Richmond's Scrutiny of the Shenandoah Campaign 1864
Brigadier General William "Extra Billy" Smith resigned his commission in the Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of the Pennsylvania Campaign of 1863. Influenced by either the adverse comments made of his performance during the battle of Gettysburg through his division commander, Major General Jubal Early, the political opportunity open to him in ascending to the Governor's seat in Richmond or the combination of both; helped him seize the moment in the fall of 1864 to scrutinize and question the management of the late campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.
In early October, he took pen to paper and wrote his former commanding general, Robert E. Lee with regards to a change in command having been convinced the operations conducted by his former division commander certainly warranted his removal. The governor had received a letter from an officer he wished to keep anonymous and written on October 2, 1864 which painted a bleak picture of the morale of the Confederate soldier within his command.
He explained that just the day before this entire corps had marched from Waynesboro, Virginia in a cold, hard driving rain, equivalent perhaps only to the Federal "Mud March" in January of 1863. Many of Early's soldiers were shoeless and without blankets; many others without weapons to fight. Shoes for the army had been expected on the very day they had marched, leaving them behind. Morale became so low that the mere sight of Lieutenant General Early evoked no salute, nor cheer from officers or men, only permitted to pass on by taking no notice whatsoever. Having once possessed the confidence of the army, it proved to all as nothing more than delusion before he possessed it no more. Writing in more detail to the governor's seat, this officer had added further that their commanding general had been taken completely by surprise at Winchester on the 19th of September.
Since the campaign began General Early had managed to lose 25 pieces of artillery on the battlefields of Winchester and Fisher's Hill, perhaps not surpassed by any Confederate Army to date since Pemberton at Vicksburg. This unidentified officer, after consulting with many others believed a replacement would be greatly beneficial to securing the Confederacy's bread basket. The governor felt the evidence presented, justified him in asking for his relief.
Having revealed all of this, Governor Smith now called the question as to who Early's successor ought to be. Without hindering his position by moving him to the Valley, it was suggested that Major General John C. Breckenridge take command; if not him, Major General John McCausland or Brigadier General John Echols all capable of securing that sector of Virginia. It was the governor's assessment by these reports that operations in the southwestern part of his state to be virtually over with.
General Lee wrote back four days later with regret to the grave charges made against his general officer. From the distance of his Petersburg headquarters it was his better judgment that the operations in the Shenandoah Valley had been well handled. The commanding general felt he had no means of judging the situation except from what he had personally witnessed of General Early serving along the line at Petersburg. Of the acts charged against him, Lee felt he could obtain no information unless he could have the name of the officer who wrote the letter. Justice to General Early required he be informed of the accusations and of the name of his accuser.
Smith remained convinced that the entire campaign entrusted to this general officer had been a most disastrous failure. He found Lee's comments on the military operations in the Valley to be conducted well, yet feeling no restrain in holding his thoughts that it appeared to be a rather restrictive commendation. When this former brigadier general sought an interview to freely converse upon the peril which Early's reverses had brought upon that portion of his state, if not the entire state, he did so from the capacity of being Governor of Virginia. In that, perhaps he revealed his hand regarding old wounds and stained honor.
At the time of Governor Smith's initial talks with General Lee, the commanding general was agreeable to changing the commander if a successor could be agreed upon in Richmond. According to Smith, Lee at that time spoke in that the propriety of a successor depended upon the consulted public sentiment and if that called for change it ought to be made whether General Early was to blame or not. Now, revealing what the state executive felt was his trump card, he brought out in further correspondence that he had been taking these negative sentiments from a wide variety of sources that there was much dissatisfaction among the people of the Shenandoah Valley.
Lee courteously wrote a response back to his former brigadier general, now Governor of Virginia stating that he would forward his letters onto the War Department where Secretary Seddon whose area of responsibility was better suited for this request of his. His only regret was failing to make the governor understand in reference to the weight of public sentiment as to the capacity and merits of a commanding officer. If he should lose the confidence of his troops he should be relieved without regard to the cause; but the general public not privy to the secrecy necessary in military operations prevents them from having all the facts essential to a fair and intelligent opinion.
The commanding general made himself perfectly clear during his second round of exchanged letters. He wished the governor to know that he did not regard the facts upon which he was drawing this opinion from. Only knowing what others had been telling Smith, like him both have to be dependent upon the accuracy of the information received and the character of the informant. For instance, this undisclosed officer who wrote that the lieutenant general had been surprised at Winchester; Major General Breckenridge who was named as Early's replacement having been there, stated that the dispositions General Early made were judicious and successful until rendered abortive. He also spoke of General Early's capacity and energy in high terms regarding the same campaign.
The movement from Waynesboro on October 1st may have been carrying out the instructions of Lee himself to make a forward movement against the enemy in order to keep the enemy's command in one piece and prevent it from scattering and raising destruction across the Valley. Lee was not going argue these points as that the safety of the army and defense of the country as a whole demanded it.
On October 14, 1864 just five days before the infamous Battle of Cedar Creek which virtually closed off the Valley to Confederate control, General Lee forwarded Governor Smith's letters onto the Secretary of War who endorsed and sent his recommendation to the President. None of which were able to see Governor Smith's concern in removing General Early from the conducted operations in the Shenandoah Valley.
Lieutenant General Jubal Early maintained the confidence of his commanding general until the near close of the war when public sentiment finally caught up with General Robert E. Lee. The western part of the state was turned over to Brigadier General Echols and Early was instructed to wait at home for an explanation from his superior. On March 30, 1865, General Lee had reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that Early did not command the united and willing co-operation which was so essential to success.
With the end of the war drawing near, General Early managed to slip south into Mexico only to return long after the dust of four bloody years had settled. Governor Smith, perhaps influenced to exercise his political muscle on an old nemesis received what he desired only too late for satisfaction. Shaped by opinion and established by fact, Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early represented the final chapter of Confederate military operations with the 1864 history of the Shenandoah Valley; as we know it today.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com