After defeating the Confederate Army of General Jubal Early at the Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, Major General Phillip Sheridan withdrew his army to the vicinity of Winchester, Virginia, in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. At that location, Sheridan had much shorter supply lines than if he had been farther down the valley. Over the winter of 1864-5, some of Sheridan’s units were dispatched to the Union lines around Petersburg and Richmond; those that remained spent a lot of time dealing with harassment from Colonel John S. Mosby’s Rangers, but saw little other action. Though Early still had troops in the Shenandoah, he did not have a large enough army to take offensive action against Sheridan, and there were no reinforcements available.
In February 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Sheridan to move against Lynchburg, Virginia and destroy as much of the Virginia Central Railroad as possible. After that, Grant wanted Sheridan to head south and join William T. Sherman’s army in the Carolinas, but Sheridan was given some discretion on whether to go to Sherman or instead go to Petersburg and join with Grant and the Army of the Potomac.
On February 27th, Sheridan sent two cavalry divisions under the command of General Wesley Merritt down the valley toward Staunton, Virginia. One division was under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Devlin and the other under Brevet Major General George A. Custer. On March 1st, the Federals were a few miles outside of Staunton, where Jubal Early had his headquarters. Riding into Staunton the next day, Sheridan discovered that Early had left town and headed east with about 1200 men and 11 artillery pieces. Sheridan had a choice to make: he could proceed to Lynchburg or to pursue and engage Early. The Union general did not want to leave Early’s admittedly small force in his rear, so he chose the latter course.
With the Federals in pursuit, Early dug in outside the small town of Waynesboro. Sheridan had sent Devin’s division to destroy a cache of Confederate supplies near Staunton, but was prepared to attack using Custer’s division.
Custer discovered that while the Confederates had a established a line of breastworks complete with artillery, their left flank was in the air and not anchored to the nearby South River. Custer had 1st Brigade commander Colonel Alexander C. M. Pennington dismount three of his five regiments and deploy them into a wooded area between the river and the end of Early’s left flank. Pennington attacked the flank while Custer’s other two brigades attacked the Confederate front, easily carrying the works in a complete rout. Most of Early’s force was captured, along with most of his wagons and supplies, and all 11 cannon. A few stragglers, as well as Early and a few of his staff, managed to escape capture.
The Union victory at the Battle of Waynesboro was the last significant engagement of the war in the Shenandoah Valley. Early managed to reach Petersburg and reported for duty to General Robert E. Lee, but was not given another command. Sheridan continued on to Lynchburg, capturing Charlottesville along the way, and wrecking railroad tracks. Sheridan exercised his discretion and decided to head for Petersburg instead of the Carolinas and Sherman. Sheridan destroyed railroads as well as locks and dams on the James River Canal as he made his way east. On March 19th, Sheridan reached White House landing on the Pamunkey River east of Richmond. Two weeks later, Sheridan’s command would play an important role in the Appomattox Campaign leading up to the surrender of Lee and the end of the war.
Colonel Alexander C.M. Pennington, who led the flanking movement at Waynesboro, had commanded the 3rd New Jersey Cavalry before moving up to command of the 1st Brigade of Custer’s division. He wrote this report of his brigade’s action at Waynesboro and in the movement to White House:
HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., THIRD DIVISION, CAVALRY CORPS,
Near White House Landing, Va., March 19, 1865.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of my brigade during the recent cavalry expedition, from February 27 to present date:
At 6 o’clock on the morning of February 27, in pursuance of orders from headquarters Third Cavalry Division, I broke camp on the Romney pike, two miles from Winchester, Va., and marched in rear of the Second Brigade, Colonel Wells commanding; took the Valley pike and reached Woodstock, thirty miles from Winchester, about 7 p.m., and bivouacked for the night.
