150 Years Ago This Week: Battle of Waynesboro

February/March 1865

As February 1865 drew to a close, the voters in Tennessee approved a new state constitution which included the abolition of slavery and repudiation of all Confederate debts. Across the state line in Kentucky, the state legislature rejected the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, in compliance with orders from Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant at Petersburg, sent a force of 10,000 Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt south from Winchester with orders to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River Canal, take Lynchburg east of the Blue Ridge and then either join forces with Maj. Gen. William Sherman in North Carolina, or return to Winchester. To oppose the Union troopers, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early has only two weakened brigades of Confederate infantry and a few pieces of artillery.

In South Carolina, Gen. Sherman wrote to Confederate Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, commanding cavalry, of the murder of Union foragers by Southern soldiers. Gen. Hampton responded that, while he was unaware of any specific instances to which Gen. Sherman referred, he had ordered his soldiers to shoot on sight any Union troops caught burning people’s homes. He advised Gen. Sherman, “this order will remain in force so long as you disgrace the profession of arms by allowing your men to destroy private dwellings.” Gen. Hampton was especially incensed; on entering Columbia on Feb. 17, Gen. Sherman’s men had destroyed Gen. Hampton’s home and his fine library.

As the month of March 1865 opened, Gen. Merritt’s Union troopers caught up with the rear guard of Gen. Early’s forces on the Valley Turnpike at Mount Crawford, which precipitated a brief but sharp fight.

The next day, March 2, the Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. George Custer reached the main body of Gen. Early’s force at Waynesboro. There, the Union cavalry attacked the Confederates and completely routed Gen. Early’s troops. Although Gen. Early and his staff managed to escape, more than a thousand of the Southern soldiers were captured.

Gen. Custer and his men started herding the Confederate troops and more than 200 supply wagons east of the Blue Ridge towards Charlottesville. Gen. Early and his staff began riding east towards Richmond. The battle of Waynesboro marked the end of the last military campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.

The same day as the battle at Waynesboro, Gen. Robert E. Lee sent a message through the lines at Petersburg to Gen. Grant, suggesting that the two of them hold a “military convention to try to reach a satisfactory adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties.” Gen. Lee’s overtures was the result of a conversation between Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Maj. Gen. Edward Ord, one of Gen. Meade’s corps commanders, in which Gen. Ord reportedly told Gen. Longstreet that Gen. Grant might respond favorably to such an invitation.

In Washington on March 3, the U.S. Congress passed an act establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. This body, known by its more common name — the Freedmen’s Bureau — was to have overall supervisory powers over those in the South dislocated by the war and in need of temporary assistance.

The same day, Gen. Grant received instructions from President Lincoln concerning Gen. Lee’s peace overture. Gen. Grant was ordered not to have any conference with Gen. Lee unless it is to accept the surrender of his army or on some other purely military matter. The president made it clear that all political issues were to be settled by him personally. With the destruction of Gen. Early’s forces at Waynesboro, Gen. Sheridan began moving his troops east of the Blue Ridge. On March 3, Union troops occupied Charlottesville.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.