In the summer of 1864, as he pushed south across the James River toward Petersburg, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant knew that Washington, D.C. remained vulnerable while Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Second Corps divisions remained in the Shenandoah Valley. Early’s 8,000 men had been sent to the Valley by Gen. Robert E. Lee in June to confront a Union force around Lynchburg, and to threaten the Union capital if possible. Early secured Lynchburg, then made a bold move north into Maryland and east to the defenses of Washington. Beaten back by reinforcements, Early returned to the Valley and battled with Union troops there through the end of July. Emboldened by his victories, Early culminated his Valley Campaign with another dash across the Potomac, raiding and burning the Pennsylvania town of Chambersburg on July 30.
Grant had enough. On August 5, he called for his young, aggressive cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan. Sheridan had followed Grant east and his cavalry had been attached to the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Meade and Sheridan tangled over deployment of the troopers to support the infantry during the Wilderness battles, so Grant had given Sheridan the mission of taking on Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry out in the open. For seven weeks, Sheridan battled Stuart and then Wade Hampton from Yellow Tavern to Trevilian Station to the banks of the James, preventing Lee from tracking Grant’s movements.
Now, as Grant settled in around Petersburg, he put Sheridan in charge of what would become the Army of the Shenandoah, ultimately 50,000 men strong. Sheridan’s objectives were to defeat Early's army to prevent him from rejoining Lee, to close off the Valley as an invasion route north, and to deny the use of the Valley as an agricultural resource to the Confederacy. Grant told Sheridan: “Nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy.”
Sheridan’s campaign got off to an uneven start. His men captured 300 reinforcements sent to Early at Guard Hill near Front Royal on August 16, but were beaten in an attack at Summit Point near Charles Town on August 21. The aggressive Early, although outnumbered around three to one, pushed Sheridan back into a defensive line at Halltown. Sheridan, undeterred and with his back to the Potomac River, pressed south up the Valley clashing with Early’s brigades at Smithfield Crossing on August 29 and Berryville on September 3.
On September 19, Sheridan advanced toward Winchester along the Berryville Pike and met part of Early’s divided army east of the town. The largest battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley raged all afternoon in and around the largest city in the Valley. Early was forced to retreat to Strasburg and took up a defensive position atop Fisher’s Hill. On September 22, Sheridan executed a flank attack, driving back the defenders and forcing Early to retreat again the next day, ceding the central Valley to Sheridan. As Early fell back to Staunton, Sheridan’s men systematically destroyed crops, forage, mills and barns in a two-week period known as “The Burning.” In response, Confederate partisan rangers under Col. John S. Mosby attacked Union supply lines, frequently earning violent retribution from Sheridan’s men.
Early pursued Sheridan as the Federals turned north. Union cavalry attacked their weakened and hungry Confederate counterparts at Tom’s Brook on October 9, and again Early’s defeated troopers retreated. In his largest offensive against his Union foe, Early executed a surprise attack against Sheridan’s recuperating army at Cedar Creek on October 19. Sheridan’s timely return to the battlefield to rally his retreating men saved his army and led to a massive counterattack that nearly destroyed Early’s force. Most of Early’s men were pulled back to the defenses of Petersburg in November, but were too late to make much of a difference. The remainder of his army was effectively destroyed at Waynesboro on March 2, 1865.
Sheridan’s victories extinguished any further Confederate offensives in the Shenandoah Valley. With the end of Jubal Early’s army, the final hope of Confederate victory fell solely upon Lee’s army encircled at Petersburg. Sheridan’s successful campaign and other Union wins that fall helped ensure President Abraham Lincoln's reelection in November.