William W. Averell had worked wonders organizing and training the cavalry in the Department of West Virginia dating back to 1863. He had been sentenced to the remote department after being relieved of his command at the end of the Chancellorsville Campaign. By the spring of 1864, Averell had conducted several successful operations including the Battle of Droop Mountain and his Salem Raid. That spring he led the cavalry portion of General George Crook’s raid against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad and failed to reach the vital Confederate salt and lead mines, being repulsed by Confederate Generals William E. “Grumble” Jones and John Hunt Morgan. Averell returned to West Virginia with Crook, until Major General David Hunter summoned the combined force to the Shenandoah Valley in late May.
Crook and Averell joined Hunter at Staunton on June 7. Hunter took a liking to Averell and the cavalryman served as one of Hunter’s primary consultants during the march to Lynchburg. However, when the expedition failed, Hunter and Crook, blamed Averell, the former citing “the stupidity and conceit of that fellow Averell… of whom I unfortunately had at the time a very high opinion, and trusted him when I should not have done so.” While Averell’s advice proved impractical, Hunter’s slow march and repeated delays were the true cause of his failure to sack Lynchburg. Unfortunately for Averell, Grant trusted Hunter and accepted his assessment of Averell at face value.
When Confederate General Jubal A. Early raided Washington, the only Union general to achieve an outright success against the wily Confederate was Averell. Moving south out of Martinsburg, Averell attacked Early’s rearguard a few miles north of Winchester on July 20. Although Averell was greatly outnumbered, his tactical deployments routed the Southerners, inflicting 400 casualties upon ajor General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division and capturing a four-gun battery. Four days later, Crook sent Averell’s small division on an impossible mission against more than double his number of Confederate cavalry at the Second Battle of Kernstown. Crook’s calculations proved exceedingly dubious, and Averell’s division was routed in the most embarrassing fashion. By the end of July, Early had dispatched Brigadier General John C. McCausland on his infamous Chambersburg Raid. With only 1,300 men, Averell pursued McCausland into West Virginia, where he caught him near Moorfield with his command camped astride the South Branch of the Potomac River.
With scouts dressed as Confederates in the lead, Averell misled the Southern pickets and stormed into McCausland’s camps without warning, completely routing the Rebels. Averell inflicted nearly 470 casualties upon McCausland’s force and captured another battery of Confederate artillery. Averell had scored his second victory in impressive fashion in less than three weeks, eliminating nearly 900 Confederates and two batteries from the Southern war effort. Both victories came when Averell was operating as an independent commander where the New York native did not have to work closely with fell officers and coordinate his actions within the confines of an army. That situation would soon change.
Repeated Union failures in the Shenandoah Valley led to the appointment of Major General Philip H. Sheridan to command in that troubled region on the same day that Averell won his victory at Moorefield. From the outset, Grant made it known to Sheridan that he could make his appointments to command based upon his preference and disregard seniority in the process. When Sheridan made Major General Alfred T. A. Torbert his chief-of-cavalry, Averell, the senior officer, fumed. Grant told Sheridan to relieve Averell if he did not accept the matter. A short while later, Grant inaccurately opined to Sheridan that it seemed as if Averell was being driven back without much fighting and that it might be time to relieve the New Yorker. Sheridan did not act upon Grant’s suggestion.
At the time, Averell was operating in a semi-independent command covering the Potomac River on Sheridan’s right flank. Throughout early September, Averell routed the Confederate Cavalry between Bunker Hill and Stephenson’s Depot on an almost daily basis. At the same time, Early’s infantry made it a routine occurrence to march out and drive back Averell. At the Battle of Opequon Creek or Third Winchester on September 19, Averell played an important part in the outcome but acted with an overabundance of caution that seemed to border upon recalcitrance. Not coincidentally, this was the first time that Averell served under Torbert’s direct command. Averell bypassed Torbert and sent a messenger directly to Sheridan in the hottest part of the battle. Sheridan told the messenger that Averell needed to charge. When the staffer protested that Averell’s division had seen hard service at Martinsburg all week and that his horses were tired, Sheridan roared, “I don’t give a damn for horseflesh today. Tell him I said Charge!” Averell did charge, although not with the same vigor and aggressiveness that characterized the actions of Brigadier General Wesley’s Merritt’s division and the casualty rolls bore that out.
At Fisher’s Hill, Crook later claimed that he was the source of inspiration for Sheridan’s successful flanking assault. However, a review of Sheridan’s actions and a time line of events reveal a different story. Sheridan was on the skirmish line all day on September 21. He spent a significant amount of time with Averell’s division, and the New Yorker suggested that a corps of infantry could hug the base of North Mountain and then turn and attack Early’s left flank and rear at Fisher’s Hill. That very plan was adopted and led to the route of the Confederate forces. Although Crook later claimed credit for the battle’s outcome, but the battle plan’s true progenitor may have been Averell.
Unfortunately, Averell did not pursue the retreating Confederates in the aggressive fashion that Sheridan was accustomed to his Army of the Potomac cavalryman doing. The result was that Averell was relieved of his command. Much disappointment abounded among the officers and men of his command. Averell’s military reputation was irreparably damaged and he never held another command during the war. Between his innate recalcitrance, Grant’s urging of Sheridan to relieve Averell and his being an outsider in Sheridan’s cavalry corps, the New Yorker was lucky to have lasted as long as he did. There is no question that Averell served the Union cause ably in 1864 and one might argue that he did so against longer odds and in more difficult situations than did Torbert, Merritt and George A. Custer.
Averell never forgave Sheridan for his indiscretion. Years later, Sheridan encountered Averell in the lobby of a hotel and greeted him as an old friend. Averell spurned Sheridan’s overture, and wrote him a note explaining that he had not forgotten the way Sheridan treated him in the Shenandoah Valley and could not in good conscious act as if Sheridan had not mistreated him in 1864