Patchan, Scott C. The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7–September 19, 1864. (Savas Beatie: 2013). 553 + xxi, 7 appendices, 81 images, 22 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-1-932714-98-2, $34.95
I 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 12–20, 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.