The Battle of Piedmont: Breckinridge Gives Grant a Second Chance in the Shenandoah

After New Market, Confederate operations in the Valley ground to a halt, contrary to the wishes of General Robert E. Lee. The day after New Market, Lee telegraphed Major General John C. Breckinridge:

Spotsylvania Court House
May 16, 1864
12 ¼?

I offer you the thanks of this Army for your victory over Genl. Sigel. Press him down the Valley, and if practicable follow him into Maryland.

R. E. Lee

Later that day Lee sent Breckinridge a second dispatch:

Guiney’s Station
May 16, 1864

If you [do not deem] it practicable to carry out the suggestion of my dispatch of this morning to drive the enemy from the Valley & pursue him into Maryland, you can be of great service with this army. If you can follow Sigel into Maryland, you will do more good than by joining us. If you cannot & your command is not otherwise needed in the Valley or in your department, I desire you to prepare to join me. Advise me whether the condition of affairs in your department will admit of this movement safely, & if so, I will notify you of the time & route.
R. E. Lee.

Lee’s instructions permitted Breckinridge to decide upon his own course of action based on circumstances in the Shenandoah Valley. Clearly, Lee preferred Breckinridge to go on the offensive in the Valley and rattle the northern politicians in Washington as Stonewall Jackson did in 1862. Lee hoped that such action would cause Grant to detach troops from the Army of the Potomac and thereby ease the pressure on the Army of North-ern Virginia. Breckinridge examined his options and determined that pursuing Sigel’s force was not feasible, for the Federals had a running start and had burned the bridge over the Shenandoah River. Regarding the Valley as safe from Federal aggression, the former Vice-President of the United States decided to join Lee in the struggle against the tenacious Grant. The Kentuckian’s departure left only Brigadier General John D. Imboden‘s Brigade and local reserve troops to resist any renewed Federal advance. This decision also surrendered the initiative in the Shenandoah Valley to the Federals. It allowed Grant to replace Sigel with Hunter, who rapidly reorganized his army with no concern of being bothered by Confederate forces. Lee and Breckinridge would now learn the hard way that Sam Grant was a different kind of general. No longer would defeat send Union forces into hibernation, but the pugnacious Ohioan would press on toward final victory.

Breckinridge’s decision later brought criticism upon Lee from the Richmond Press, calling it that “wise order” in the Richmond Examiner of June 13, 1864:

That Wise Orderwise order 2

For more on the Battle of Piedmont get:




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