March 2, 1865: End of the War in the Valley




It had been a long and grueling War in the Shenandoah Valley with some towns changing hands some seventy times between Union and Confederate forces.  On March 2, 1865 it came to an end.  Jubal Early’s force, stripped over the winter to shore up Lee’s thin ranks holding the lines at Petersburg, was now reduced to 1500 men.  Sheridan was moving South, initially under orders to move into North Carolina and link up with Sherman advancing into North Carolina.  Not wanting to leave Early in his rear, Sheridan sent twenty-five year old Brigadier General George Armstrong with a division of cavalry, 2,500 men, to find Early.

Custer had graduated dead last in his class at West Point in 1861, making him the class goat.  The “goat” had a spectacularly successful War, rising in rank from Second Lieutenant to Major General of Volunteers. (He had been promoted from Captain to Brigadier General of Volunteers, passing over the intervening ranks, in 1863.)  Daring and combative, Custer had helped transform Union cavalry from lackluster to an able strike force.

Early posted his small force on a ridge due west of Waynesboro, Virginia.  Arriving at 2:00 PM on March 2, Custer quickly saw that Early had fortified his position and that head on attacks would probably not work, but that Early’s left could be turned.  (Early had thought that a thick wood adequately protected this flank.)  Sending one brigade to turn the Confederate left while he attacked frontally with two brigades worked  to perfection.  Virtually the entire Confederate force was taken prisoner with Early and fifteen to twenty Confederates escaping.  Here is Sheridan’s account of the battle from his Memoirs:




General Early was true to the promise made his friends in Staunton, for when Custer neared Waynesboro’ he found, occupying a line of breastworks on a ridge west of the town, two brigades of infantry, with eleven pieces of artillery and Rosser’s cavalry. Custer, when developing the position of the Confederates, discovered that their left was somewhat exposed instead of resting on South River; he therefore made his dispositions for attack, sending around that flank the dismounted regiments from Pennington’s brigade, while he himself, with two brigades, partly mounted and partly dismounted, assaulted along the whole line of breastworks. Pennington’s flanking movement stampeded the enemy in short order, thus enabling Custer to carry the front with little resistance, and as he did so the Eighth New York and First Connecticut, in a charge in column, broke through the opening made by Custer, and continued on through the town of Waynesboro’, never stopping till they crossed South River. There, finding themselves immediately in the enemy’s rear, they promptly formed as foragers and held the east bank of the stream till all the Confederates surrendered except Rosser, who succeeded in making his way back to the valley, and Generals Early, Wharton, Long, and Lilley, who, with fifteen or twenty men, escaped across the Blue Ridge. I followed up the victory immediately by despatching Capehart through Rock-fish Gap, with orders to encamp on the east side of the Blue Ridge. By reason of this move all the enemy’s stores and transportation fell into our hands, while we captured on the field seventeen battle flags, sixteen hundred officers and men, and eleven pieces of artillery. This decisive victory closed hostilities in the Shenandoah Valley. The prisoners and artillery were sent back to Winchester next morning, under a guard of 1,500 men, commanded by Colonel J. H. Thompson, of the First New Hampshire.

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  1. Custer was also an enthusiastic participant, under Sheridan, in the burning of the Valley in 1864, a despicable crime against the mainly Dunker and Amish farmers who were not even Confederate supporters, having raised the ire of Confederate officials due to their avoidance of military service.

    During the Burning of the Valley, less known than Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet equally brutal, farmsteads and civilian property and houses were indiscriminately destroyed, civilians killed, and no provision made for the homeless and starving valley inhabitants left in Custer’s wake. It was a policy of targeting civilians, not an isolated war crime. It is not far from living memory in the Valley to this day.

    Needless to say, no tears were shed in the Valley for Custer when Little Big Horn settled the score.

  2. Using the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, Custer also managed to stymie the immortal Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg. When he respected his opponent, Custer was a solid officer.

  3. “During the Burning of the Valley, less known than Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet equally brutal, farmsteads and civilian property and houses were indiscriminately destroyed, civilians killed, and no provision made for the homeless and starving valley inhabitants left in Custer’s wake.”

    I am unaware of any civilians that were killed during the Burning of the Valley, although both Custer and Mosby engaged in shooting out of hand some of the prisoners they captured during the fighting in the Shenandoah. The troops were under orders to spare sufficient crops for the maintenance of the family owning a farm. Burning of agricultural areas of an enemy of course was not invented by the Union and is a tactic as old as War. George Washington got his Iroquois name of Town Burner during the revolution for ordering his troops to torch Iroquois towns due to their siding with the British in the war.

