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Battle of Waynesboro

March 2, 1865

The Union victory at the Battle of Waynesboro, fought on March 2, 1865 in Augusta County, Virginia, ended any meaningful Confederate presence in the Shenandoah Valley for the remainder of the Civil War.

In June 1864, Robert E. Lee deployed Lieutenant General Jubal Early's newly-designated Army of the Valley to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Early's orders were to halt an advancing Union army commanded by Major General David Hunter. On June 17 and 18, Early's army defeated Hunter's Union forces at the Battle of Lynchburg, leaving control of the valley in Confederate hands. Early then launched his own offensive, invading Maryland and eventually threatening Washington, DC, before being forced to retreat back into the Shenandoah Valley.

Early’s offensive prompted Union General Ulysses S. Grant to send Major General Philip Sheridan and the newly created Army of the Shenandoah to the Valley. Grant's orders for Sheridan were twofold: destroy Early's army and "Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions… so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste."

Sheridan's soldiers defeated Early's greatly outnumbered army at the Battle of Opequon (September 19) and the Battle of Fisher's Hill (September 22). With Early's army nearly neutralized after those two battles, Sheridan spent the next few weeks attending to his other task–laying waste to the Shenandoah Valley. During an operation of destruction known as "The Burning," Sheridan claimed to have slaughtered thousands of sheep, hogs, and cattle and to have burned "2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements [and] over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat."

As Sheridan sacked the Valley, Early prepared for one last stand. Reinforcements boosted the size of his Army of the Valley to 21,000 soldiers. Although still outnumbered by over 10,000 men, Early launched a surprise attack on the Sheridan's troops encamped at Cedar Creek at dawn on October 19, 1864. The assault against the unsuspecting Federals went well for the Confederates until Sheridan arrived from nearby Winchester and rallied his troops in the afternoon. Sheridan launched a counterattack that drove the Confederates from the field. Early's army was shattered, and most of his surviving units limped back to eastern Virginia to assist Lee in his struggle with Grant at Petersburg.

After the Union victory at Cedar Creek, Sheridan’s army and what was left of Early’s army went into winter quarters. Following one of the harshest winters in Virginia history, Sheridan’s army left its winter encampment on February 27, 1865 and marched south through the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan had orders from Grant to proceed to Lynchburg, to destroy the railroads and canals in the vicinity, and then to prepare to join Major General William T. Sherman’s army as it moved north out of the Carolinas. Sheridan, however, had other plans. Early still commanded a small Rebel force of about 1,500 cavalrymen near Staunton, Virginia in the southern part of the Valley. Sheridan was determined to drive the Confederates completely out of the Shenandoah Valley before heading south.

As Sheridan’s cavalry moved south, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer’s 3rd Division rode in the lead. The trip south through sleet and rain was miserable, but Union morale was high, and the Federal soldiers were ready for action. On February 28, Early attempted to slow the Union advance by dispatching approximately three hundred Confederate cavalrymen to burn the bridge over the Middle River. Brigadier General Thomas Rosser, Custer’s best friend at West Point, commanded the small Rebel force. Custer’s men arrived in time to extinguish the fire and to drive off the Rebels. With Sheridan's entire force able to get across the river, Early decided to abandon his position at Staunton and to make a stand at Waynesboro.

When Early reached Waynesboro, he deployed his 1,600 men in a thin line on high ground facing west. Although greatly outnumbered by Sheridan’s 10,000 cavalrymen, Early did have eleven to fifteen artillery pieces in good position to contest the Federals. Nonetheless, Early made a fatal error when deploying his troops by not extending his left flank all the way to the South River. Early incorrectly believed that a dense woods between the end of his line and the river would prevent a Federal flanking movement.

When Custer arrived at Waynesboro on March 2, he realized that a head-on assault on Early’s main line would be foolhardy. To his credit, Custer instead sent out reconnaissance patrols and discovered Early’s unprotected flank. Custer ordered three regiments, the 2nd Ohio, the 3rd New Jersey and the 1st Connecticut, to move through the woods and to envelope Early’s exposed flank. The outnumbered Rebels realized that they were no match for the Yankee cavalrymen, armed with Spencer repeating rifles, once their flank was rolled up. With a swollen river to their back, leaving them nowhere to retreat, over 1,200 Confederate soldiers laid down their weapons and surrendered. Early, who was watching the battle from the rear made a mad dash for the bridge, crossing the river and escaping.

The Battle of Waynesboro ended any meaningful Confederate presence in the Shenandoah Valley with an extremely small cost to the Union. Federal losses were reported as nine soldiers killed or wounded. In addition to the 1,200 or so Rebel prisoners, Custer also captured all of Early’s artillery pieces, seventeen Confederate battle flags, and approximately 150 supply wagons, including Early’s headquarters wagon containing his records and personal papers.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Waynesboro included:

Cavalry units:

2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

After the battle, Sheridan’s forces moved on to the Petersburg front and rejoined the Army of the Potomac. Sheridan and Custer subsequently played significant roles in the climatic Appomattox Campaign that spring.

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