Civil War Book Review: The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7–September 19, 1864

by Jim Epperson on January 28, 2015 · 5 comments

Patchan, Scott C. The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7September 19, 1864. (Savas Beatie: 2013). 553 + xxi, 7 appendices, 81 images, 22 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-1-932714-98-2, $34.95

patchan-coverI own a lot of books on the Civil War: General histories, reference works, memoirs, campaign studies, books on naval actions, books on esoterica such as prisoners, railroads and economics, political studies, books on slavery, many biographies, and more than a few battle histories. (I’ve even read most of them.) The book under review may be the best battle history I have ever read.

This book is a natural sequel to the author’s Shenandoah Summer, published by Nebraska Press in 2007. A third volume is planned, but the specifics of what it will cover are still up in the air (this is based on email discussion with the publisher as of 1/2/15.) Shenandoah Summer covers the period from July 11, 1864 to right before Sheridan’s arrival in command of the newly formed Middle Military Division.

Part of what makes the book under review so good is that the author spends a lot of time and pages—and spends them well—setting up the situation which existed at the time of Sheridan’s attack on Early’s force near Winchester on September 19, 1864. Both armies maneuvered across the Lower Valley landscape, searching for an opening, and there were several sharp fights at places such as Guard Hill, Charlestown, and Berryville. Much is often made of Sheridan’s numerical edge, which was huge (once the entire force was assembled), but the fiery Union commander used the time before launching his attack to learn about the polyglot force under his command. One thing he learned was that his cavalry completely dominated the Confederate horsemen, and could go toe-to-toe with most of the Confederate infantry as well. Like almost all commanders in the Civil War, Sheridan over-estimated his opposing force, so he was waiting for some recently arrived Confederate reinforcements to return to Richmond. Patchan also reminds the reader of the political situation which existed in the late summer of 1864—the Federal cause could not well sustain a disaster in the Valley, even after Sherman’s capture of Atlanta. As for the Confederate side, Patchan twice quotes Early’s postwar comment that the 1864 Shenandoah campaign was all “bluff.” Unfortunately, Early allowed his opponent’s apparent disinclination to fight to convince him that Sheridan was overly cautious, writing in a postwar memoir, “The events of the last month had satisfied me that the commander opposed to me was without enterprise and possessed an excessive caution which amounted to timidity.”

The heart of the book consists of Chapters 1220, which tell the tale of the immediate prelude to the battle and then the battle itself. We read of the role of Rebecca Wright, the young Quaker Unionist who lives in Winchester and gets word to Sheridan that General Anderson, with Kershaw’s infantry division and Cutshaw’s artillery battalion, has left the Valley to return to Richmond—this was a key prerequisite in Sheridan’s mind for any attack. In my opinion, Patchan’s great skill in constructing his narrative is the right mixture of “large formation narrative” vs. “individual narrative;” in other words, we are given a clear outline of the general flow of the battle, interspersed with enough personal accounts to keep the narrative lively. The author is especially good at using informative footnotes, i.e., using his footnotes to explain issues that are unclear even to him, and why he came to the conclusion he did (but still presenting the other possibilities), or even to simply provide more detail. Because there are almost no Confederate reports on the battle, probably because their command structure was badly hit by casualties (Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, Brig. Gen. Archibald Godwin, Brig. Gen. Zebulon York, and Col. George S. Patton, were all killed or mortally wounded), Patchan has found and used a plethora of newspaper accounts and other postwar writings to construct the story of the battle from the Confederate side. He does a good job of showing how several aspects of the terrain east of Winchester gave the Confederates some advantages or even opportunities to discomfit the Federal attack.

For those who are not familiar with Third Winchester (or, Opequon Creek, as many Federals called it), here is a brief outline. Sheridan’s force was concentrated around Berryville and Summit Point, some 16 miles to the southwest of Harpers Ferry. Early’s infantry was extended from Winchester to near Bunker Hill, over a front of about 11 miles. Sheridan sent all three infantry corps—Sixth Corps (Wright), Nineteenth Corps (Emory), and the Army of West Virginia (Crook)—through Berryville Canyon to attack Early’s right flank, located more or less due east of Winchester. The Federal cavalry forced crossings of Opequon Creek further north and moved against Early’s left. The Federal advance was slowed considerably by forcing the entire infantry force along a single road that passed through a narrow defile. This delay allowed Early to concentrate his own infantry to contest and even, briefly, halt the Federal attack. This shift to his right left a weak Confederate force to contend with the Yankee horsemen, who pressed southwards toward the left flank of the Rebel line. Just as the Federal horse began to make their presence felt, Crook’s Army of West Virginia launched a third and decisive attack against the Confederate infantry. Early was forced to retreat in some disorder.

The book is not without flaws, and while they do not detract much from the overall quality of the narrative, I do believe they should be mentioned. Like several recent Savas-Beattie books I have read, it was indifferently edited. (The reviewer is a professional editor for a mathematics journal, so this is a bit of a pet peeve.) I don’t say this to offend the author or the publisher, and it obviously is no reflection on the quality of the research underlying the book; I say it in the hope that the problem can be solved. I’m sure it is a cost issue—getting people to read final copy closely and mark all errors for the author’s attention is not cheap. I found several grammar errors, and one footnote that was simply wrong (the text cited an early 20th century history of the campaign, but the footnote was only to the OR). The most serious problem, in my opinion, concerns a series of circa 1885 photos of the battlefield that were supposed to illustrate the narrative (the battlefield today is all shopping centers and suburban sprawl). The quality of reproduction of a few of the photos is, in my opinion, very poor, and it might have been better to use some form of enhancement—either digital or via a graphic artist. Again, this would involve a cost.

