In early June, 1864, as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army approached the James River, Gen. Robert E. Lee sought to open a second front against the Union forces in Virginia. Two years prior, “Stonewall” Jackson’s exploits in the Shenandoah Valley had tied up thousands of Yankee soldiers that otherwise would have assisted Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s advance toward Richmond. Now, with Grant almost as close to Richmond as McClellan had been, Lee sought to revive Jackson’s Valley strategy and to threaten Washington D.C. itself if the opportunity arose.
Influencing Lee’s decision was the damage caused by Maj. Gen. David Hunter. Hunter, in his brief tenure as Union commander in the upper (southern) Valley, had raided Staunton, destroyed Virginia Central Railroad equipment, vandalized Washington College, and burned the Virginia Military Institute and the home of the Virginia governor. Now, by mid-June, Hunter threatened the important manufacturing center of Lynchburg. From there, other railroads vital to the Confederacy ran south and west. To save Lynchburg and give the Confederates an offensive capability in the Valley, Lee gave new orders to his “bad old man” and Second Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early.
Early and the vanguard of his corps arrived in Lynchburg on June 17 and occupied the town. Outnumbered by Hunter, Early bluffed his Union counterpart into believing his force was larger by blowing train whistles to announce the arrival of non-existent troop trains. The next day, Hunter’s attack failed to dislodge the Confederate defenders. Early’s counterattack that afternoon convinced Hunter that Lynchburg was too heavily defended and he retreated into the Appalachian Mountains on June 19, pursued for two days by the Confederates.
Hunter’s retreat from Lynchburg left the entire Valley open to Early. On June 23, his 15,000-man Army of the Valley District moved north down the Valley Pike toward the Potomac River, reaching Harper’s Ferry on July 4. Crossing at Shepherdstown, Early captured Hagerstown, Maryland on July 6, Middletown on July 8 and Frederick on July 9. Each town was threatened with destruction unless it could pay a ransom of money and supplies. Early’s virtually unopposed incursion north of the Potomac would be the third such Confederate advance of the war.
On July 9, the Confederates were met just east of Frederick by 6,600 Union troops gathered under Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace at Monocacy Junction. There, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the turnpikes to Baltimore and Washington crossed the Monocacy River. Early won the ensuing battle along the banks of the Monocacy and continued his march toward the Union capital.
Wallace’s stand delayed Early’s advance long enough for reinforcements to reach Washington from Grant’s army. The new troops filled in the defenses of the city, where Early skirmished with them on July 11 and 12 in front of Fort Stevens. Noting the “very formidable character of the works,” Early decided against a full-on assault. He withdrew his army July 13 and retreated to the Valley through Leesburg.
Pursuing Early, Union troops under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright joined with those of Maj. Gen. George Crook, who had taken over the command from Hunter. The Federals engaged two Confederate divisions on the Shenandoah River at Cool Spring on July 17 and 18. Two days later, a third Union column under Brig. Gen. William Averell beat one of Early’s divisions at Rutherford’s Farm, just north of Winchester. The battles slowed the Union pursuit of Early’s men and allowed the Confederates to concentrate at Fisher’s Hill near Strasburg.
Believing that Early was contained, Wright’s divisions were returned to Grant’s army, leaving three small divisions under Crook to guard the lower Valley. Learning of Wright’s departure, Early moved against Crook’s force around Winchester. On July 24, the Confederates attacked Crook’s defenses in the second battle fought at Kernstown and pushed the Federals back across the Potomac River, ceding the Valley to Early for the second time in a month. Second Kernstown would be the last major victory of the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley.
Emboldened by his defeat of the Yankees, Early sent a raiding party north into Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. On July 30, Brig. Gen. John McCausland’s cavalry demanded ransom for Southern civilian property destroyed in the Valley under Hunter. Without receiving payment, McCausland’s troopers burned most of the town, destroying 500 buildings and leaving 2,000 residents homeless.
Although Early’s Confederates were successful against their counterparts in the Valley and along the Monocacy, the war in the Shenandoah Valley would go on. On August 5, Grant directed Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to take Federal troops into the Valley to destroy Early once and for all, commencing Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign.