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The Battle of Cedar Creek

By Dan Reigle

March 16, 1995

© 1998 Dan Reigle and the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table

John B. Gordon
Confederate General John Gordon described the battle at Cedar Creek as "the most unique day in the annals of war", because of the many unusual events and circumstances on that day, October 19, 1864, south of Winchester, Virginia. For example:

  • The day was marked by a dramatic reversal of fortunes: as Gordon put it, "a most brilliant victory converted into one of the most complete and ruinous routs of the entire war."
  • Secondly, although the battle was a tactical military victory for the Union, its greatest impact was the political boost it gave President Lincoln during the final stages of the Presidential campaign.
  • Cedar Creek was also unusual in the personal bitterness it generated within each army, including lifelong hostility between Early and Gordon, between Sheridan and Crook , and between Custer and Merritt.
  • Finally, the impact on the two commanders could not have been more different. Confederate Commander Jubal Early's assault was daring and brilliantly executed, but the day's outcome essentially finished his career as a commander. He received more blame than he deserved for the Confederate defeat. In contrast, Union Commander Phillip Sheridan received more credit than he deserved for the Union victory. He was careless with his troop dispositions and was greatly mistaken in his estimation of Early's intentions and capability. He brought his army close to what would arguably have been the most embarrassing Union defeat of the war, and could have spelled the end of his career, not to mention President Lincoln's. But Cedar Creek propelled him to military fame to such an extent that his horse Rienzi can now be seen in the Smithsonian.
To understand how these events came to be, we need to review first their general context, before turning to the battle itself.

CONTEXT

Jubal A. Early
The action at Cedar Creek in October was, of course, the culmination of activity in the Shenandoah Valley that had begun back in the spring as part of Grant's five-part offensive. Grant's objectives in the Valley were primarily logistical, aimed at breaking the Virginia Central Railroad which carried food to the Petersburg-Richmond front, or alternatively aimed at destroying the food supplies themselves. Two Union generals, Sigel and Hunter, had already failed to accomplish either objective. However, in response to Hunter, Davis and Lee dispatched Jubal Early and his II Corps with instructions to follow Hunter northward down the Valley, and if possible cross the Potomac with enough of a threat to compel Grant to weaken his forces at Petersburg in order to reinforce Washington. When Hunter retreated West into the Alleghenies rather than back down the Valley, Early recognized an open door when he saw one, raced north down the Valley, defeated a small but stubborn force organized by Lew Wallace at the Monocacy River, and continued his march in oppressive heat and choking dust to the defenses of Washington. The delay at Monocacy, however, had been just enough for the full Federal VI Corps to arrive in Washington, and Early withdrew his exhausted troops without a serious attempt to penetrate into the city.

There was no effective pursuit of Early as he withdrew, due to a tangled Federal command structure which involved four separate military jurisdictions in this area. Early picked his spots and continued to do damage, defeating George Crook's small corps at Kernstown and damaging railroads and wagon convoys. On August 8, Grant countered by naming Phil Sheridan to a combined command consisting of Crook's VIII Corps, Wright's VI Corps of veterans from the Petersburg front, William Emory's XIX Corps, newly arrived from the Red River campaign in Louisiana, and three divisions of cavalry. Although Grant wanted Early destroyed, his primary objectives remained the Virginia Central Railroad and the Shenandoah's ripening crops. "If the war is to last another year," he wrote, "we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste". This was a dark time for President Lincoln, who secretly wrote a memo on transition to his successor and locked it in his desk drawer, believing it likely that he would be defeated in the November elections by the war-weariness of the Northern electorate. This anxiety meant that Sheridan received contradictory instructions from Grant, Halleck, and Stanton: he was to follow Early "to the death" but take no chances on suffering a politically-fatal defeat; in baseball terms, he was to "give him nothing to hit, but don't walk him". Accordingly, Sheridan spent six weeks getting used to his command, and playing cat-and-mouse with Early in the lower Valley between Harper's Ferry and Winchester.

