Long ago I learned from my late friend Albert Castel that it pays to re-read the Official Records when you’re writing about the war. Every now and then I chance upon something that drives home that lesson.
A recent reminder came in connection with my current work for the Atlanta History Center, helping to build our digital exhibit on the Atlanta Campaign. One of our starting documents is Grant’s letter to Sherman, April 4, 1864 (OR, vol. 32, pt. 3, 245-46).
This is the source usually cited by writers summarizing Grant’s plan for the spring 1864 campaign, which T. Harry Williams called “Operation Crusher.” Citing Grant’s letter to Sherman, Williams writes, “Grant said that he was sending a small force under General Franz Sigel on a raid into western Virginia” as part of his five-front advance against the Rebels.1
Problem is—read the letter—Grant doesn’t even mention Franz Sigel in his letter to Sherman.
‘Tis true that Grant ordered a simultaneous advance by Federal forces in the spring of ’64. Out west, Sherman would move against Joe Johnston, while Nathaniel Banks was supposed to advance on Mobile. Grant would direct Meade and the Army of the Potomac against Lee, just as Ben Butler marched up the James toward Petersburg.
Here’s where it gets tricky, even for such accomplished scholars as Richard McMurry. “Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel would lead Grant’s third column” in Virginia, Dr. McMurry writes. “Sigel’s force would move south, up the valley of the Shenandoah River,” he adds, which campaign could possibly lead to “occupation of the Shenandoah Valley by a Northern force.”2
But Grant in early April ’64 never mentioned this as part of his strategic plan. What seems to be occurring in the literature is that students look at what eventually happened in May 1864 and overlook what Grant originally planned.
So what did Grant actually state in his letter to Sherman?
Sigel collects all his available force in two columns—one, under Ord and Averell, to start from Beverly, Va., and the other, under Crook, to start from Charleston, on the Kanawha, to move against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.3
I don’t see anything about Sigel moving up the Valley, do you? Charleston, of course, is now the capital of West Virginia. Beverly is a hundred miles to its east, about sixty miles northwest of Staunton, Virginia.
Major General Sigel commanded the Department of West Virginia (a Lincoln-ordered political appointment), but Grant wanted a professional, Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord, to lead the campaign he envisioned in the region. Grant wrote Ord on March 29, stating that “the main object” of his expedition would be to destroy the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, which ran from Lynchburg to Knoxville. Ord was to lead a column of 10,000-12,000 men from Beverly, strike the railroad, then make his way to Lynchburg. Brig. Gen. George Crook would lead a smaller mounted column to Saltville, tear up the railroad, and head northeast toward Staunton at the southern end of the Valley. A third force under Brig. Gen. William W. Averell would also head out from Charleston to strike the railroad.4
Here’s where Sigel finally comes in, as explained by William C. Davis: “Since Ord, Crook and…Averell…might be able to return north by way of the Valley, Sigel should be ready with a sufficient force to march south to Staunton to meet them.”5
On the same day, April 4, that Grant wrote Sherman about Ord, Averell and Crook operating against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, he also wrote Sigel, then at Cumberland, Md.
“Generals Ord and Averell may have to return to you by way of the Shenandoah Valley,” he explained. To prepare for this possibility, Grant advised Sigel to organize a wagon train, ready to drive south through the Valley. Its purpose was to bring food and provisions for the men in the several raiding columns, sure to be worn out as they neared Lynchburg or Staunton.
Note that Grant does not mention anything about Sigel conquering the Valley. In fact, several days later he informed Sigel that his wagon train would not need much more than the usual escort. (He offered nevertheless to send four regiments from Washington.) 6
Well, what happened out of all this?
A good source is Jack Davis, supplemented by Mark Grimsley’s history of the fighting in Virginia in the spring of ‘64.
After Sigel failed to provide him with enough troops, Ord withdrew from the campaign even before it started. Sigel then stepped in with his idea of leading a strong column up the Valley. Lt. Col. Orville Babcock of Grant’s staff approved this variant in a meeting with Sigel on April 17. Grant gave his OK later.
George Crook headed out from Gauley Bridge, W. Va., May 2 with 6,000 troops. A week later he defeated an outnumbered Confederate force at Cloyd’s Mountain. Then Crook struck the V. & T. R.R. at Dublin, burned a 400-foot railroad bridge across New River, and withdrew.
Averell with 2,000 cavalry left Charleston on May 2, heading for Saltville. Rumors of a large Rebel force there turned him instead to Wytheville, twenty-five miles to the east on the Virginia-Tennessee rail line. Driven off by “Grumble” Jones and John Morgan on May 11, Averell tore up a few miles of track at Dublin, then retired northward to link up with Crook.
Meanwhile, Sigel took charge of some 6,500 troops and, on May 2 from Winchester, launched his drive up the Shenandaoah.7
As we know, Sigel met defeat at New Market, May 15.
If you’ve gotten this far with me, it’s time for the concluding punch. Yes, Franz Sigel led a march up the Shenandoah and met defeat.
But Sigel’s campaign was not part of Grant’s plan as set forth to Sherman on April 4 for the multi-front Union offensive. “In Virginia,” Russell Weigley writes, paying compliment to Grant’s strategy, “the Confederates would have to defend against Butler’s Army of the James and Sigel’s force in the Valley in addition to Meade’s Army of the Potomac.”8
BAH! Read the OR, y’all!
1 T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 306-309.
2 Richard M. McMurry, Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 14-15.
3 Grant to Sherman, March 4, 1864, OR, vol. 32, pt. 3, 246.
4 Grant to Ord, March 29, OR, vol. 33, 758.
5 William C. Davis, The Battle of New Market (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1975), 20-21.
6 Grant to Sigel, April 4 and 13, OR, vol. 33, 799, 858.
7 Davis, New Market, 22; Mark Grimsley, And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 96-103..
8 Russell F. Weigley, A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 329.