Captured Telegrams: Sigel’s Last Chance?

Union General Franz Sigel (Courtesy LOC)

On May 13, 1864, Union General Franz Sigel and his army reach Woodstock, Virginia, during the New Market Campaign. Their march up the Shenandoah Valley had been going slower than his superiors had anticipated. From war games to extra days for drilling, waiting out the rainy weather, or reconfiguring the lines of march to repulse Mosby’s Rangers, Sigel took his own sweet time moving south toward Staunton, Virginia. His orders from Grant were fairly simple: march up the Valley and capture Staunton. With Staunton’s railroad in Federal hands, Sigel could cut communications, threaten supply routes, tie up Confederate reinforcements, and ultimately, poise as a threaten to the Army of Northern Virginia’s far flank, if necessary.

Though Sigel had studied at a German Military Academy and German-American newspapers praised his military genius, the New Market Campaign was far from textbook perfect. By May 13—almost two weeks into the campaign—many of his subordinate officers had lost confidence in their commander, and the army had moved slowly, presumably out of caution since no one quite knew how many Confederates might oppose their advance.

However, Sigel got his opportunity to reverse the tone of the campaign when he discovered secret dispatches in Woodstock’s telegraph office. The correspondence between Confederate General Breckinridge to General Imboden and Captain Davis could tip the campaign in Federal favor.

Sigel sent off the following correspondence and included the text of the captured messages:

Near Woodstock, Va. May 13, 1864 – 5p.m.

Adjutant General U.S. Army:

The following dispatches were found with many others in telegraph papers by Mr. McCaine, cipher operator at Woodstock, after we entered the town. It shows that Breckinridge is at Staunton, and has sent 4,000 men there. Captain Davis now commands Gilmor’s battalion, and is in our front:

La Fayette Station, May 5, 1864 – 4p.m.

Brigadier General Imboden:

Can’t make our your dispatch in cipher of this date. I have 4,000 men en route for Jackson River Depot to take cars. I —(Here the dispatch stops)

Staunton, May 10, 1864

Try and find out the real force of the enemy, and proportion of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. There is a report of a column of cavalry at Madison Court House, moving toward Charlottesville. Can this be part of Sigel’s force? I want to know at earliest moment any movement toward Grant. Communicate with me often. Breckinridge.

My principle object in advancing up the Shenandoah Valley was to threaten Staunton, to divide the forces of Breckinridge, and to assist by these means General Crook, whose object is to destroy New River bridge. I have no later new from him than to the 6th instant, when he entered Princeton. My forces are insufficient for offensive operations in this country, where the enemy is continuously on my flank and rear. My intention, therefore, is not to advance farther than this place with my main force, but have sent out strong parties in every direction. Skirmishing is going on every day. If Breckinridge should advance against us I will resist him at some convenient position. My cavalry is at Mount Jackson today.

Franz Sigel, Major General

This could’ve been the campaign turning point. Now, Sigel knew that his opponent had scrambled only about 4,000 troops to Staunton and that Breckinridge was still fishing for information about Sigel’s whereabouts, plans, and strength. The Union army outnumbered those Confederates by a couple thousand. Unbeknownst to Sigel at that time, Breckinridge left Staunton on the 13th and was still miles away. Could he have pressed forward, driving back the Confederate cavalry, and picked a battleground of his choosing? Probably, and with hindsight, it would have been the best choice.

Sending out “strong parties in every direction” might have been a good option to guard against surprise and partisan raiders if Sigel did not really intend to move, but in that strategy, he set also himself up for disaster if Breckinridge moved quickly. On May 14, Colonel Moor with a brigade-size detachment fought his way to the town of New Market and then halted in a battle position—twenty miles away from Sigel and reinforcements. By daylight on May 15, Breckinridge had marched his army to New Market and had all available forces ready to take the field while Sigel, absent from the battlefield until about noon, would have to piecemeal his army into the fight as back-up for Moor. Arguably, Sigel did “resist [Breckinridge] at some convenient position.” The Bushong Hill near New Market offered defensive possibilities, but by that time, Sigel had lost the initiative and was forced to react to Breckinridge, instead of controlling the campaign and battle.

New Market Gap, as seen from the Shenandoah Valley looking east

Looking at the intelligence clues that Sigel found on May 13, it seems that day marked one of Sigel’s final chances to take a new course of action for his slow-moving campaign. With the knowledge that he outnumbered Breckinridge and after drawing some logical conclusions about how far the Confederate army could possibly have advanced, Sigel could have made the decision to march quicker and move offensively toward Breckinridge and Staunton, his objective. He might have been able to start rebuilding his subordinates’ trust. Instead, Sigel seemed to fixate on guarding supply lines (somewhat understandable given the recent reprimands from Washington) and letting the enemy come to him. Indecision and delay would cost Sigel the campaign and eventually his command.


Official Records. Volume 37, Part 1, page 446-447. Sigel to Adjutant General, May 13, 1864.

1 Response to Captured Telegrams: Sigel’s Last Chance?

  1. It is interesting how Sigel has the information that Breckinridge is at Staunton with 4000 men on the 13th. But yet when Sigel writes his official report on the evening of the 15th he writes of facing 8000 to 9000 men. Sigel remains convinced of his inferiority in manpower. In Sigel’s report he wrote:
    “A severe battle was fought to-day at New Market between our forces and those of Echols and Imboden, under Breckinridge. Our troops were overpowered by superior numbers. I, therefore, withdrew them gradually from the battle-field, and recrossed the Shenandoah at about 7 p. m. Under the circumstances prevailing I find it necessary to retire to Cedar Creek. The battle was fought on our side by 5,500 in all against 8,000 to 9,000 of the enemy. We lost about 600 in killed and wounded, and 50 prisoners.”

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