Philip H. Sheridan
When Early was weakened by the recall of Kershaw's Division to Petersburg, Sheridan struck at Winchester on September 19. He caught Early unprepared, but Sheridan was new to the command of a force of this size, and he made enough mistakes of his own to let Early off the hook in the morning. After a full day of heavy fighting, however, the Federals finally succeeded in routing Early with a sweeping flank movement by Crook's infantry corps and the cavalry. Early retreated south to Fisher's Hill, where on September 22, another flanking movement by Crook collapsed the weak Confederate cavalry on their left flank, and once again sent Early reeling up the Valley. Crook's leadership of these two crucial and very successful maneuvers would later contribute to the acrimonious breakup of his friendship with Sheridan since West Point days; in Crook's eyes, his ideas were so good that Sheridan later claimed them as his own.

Early moved far up the Valley beyond Harrisonburg to reorganize and recuperate. Sheridan followed him leisurely, with only skirmishing for two weeks. Grant tried to get Sheridan to push on toward the railroad, but Sheridan complained that the logistics of such a move were too difficult. Those of you who heard Dennis Frye's presentation here two years ago on how Sheridan neutralized Mosby's effects on his supply system will remember that Sheridan had a major and successful effort underway to protect his system extending southward from Harper's Ferry to his front. At Harrisonburg, this supply train was already over 100 miles long, so Sheridan reasoned that he could not take the risk of extending it another 40-50 miles to hit the railroad. In this respect, he ultimately failed to achieve the primary objective of his campaign. However, Grant reluctantly approved Sheridan's plan to withdraw back down the Valley, ordering him to "leave nothing for the subsistence of an army on any ground you abandon to the enemy" and then to send as much of his force as possible back to Petersburg. These early days of October are still referred to in the Valley as "The Burning". By October 7, Sheridan reported to Grant that he had "destroyed over 2000 barns filled with wheat, hay, and farming implements; over 70 mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3000 sheep." Confederate Henry Kyd Douglas added bitterly that "(Sheridan and Merritt) omit to mention the private dwellings which their troops, drunk with their license to burn, laid in ashes, and the unspeakable suffering and horrors they brought on innocent women and children."

Phil Sheridan now began to withdraw northward, his mind totally on returning to Petersburg. He became careless enough that he lost track of Early, and at one point believed him to be fifty miles away, when in fact he was right behind Sheridan. On October 9, Sheridan ordered his cavalry to turn around and hit the Confederate cavalry under Rosser, who had been successfully harassing the Union force during the movement. Merritt and Custer crushed the Confederate cavalry at Tom's Brook, reinforcing Early's view that his overpowered cavalry force was, essentially, worthless; this opinion would contribute to his poor utilization of his cavalry ten days later.

Early's thinking still included the dual objectives of holding all of Sheridan's forces in the Valley, and also of striking a blow where possible. Now, the mutually contradictory nature of these two objectives came into play. As the Union went into camp along Cedar Creek on October 10, Sheridan ordered the VI Corps to leave for Petersburg. Three days later, Early announced his presence to Sheridan with a reconnaissance in force that turned into a nasty division-sized skirmish; Sheridan was alarmed enough to recall the VI Corps, a development that met Early's first objective but caused him to lose his chance for a decisive victory the next week. Further, as Sheridan sent two divisions of cavalry east to raid the railroad, Early sent a fake signal message announcing the arrival of Longstreet's I Corps to join his force, and Sheridan, although skeptical, took no chances by canceling the cavalry raid and returning them to Cedar Creek. Again, Early had succeeded in strengthening the force he was about to attack. The fact that he needed to attack was reinforced in an October 12 message from Lee: "I have weakened myself very much to strengthen you. It was done with the expectation of enabling you to gain such success that you could return the troops if not rejoin me yourself. I know that you have endeavored to gain that success, and believe you have done all in your power to insure it...With your united force it can be accomplished. I do not think Sheridan's infantry or cavalry numerically as large as you suppose." Obviously, it was Lee's turn to miscalculate.

Robert E. Lee
Sheridan now left the front for a face-to-face conference with Stanton and Halleck to resolve the issues of whether he would operate against the railroad from this position, or return his troops to Petersburg. Leaving on the 15th, he would have a morning conference in Washington on the 17th and then leave to return to Cedar Creek. By that time, conditions would be very different.

SITUATION AND BATTLE PLAN:

As shown on the table in your handout, the Union had over 30,000 troops and 90 pieces of artillery at Cedar Creek. Early's forces, although very difficult to establish accurately, totaled approximately 13,000, with 34 guns. Despite the many arguments over size of forces, the general consensus is that Sheridan outnumbered Early by two or three to one.