  4. “George Washington got his Iroquois name of Town Burner during the revolution for ordering his troops to torch Iroquois towns due to their siding with the British in the war.”

    Washington needed to save the frontier. All but one tribe of the Iroquois confederation actively fought for the crown. They didn’t merely side with the Brits. Loyalist terrorists led them on starkly terroristic raids against American civilians in NY and PA, which was (like the Shenandoah Valley for the CSA) the breadbasket of the nascent United States’ Army.

  5. Stephen Starr, a historian of US Cavalry in the War (, not a Confederate sympathizer, wrote of the Burning: “The deliberate planned devastation of the Shenandoah Valley has deservedly ranked as one of the grimmest episodes of a sufficiently grim war. Unlike the haphazard destruction caused by (Gen. William T.) Sherman’s bummers in Georgia, it was committed systematically, and by order.”

    Sheridan boasted that he ”destroyed over 2200 barns…over 70 mills… have driven in front of the army over 4000 head of stock, and have killed … not less then 3000 sheep…. Tomorrow I will continue the destruction.” Extant letters by Sheridan’s troops described themselves as ” barn burners ” and ” destroyers of homes. ”

    A reported “embedded” with Sheridan described the destruction:
    The poor, alike with the rich, have suffered. Some have lost their all. The wailing of women and children, mingling with the crackling of flames, has sounded from scores of dwellings. I have seen mothers weeping over the loss of that which was necessary to their children’s lives, setting aside their own; their last cow, their last bit of flour pilfered by stragglers, the last morsel that they had in the world to eat or drink. Young girls with flushed cheeks, or pale with tearful or tearless eyes, have pleaded with or cursed the men whom the necessities of war have forced to burn the buildings reared by their fathers, and turn them into paupers in a day. The completeness of the desolation is awful.

    I know it’s common these days to shrug at such war crimes (deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure); but the CCC reiterates traditional Catholic teaching that: “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”

    While I can’t imagine that Washington ever attempted war crimes specifically intended to destroy civilian farms, homes, and personal property on the scale of the Burning of the Valley or the March to the Sea, if he had it would not make those crimes somehow less morally repugnant.

    Sheridan did not just burn a town; he devastated a vast region supporting thousands of civilians, for the express purpose of demoralizing the populace.

  6. “Sheridan did not just burn a town; he devastated a vast region supporting thousands of civilians, for the express purpose of demoralizing the populace.”

    Nope, he did it to prevent the Shenandoah from any longer supplying Lee’s army, which function the “breadbasket of the Confederacy” served throughout the War. The true war crime would have been to allow this to continue and prolong the War.

    As for Washington, we do not have to guess, we have his orders to General Sullivan which stated in part:

    “Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters May 31, 1779
    The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed. But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”

    War is a very rough business and future enemies of the United States would do well to ponder American history before they start a war with us. When the life of the nation is at stake the gloves come off.

  7. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not a manual to be used to plan or conduct a war. The pacifism that has found its way into the Church and become virtual dogma is not dogma at all.

    War is ugly, maybe not the ugliest of man’s endeavors but it ranks up there. God does not rule over us with an iron fist. We are left to rule ourselves. As Clausewitz said, war is an extension of politics. Politics is how we govern ourselves.

    The Popes who called for the Crusades were not interested in mercy for the Islamic invaders. Queen Isabel the Catholic was merciful and magnanimous in victory but as hard as carbon steel in waging war against the Moors. General Curtis LeMay would have wiped out every living Japanese through saturation bombing if Japan had not surrendered.

    General Sherman wanted to leave a path of destruction through the heart of the Confederacy so that that generation and succeeding generations would never again think of inciting war. Innocent people were hurt and killed. This happens in war. South Carolina got it worse than Georgia. South Carolina is where it started and Sherman was going to see to it that they were punished.

    I remember a part of the Civil War miniseries on PBS about Gettysburg – far from where I live now but only an hour away from where I used to live between Baltimore and DC. I went there several times on warm weekend summer days. The CSA marched into Pennsylvania, kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery in the South. Georgia, South Carolina, the Shenandoah Valley – they paid dearly for what they wanted.

