HUNTERS LYNCHBURG CAMPAIGN
Anticipating a period of Union inactivity after their setback at New Market, General Lee summoned General Breckinridge and the majority of the Confederate troops in the Valley to move east to reinforce his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s army was contesting General Grant’s continued advance toward Richmond, the capital of Virginia and the Confederacy.
Grant’s strategy was to maintain constant pressure on all battle fronts to discourage the Confederates from concentrating their forces against any particular Union threat. Consequently, when news of the retreat from New Market reached Grant, he acted decisively to re-establish the Union presence in the Shenandoah Valley. General David Hunter was appointed to replace General Sigel as commander of the Union forces in the Valley. Hunter was ordered to resume offensive operations at once. At the same time, General George Crook (who went on to achieve fame in the Indian wars of the West) was ordered to march his Army of West Virginia over the Allegheny Mountains from Meadow Bluff, West Virginia to the upper Shenandoah Valley. Hunter and Crook were to link up at or near Staunton, Virginia and continue south and east to threaten Lynchburg in the Virginia heartland.
Hunter assumed command from Sigel at Cedar Creek on May 21, and immediately took steps to improve the mobility and efficiency of the army. The large wagon train of supplies which had impeded Sigel’s movements during the battle of New Market was sent to the rear. In place of the wagon train, each soldier was to carry a hundred rounds of ammunition and four days’ rations of hard bread, coffee, sugar, and salt. Meat was to be supplied from the countryside during the advance. One wagon with supplementary equipment and supplies would accompany each regiment. While the absence of the wagons might have improved military efficiency, apparently not all of the soldiers approved. Colonel Wildes reported in his Record of the 116th that when asked by a passing officer ‘What troops are these’, one soldier replied ‘Troops? This is General Hunter’s ammunition train. ‘The advance up the valley began on May 26. The first day’s march was through Strasburg to Fishers Hill, where they rested a day, then marched on to Woodstock, Mt. Jackson and New Market, scene of the battle just two weeks before. On June 2, after several days’ rest, the army left New Market and marched through Harrisonburg toward the North River, the only remaining natural barrier before Staunton. With the departure of Breckinridge, the only Confederate forces remaining in the valley consisted of home guard and partisan units under the command of General Imboden. When scouts reported that the Union army had unexpectedly begun moving up the Valley, Imboden appealed to Lee for reinforcements. However Lee, under attack himself (the battle of Cold Harbor, in which 59,000 Confederates faced 114,000 Union troops on the approaches to Richmond was fought from May 31 to June 3) and could not spare any troops. Instead, he ordered three regiments under General ‘Grumble’ Jones and a force of miners, both in southwest Virginia, to proceed to Staunton. These groups left by rail for Staunton on May 31.Staunton’s defenders prepared fortifications at Crawford Hill, where the Valley Pike between Harrisonburg and Staunton crosses the North River. Unsure of the size of the Confederate defense force and the strength of these fortifications, Hunter decided to avoid the direct route and on June 4 moved southeast toward Port Republic. Difficulties in constructing a pontoon bridge kept the army from crossing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River at Port Republic until late evening, but on the morning of June 5 they began marching down the East Road toward Staunton, against increasing resistance, reaching the vicinity of Piedmont at about 10 o’clock in the morning.
In 1864, Piedmont consisted of about ten residences at the crossroads of the East Road and the Cross Road. General Jones had deployed his regular army forces along a rise between the village and the Middle River. The reserves were stationed along the Cross Road just west of the village, and the cavalry protected the right flank along the eastward extension of the Cross Road (see map). The Confederate forces engaged total of about 5600.The Union army total of about 12000 men, divided into two infantry brigades, two cavalry brigades and a brigade of artillery. The 116th Ohio was part of Moor’s First Brigade, which formed the right wing of the Union assault. Moor’s brigade, with the 116th Ohio on its extreme left, attempted frontal attacks on the entrenched Rebels at least twice and were repulsed with heavy loss. A final attack, coordinated with Thorburn’s Second Brigade which had worked its way around the Confederate right flank, drove the enemy from their breastworks and sent them streaming down the East Road in disorder. As I. N. recorded in his diary, the Battle of Piedmont on June 5 was a resounding Union victory. General Jones was killed, among about 1600 other Confederate casualties. Nearly 1000 prisoners were taken. Also, as I. N. noted, it was a hard fight. Union losses total of about 875, including 181 from the 116th Ohio, which sustained the highest losses of any Union regiment . I. N.’s Company B suffered 1 killed and 8 wounded; light compared to Company D, with 10 killed and 23 wounded, or Company C, with 8 killed and 19 wounded. The surviving Confederates were completely disorganized and were unable to delay the entry of the army into Staunton the following day.