George Crook
The field at Cedar Creek is generally determined by several key terrain features. Cedar Creek itself runs generally from north to south, and empties into the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near the town of Strasburg. The North Fork bends around the foot of Massanutten Mountain, which dominates the terrain in this area. The Valley Pike, an improved road running the length of the Valley between railroad junctions, generally ran from northeast to southwest through the field, from Winchester south twelve miles through Middletown, crossing Cedar Creek, then up hill through Strasburg and on south to Fisher's Hill. Sheridan placed Crook to the east of the creek and south of the pike, with Thoburn's division on a hill nearest the creek and future President Rutherford Hayes' division on a separate hill behind Thoburn. The two divisions of Emory's XIX Corps were across the pike, with their works on high bluffs overlooking the creek. Their camps spread north and east toward Belle Grove, a large stone mansion serving then as Sheridan's headquarters. To the north across Meadow Brook were the three divisions of the VI Corps. Farther to the north were Merritt's and Custer's camps. The net effect of this was that the Union forces were stacked up behind one another from south to north, over a distance of about six miles. The town of Middletown was about two miles northeast of the Union positions on the pike.

With the Federal left anchored on Massanutten and the river, Sheridan's forces expected that their only vulnerable spot was upstream on Cedar Creek, in the open area near Custer and Merritt. Under pressure from Lee, Early began looking for an avenue of attack. On the 17th, Gordon took Jed Hotchkiss and Clement Evans on an arduous climb of several hours up to the signal station at the peak of Massanutten. Whether this was Early's idea or Gordon's idea is one of the sources of later dispute, but the immediate result was the same: they could see the entire Federal army spread out below them, including camps, firing positions, artillery, and pickets, all of which were carefully mapped by Hotchkiss. They could tell that Sheridan was vulnerable on his left, if he could be reached there between the mountain and the river. At a command meeting the next morning, they convinced Early that an attack on that flank should be attempted, and Gordon and Hotchkiss set about looking for an attack route. They were successful in locating a single-file width path that would be hidden from Federal observation as it crossed the Shenandoah, wound along the base of Massanutten, then led to fords which could be used to recross the Shenandoah, and move to the open left flank of the Union army. According to their calculations, three divisions could make this movement by marching all night. Early accepted the plan, and assigned Gordon to command the flanking force, composed of 5500 troops from Ramseur's, Pegram's, and Gordon's divisions. Pegram, who had argued for an attack on the opposite flank, returned from his own climb of Massanutten and reported that Crook's troops were busy building new earthworks. Early wisely adjusted the plan to have Kershaw move through Strasburg to a ford across the creek, from which he could attack Thoburn's position directly, in effect creating an envelopment on Crook. Further, he instructed Wharton to move up the pike with Carter's artillery as soon as both attacks were launched, to provide a third prong to the attack. Rosser's cavalry was assigned to attack along the Back Road on the far west of the field, and to push hard enough to tie up Merritt and Custer, and prevent them from supporting their infantry. Lomax's cavalry was ordered to move about ten miles east through Front Royal to cross the river and return back to the pike in rear of the Federals. Setting the plan in motion, Hotchkiss took Ramseur's pioneers back to construct a wagon bridge over the Shenandoah for the first crossing, and to clear and mark a trail for the attacking column.

On the Union side of the creek, the troops had enjoyed a break from the hectic pace of the past weeks, resting during the beautiful autumn weather. A large mail call occurred on the 18th when a major resupply convoy arrived, and commissioners from many states came to the camps to conduct their troops' voting in the Presidential election, as our September speaker, Dr. McSeveny, described. The soldiers did not expect further action; a Rhode Islander remembered that "there was no more thought of a battle in our camp than there is today in the streets of Providence.." Sheridan agreed and wrote later..."I felt satisfied that Early was...too weak to take the offensive." Not everyone was so comfortable; both Emory and Crook complained to General Wright, in command in Sheridan's absence, about the positioning of the army and inadequate security on the left flank. Wright ordered the cavalry's pickets to move a little closer to Crook, but otherwise left Sheridan's placements as they were.

