By June of 1864 Grant’s Overland Campaign had hammered Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into a close defence of Richmond and Petersburg. Lee knew that superior Northern manpower and logistics made defeat inevitable. The South’s only chance was to divert Union troops and attention away from Richmond.
Lee was hoping for a repeat of the magic of 1862 when ‘Stonewall’ Jackson used the speed of his small Army of the Valley to tie down 50,000 Union troops that would have joined McClellan’s drive on Richmond. For the commander he chose Jubal Early, who had led a brigade under Jackson. Early was given the Second Corps – Jackson’s old command – which included a core of men native to the valley, including Jackson’s old Stonewall Brigade.
In addition to creating a diversion from the Richmond-Petersburg front Early was also to try to protect the breadbasket of Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley was rich in farmland and small manufacturing that provided desperately needed supplies for Lee’s army.
The diversion worked. Early drew two Union corps and two divisions of cavalry away from Grant’s forces around Richmond and kept a third corps tied up in the Valley until late in the year. The effort probably bought the Confederacy another half a year of life, extending the war into 1865.
But it came at a great cost. Early’s army was ground away in battles at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. The ghost of the Second Corps that Lee ordered to return to Richmond at the end of the year had lost much of its strength and some of its finest leaders.
And a large part of the Shenandoah was a wasteland. Grant made sure that not only would the Valley be unable to supply Lee’s Army, it would be left so barren that no large Confederate force would be able to operate there. The brutal and widespread destruction of crops, livestock, barns, outbuildings and anything that could serve the Confederacy was one of the lowest points of the war.
Early left the Valley in March of 1865 after the tiny remnant of his army was wiped out in a brief skirmish that he barely escaped. Lee did not condemn him – Early had done what Lee had asked of him as well as any man could. But public opinion was against him, and his days as a commanding general were over. Less than a month later Lee would himself surrender at Appomattox.