Staunton, in 1864, was a town of about 400 residences, three banks, three hotels, and was the principal town of the upper (i.e. upstream, or southern) Shenandoah Valley. Lying at the intersection of the Valley Turnpike and the Virginia Central Railroad, it was a major transportation center for Shenandoah Valley agricultural products which were essential to the Confederate war effort. Staunton had also remained just out of reach of the Union armies for the entire war until about noon on Monday, June 6, 1864, when Hunter’s army marched in and occupied the town ‘without a fight’, in I. N.’s words.
The Confederate authorities in Staunton had been aware of the invading army for several days and had loaded records, military stores and other valuables onto wagons and railroad cars for evacuation, if necessary. When word of the outcome of the battle of Piedmont reached Staunton in the evening of June 5, these evacuation plans were put into effect. Despite the removal of the more important items, the occupying army was kept busy for several days confiscating, burning or breaking up supplies and equipment which were judged to have potential military value. The railroad, in particular, was torn up and the rails heated and twisted to make them unusable for miles on each side of town. On June 8, Hunter’s army was joined by Crook’s infantry and Averell’s cavalry, which had marched over the Allegheny mountains from West Virginia.
The combined force of about 18,000 men was ordered by General Grant to continue south, occupy Lynchburg, and destroy the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad and the James River canal. General Lee and Confederate military authorities also reacted to the threat posed by Hunter’s reinforced army by returning General Breckinridge and a force of about 2000 men to Western Virginia on June 7 after their participation in the repulse of the Union assault at Cold Harbor. Hunter’s army departed from Staunton about noon on Friday, June 10, the 116th Ohio serving as rear guard. After marching seven miles, the 116th returned to Staunton to escort a large wagon train of supplies and mail which had arrived in Staunton several hours after the army left. The wagon train and its escorts then departed over the same road, catching up to the army long after midnight. The route of march was to be south through Lexington and Buchanan to the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, then east along the railway to Lynchburg. Lexington was the site of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), whose cadets had played such a dramatic role in the Confederate victory over many of these same units at New Market about a month earlier. Lexington was also where former VMI commandant ‘Stonewall’ Jackson had been buried after his death at the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. General Jackson’s brilliant military strategy is generally credited with defeating similar Union attempts to invade the upper Shenandoah Valley in 1862.Hunter’s army reached the river opposite Lexington on June 11, bombarded the town and especially the VMI buildings, and entered the town before nightfall. The 116th Ohio, being rear guard, did not actually reach Lexington until the morning of June 12. In Lexington, perhaps to even the score with the VMI cadets, Hunter permitted a degree of destruction that shocked many of his fellow officers, including Generals Crook, Averell and Sullivan, and Colonel Wildes of the 116th. VMI was looted and burned, as was the Washington College Library and a number of private homes.
While the army remained in Lexington on June 13 awaiting an additional supply train and continuing the destruction of buildings and supplies, the Confederate high command, increasingly concerned about the defense of Lynchburg, detached an entire corps of about 8,000 under General Jubal Early from the forces defending Richmond. These troops were to advance by forced march to Lynchburg to reinforce Breckinridge and the remnants of the home guard forces that had fought at Piedmont, but their removal from the Richmond area severely limited General Lee’s options in responding to General Grant’s continued push against Richmond. Hunter’s Union army continued its advance on June 14, leaving Lexington and marching south to Buchanan. Their route took them near the Natural Bridge.