BATTLE

Gordon's column of three divisions left Fisher's Hill at 8 PM for their hard night's march, leaving behind canteens and anything else that would make noise. One Confederate officer described the route over familiar ground: "We moved cautiously to the edge of the mountain, and after a few minutes rest, we started in single file along the mountainside, which was only a pig's path, climbing over logs, stones, and many other obstacles. Every tree was familiar to me, because as a boy, I walked and rode almost daily over this section...only a mile from this lane my mother and family lived." By 4 AM, they were in position, waiting within yards of Union cavalry videttes sitting in the River. Kershaw's Division left at 1 AM for his shorter route through Strasburg, and was in sight of Thoburn's campfires at 3:30 near his ford over the creek. Everything had gone in Early's favor so far, and now he got a break from the weather, as a dense fog formed over the entire area in the predawn coolness. He ordered Kershaw across the creek a few minutes ahead of schedule, and, downstream, Gordon's column also moved into their river crossings, not a pleasant experience as described by one: "Well do I remember how we plunged into the icy waters of the Shenandoah as day was beginning to dawn, the struggle to get to the bank on the other side, and the effort to reach the top of the high embankment, now made slick by our wet clothing; how some comrade jostled me just as I reached the top and I slid back into the cold water and had to try it all over again." Gordon's column probably welcomed their brisk mile-and-a half quick time march to the assault point as a way to get warm, if not dry.

Joseph Kershaw
Kershaw had only a short distance to cover after crossing the creek before coming to the steep hill on which Thoburn was posted, so the action started there, about 5 AM. One of Kershaw's officers described the assault: "As we emerged from a thicket into the open, we could see the enemy in great commotion, but soon the works were filled with half-dressed troops, and they opened a galling fire upon us. The distance was too great in this open space to take the works by a regular advance in line of battle, so the men began to call for orders to 'charge'. Whether the order was given or not, the troops with one impulse sprang forward." Darkness and fog aided the attack. Capt. DuPont, Crook's artillery commander, had his guns loaded with canister but could see no enemy, so his batteries began firing blindly toward the sounds. In the opening action, Thoburn himself was killed, and his division was swept back in only a few minutes. DuPont lost an entire battery, which was quickly turned and used by the Confederates.

Crook's second division, under Hayes, on a separate ridge behind Thoburn, could tell something was coming and started to form facing in that direction, as Thoburn's troops fell back through their lines. However, by this time, Gordon had reached the Cooley farmhouse, identified during his reconnaissance from the top of Massanutten as the landmark for the launch of his attack. Here he stopped his three divisions, and wheeled into line of battle facing generally northwest: in effect, head-on into Hayes' left flank and rear. Combined with the confusion of Thoburn's retreating forces, the shock of this attack caused Hayes' division to lose cohesion and fall back across the pike toward Belle Grove. Wright had furiously tried to order units of the VI Corps forward to the pike in Hayes' support, but there was not enough time. Wright's only criticism of his troops after the battle was that this line should have held longer, to provide time for reinforcements to arrive. It was now about 5:45 AM, early daylight.

Kershaw and Gordon's forces were loosely connected as they faced northwest to approach the XIX Corps. Quoting the XIX Corps Commander, General Emory: "The fog was so dense that it was impossible to see the position of the enemy or the direction of his advance; but, guided by the firing, I ordered Second Brigade, First Division, to cross the pike and occupy a wooded ridge in order to support General Crook." A company commander in the 8th Vermont, described the fight on this ridge: "The skirmish line had not advanced a hundred yards when it ran in the darkness plump into a body of the enemy; in an instant the timber was in a blaze of light from the musketry...men fought hand-to-hand...Three color bearers were killed...In a moment, without warning,...we were being swept back, every man for himself, and the enemy on every hand. I had received two severe wounds...the 8th Vermont had lost more than two-thirds of all the men engaged...of the sixteen officers at our campfire the evening before, thirteen had been killed and wounded on this horrible hill of sacrifice." The sacrifice of the brigade had, however, bought time for Wright to begin to reform his line a half-mile back (northwest), behind Belle Grove and Meadow Brook, on Red Hill. Each piece of terrain was the scene of struggle, as the XIX pulled back, including a stony hill near the creek and another small knoll in front of Belle Grove. It was now about 6:45, as the corps fought its way back to take position on the VI Corps' right (western) flank. Kershaw and Gordon now owned the pike north of the creek. Success on their original lines of attack also meant that Confederate units were becoming tangled and time was taken to straighten lines. Having criss-crossed, Gordon's Division was on the far left, with Kershaw, Ramseur, and Pegram to his right. So far, the Confederates had defeated Crook's two divisions separately, and then had combined Kershaw and Gordon's four divisions to push Emory back. At this point, they faced the combined forces of Emory and Wright's five divisions. Quoting General Early: "There was now a heavy fog, and that, combined with the smoke from the artillery and small arms, so obscured objects that the enemy's position could not be seen...Generals Ramseur and Pegram...informed me that their divisions were in line confronting the VI Corps."