At 6 a.m. on the 28th resumed the march, my brigade having the advance of the division. Passed through Edenburg and Mount Jackson, and upon reaching the North Fork of the Shenandoah forded that stream with the brigade. The stream was extremely high, owing to the recent rains, and the current was very strong. One man was carried away and drowned, and many others would have been drowned had it not been for the superhuman efforts of a number of officers and men upon the bank, who rushed into the stream, and at great personal risk brought them to the shore. Among those who were conspicuous in their efforts to save life upon this occasion were Maj. Thomas McClong and Doctor Helm, of the Third New Jersey Cavalry. After crossing the stream I moved on to Lacey’s Spring, thirty miles from Woodstock, and bivouacked for the night.
Left Lacey’s Spring at 6 a.m. on the 1st of March and bivouacked seven miles north of Staunton. The next day, at 6 a.m., marched through Staunton, following the Second Brigade, which had the advance, and took the road to Waynesborough. Upon reaching Waynesborough the enemy, under General Early, were found strongly posted on the rising ground between us and the town, with artillery in position. Halting my command I reported to General Custer for orders, and was directed by him to dismount three regiments, and to make an effort to turn the enemy’s left flank through a piece of wood which he pointed out to me. Dismounting the Second Ohio, Third New Jersey, and First Connecticut Cavalry, and leaving the Second New York and the battalion of Eighteenth Pennsylvania in reserve, I moved to the edge of a piece of woods which concealed the command from the enemy, and which was a convenient point from which to advance, and then proceeded to reconnoiter the ground in my front, with the view to find the best concealed route by which to move upon the enemy. This object being attained I ordered forward the column, which advanced, concealed from the view of the enemy, to within about 100 yards of the woods through which we were to charge. Halting for a moment to take down a fence in my front I ordered the command forward, the Second Ohio Cavalry leading at a charge, and followed by the Third New Jersey and First Connecticut Cavalry. The movement was completely successful. The entire line of the enemy was thrown into confusion and obliged to retreat, many throwing away their arms and accouterments to enable them to do so more effectually. As a result of this movement the enemy lost about 1,500 prisoners (enlisted men), about 70 officers, and 11 pieces of artillery, about 150 army wagons and ambulances, and 14 stand of colors. The Second Ohio Cavalry captured 5 pieces of artillery and 435 prisoners; the First Connecticut Cavalry captured 67 prisoners. My command, being dismounted, was not able to follow up the enemy beyond South River, across which they retreated. The Second Brigade, Colonel Wells commanding, took up the chase at that point. The Second New York Cavalry, Col. A. M. Randol, and a battalion of the Eighteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry (Captain Nieman), belonging to my brigade, did not take an active part in the affair, but were massed and held in reserve. The retreat was so sudden that the affair was over before they could be called up. The First Connecticut also destroyed 52 stand of arms and a large quantity of small-arm ammunition. In this affair my command had but one man wounded; this was the only casualty. I moved with the division that night (March 2), through Rockfish Gap, and encamped on the Charlottesville road.
On the 3d of March we moved from camp at 6 a.m. and reached Charlottesville at 3 p.m. and encamped; the Second New York Cavalry was detached and ordered to North Garden, on Charlottesville and Lynchburg Railroad, and the remainder of the brigade was detailed to destroy the iron bridge across the Rivanna River at Charlottesville Remained at Charlottesville until the morning of the 6th of March, being engaged while there in tearing up the railroad track and completing the destruction of the bridge.
We left Charlottesville at 7 a.m. on the 6th instant, in rear of the wagon train, and marched to Rockfish River, which we reached at 7 o’clock on the morning of the 7th instant, being on the road forty-eight hours, marching a distance of twenty-five miles. At 11 a.m. again took up the march, still guarding the wagon train and passing through Lovingston, encamped at 11 p.m. about three miles from Arrington Station, on the Charlottesville and Lynchburg Railroad, and picketed the road in that vicinity.
