that of the enemy. He at once drew one out of his side pocket, showing all roads and streams, and the camps of the two armies. He said that if he had permission he would move so and so (pointing out how) against the Confederates and that he could whip them. Before starting, I had drawn up a plan of campaign for Sheridan, which I had brought with me; but seeing that he was so clear and so positive in his views and so confident of success, I said nothing about this and did not take it out of my pocket…I asked him if he could be ready to get off by the following Tuesday. This was on Friday”. Sheridan not only replied in the affirmative, but assured Grant that he could start a day earlier than Grant envisioned. As they departed, the two men shook hands. Phil Sheridan was only days away from leading an army for the first time into battle.

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