The VI Corps' 3rd Division (on this day commanded by Warren Keifer of Springfield, Ohio) was nearest the creek, backed up by Wheaton's 1st Division, and Getty's 2nd Division. With the undulating terrain, fog, and smoke, these units were effectively separated, and fought separate battles from 6 AM to 9 AM. One Union soldier described the conditions: "The newly risen sun, huge and bloody, was on their side in more senses than one. Our line faced directly to the east, and we could see nothing but that enormous disc, rising out of the fog, while they could see every man in our line, and could take good aim." Some were able to keep their cool, as one remembered: "My comrade, Sinclair, tried to light his brier pipe, saying 'My breakfast was not very good (he hadn't had any), and I don't know how long this foolishness will last." Keifer and Wheaton faced east as Kershaw, Ramseur and Pegram pushed beyond Belle Grove down the hill to Meadow Brook and up toward Red Hill. A member of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery, seeing their first combat, recalls: "I remember that when the rebs came down out of the fog to the little brook to get behind the stone wall, I shouted to my comrades, 'Shoot down that flag', and we shot it down four times in less than seven minutes, and then they lay behind the wall to hold it up." Action surged back and forth in this area for almost two hours. Units fought assaults in front of them, and then on flanks. A Union staff officer recalled: "General Wright asked if the troops occupying a bluff on our left were friends or foes. I volunteered to ascertain, and rode towards them at full speed. Immediately the whole line opened fire on me with artillery and small arms. My horse was wounded in many places, but a depression in the ground saved us, although five shots passed through my clothes...Our batteries and rifles immediately replied." Units caught in the wrong spot on this terrain were in trouble, as recounted by a member of the 2nd Connecticut: "The battalion lay down, and part of the men began to fire, but the shape of the ground offered little protection, and large numbers were killed and wounded. Four-fifths of our loss for the entire day occurred during the time we lay here, which could not have been over five minutes." (The great-grandfather of one of my P&G colleagues was in the 2nd Conn. and was mortally wounded here.) With the back and forth movements, units were repeatedly flanked, and increasingly effective artillery fire from Carter's guns on the pike forced both divisions to gradually move northeast.

Under orders from Wright to move to the pike, Getty had moved his 2nd Division into a position to the left of the others, and for a time had held a grove of trees across Meadow Brook. He moved back across the brook and into line on top of a ridge near the small cemetery just outside Middletown. In one of the key actions of the day, Getty repulsed three successive assaults on his position here, by Pegram, Ramseur, and Wharton reinforced with a brigade from Kershaw's Division. One participant related that three times"Getty's veterans coolly held their fire until the enemy was close upon them, then delivered it in their very faces, and tumbled the shattered ranks down the hill." Losses were heavy on both sides. By now, however, Carter had nearly 20 guns positioned on the pike near Middletown, and his concentrated fire made the cemetery line untenable. About 9:30, Getty began to slowly withdraw along Meadow Brook, taking a position on the pike about a mile northeast of the town. Wright ordered the rest of VI Corps and XIX Corps to align themselves to Getty's right. Merritt's cavalry had come into position at this point along the pike, having been ordered by Wright to move there with Custer. They joined Moore's cavalry brigade which had pulled back from its picket duty on the river to stake out and hold a position on the pike, making a major contribution to the Federals' attempt to stop the Confederate advance. Early countered by moving Pegram into position on the pike, and Wharton with Wofford's Brigade across the pike. These forces would be in constant contact with each other through the remainder of the day. In addition, strong artillery duels occurred along the pike between Carter's guns, who fought superbly all day, and Federal guns led by DuPont, who earned a Medal of Honor for his day-long efforts. It was now about 10:30 AM.