  8. These are just a few of the hundreds of facts from Southern and Northern sources about the burning.
    Although Grant did not order homes to be destroyed and Sheridan did not account for any, that was what happened, according to Heatwole’s book “The Burning, Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.” His accounts of homes burned for spite, vengeance or through carelessness come from diaries, letters, military reports and newspaper stories.

    A Pennsylvania cavalryman wrote home in mid-October: “We burnt some sixty houses and all most of the barns, hay, grain and corn in the shocks for fifty miles (south of) Strasburg. … It was a hard-looking sight to see the women and children turned out of doors at this season of the year.”

    Among the unfortunate was John Alexander Herring Sr., who was ill in bed in late September when soldiers showed up at his 1776 estate, Retirement, near Dayton.

    Soldiers carried the owner out of the house and dumped him onto the lawn.

    From there, he and his wife watched as household possessions were thrown through smashed windows and the house set afire along with the barn and other outbuildings.
    Just like no order was ever found from Hitler to destroy the Jews, no order was found about the destruction of the valley, but the officers knew what was wanted and the worst was done to the people of the valley, just as it was done all over the South.

  9. “From there, he and his wife watched as household possessions were thrown through smashed windows and the house set afire along with the barn and other outbuildings.
    Just like no order was ever found from Hitler to destroy the Jews, no order was found about the destruction of the valley, but the officers knew what was wanted and the worst was done to the people of the valley, just as it was done all over the South.”

    Hitler and the burning of the Valley? Really? Neoconfeds really need to get a life.

    “In reality, Sheridan had given specific orders: barns and mills containing grain or forage were to be reduced to ashes; but, the properties of widows, single women, and orphans were not to be molested and private homes were not to be harmed. Evidence shows that most of the soldiers followed orders, though there were a number of instances of looting.

    The order did not preclude the Anabaptist Mennonites and Brethren; members of pacifist sects who opposed the killing of other human beings and rebellion against established authority as a part of their religious beliefs. They were also some of the finest farmers in the Shenandoah Valley. While Sheridan sympathized with their plight he told their representatives that they would all have to suffer a bit longer if the war was to end.

    Sheridan and his officers determined the best way to cover as much territory as possible in his campaign was by using cavalry. In areas where his three cavalry divisions could not operate in concert because of road systems, time was set aside to bring ruin to those specific sections outside the main roads.

    There were many actions by Confederate rangers, guerrillas, and bushwhackers during the destruction that sent Union soldiers and their officers into frenzied acts of retribution above and beyond they original plan. In the middle of the burning period, on the evening of October 3, Sheridan’s chief engineer, Lt. John Rodgers Meigs was killed in a firefight with Confederate three scouts. The scouts from the 1st and 4th Virginia Cavalry had been sent into enemy lines to determine the location of Sheridan’s forces. Gen. Early regrouped as best he could after Third Winchester and Fishers Hill. He also had been reinforced with an infantry division from the Army of Northern Virginia. Early planned to attack Sheridan somewhere near Harrisonburg on October 6.

    Young Meigs, first in his class at West Point in 1863 and son of the quartermaster-general of the Union Army, had been out checking troop placements in preparation for the withdrawal to Strasburg on the morning of October 6. Upon seeing three men in gum coats riding away from him and his two orderlies he became suspicious and pursued them. He paid with his life. It was erroneously reported that he had been ambushed by civilian bushwhackers.

    In retaliation for Meigs’ death, Sheridan ordered the town of Dayton and all the homes around the scene of the incident burned to the ground. As a result thirty houses near Dayton in Rockingham County were destroyed. The 5th New York Cavalry of Gen. George A. Custer’s Third Cavalry Division received the order to burn the houses, which many carried out reluctantly. Sheridan rescinded the order to destroy the town, but let stand the order to burn surrounding houses. Barns, mills, stables, corn-cribs, sheep sheds, and shops continued to burn on all sides.

    Two days after the conflagration, a civilian refugee train of 400 wagons left Harrisonburg for points north in hopes of surviving the coming winter. One woman who had three sons in the Confederate army left the Valley with her four daughters, aged thirteen to twenty-six. One of the daughters remembered, “We took a pillow case and put into it some flour and a few other ingredients for pancakes.” As they walked toward Harrisonburg, a Union wagon master came along with two wagons and took the ladies back to their home and loaded trunks and “two feather beds” into the wagons. They finally settled in Ohio.