Buchanan lies on the James River and the north slope of the Blue Ridge mountains. Although the 116th Ohio, the rear guard of Hunter’s command, reached Buchanan in the evening of June 14, they found the bridges across the James destroyed by the retreating Rebels and were unable to cross until daylight. Beyond Buchanan, the route of march led past the Peaks of Otter in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The army spent the night of June 15 camped near a large spring at the base of the Peaks of Otter. On the morning of June 16 they continued down the southern slopes of the Blue Ridge to the Virginia & Tennessee Railway (not the Virginia Central, which passes through Staunton) and the village of Liberty (today’s Bedford). South of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the heartland of Virginia and the Confederacy, the troops found that many public buildings and private dwellings had been pressed into service as hospitals for the many sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. This was particularly true of towns such as Liberty, which were situated along railways leading from the battlefields of northern and eastern Virginia. From Liberty, the army followed the Virginia & Tennessee Railway and the Lynchburg Pike east towards Lynchburg, destroying the tracks and other railway property as they went. As they approached Lynchburg on July 17, Rebel resistance increased and it was apparent to the troops that a battle was approaching. July 17 was also the day that the first of Early’s corps began arriving at Lynchburg by rail from Charlottesville. These troops marched directly from the trains to reinforce the Confederate defenders who were making a desperate stand at a Quaker meetinghouse about 4 miles outside of town. The defensive line held until nightfall, when the engagement was broken off. During the night, the remainder of the southern reinforcements arrived at Lynchburg and were sent to the front. The sounds of train whistles, cheering and military bands could be heard clearly in the Union camps. On the morning of June 18, the Union assault resumed, with Gen. Crook attempting to outflank the rebels on the right while the 116th Ohio was in the thick of the fighting on the left. In fact, the deepest penetration of Union forces during the Battle of Lynchburg was made by the color guard of the 116th, which managed to carry the regimental colors over the rebel breastworks before being forced to retreat before superior numbers. Once again, this gallantry was accomplished at a heavy cost. In this charge, twelve men were killed, 22 wounded and 10 captured with the heaviest toll (1 killed, 5 wounded and 8 captured, including 3 of the wounded) falling on Company B. Sergeant Humphrey was the actual color bearer, and was wounded while waving his flag above the rebel works. Captain Keyes, the ranking officer of Company B, was wounded twice, in the knee and the elbow, while leading the charge. Both had to be left behind and were captured. Capt. Keyes died of his wounds in Lynchburg on July 19.The failure of the Union attack on the Confederate lines outside of Lynchburg, and uncertainty about the numbers and intentions of the Confederate troops which had been rushed to Lynchburg, caused General Hunter to order a retreat after nightfall.
Fearful of being cut off if he returned back down the Shenandoah Valley, Hunter determined to march directly away from the enemy in Lynchburg and over the Alleghenies into the Kanawha Valley in today’s West Virginia. The first part of this march was to retrace their steps back down the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad to Liberty. After marching all night, they stopped for breakfast on June 19 at the spot where they had camped three days earlier on their march to Lynchburg, then continued on about three miles west of Liberty, where they intended to camp for the night. Rebel activity in their rear prompted them to march on and once again they marched all night, following the Virginia and Tennessee Railway through the gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the morning of June 20. Again, the troops were allowed only a brief rest before another all-night march brought them to Salem, where they had to overcome some Rebel resistance to reach the town early on June 21. Pausing only briefly at Salem, the troops left the line of the Virginia and Tennessee and headed north into the mountains. As they passed through a narrow gap, the pursuing Confederate cavalry took the opportunity to attack the artillery train and destroyed eight guns. After three successive night marches, the army then made camp for the night. The following morning, June 22, the march resumed, this time crossing and re-crossing Craig Creek on their way to New Castle.
On June 23, the force climbed over three ranges of mountains to the vicinity of Sweet Springs. Company B was assigned to guard the wagon train and then assumed picket duty on Potts Mountain while the remainder of the force camped in the valley beyond. On June 24, while still on picket duty on the mountain, Company B was attacked by ‘bushwhackers’, or partisans.
The army left Sweet Springs in the afternoon and again marched all night, arriving at White Sulphur Springs in the early morning of June 25. Abandoned and desolate since the outbreak of the war, White Sulphur Springs was a ‘great watering place of America, second only to Saratoga’ in Col. Wildes’ words. The troops did not have the opportunity to indulge in the mineral baths, however, marching off again in the afternoon and not stopping until about midnight.