The Shenandoah Valley runs from the very northern tip of Virginia about 200 miles southwest and lies between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. Many locals refer to the Shenandoah Valley as the ‘The Big Valley’, but during the Civil War, it was referred to as ‘The Breadbasket of the Confederacy.’
Today, Interstate 81 runs from the north down through middle of the Shenandoah Valley. You will find the town of Martinsburg at the north end of the valley, then you’ll find Winchester (home to several Civil War Battles), Front Royal, Harrisburg, Waynesboro, Staunton, Lexington, Roanoke and Salem at the south end of valley.
In summer and early Fall of 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early was leading a large force of Confederate foot soldiers and cavalry. Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant made the decision to stop Early’s force and the Confederate supplies coming from the Shenandoah Valley. He assigned the task of stopping Early and the Confederate supply line to Union General Philip Sheridan, since Grant was occupied laying siege to Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia.
In September 1864, Sheridan first met Early’s Confederate forces at Winchester and successfully won the battle and forced the Confederates south to Fischer’s Hill. At Fischer’s Hill, Sheridan and Early again clashed and once again, Sheridan’s Union forces prevailed and drove Early and the Confederates further south down the valley.
As Sheridan moved south after Early and the Confederates, he gave orders to burn all of the fields, crops, mills and kill all the livestock, to prevent the Confederates from ever getting their hands on them. During this time, Early’s Confederate cavalry, led by General Thomas Rosser continued to harass the Union forces. The Confederates believed that their cavalry was unbeatable.
On the flip side, Sheridan placed Union General Alfred Torbert in charge of the Union cavalry and tasked them with protecting the Union foot soldiers from the marauding confederate cavalry. Each time the Confederate cavalry made a charge against the Union troops, two of Torbert’s subordinate generals, Wesley Merritt and George Custer wanted to pursue the Confederates but Torbert commanded them to remain close to the Union infantry. When Sheridan heard what was happening, he ordered Torbert to attack the Confederate cavalry.
On this day, October 9, 1864, the Union cavalry attacked the Confederate cavalry. Merritt led his 3,500 cavalry unit against the 1,500 force Confederate cavalry unit led by General Lunsford Lomax. Merritt easily routed the Lomax’s Confederate cavalry. Custer led his 2,500 cavalry unit against the 3,000 cavalry forces directly under Rosser. Rosser, who attended West Point with Custer, who realized that Rosser’s cavalry unit was protected by the high bank of Tom’s Creek, so he sent three regiments around to Rosser’s flank.
Realizing what was happening, the Confederate cavalry fled the battlefield and headed south with the Union cavalry hot on their tales. The Union cavalry chased the Confederate cavalry south for more than 20 miles until they reached the safety of Early’s infantry encampment. The chase was later referred to as the Woodstock Races.
The Union cavalry captured 350 Confederate men, 11 pieces of artillery and all of the wagons and ambulances belonging to the Confederate cavalry. The Union cavalry suffered only 9 dead and 48 wounded.
The Battle at Tom’s Creek proved to be the greatest Union cavalry victory in the eastern theater of the entire Civil War. The Confederate cavalry, once of thought of by themselves as being invincible, suffered a huge defeat and humiliation and never rose to their greatness ever again.