In the spring of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief of the Union armies devised a plan of concerted action to bring down the Confederacy. As part of that strategy, Grant aimed to destroy General Robert E. Lee’s supply source for his Army of Northern Virginia in western Virginia and to use military activity there as an extended turning movement to threaten Lee from the west. In this outstanding study, Richard R. Duncan offers a riveting overview of these military operations as well as their impact on the civilian population, shedding light on an often overlooked chapter of the Civil War in Virginia.
Initially, Duncan explains, Grant proposed a three-pronged pincer movement to strike at the depots and transportation system in southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley’s breadbasket. The Army of the Kanawha, under General George Crook, struck at the New River Bridge to cut the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, while a subordinate cavalry expedition lead by General William Averell moved against the saltworks and lead mines in southwestern Virginia. Meanwhile, General Franz Sigel advanced up the Shenandoah Valley to threaten Staunton and form a junction with Crook. If all went well, the combined army was then to advance on Lynchburg.
As Duncan shows, these Federal operations proved only partially successful. Despite a victory at the battle of Cloyds Mountain and the destruction of the New River Bridge, Grant’s pincer movement faltered in the Shenandoah Valley at the battle of New Market. A renewal of the initiative by General David Hunter in late May and early June briefly secured Federal objectives and dominance over western Virginia. But General Jubal Early stopped the Army of West Virginia at the gates of Lynchburg, and Confederate forces went on to regain the Shenandoah Valley and even to threaten Washington.
Unlike most works on the eastern theater, Lee’s Endangered Left emphasizes the high price civilians paid for these campaigns. The Federal troops’ need for food and horses and the Union objective of crippling the South’s ability to wage war brought serious losses to Confederate and Unionist civilians alike, reflecting the increasingly destructive nature of the war. The devastation civilians experienced in western Virginia, Duncan asserts, would later reverberate in the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, by Confederate troops and in the sufferings inflicted upon Georgians by William T. Sherman.
Providing a much-needed overview of the first part of the Virginia campaign, Lee’s Endangered Leftthoroughly integrates the military operations in western Virginia into the larger canvas of the entire eastern theater. Civil War historians and buffs alike will welcome Duncan's work.
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