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Sheridan in the Shenandoah: 2nd Edition (Stackpole)

af Edward J. Stackpole

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Analyzes the events of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 and Sheridan's crucial role.
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General Edward Stackpole was a distinguished (DSC, Silver Star, three Purple Hearts) WWI veteran who inherited the family publishing business; he caught the authorship bug later in life and wrote a series of American Civil War histories. Sheridan in the Shenandoah was originally issued in 1961; this is a 2nd edition from 1992. Stackpole is no Shelby Foote or Bruce Catton, but he’s quite readable and gives a clear explanation of the 1864 campaign that started out with Jubal Early’s Confederate army making a serious threat on Washington DC and ended with that army completely crushed and Early in disgrace.

Stackpole narrates the 1864 campaign chronologically – Union general David Hunter’s incompetence led to Early being able to advance up the Shenandoah Valley to within sight of the dome of the US Capitol; Grant, besieging Lee at Petersburg, grew frustrated over the repeated failings of Union generals in the Shenandoah and appointed Phillip Sheridan as commander, over the objections of politicians in Washington. Sheridan turned and repeatedly defeated Early, driving him down the valley – including turning a disaster at Cedar Creek into victory.

Stackpole credits Sheridan’s success to his use of cavalry and artillery, and Early’s failure to his poor use of cavalry. According to Stackpole, Union commanders prior to Sheridan tended to divide their cavalry up into small groups – used as escorts for officers and as long-distance pickets (sometimes miles away from the units they were supposed to be guarding). Sheridan concentrated the cavalry into a large force, and found cavalry commanders as aggressive as their Confederate counterparts. Stackpole also claims Sheridan was aggressive with his artillery, supposedly actually leading advances with artillery units and instructing artillery commanders not to worry about losing guns to the enemy – get up close, deliver a devastating barrage, and get away with the guns if possible or at least with the gunners. However, in his accounts of the individual Valley battles Stackpole never gives an instance of Sheridan actually using this tactic.

Stackpole also doesn’t explain very well why the Shenandoah Valley was important; it was certainly an agriculturally productive area and Sheridan’s orders to devastate it recognized that. However, the geography was also critical. The Valley was separated from the eastern Virginia theater by the Blue Ridge Mountains, which meant a sizeable army could operate there without the other side being aware of it. This situation greatly favored the Confederacy – the northern end of the valley debouched close to major objectives – Washington DC, Baltimore and eastern Pennsylvania. It’s true a Federal army could also move south down the valley, but the geography is such as it goes south the valley moves away from Richmond and the main theater of operations and a Federal army leaving the valley at the south end would not be especially close to any Confederate target. Thus the Confederacy benefitted from “interior lines”.

Stackpole is unbiased in his treatment of Confederates – for 1961, when the original edition came out. The Confederate generals are generally “gallant” and “brave”, in the “Lost Cause” tradition. Stackpole is fairly critical of Early, though. The second edition – the one I’m reviewing here – has a commentary by historian D. Scott Hartwig, noting that Stackpole depended heavily on secondary sources, and was uncritical in accepting various accounts made in memoirs published 20 or more years after the fact; in particular those of Confederate general Gordon.

Excellent maps, in text near the battles they’re illustrating. Other illustrations are “general interest”, also incorporated in the text rather than as separate plates. The bibliography seems rather sparse, and, as noted above, is mostly secondary sources. Worth a read but I wouldn’t use it as your only account of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. ( )
1 stem setnahkt | Apr 13, 2019 |
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Analyzes the events of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 and Sheridan's crucial role.

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