Cold Harbor/Valley Campaign: Should Lee have left Breckenridge in the Valley?

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Luke Freet

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After the battle of New Market, Lee, desperate for more troops, called for General Breckenridge, the victor at the battle, to send his 2 infantry brigades and artillery battalion to join him against Grant. This left the Valley defended by Grumble Jones and a smattering of other brigades, and allowed for David Hunter to march down, beat Jones, inflict casualties on the Confederate forces, and burn Staunton.
Could Lee have done without Breckenridge's troops? Breckenridge's force, plus W. E. Jones' reinforcements, could have stopped Hunter from moving down the Valley. If these numbers are as accurate as they could be, Breckenridge's 2 brigades numbered 2400 men, while Jones mustered 5,600 men againts Hunter at Piedmont. This would give him 9000 men, to oppose approx. 8,000 men. (These number's are courtesy of Scott Patchan's The Battle of Piedmont and Hunter's Raid on Stauton, and Alfred Young's Lee's Army in the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study. For detailed breakdowns, see these threads: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/confederate-strength-in-the-opening-of-the-valley-campaigns-of-1864.166760/ and https://civilwartalk.com/threads/confederate-unit-strengths-in-the-overland-campaign-army-corps-division-and-or-brigade.155605/ respectively).
 

James N.

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Of course, since he wound up returning Breckinridge and much of his command right back along with Early following the disaster at Piedmont and death of Grumble Jones there - but that's all in hindsight. At the time no one imagined that a sexagenarian of little reputation like Hunter could actually reinvigorate Sigel's defeated "army" so soon after its defeat at New Market, or how easily and bloodily Grant would be repulsed at Cold Harbor, so probably little blame should be attached to Lee for having done it.
 
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Luke Freet

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Of course, since he wound up returning Breckinridge and much of his command right back along with Early following the disaster at Piedmont and death of Grumble Jones there - but that's all in hindsight. At the time no one imagined that a sexagenarian of little reputation like Hunter could actually reinvigorate Sigel's defeated "army" so soon after its defeat at New Market, or how easily and bloodily Grant would be repulsed at Cold Harbor, so probably little blame should be attached to Lee for having done it.
Good point. Hunter's move was out of the box for the time. Its understandable for one to assume that the Union troops in the Valley would try another push so soon after.
 

Robin Lesjovitch

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After the battle of New Market, Lee, desperate for more troops, called for General Breckenridge, the victor at the battle, to send his 2 infantry brigades and artillery battalion to join him against Grant. This left the Valley defended by Grumble Jones and a smattering of other brigades, and allowed for David Hunter to march down, beat Jones, inflict casualties on the Confederate forces, and burn Staunton.
Could Lee have done without Breckenridge's troops? Breckenridge's force, plus W. E. Jones' reinforcements, could have stopped Hunter from moving down the Valley. If these numbers are as accurate as they could be, Breckenridge's 2 brigades numbered 2400 men, while Jones mustered 5,600 men againts Hunter at Piedmont. This would give him 9000 men, to oppose approx. 8,000 men. (These number's are courtesy of Scott Patchan's The Battle of Piedmont and Hunter's Raid on Stauton, and Alfred Young's Lee's Army in the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study. For detailed breakdowns, see these threads: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/confederate-strength-in-the-opening-of-the-valley-campaigns-of-1864.166760/ and https://civilwartalk.com/threads/confederate-unit-strengths-in-the-overland-campaign-army-corps-division-and-or-brigade.155605/ respectively).
It is quite possible that Lee could have left Breckinridge in command, but taken his troops to Petersburg, and had a temporary solution.
Grumble Jones' command at Piedmont consisted of all the field formations in the Valley and should have had better results. Jones lost, not because Hunter fought a great battle, but because Jones was not familiar with combined arms command. Jones was a very able cavalry officer, but failed as he attempted to fight a battle from the front. Breckinridge would not have made such a mistake. Hunter would have been stopped. But the Valley would remain a critical part of the war.
 

ErnieMac

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Keep in mind the sequence of events in the eastern theater at that time. Breckinridge was ordered east on or about May 20. At that time in the Shenandoah Valley, Sigel had retreated in some disorder to Strasburg and set up an encampment at Cedar Creek. Confederate scouts commanded by John Imboden reported little sign of Federal activity. Lee had initially suggested Breckinridge pursue Sigel, but heavy rains and high water in the rivers precluded that. Further south Federal troops commanded by George Crook and William Averill, having damaged a portion of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, were withdrawing into West Virginia.

Lee was still headquartered at Spotsylvania Court House. The battle there had wound down. Lee was receiving reports that Grant was shifting troops toward his (Lee's) right and of increased Federal activity around Port Royal that might indicate a change of base to the south of Fredericksburg. Lee also received reports (incorrectly) that Grant was receiving reinforcements from Sigel's command. The Bermuda Hundred Campaign was still ongoing. Beauregard was screaming for reinforcements and hinting that he could not defend Bermuda Hundred and still defend Petersburg. The last battle at Ware Church would occur on the 20th, but the final outcome of the campaign was still in doubt.

Even though Lee had fought Grant to a stalemate at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the Confederate army had suffered severe casualties. Indications were Grant was receiving reinforcements and planning another move. Lee himself needed reinforcements, but the closest troops from the Richmond area were tied up at Bermuda Hundred. The Shenandoah seemed quiet and Breckinridge had good rail access that allowed him to move quickly. The answer seemed obvious.
 
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ErnieMac

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A second consideration is the Lee, despite his need for reinforcements, did not immediately move Breckinridge to join the Army of Northern Virginia. Traveling east by rail from Staunton, Breckinridge was ordered to take position at Hanover Junction, the point where the Virginia Central Railroad from Staunton met the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Petersburg. From this position Breckinridge could have quickly moved north to join Lee or just have quickly moved south to reinforce Beauregard if circumstances merited. In addition he was in a position to move by rail to Lynchburg or back to Staunton if necessary. Lee fought the battles at North Anna (May 23 - 26) without Breckinridge. It was not until Grant moved south toward Cold Harbor that Breckinridge joined Lee, being more or less picked up as the Army of Northern Virginia followed Grant. Hunter's quick move against Imboden and Jones was a surprise resulting in Breckinridge's move back to Lynchburg.
 
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