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From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 Paperback – March 30, 2010
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Virginia's Shenandoah Valley was a crucial avenue for Confederate armies intending to invade Northern states during the Civil War. Running southwest to northeast, it "pointed, like a giant's lance, at the Union's heart, Washington, D.C.," writes Jeffry Wert. It was also "the granary of the Confederacy," supplying the food for much of Virginia. Both sides long understood its strategic importance, but not until the fall of 1864 did Union troops led by Napoleon-sized cavalry General Phil Sheridan (5'3", 120 lbs.) finally seize it for good. He defeated Confederate General Jubal Early at four key battles that autumn.
In addition to a narrative of the campaign (featuring dozens of characters, including General George Custer and future president Rutherford B. Hayes), this book is a study of command. Both Sheridan and Early were capable military leaders, though each had flaws. Sheridan tended to make mistakes before battles, Early during them. Wert considers Early the better general, but admits that few could match the real-time decision-making and leadership skills of Sheridan once the bullets started flying: "When Little Phil rode onto the battlefield, he entered his element." Early was a bold fighter, but lacked the skills necessary to make up for his disadvantage in manpower. At Cedar Creek, the climactic battle of the 1864 Shenandoah campaign, Early "executed a masterful offensive against a numerically superior opponent, only to watch it result in ruin." With more Confederate troops on the scene, history might have been different. Wert relates the facts of what actually happened with his customary clarity and insightful analysis. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Jeffry D. Wert is the author of several books on the Civil War, including Mosbys Rangers and Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J. E. B. Stuart.
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First published in 1987, From Winchester to Cedar Creek explores how interplay of the strengths and weaknesses of the Union and Confederate commanders, Sheridan and Early, resulted in victories for Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. It not only documents and dynamically recounts these events, but it also details the political, strategic, and tactical forces that made the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign so important to the outcome of the Civil War.
As Philip Sheridan’s star rose, Jubal Early’s fell. In June 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Early and approximately 15,000 men up the Shenandoah Valley to clear Union troops from the area and menace Washington, D.C., in an effort to repeat Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s successes in 1862. Early, however, was no Jackson. Despite early success, by August he was on the defensive. General Ulysses S. Grant sent his cavalry commander, Philip Sheridan, to command all Union troops in the Valley and destroy Early. This is where From Winchester to Cedar Creek picks up the story.
Philip Sheridan was one of the few cavalry commanders who successfully transitioned to overall command of an army. His unique experience allowed him to better integrate infantry and cavalry. During the Civil War, it was considered suicidal for mounted cavalry to directly engage infantry, but at the Battle of Third Winchester, September 19, 1864, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s cavalry division broke Early’s defensive line with a classic Napoleonic cavalry charge.
Down but not out, Early’s beleaguered units surprised Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah in fog at the Battle of Cedar Creek. While the Confederates paused to regroup, Sheridan dramatically rode down from Winchester just in time to rally his men and turn the tide. After the war, Early blamed soldiers who stopped and looted Union camps for the critical delay. Wert argues the dense fog, and Early himself, was largely to blame. Neither Early nor his subordinates recognized the importance of the Valley Turnpike north of Middletown, where they could have turned the Union flank and prevented Sheridan’s reinforcements from arriving in time.
Because General Early permanently lost the Shenandoah for the Confederacy, history has not been kind. Sheridan’s Valley Campaign, on the other hand, made Sheridan a legend and a national hero. But Wert argues Early did the best he could with what he had. He had taken the war to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., diverted men and material away from Grant’s army around Richmond and Petersburg, and inflicted higher casualties against forces that outnumbered him 3-to-1. “Burdened with his disadvantages, Jubal Early displayed superior generalship when compared to his Union counterpart,” he argued.
Beyond a firm grasp of strategy and tactics, Wert offers compelling accounts of how the average soldier fought and died during the Civil War. He pauses to explain how it was a common experience that once under fire, a soldier’s nerves steadied and fear seemed to vanish. One account of a visitor on the Third Winchester battlefield described the expressions on the faces of the men who died–surprise, pain, and even peacefulness. Men died instantly with looks of surprise frozen on their faces. Others had time to make peace with their fate. It’s an intimate, chilling side of battle you rarely read.
If the book has a flaw, it is in the maps. While they are adequate to understand the big picture of the battles, they are not detailed enough for a real understanding of the complicated movements. Also, lesser battles such as Tom's Brook are given short shrift. I would have liked to have read a full account from Early's departure form Lee, including Monacacy and the fight in Washington as well as the Valley campaign, but that may well have been too long. Overall, this is a terrific book and its flaws are minor quibbles. Highly recommended to all Civil War enthusiasts.