At this point, both commanders were involved in events that would provoke controversy for years to come; in fact, the various perceptions and arguments on these issues would eventually overshadow the battle itself. On the Confederate side, the issue concerned whether to push ahead in the attack. Ironically, Confederate units had become spread out and tangled as a result of their success, and Early was now engaged in getting his line together. In addition to the units he deployed against Merritt, he had Ramseur in line beyond the cemetery, then Kershaw and finally Gordon's Division as those two units gradually joined the new main line from the area farther west where they had been engaged with Keifer and Wheaton. General Early decided to stop here, and described his thinking as follows: "It was now apparent that it would not do to press my troops much further. They had been up all night and were much jaded. In passing over rough ground to attack the enemy in the early morning, their ranks had been much disordered, and the men scattered, and it had required time to re-form them. Their ranks, moreover, were much thinned by the advance of the men engaged in plundering the enemy's camps. The delay which had unavoidably occurred had enabled the enemy to rally a portion of his routed troops, and his immense force of cavalry, which remained intact, was threatening both of our flanks in an open country, which of itself rendered an advance extremely hazardous. I determined, therefore, to try and hold what had been gained, and orders were given for carrying off the captured and abandoned artillery, small arms and wagons." To some Confederates, this was a "fatal halt". Gordon in later years would harshly blame Early for the defeat that would come in the afternoon, comparing the halt at this point with Ewell's failure to press on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, and with Early and Ewell's refusal to allow Gordon to attack an exposed Union flank in the Wilderness. The amount of Confederate plundering of the Union camps and the extent to which it affected the combat readiness of the infantry divisions could be the subject of an entire talk. Suffice it to say that there is ample evidence that some plundering almost certainly did happen; as a practical matter, it would seem impossible to prevent hungry and poorly clothed troops, when not under immediate fire, from helping themselves to the camps and materials which they had just captured. However, it also seems likely that Early's decision was based to some extent on the fact that he did not expect the Federals to stand and fight. In an argument with Gordon on the battlefield, the time and location of which are in considerable dispute, Early told Gordon that it was not necessary to drive the VI Corps from the field, that they would leave shortly of their own accord. It seems likely to me that the Confederates could have immediately pushed further ahead, had Early wanted to; many Confederates in later years claimed that their units were ready and waiting to continue the attack, but never received orders to move. At the same time, it is simply most probable that the Confederate attack had at this point reached its "high water mark", no matter what happened later in the day. The VI and XIX Corps were now organized and coordinated, their cavalry was in the right place to exert pressure, and they retained enough artillery pieces to serve their needs. The Confederates had gone all night without sleep, and probably 15 hours without food or water, including up to six hours in combat. During the lull, people began to feel their fatigue, and energy began to fade. Early had gone as far as he could go, considering all of the conditions. However, his lack of respect for the Federals also led him to make a judgment error in staying where he was, in a line too long for his strength, and with both flanks open, as he acknowledged in the quote above. Given the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Early chose the worst of his three options by staying in a poor defensive position, rather than either pressing forward in the attack or retiring immediately with his captures to a better position. However, he never publicly admitted any mistake, and immediately after the battle, began blaming the defeat on his troops' and officers' behavior . In addition to his accusations of plundering, he accused Gordon of being late in his assignment, which was not true, and implied that Gordon had lost control of the attack. For his part, Gordon's accusations of Early were defensive and self-serving, adding to the bitterness which lasted between them until both men's deaths.

On the Union side, energy was going in the opposite direction, thanks mostly to the arrival back on the field of Phil Sheridan. He had spent the night in Winchester on his way back from Washington, and although somewhat concerned about the sounds of firing in the morning, had not become worried enough to leave for the field until 9 AM. As he rode south of town, however, he began to encounter civilians, stragglers, baggage wagons, and others fleeing the fighting, and began to believe that a complete disaster was underway. Later, he would engender his own controversy by claiming that many units were several miles farther north than they actually were, and that only Getty and the cavalry were still in action, implying that he found the army in terrible disarray. Many officers whose pride was rightfully wounded by these accounts labored to correct them, as in this politically skillful statement by General Hayes: ..."(Sheridan's mistake) only shows that the wisest and best and bravest of men can not see all that occurs in a battle...battles can not be known in their entirety, from beginning to end, from one end of a long line to another, by any one man." Sheridan was always willing to let such misconceptions rest as long as they polished his reputation. The image of a hatless general on his stallion flying down the road to the rescue of his helpless army, rallying them to a majestic victory, served his purposes well. This myth became known as "Sheridan's Ride" in a poem published soon enough to be read at Republican campaign meetings within a few days, and served as the subject for many interesting (and totally false) paintings of the day's events. In reality, when Sheridan actually arrived at Getty's position about 10:30, he found that Wright had selected an excellent position for re-forming the army, and had these movements well underway. Sheridan confirmed these orders, changing them only slightly to send Custer back to the right flank. Around noon, he rode the full length of the line with an astounding effect on morale. Quoting General McMillan, commander of the 1st Division, XIX Corps: "...Major General Sheridan made his appearance, and was most heartily cheered along the whole line, as far as I could observe. The officers and men seemed at once to recover from a kind of lethargy..." Sheridan's presence was an important stimulus and encouragement to the troops, an "electric shock" as described by one, but the popular image of his "saving the day" is pure myth.

About 1 PM, Gordon pushed ahead on the Confederate far left to test the XIX Corps position, but was quickly repulsed, convinced that the Federals did, in fact, intend to stay on the field. The Confederates' main line was now along the road leading northwest from Miller's Mill, about a half mile north of Middletown. Sheridan set 3 PM as the time for a general attack, then postponed it for an hour on a false report of a Confederate force approaching his left flank from Front Royal. In fact, there should have been such a force, as those were Early's orders to Lomax; but, Lomax never got near the battle all day, nor did his counterpart on the other end of the line, Tom Rosser. Although Early's expectations of the cavalry were low, and his deployment of them poor, they certainly did nothing all day to change his opinions.

Sheridan's concept of the attack was a left wheel of the entire line. Emory's staff officer recalled the order: "The whole line will advance. The XIX Corps will move in touch with the VI Corps which will be the pivot. The right of the XIX will swing toward the left so as to drive the enemy down upon the pike." In reality, it eventually worked out about that way. The entire line did go forward about a mile before being locked into fierce struggles all across the line. Again, back and forth fighting from stone fence to stone fence, through woods, open fields, in and out of ravines allowed units to surge ahead and then be flanked, forcing them to pull back before trying again. Quoting a VI Corps officer: "Everything appeared to be at a deadlock, with heavy firing of artillery and musketry." An officer in Kershaw's Division: "Where the Mississippi brigade stood, the fighting was at close quarters, and on the field in our front the dead and wounded lay thick." The first break came in the struggle between Gordon's thinly-spread line and the XIX Corps. Gordon's far left brigade, commanded by Clement Evans, was actually separated from the rest of Gordon's line, taking a position in woods across a road and elevated above the rest of the line. Invisible to McMillan's Brigade as it moved into the attack, Evans waited and then opened on McMillan's flank. Although temporarily stopped in his tracks, McMillan managed to wheel to the right and move directly against Evans, ultimately driving him off the hill to the west and out of the fight. McMillan then wheeled back and found himself squarely on the end of the rest of Gordon's line. Sheridan was personally present at this point, and ordered Custer to coordinate his attack with the infantry. As McMillan combined with Davis' Brigade to drive a full division into Gordon's flank, Custer swept past that flank and described the effect: "...Being compelled to advance over an open plain and in full view of the enemy, our intentions were fully and immediately comprehended by him. The effect of our movement was instantaneous and decisive. Seeing so large a force of cavalry bearing rapidly down upon an unprotected flank and their line of retreat in danger of being intercepted, the lines of the enemy now gave way in the utmost confusion." The Confederate line now began to crumble from left to right, as the entire Union line pressed the assault. Kershaw and Ramseur fell back a quarter mile, giving ground grudgingly; at one point Kershaw had his unit at right angles to Ramseur's line. Near Miller's Mill, Ramseur had two horses shot down and was mounting his third as he went down with his second wound, and this portion of the line also gave way. Across the Pike, Merritt had finally broken the Wharton line after several assaults, so the entire Confederate line was now in retreat. General Robert Johnston's brigade of Pegram's Division stayed on the pike and fought a stubborn rear-guard movement, which bought time for Confederates to get across the creek. Confederate officers gathered small groups wherever they could to offer temporary delay, but the races were on. One Confederate remembered, "We ran. Yes, we struck the ground in high places only." Custer crossed the Creek with two regiments upstream from the bridge and cut into the confused masses on the pike, while Merritt pushed directly down the pike, both taking prisoners and captures as they went. Beyond Strasburg, a wagon overturned on a small bridge, blocking it entirely. In the jam, a large number of wagons and artillery pieces were stalled helplessly and captured. Hidden in one of the wagons was General Ramseur, mortally wounded. He was captured, and the wagon turned back to Belle Grove, where his West Point friends, DuPont, Merritt, and Custer, would come during the night to visit him before he died.

