Chapter XXVIII. The Beginning of the End
The right man to conduct the Shenandoah campaign was already in the Army of the Potomac, but it was not until about a week after the failure of the Petersburg mine that circumstances enabled Grant to place General Philip Sheridan in charge of that important task.
Sheridan, like Sherman, had served with Grant in the West and had developed into a brilliant cavalry leader. Indeed, he was the only man in the Northern armies whose record could be compared with that of Jeb Stuart and many other great cavalry commanders in the South. But Grant felt that Sheridan could handle an entire army as well as he had handled the cavalry alone and he soon showed himself fully worthy of this confidence, for from the moment he took over the command of the Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates were compelled to fight for it as they had never fought before.
Up to this time, the war had been conducted with comparatively little destruction of private property on either side. But the moment had now arrived for harsher measures, for Sherman had occupied Atlanta on September 2, 1864, and was preparing to march to the sea coast and cut the Confederacy in two. If Grant's plan of depriving Lee of the fertile valley to the north was to be put in operation, there was no time to lose. Sheridan, accordingly, at once proceeded to attack the Confederates with the utmost vigor, defeating them in two engagements at Winchester and Fisher's Hill, and following up this success by laying waste the fields and ruthlessly destroying all the stores of grain and provisions which might prove useful to Lee's army. For a month or more he continued to sweep through the country practically unchecked. But on October 19.1864, during his absence, his army was surprised and furiously attacked by General Early's men at Cedar Creek, and before long they had the Union troops in a perilous position which threatened to end in their destruction and the recapture of the entire valley.
Sheridan was at Winchester on his way to the front from Washington when the news of this impending disaster reached him and, mounting his horse, he dashed straight across country for the scene of action. He was then, however, fully twenty miles from the field and there seemed but little chance of his reaching it any time to be of any service. Nevertheless, he spurred forward at a breakneck pace and his splendid horse, responding gamely, fairly flew over the ground, racing along mile after mile at killing speed in a lather of foam and sweat, until the battle field was reached just as the Union troops came reeling back, panic-stricken, under cover of a thin line of troops who had at last succeeded in making a stand.
Instantly, the General was among the fugitives ordering them to turn and follow him and inspired by his presence, they wheeled as he dashed down their broken lines and, madly cheering, hurled themselves upon their pursuers. Completely surprised by this unexpected recovery, the Confederates faltered and the Union troops, gathering force as they charged, rolled them back with irresistible fury and finally swept them completely from the field. Indeed, Early's force was so badly shattered and scattered by this overwhelming defeat that it virtually abandoned the Valley and Sheridan continued his work of destruction almost unopposed, until the whole region was so barren that, as he reported, a crow flying across it would have to carry his own provisions or starve to death.
Meanwhile, Sherman had begun to march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, where he intended to get in touch with the navy guarding the coast and then sweep northward to Grant. Behind him lay the Confederate army, formerly commanded by General Joseph Johnston but now led by General Hood, a daring officer who was expected to retrieve Johnston's failure by some brilliant feat of arms. Whether he would attempt this by following Sherman and attacking him at the first favorable moment or take advantage of his departure to turn north and play havoc with Tennessee and the region thus exposed to attack, was uncertain. To meet either of these moves Sherman sent a substantial part of his army to General Thomas at Nashville, Tennessee, and swung off with the rest of his troops toward the sea. Hood instantly advanced against Thomas, and Grant at Petersburg, closely watching the movement saw a great opportunity to dispose of one of the Confederate armies. He, accordingly, ordered Thomas to attack with his whole strength as soon as Hood reached Nashville, but although the Confederates reached that point considerably weakened by a partial defeat inflicted on them by a retreating Union column, Thomas delayed his assault. Days of anxious waiting followed and then Grant hurried General Logan, one of his most trusted officers, to the scene of action with orders to take over the command, unless Thomas immediately obeyed his instructions. In the meantime, however, Thomas, slow but sure, had completed his preparations and, hurling himself upon Hood with a vastly superior force, pursued his retreating columns (Dec. 16, 1864) until they were split into fragments, never again to be reunited as a fighting force.