A Review of Valley of the Shadow by Ralph Peters

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, journalist, and award-winning Civil War novelist. His Civil War novels include Cain at Gettysburg, Hell or Richmond, and the Owen Parry (pen name) mystery series. His latest novel is Valley of the Shadow. It covers the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, including Jubal Early’s raid on Washington.

Peters’ portrayal of both the major events of this campaign and its leading characters is gripping. The major engagements that Peters covers are Monocacy, Third Winchester, Cedar Creek, and Fisher’s Hill. In addition, there’s the battle that never happened when Early’s advance halted in front of the fortress defenses of Washington City at Fort Stevens with President Abraham Lincoln looking on, and Early decided against an attack, retreating back to the Valley. Peters captures the desperate nature of the outnumbered Early’s mission to defend the Valley and divert some of the Union forces besieging Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. This is most dramatic at Cedar Creek, when Gordon’s surprise attack on October 19 initially smashed Phil Sheridan’s army until his dramatic ride from Winchester and rally of his battered troops, leading to his counterattack that led to victory that same day. Historians credit Sheridan’s rout of Early’s army, after Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, with ensuring Lincoln’s reelection the following month.

Peters captures many of the leading military figures of this campaign and the conflicts among them. In addition to some individual soldiers, the leading military figures portrayed on the Union side are George Crook, George Armstrong Custer, James Ricketts, Phil Sheridan, Lew Wallace, and the two Ohioans who would both later become presidents of the United States: Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley. On the Confederate side are Clement Evans, John B. Gordon, and Jubal Early (Lee’s “Bad Old Man”). Peters provides brief post-Civil War profiles of their lives. He also provides the reader with his historical sources and recommendations for further reading. His favorite memoir is John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War.

He also cites the memoir of Private George Nichols of the 61st Georgia. Also recommended are the memoirs of Sheridan and Wallace, as well as those of other main combatants. Peters also recommends several campaign and battle histories.

For the epic Battle of Cedar Creek, Peters recommends Thomas Lewis’ The Guns of Cedar Creek. The December, 2015, issue of Civil War Times contains a tour of the key sites of this battle. The Fall 2015 issue of Hallowed Ground contains a moving article about the return of Sheridan’s veterans to the Shenandoah Valley beginning in 1883, where they had been reviled for the destructive campaign ordered by Grant to deprive the Confederates of their breadbasket: “Heal the Wounds” by Jonathan A. Noyalas, the author of Civil War Legacy in the Shenandoah: Remembrance, Reunion, and Reconciliation. (Jonathan Noyalas was our guide on the Roundtable’s 2010 field trip to Winchester, VA.)

Valley of the Shadow by Ralph Peters

From the publisher: In the Valley of the Shadow, they wrote their names in blood. From a daring Confederate raid that nearly seized Washington, D.C., to a stunning reversal on the bloody fields of Cedar Creek, the summer and autumn of 1864 witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of our Civil War―in mighty battles now all but forgotten.

The desperate struggle for mastery of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, breadbasket of the Confederacy and the South’s key invasion route into the North, pitted a remarkable cast of heroes in blue and gray against each other: runty, rough-hewn Philip Sheridan, a Union general with an uncanny gift for inspiring soldiers, and Jubal Early, his Confederate counterpart, stubborn, raw-mouthed and deadly; the dashing Yankee boy-general, George Armstrong Custer, and the brilliant, courageous John Brown Gordon, a charismatic Georgian who lived one of the era’s greatest love stories.

Sharp as a bayonet and piercing as a bullet, Valley of the Shadow is a great novel of our grandest, most-tragic war.

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