Thy Will Be Done 26 Gen. Phil Sheridan Brings “Total War” to the Valley by Jim Surkamp

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Within the next month, war would widen its wrath under Federal General Phil Sheridan leading war and devastation in the Shenandoah Valley, which was later taken to even greater vastness under Gen. Sherman in his march to the sea through Georgia. As time passed the Civil War became just warring, ever meaner and final, following the inevitable, insane calculus of all-out war.

Federal Commander U. S. Grant brought in Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, making him Hunter’s subordinate, but making it clear that Sheridan would lead the troops in the field and that Hunter would be left with only administrative responsibilities. Hunter, feeling that Grant had a lack of confidence in him, requested to be relieved. – (1).

The actual “depredation order” had come from Gen. Grant on July 14, 1864, before the burnings of the three local homes. The orders were amended under Sheridan to avoid the burning of homes, but targeting barns, mills and all other buildings, destroying fences, seizing livestock and freeing previously enslaved persons.

Grant wrote his order:
If the enemy has left Maryland, as I suppose he has, he should have upon his heels veterans, militiamen, men on horseback, and everything that can be got to follow to eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them. – (2).

Grant also told Sheridan: “Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” – (3).

Then, in a short, violent campaign known to this day among Valley folk as, simply, the Burning, Sheridan led his troops on a 13-day rampage through the region, beginning on Sept. 26. The swath of destruction spanned 70 miles long and 30 wide. The men were ordered to spare homes, empty barns, the property of widows, single women and orphans, and to refrain from looting – but everything else was fair game. – (4).

Sheridan wrote later in his Memoir:
In war a territory like this is a factor of great importance, and whichever adversary controls it permanently reaps all the advantages of its prosperity. Hence, as I have said, I endorsed Grant’s programme, for I do not hold war to mean simply that lines of men shall engage each other in battle, and material interests be ignored. This is but a duel, in which one combatant seeks the other’s life; war means much more, and is far worse than this. Those who rest at home in peace and plenty see but little of the horrors attending such a duel, and even grow indifferent to them as the struggle goes on, contenting themselves with encouraging all who are able-bodied to enlist in the cause, to fill up the shattered ranks as death thins them. It is another matter, however, when deprivation and suffering are brought to their own doors. Then the case appears much graver, for the loss of property weighs heavy with the most of mankind; heavier often, than the sacrifices made on the field of battle. Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life, as the selfishness of man has demonstrated in more than one great conflict. – (5).

On October 7, Sheridan reported to Grant, “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over 70 mills, filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep.” While the agricultural devastation was important, Sheridan also assessed the psychological impact on the residents,”The people here are getting sick of war.” – (6).

Recalled Richard Rutherford in his memoir of the burning of Hunter’s Hill and the subsequent depredations of Gen. Sheridan through the County:
I have stood at our windows at night and seen fires all around the town, where barns, mills. wheat and hay stacks were burning as a result of his orders. Stock of all kinds were taken and, in several instances, houses occupied by only women and children and to our mind were burned for no reason other than that a father or son had been home to see them. This was nothing but warring on women and children and was to our mind shocking and uncivilized warfare. I don’t think there is any punishment severe enough for a man who gave orders for such depredations. – (7).

References/Imae Credits:


1. David Hunter.

2. General Grant to Gen. Halleck – order stating “a crow would have to carry its own provender” on July 14, 1864: OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, vol. 40, Part 3 (Richmond, Petersburg); Chapter LII. CORRESPONDENCE, ETC. – UNION. p. 223.

3. Grant to Sheridan August 26, 1864 City Point, Va. The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 – Volume 43 (Part I), p. 917.

4. Jed Morrison, “Sheridan’s Ride” The New York Times Opinionator, October 21, 2014.

5. Sheridan, pp. 487-488.

6. The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 – Volume 43 (Part II), p. 308.

7. Rutherford, p. 39.

Chapter 27-28: