A Chance at Redemption: George Custer and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864

George A. Custer
George A. Custer

On October 19, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan defeated Lt. Gen. Jubal Early at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The engagement culminated a campaign which began two months earlier in and solidified President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection. Much of Sheridan’s success that autumn can be traced to a long list of reliable subordinates that made up his command structure including George Crook, George Washington  Getty, David Russell and Wesley Merritt. Also counted among the number is the name of George Armstrong Custer. Although Custer emerged from the campaign as one of Sheridan’s most dependable officers, he entered under a shadow of doubt.

Promoted to Brigadier General and elevated to command a brigade of Michigan cavalry regiments the previous year, Custer had performed well throughout the spring of 1864. His efforts at Yellow Tavern, Meadow Bridge, Haw’s Shop and Cold Harbor had contributed to Union victories. In June, at the Battle of Trevilian’s Station, he suffered a setback. On the first day, his overzealous actions attempting to capture the Confederate wagon train resulted in his entire command being surrounded and nearly captured. Custer himself was likely impacted by the experience. The next day, under orders to attack the enemy lines, he simply probed and engaged in minor skirmishing, rather than commit to a full scale assault. Trevilian’s Station put a blemish on an otherwise solid combat record. It was not long however, before Custer would have an opportunity for redemption.

Following the Battle of Cold Harbor, Robert E. Lee dispatched Jubal Early and his Second Corps to open a new front in the Shenandoah Valley. In quick order, Early defeated a Union force at Lynchburg then marched down the Valley and entered Maryland. After another victory along the Monocacy River in July, he engaged the Washington defenses before he finally withdrew back to Virginia. In response,  Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was given command of the newly formed Middle Military Division. His assignment was to defeat Early and render the Valley useless as a supply source for the Confederates. To augment his army, Sheridan transferred Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s First Cavalry Division, which included Custer’s Michigan Brigade and Brig. Gen. James Wilson’s Third Cavalry Division from the Army of the Potomac.

Custer’s first major engagement in the campaign came in late August. A few miles north of Front Royal his brigade, along with Col. Thomas Devin’s engaged elements from Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s First Corps, sent to reinforce Early. In a day long engagement, Custer and Devin performed well and held their own against superior numbers of Confederate infantry. On September 19, Sheridan struck Early east of Winchester. After a sharp fight with Confederate skirmishers, Custer secured a crossing of Opequon Creek on the Union right flank. Merritt, along with Col. William Powell’s cavalry division then moved on Early’s left flank north of town. As the battle reached its climax, Merritt and Powell formed their troopers for a massive assault. Custer led his men in the attack, charging through Fort Collier and slamming into the Confederates. The weight of the charge broke the enemy lines and Early withdrew south to a new position at Fisher’s Hill. Three days later, Sheridan attacked again and routed Early’s force. Early then retreated to Harrisonburg before briefly abandoning the Valley.

Custer’s conduct thus far during the campaign had not gone unnoticed by Sheridan. When James Wilson received a transfer to command Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s mounted forces out west, Sheridan elevated Custer to lead the Third Cavalry Division. Custer soon rewarded his superior’s confidence. Sheridan had decided to withdraw down the Valley toward Winchester in an effort to destroy crops, provisions and anything that could support the enemy war effort. Early soon followed, with his cavalry leading the way. On October 9 in the Battle of Tom’s Brook Custer, in coordination with Merritt, turned and soundly defeated the enemy horsemen. Undeterred, Early continued to shadow Sheridan’s march. Ten days after Tom’s Brook, Early attacked Sheridan’s camps along Cedar Creek, south of Middletown. After giving ground throughout the morning, the Federals rallied north of the village. That afternoon, Sheridan launched a counterattack, with Custer’s division holding the Union right. As the infantry pressed forward, Custer launched a charge that helped turn the Confederate left. The gray lines  collapsed and by the end of the day, the Federals held the field once again.

On October 22, Custer departed the Valley for Washington. There, he was to present captured Confederate battle flags to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton at the War Department. The ceremony took place 152 years ago today. At the end of the presentation, to the joy and surprise of Custer, Stanton announced that Custer had been promoted to the brevet rank of Major General. With the promotion came the redemption Custer had hoped for. Trevilian Station was now a distant memory. Custer led the Third Cavalry Division for the remainder of the fighting in Virginia. Along with his troopers, he garnered additional laurels at Waynesboro, Five Forks and Sayler’s Creek. His tenacity and hard fighting at Appomattox Station helped to seal off an escape route for Robert E. Lee which ultimately led to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Custer presenting captured enemy battle flags to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Custer presenting captured enemy battle flags to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.



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