THE FINAL CAMPAIGN
After this close escape, it was clear to Grant as it had been clear to Lincoln that whatever forces were concentrated before Petersburg, the line of advance for Confederate invaders through the Shenandoah must be blocked. General Sheridan was placed in charge of the army of the Shenandoah and the 19th corps, instead of returning to the trenches of the James, marched on from Washington to Martinsburg and Winchester.
In September, the commander in Washington had the satisfaction of hearing that his old assailant Early had been sent “whirling through Winchester” by the fierce advance of Sheridan. Lincoln recognised the possibility that Early might refuse to stay defeated and might make use, as had so often before been done by Confederate commanders in the Valley, of the short interior line to secure reinforcements from Richmond and to make a fresh attack. On the 29th of September, twenty days before this attack came off, Lincoln writes to Grant: “Lee may be planning to reinforce Early. Care should be taken to trace any movement of troops westward.” On the 19th of October, the persistent old fighter Early, not willing to acknowledge himself beaten and understanding that he had to do with an army that for the moment did not have the advantage of Sheridan’s leadership, made his plucky, and for the time successful, fight at Cedar Creek. The arrival of Sheridan at the critical hour in the afternoon of the 19th of October did not, as has sometimes been stated, check the retreat of a demoralised army. Sheridan found his army driven back, to be sure, from its first position, but in occupation of a well supported line across the pike from which had just been thrown back the last attack made by Early’s advance. It was Sheridan however who decided not only that the battle which had been lost could be regained, but that the work could be done to best advantage right away on that day, and it was Sheridan who led his troops through the too short hours of the October afternoon back to their original position from which before dark they were able to push Early’s fatigued fighters across Cedar Creek southward. Lincoln had found another man who could fight. He was beginning to be able to put trust in leaders who, instead of having to be replaced, were with each campaign gathering fresh experience and more effective capacity.
From the West also came reports, in this autumn of 1864, from a fighting general. Sherman had carried the army, after its success at Chattanooga, through the long line of advance to Atlanta, by outflanking movements against Joe Johnston, the Fabius of the Confederacy, and when Johnston had been replaced by the headstrong Hood, had promptly taken advantage of Hood’s rashness to shatter the organisation of the army of Georgia. The capture of Atlanta in September, 1864, brought to Lincoln in Washington and to the North the feeling of certainty that the days of the Confederacy were numbered.