Key Point: The Battle of New Market saved the Shenandoah Valley for the Confederacy -- for the time being.
As the Civil War continued in the spring of 1864, a Shenandoah Valley resident lamented, “Our prospects look gloomy, very gloomy.” Those prospects dimmed even further when the relentless new Union general in chief, Ulysses S. Grant, orchestrated a concerted scheme of simultaneous advances. “My primary mission,” Grant declared, “is to bring pressure to bear on the Confederacy so no longer [can] it take advantage of interior lines.” Grant focused on the key Southern cities of Atlanta and Richmond. While Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman drove into Georgia, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks would advance into Louisiana and southern Arkansas. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade would lead the Army of the Potomac against its old nemesis, Robert E. Lee, in Virginia.
In support of the drive on Richmond, Grant called for a move from western Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley to divert attention from Meade’s effort, tying down much-needed Confederate troops. One of the richest and most productive regions in the South, the Shenandoah, called “the Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” is cradled between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Approximately 125 miles long, the valley stretches from Martinsburg, West Virginia, to Staunton in southern Virginia. The headwaters of the Shenandoah River rise 10 miles below Staunton and flow northward to its confluence with the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry. The topography of the countryside gives rise to some odd local terminology. Because the river flowed from south to north, the northern end is referred to as the Lower Valley and the southern end as the Upper Valley. Hence, to travel north was considered going down the valley, and moving south was considered going up the valley.
Grant’s plan called for a Union column under Brig. Gen. George Crook to attack the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, one of Lee’s vital lifelines, and seize the key transportation center at Staunton. A second column, 9,000 men strong, would tear up the rail line and descend on the major Confederate supply depot at Lynchburg. In command of the second column was Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord, supported—somewhat reluctantly—by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel.
With the 1864 presidential election looming, Abraham Lincoln had specifically asked the War Department to give Sigel an important and visible command. Sigel’s influence with the burgeoning German community in St. Louis had been instrumental in electing Lincoln in 1860. The military commander’s resume was mixed, at best, at this stage of the war. His military reputation was in almost inverse proportion to his political usefulness and ability to attract recruits. “I’m going to fight mit Sigel,” German recruits would boast. When the war broke out, Sigel was commissioned a colonel in the 3rd Infantry Regiment in St. Louis. He got off to a bad start at the Battles of Carthage and Wilson’s Creek, but despite his poor showings Sigel was promoted to brigadier general, further underscoring his prominence as a political general.
Siegel redeemed himself to a degree at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862, deftly handling Union artillery. He was given another star and transferred to the eastern theater of war. He led a division and then a corps in the Shenandoah Valley, where he was part of a collective thumping at the hands of Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at the Battle of Second Manassas. He then took command of the largely German XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac but was abruptly relieved of command in February 1863. Since then, Sigel had been exiled to a minor post in Pennsylvania.
Sigel was more or less forced on Grant. Well aware of the German’s deficiencies, Grant sought to limit his involvement without creating a political fuss. He ultimately decided to give Sigel an administrative and logistical support role, with troops in the field to be commanded by Ord. The attack on the railroad was given first priority, while Sigel’s role was largely diversionary. Grant explained Sigel’s part in the campaign to Sherman. “I don’t expect much from Sigel’s movement,” wrote Grant to his confidant. “I don’t calculate on very great results.” Quoting Lincoln, Grant continued, “If Sigel can’t skin himself, he can hold a leg while someone else does.”
In stark contrast to Sigel’s career, former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge had performed admirably on the battlefield. The Kentucky native had seen his first major action at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where he commanded a brigade of Kentucky troops, the soon to be famous “Orphan Brigade.” His actions at Shiloh earned Breckinridge a promotion to major general and the respect of his men and fellow officers. As a hard and desperate fighter, he had few, if any, superiors in either army. In early March, he was given command of all Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley and asked to cover a vast geographical department that stretched from West Virginia to southwestern Virginia and parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. “I trust you will drive the enemy back,” Lee wrote to Breckinridge. To do so, the former vice president had less than 5,000 troops at his disposal.
Ord, by contrast, was to have more than 9,500 men in his command, including 8,000 infantry provided by Sigel. But Sigel bridled at his support role and in the end sent Ord only 6,500 men. When Ord asked him to bring up supplies, Sigel responded, in effect, “I don’t think I shall do it.” Ord soon tired of Sigel’s foot dragging and resigned his command on April 17, which was probably what Sigel was angling for in the first place. The German happily took over the column, moving south from Martinsburg on April 29. His infantry, divided into two brigades, was led by Brig. Gen. Jeremiah Sullivan, while Sigel’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel, had charge of the cavalry.
General John Imboden Takes Up the Confederate Defense
As word of Sigel’s advance reached Richmond, Breckinridge took steps to checkmate the Union move into the valley. The man charged with the defense was Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden. A native of Staunton, Imboden had intimate knowledge of his domain. He had served as a captain of artillery under Stonewall Jackson in 1861 and later recruited and raised a cavalry battalion. His most notable achievement came at Gettysburg, where he successfully covered the Confederate retreat and secured, against daunting odds, the army’s vital crossing point over a rain-swollen Potomac River at Williamsport. Shortly afterward, Imboden was named district commander in the valley, with 1,500 troopers under his control, including the 18th, 23rd, and 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, as well as a battery of artillery. They were tasked with observing, harassing, and slowing down Sigel’s advance, buying time for Breckinridge to assemble his forces.
Imboden sent two companies of the 23rd Virginia Cavalry, under Major Fielding Calmese, to operate on the road between Romney and Winchester. Union scouts detected the activity, and portions of the 6th and 7th West Virginia Cavalry, as well as 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry, rode out in pursuit. The blue-clad horsemen tirelessly gave chase but failed to come to grips with the Confederates. No sooner had the Federals called off the pursuit than fresh Confederate cavalry appeared on the scene. “In a little while,” wrote a resident of Winchester, “the Yankees came back and went down the Martinsburg road.” In a few moments, they were followed by Calmese, leading his men triumphantly through the streets.
When the news of the running victory reached Breckinridge and Lee, it was viewed as a favorable portent of things to come. A soldier in the 51st Virginia wrote home, “My opinion is that right here in this country will be the next fighting in the spring.” He was right. Before the month was out, Imboden was calling for local companies of reserves and militia to bolster his ranks. Rockingham and Augusta Counties, in the central part of the valley, contributed six companies of reservists made up of boys too young and men too old to join the army.
Imboden also reached out to Francis Smith, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, raising the possibility that the youthful cadets might be pressed into service. When the war began, the cadets had gone to Richmond to act as drillmasters for the thousands of raw recruits joining the army. In May 1862, they had marched with Jackson to the Battle of McDowell but did not see action there. Now, two years later, they were itching to get into the fight. The feeling was best summed up by a 19-year-old cadet who wrote his mother: “I think you had just as well give your consent at once to my resigning and entering the Army. I want to have some of the glory of the year ‘64 attached to my name.” Smith offered the cadets to Robert E. Lee, but Lee expressed the droll hope that the boys would remain in school, thus avoiding the necessity of what President Jefferson Davis had termed “grinding the seed corn of the nation.”