But I do not want my criticisms—all editorial in nature—to mar what is intended as a very positive review. This is a great book. In several places, including a kind of summary chapter, Patchan comments on various mistakes made by both commanders, such as Early’s excursion with two divisions to attack the B&O railroad at Martinsburg (which gave Sheridan his opening and caused him to change his battle plan from turning the Confederate right flank to going straight at Ramseur’s Division astride the Berryville Pike) and Sheridan’s decision to funnel his entire infantry force through the narrow confines of the so-called Berryville Canyon (although Patchan makes clear that Sixth Corps commander Horatio Wright exacerbated this situation by bringing the corps trains with him, in direct violation of orders). The division of Federal cavalry under Brig. Gen. James Wilson missed a day-long opportunity to turn Early’s right flank, a failure that ultimately allowed the Confederates to escape. Patchan points out that, while Sheridan did have a large numerical edge, many other Federal commanders had been unable to win battles with numerical superiority—Sheridan was able to get tired and worn-out troops to continue to press forward until the numbers became decisive. The author also suggests that, by keeping two infantry corps and two cavalry divisions away from the Army of the Potomac, Early may well have accomplished the ultimate purpose of sending him to the Shenandoah. The reviewer concedes that point, but is of the opinion that, by campaigning in the open terrain of the Valley, Early’s force was more vulnerable to heavy losses. A stalemate in both the Valley and at Richmond-Petersburg would be a better outcome for the Confederacy than decisive defeat in the Valley and stalemate in the siege. Grant, it is true, would have had more troops to work with in the Petersburg lines, but Lee would have had more men to entrench in front of him. It is worth noting that the decisive breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2nd was made by Sixth Corps.

The treatment of the Battle of Fisher’s Hill—almost an appendix of sorts to the fight at Winchester—is covered briefly in Chapter 21. I would have liked to see a map of that action, but I do understand that maps cost money.

The book also has a large number of Appendices, detailing the organizations of the armies, strength and casualty estimates, and a very nice discussion of the soldier accounts from the Shenandoah Campaign.

Anyone with an interest in the 1864 campaign in Virginia should read this book. Not tomorrow—today. It is that good.


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Theodore P. Savas January 28, 2015 at 9:19 am

Jim,

Many thanks for taking the time and trouble to pen such an in-depth, balanced, and positive review. I am sure Mr. Patchan will be very pleased to read it, and we are all glad you enjoyed it. It represents Scott’s lifetime of work and deep knowledge of the campaign.

I wanted to add a brief note on the few editing errors and handful of contemporary photos you mentioned. In fact, we do use (for nearly all our books) a final copy editor. And you are right, it is expensive and I know many publishing companies no longer use them. Unfortunately, they are are not all created equal, and once one is finished, we can’t then go back and proof the proofing, so to speak. In other words, the process has to end. Mistakes can and do creep in or are left in. (Over the years I have fired or simply no longer used many editors for this very reason.) On occasion, the designer finds something overlooked, or even creates an issue that was not originally there. (Making books has lots of hands in the kitchen.)

I add all this because don’t want any readers to get the impression that an author’s manuscript is simply formatted and published. Most of our authors will happily tell you how much time and editing goes into their work, and that it is a long and often exhausting (and frustrating) process.

The contemporary photos were in awful shape and were in fact digitally enhanced with Photoshop, etc. It is the best we could do with offset printing with the tech we use. We decided they added more to the narrative even in their poor condition than to leave them out.

Thanks again for the wonderful review. We deeply appreciate the time and effort you put into this one and wish other reviewers would take a cue from you.

Ted

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James F. Epperson January 28, 2015 at 9:40 am

Thanks for the background. Having published a math text, I get quite an education in the process with each edition! And there is a huge variance in quality—the copy-editor on the last edition was superb. The one on the previous edition was less than helpful.

I wonder if the following might help: Right before going to press, send a copy of the manuscript to someone you trust—perhaps another one of your authors—for a final read-through. (No, I am not volunteering—my plate is past full.) As an author, this person is hopefully going to look at the manuscript from the perspective of, “Would I want my book published with this error in it?” Plus, as an author of a CW book, they have enough base knowledge to catch obvious errors such as the death date of Robert Rodes. There is the issue of compensation and cost, of course.

Anyway, this book was a joy to read and learn from, which is about all you can ask for. And the maps were plentiful and well done—something I should have put in the review itself.

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Theodore P. Savas January 28, 2015 at 10:33 am

Hi Jim,

Thanks. Actually, we have tried that. The logistics don’t work, nor does the math. Some authors do volunteer to read, but they are not editors themselves and so are reading more for pleasure, not for proofing. And what is bad grammar varies editor to editor, author to author. In addition, this route consumes weeks or even months that are simply not and can’t be built into the schedule. And if you pay them to do do a final read, the cost per project becomes unmanageable.

Thanks on the map observation. Maybe Chris can work that into your review?

Ted

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Brad Butkovich January 31, 2015 at 6:45 am

Yes, I thought it was a fantastic book. Third Winchester/Opequon was one of those battles I thought interesting, but knew nothing about other than the highly detailed but confusing map in the Atlas of the Official Records. Having read Scott’s book, I feel like I know the ebb and flow of the battle perfectly. It couldn’t be more clear. At least Scott’s interpretation of the battle. And the reason I say that is, I enjoyed and respected the fact that Scott mentions in his notes where past studies differ from his conclusions. The text flowed very well, changing from an army/corp/division level perspective to an individual first-person account seamlessly. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.

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Jim Epperson January 31, 2015 at 12:44 pm

One thing I really liked was that Patchan spent time on the preliminary minor actions. Most accounts of the battle and even the campaign don’t do that. And the narrative is just jaw-dropping clear.

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