In May 1864, in conjunction with his Army of the Potomac’s Overland Campaign, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant ordered General Franz Sigel and a force of 6,500-men to move southward up the Shenandoah Valley. Sigel’s objective was to gain control of the valley.
Confederate General John C. Breckenridge with approximately 5,000 men, including 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, met and defeated the Federals on May 15 at the Battle of New Market. Breckenridge then moved east to reinforce Lee. General David Hunter replaced Sigel, going on to defeat Confederate forces under General William E. “Grumble” Jones at Piedmont on June 5. Jones was killed in the battle. Federal troops continued to move south, destroying property, crops, and buildings. Hunter’s troops engaged in widespread looting, stopping in Lexington to burn the Virginia Military Institute.
The Union threat forced Robert E. Lee to dispatch General Jubal Early with his Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia to defend Lynchburg. On June 17 and 18, the opposing forces clashed, resulting in a Union retreat all the way into West Virginia, leaving the Valley open for another Confederate advance into the North.