    On the morning of October 6 the withdrawal to Strasburg began. That night local people remarked that it looked as if all the stars had fallen to earth because of the fires still burning in every direction. In Shenandoah County the wind picked up on October 7, and eighteen houses were destroyed by accident. From a hill near Mt. Jackson Union cavalrymen counted 168 barns burning at one time. When it was all over Sheridan’s men had systematically destroyed around 1,400 barns, countless other farm structures, seventy mills, several factories, three iron furnaces, warehouses and railroad buildings, and hundreds of thousands of bushels of wheat, oats and corn, and crops standing in the fields. In Rockingham County alone over 10,000 head of livestock were driven off.

    What did it all mean? It meant that a weakened Confederate cavalry would lose the Battle at Toms Brook on October 9 because horses and men had not eaten for three days while they followed in the path of destruction. Early would suffer defeat at the last significant battle in the Valley on October 19 at Cedar Creek partly because of the famished condition of his army. Supplies to Lee’s army and to Confederate armies farther south would slow to a trickle. Most important of all, the success of Sheridan’s actions would help reelect Abraham Lincoln, and America would finally take the first steps toward keeping the promises expressed at the founding of the nation.

    The Shenandoah Valley farms would blossom again with the help of family and friends living elsewhere and, oddly enough, by Northerners willing to invest in the new potential of the Valley after the war. By 1870 agricultural production rates were back to pre-war levels, the railroads had linked the Valley with strong markets to the north and east. In time, even those who should have been the most unforgiving of what Sheridan and his men had done in the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864 came to realize its purpose. An ex-Confederate cavalry officer when asked about “The Burning” replied, “What is the worst in war, to burn a barn or kill a fellow man?””

  10. Well, if Washington truly ordered Indian crops to be burned, it’s to his shame and infamy, although Custer and the federals would certainly applaud it, since they as little regard for Indian lives and property as they did for Southerners.

    Again, although the practice of pillaging civilian farms, towns, and property may be common, there is no moral justification for it in Catholic thought. In war, soldiers are supposed to fight soldiers, and it does not take a “neoconfed” to see a direct moral correlation between the destruction of civilian property in the Civil War and the destruction of Indian civilian populations after the war, and the destruction later wreaked upon helpless civilian targets of laughable “military” value like Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Bad first principles usually result in very bad moral choices.

  11. “Well, if Washington truly ordered Indian crops to be burned,”

    What do you mean “if” Tom, I’ve cited chapter and verse. But for Washington of course the United States likely would not exist. But for Lincoln the United States likely would not exist. The measures they took, as distressing as they are to 21rst Century arm chair moralists, they viewed as necessary to accomplish the great tasks that had been placed into their hands, and I am very happy that they did.

    “Again, although the practice of pillaging civilian farms, towns, and property may be common, there is no moral justification for it in Catholic thought.”

    Only if Catholic thought began in 1965 Tom. Papal armies down through the ages would have laughed at the restrictions that the de facto pacifists of the current post Vatican II Church seek to impose. The thoughts of Popes on war and peace took a very utopian turn after they no longer had the responsibility of waging and winning wars. Stanley Baldwin’s famous quote might equally apply to Churchmen and their attempts to set rules for conflicts they no longer wage:

    What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.

  12. Yes, the Sullivan Expedition really happened, and it really burned out the Iroquois. But at least Tom acknowledges that it might be repellent. Most people who argue that the Civil War was somehow unique or the first time it ever happened in America ignore or shrug off the Expedition entirely.

    They also tend to ignore the Trail of Tears, too. Apparently, it’s only an atrocity if a northerner does it.

  13. The Sullivan Expedition was in response to, and meant to prevent future, Iroquois/loyalist atrocities which had been visited upon PA and NY civilian farming communities which constituted the commissary of the Continental Army. The purpose was to save the nascent United States.

    The circumastances surrounding the depredations in Georgia, the Shanandoah Valley and South Carolina were reversed. The motive was to destroy the nascent Confederate States by ruthless, total war.

  14. History is written by the victors. If Washington had lost, he and the signers of the Declaration of Independence likely would have been hanged, drawn, and quartered. In the history books, Benedict Arnold would be a hero, while Washington would be an arch-terrorist.
    The Brits and loyalists called 1777 the” year of the hangman.” They were confident they would suppress the Revolution and hang the traitors. The Iroquois/loyalists’ savage raids into NY/PA farming areas were part of the strategy. Then, the Rabble in Arms stopped them at Saratoga.

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