On the morning of the 8th, at 6 a.m., guarding the train to Arrington, and then taking the advance, we marched to New Market, at the mouth of Tye River, when we encamped for the night. The following day, March 9, I moved at 6 a.m. and encamped at the crossing of the Columbia road with the Hardware River, five miles from Scottsville.
Broke camp at 6 a.m. [10th] and marched in advance of the division to Columbia, on the James River, reaching it at 1 p.m.; encamped and remained till the 11th instant. Leaving Columbia at 7 a.m. on the 12th I proceeded to Frederick’s Hall, on the Virginia Central Railroad, bringing up the rear of the division; arrived at Frederick’s Hall at 10 p.m. and encamped. Engaged during the 13th in tearing up the railroad track, &c. Moved to Ground Squirrel bridge, on the South Anna River, on the 14th, leaving camp at 6 a.m. Before reaching it we learned that General Early, with an escort, had passed along only an hour before us. I sent the First Connecticut and a battalion of the Second Ohio Cavalry in pursuit. They came up with the party, but succeeded in taking a few prisoners only, the enemy having dispersed on hearing the shots and the cheering in their rear. The First Connecticut and Second New York marched to Ashland, and returned to Ground Squirrel bridge; they reported no enemy in the vicinity. Moved with the brigade to Ashland at 6 a.m. [15th], following the Second Brigade. Received information on arriving that General Longstreet, with a large force of infantry, was in the vicinity, about five miles from Ashland. I sent the Second Ohio Cavalry out upon the Telegraph road, with orders to form on the right of the road, and the Second New York was directed to form on the left of the road, in line with the Second Ohio. The Third New Jersey Cavalry was placed in position, mounted, to the left and rear of the Second New York, behind a piece of woods. The First Connecticut Cavalry was sent down the railroad, and their left connected with the right of the Second New York, when the Second Ohio was withdrawn soon after. I had, previous to forming, received an order to draw in my command and withdraw to the north side of the South Anna River as soon as the Second Brigade of the division, which was then passing through the station, had cleared the town. It not being thought advisable to bring on an engagement, the enemy not pressing me, I remained at Ashland till sundown, sending out reconnaissances toward the enemy on the different roads, to ascertain their whereabouts and strength. The Second Ohio was relieved from the line of battle and sent down the Telegraph road, and its place in the line was filled up by the Second New York. On the return of the Second Ohio it was placed in reserve at the railroad crossing. The First Connecticut Cavalry then connected with the Second New York.
The First Connecticut Cavalry, commanded on this occasion by Lieut. Col. E. W. Whitaker, First Connecticut Cavalry, acting assistant inspector-general Third Cavalry Division, sent out a reconnaissance
of one squadron toward the enemy from the right of my line, while a battalion of the Second New York moved down the Telegraph road. The squadron of the First Connecticut, accompanied by Lieutenant- Colonel Whitaker, was ambushed by infantry and cavalry, losing 1 officer (Lieut. J. W. Clark) killed and 2 men missing. This reconnaissance ascertained that the enemy were in force, and that they had both infantry and cavalry. At sundown, as I was about retiring in pursuance to orders received from General Custer, the enemy made a spirited attack upon the line of the Second New York with infantry. They were held in check till the Second New York, which was to bring up the rear, retired. They did not follow as I fell back. The Second New York lost 1 officer and 2 men wounded and 1 man killed, and had 22 horses so badly wounded that they had to be abandoned on the march. Encamped that night north of the North Anna River, near Mount Carmel Church. The next day marched to Mangohick, thence to King William Court-House on the 17th, and to the White House on the 18th.
