One of the lesser known campaigns in the Civil War was the struggle for control of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley in 1864. What makes this campaign particularly interesting is that it was fought primarily for logistics objectives.
Control of the Valley offered the Union troops fighting to the eastaround Petersburg, Virginiano great strategic relief or tactical advantage. Instead, the Valley campaign was fought primarily for strategic logistics reasons. Union General Ulysses S. Grant acted to remove the Valley as a source of subsistence for the Confederates, and that eventually forced his Confederate opponent, General Robert E. Lee, to evacuate Petersburg and brought the war to a close.
In the summer of 1864, Grant faced a grim prospect. His Army of the Potomac was before Petersburg, fought to a standstill by Lee's smaller Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The political pressure on the Lincoln Administration was growing as the casualty lists lengthened and there was no end to the fighting in sight. Grant had tried to overwhelm the opposition and had failed. As long as Lee's army remained in the field, Grant could not bring the war to a close. The entrenchments that Lee's thin and ragged veterans dug day after day around Petersburg produced a military stalemate.
Actually, it was Lee who showed Grant the means to end the stalemate. A military gambler of the first order, Lee took a small infantry corps from his meager numbers and launched it into the Shenandoah Valley to distract Grant and take pressure off the Petersburg front. The commander of this effort, Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, succeeded far beyond Lee's somewhat modest expectations. After defeating Union forces in the Valley, Early moved on to threaten Washington.
Grant, who correctly viewed the Valley attack as an attempt by Lee to divert his attention, realized that there were indirect strategic benefits to stopping Early and holding the Shenandoah. Since he would have to keep considerable forces in the Valley to counter Early, why not put them to good use? Both Grant and his Western commander, General William T. Sherman, knew the value of logistics. They also knew that Lee's army remained in the field mainly because it was still being supplied with food and other essentials from two sourcesthe Deep South, particularly the state of Georgia, and the Shenandoah Valley. Sherman was attending to the former area with a vengeance. As Lee's supply source in Georgia was destroyed by Sherman, he was left with only the Shenandoah as a source of food.
Several railways from the Shenandoah to the Deep South connected with a rail junction near Petersburg and thus could continue to supply Lee's army with enough food to permit it to offer resistance. The Valley could supply a number of armies since it is nearly 165 miles long and has some of the finest farmland anywhere. Grant saw the wisdom of holding and then wrecking the last major "breadbasket" of the South. This alone could force Lee to give up Petersburg and move into open country, where Grant could bring him to battle.
The man eventually given command of this enterprise was Major General Philip H. Sheridan. Originally a commander of infantry, Sheridan had made himself famous by commanding cavalry. It took "Little Phil" a while to destroy Early's forces, but after the battle of Cedar Creek Sheridan had control of the entire Valley. It was then that he began a systematic destruction of the Valley's bounty using a cavalry force of nearly 10,000 men. They burned the Shenandoah Valley from end to end. Hundreds of farms and their crops, cattle, and other foodstuffs were lost to the Confederacy.
In April 1865, Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg. But by that time, his soldiers were subsisting on such meager rations that hundreds were simply too weak to continue marching. When Lee finally was cornered by the Army of the Potomac near Appomattox Court House, Virginia, there were only 25,000 "butternuts" left, and he had to surrender his army.
Grant showed that he understood the tactical and strategic importance of logistics. As long as Lee could shelter his Army behind fortifications, Grant could not defeat him without incurring prohibitive casualties. Since neither the U.S. Government nor the Army of the Potomac would support casualty lists in the numbers created in the battles from the Wilderness to Petersburg, Grant had to find a way to force Lee from his fortifications and out into the open, where the more powerful Army of the Potomac could destroy him.
The Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864 demonstrates that sometimes attacking logistics support is the proper objective of military action. In the future, innovative commanders and their planning staffs may not seek to destroy or badly damage an opponent's military force as their first objective. Instead, they may strike first at the enemy's logistics support and industrial base. If such a strike is successful, then the outcome of the fighting will be much less of a gamble. As Lee painfully learned, lack of supplies and support can force an early surrender. ALOG
Dr. Burton Wright III is the command historian of the Army Chemical School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.