During this trip my command marched 400 miles, both men and horses subsisting entirely off the country. During the expedition the Second Ohio Cavalry captured 7 pieces of artillery, 1 caisson, 200 stand of small-arms, 7 ambulances, 25 mules, 50 horses, 24 sets of harness, 425 enlisted men, 10 commissioned officers, and destroyed one mile and three-fourths of railroad track, 4 depot buildings, 1 railroad bridge (length 400 feet), and 25 hogsheads of tobacco. The First Connecticut Cavalry captured 67 prisoners, and assisted in destroying I railroad bridge across the Rivanna River at Charlottesville; it also participated in the destruction of the Gordonsville and Lynchburg and Virginia Central Railroads, and at Waynesborough destroyed 67 stand of small-arms, which they captured. The Second New York captured 2 commissioned officers and 17 men and 80 horses, and destroyed the station-house, water-tanks, freight-house (containing Confederate stores), and 2 culverts at North Garden, 2 fine railroad bridges over the North and South Fork of the Hardware River, each about 200 feet in length; also a large railroad bridge over Rockfish River, and the station-house and water-tanks at Rockfish and Covesville Station. The regiment also assisted in the destruction of the large wooden railroad bridge over the Mechum River; also destroyed one mile and a half of track near North Garden. The Third New Jersey participated in the capture of Early’s army at Waynesborough, captured 1 gun at Charlottesville, abandoned by the enemy, and, exclusive of the Waynesborough affair, they have captured 7 prisoners, 60 horses, and 15 mules. It also assisted in destroying the railroad bridge at Charlottesville over the Rivanna River, and in tearing up the railroad track on the Gordonsville and Lynchburg and Virginia Central Railroad.
To recapitulate, the brigade has captured 8 pieces of artillery, 1 caisson, 267 stand of arms, 7 ambulances, 190 horses, 40 mules, 24 sets of harness, 516 enlisted men prisoners, 12 commissioned officers. The command has destroyed 5 large railroad bridges, about 5 miles of railroad track, 4 railroad station houses and outbuildings, 25 hogsheads of tobacco, and 1 cotton mill.
My casualties were as follows, viz: 1 officer killed, 1 officer wounded, 4 enlisted men killed (2 accidental), 4 men wounded, and 16 men missing. The horses of this command have suffered greatly from hoof-rot, this disease having broken out and spread in the command to a great extent, rendering several hundred horses completely unserviceable.
My regimental commanders, Col. A. M. Randol, Second New York Cavalry; Lieut. Col. A. B. Nettleton, commanding Second Ohio Cavalry; Lieut. Col. William P. Robeson, commanding Third New Jersey Cavalry; Maj. L. P. Goodwin, commanding First Connecticut Cavalry, and the men of their commands, deserve great credit for the zeal and energy displayed by them in performing all duties assigned to them.
Lieutenant-Colonel Nettleton, Second Ohio Cavalry, and Lieut. William Robertson, Second Ohio Cavalry, acting brigade commissary, had their horses shot under them at the affair at Waynesborough, Va.
The Second Ohio Cavalry, which led the charge, the Third New Jersey, and First Connecticut Cavalry, deserve praise for the creditable manner in which they made the assault on that day.
I desire here to render my thanks to my staff officers–Capt. Charles H. Miller, assistant adjutant-general; Capt. R. E. Lawder, Second Ohio Cavalry, acting assistant inspector-general; Lieut. James Moffitt, provost-marshal of brigade; Dr. W. W. Bowlby, surgeon-in-chief of brigade; Capt. A. C. Houghton, Second Ohio Cavalry, aide-de-camp; Lieuts. C. E. B. Voege, Third New Jersey Cavalry, S. N. Hinman, First Connecticut Cavalry, and Ray T. Gordon, Second New York Cavalry, acting aides-de-camp–for the able manner in which they performed their duties and for the promptitude with which they carried all orders intrusted to them.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
A. C. M. PENNINGTON,
Colonel, Commanding Brigade.
Capt. L. W. BARNHART,
Actg. Asst. Adjt. Gen., Third Division, Cavalry Corps.
Civil War Memoirs of General Philip Sheridan by Philip Sheridan
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLVI Part 1
Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley by Wesley Merritt. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV.
The Civil War: A Narrative Red River to Appomattox by Shelby Foote