Outside, Belle Grove's front lawn was a scene of celebration, as units presented their captures to Sheridan: over 300 wagons, all 24 of their own guns lost in the morning plus 25 Confederate guns, 1600 rifles, eleven battle flags.

On the field itself, many spent the night tending to the wounded, who suffered even more as it turned quite cold after dark. The casualty list was long, with every building used as a hospital, including this church which you can also see in one of Taylor's sketches. Confederate losses were over 2,900, including 320 killed. Union losses were over 5,600, with 644 killed. To a Rhode Island artilleryman, "Looking back it seemed to me that years had passed since morning, the day had been crowded so full of experiences...I seemed to have grown old many years since yesterday evening..."

Despite the casualties and the dramatic events on the field, the major impact of the battle at Cedar Creek occurred over the next few days before the Presidential election. Never one to miss out on publicity, Sheridan gathered the Union troops who had captured Confederate battle flags, including my great-great-uncle, and sent them to Washington accompanied by Custer. Knowing how to attract attention, Custer arranged for an omnibus to parade the troops with their flags through the streets from the rail station to the War Department, where they presented the flags to Secretary Stanton and were awarded Medals of Honor in return. The major public and newspaper attention, of course, helped the President's campaign in its crucial final few days, including Thomas Read's poem "Sheridan's Ride", which received its debut reading in the opera hall here in Cincinnati.

Militarily, after October 19, each army's objectives were set aside. Early's army never fought as a total unit again, with most of it being returned to Petersburg during the winter. Sheridan made no further attempt to threaten the railroads, and also returned with the VI Corps to Petersburg to participate in the final campaign in the spring.

IN SUMMARY:

The complexity of this day's events provided ample opportunities for fault-finding, blame-placing, and other forms of attack and defense. In summary, here are my personal opinion on three of these issues:

  • Early's plan of attack and its execution were brilliant for the most part. The difficulty of the operation and its initial success speak for themselves. The exceptions were Early's totally ineffective use of his cavalry, and his poor followup on his initial success. Although Lomax and Rosser were of little value as deployed, a concerted cavalry assault up the pike early in the day might have actually made the reorganization by the VI Corps and the Federal cavalry impossible. DuPont, who spent most of the day on the pike, believed this may have been Early's major lost opportunity. Early seems to have been as surprised by his success as the Federals were, and was caught without a plan for capitalizing on it.
  • Sheridan got surprised because he underestimated Early and lost his focus on his army's safety. He is fortunate that the day's events turned out such that they saved his army and his career. Sheridan was responsible for his placement of the army, which allowed it to be defeated in detail in the original Confederate offensive. Sheridan owed his personal reputation to Wright, Emory, Getty, Merritt, and several other commanders who played vital roles in salvaging the day.
  • Sheridan did little or nothing to correct any popular misconceptions about his actual role in the battle, and some of his friends did not appreciate it. Crook claimed that at the Belle Grove campfire that night, Sheridan told him "Crook, I am going to get much more credit for this than I deserve, for, had I been here in the morning, the same thing would have taken place." After Crook's only return visit to the field in 1889, he wrote "After twenty-five years...it renders Gen. Sheridan's claims and his subsequent actions in allowing the general public to remain under the impressions regarding his part in these battles, when he knew they were fiction, all the more contemptible. The adulations heaped on him by a grateful nation for his supposed genius turned his head, which, added to his natural disposition, caused him to bloat his little carcass with debauchery and dissipation, which carried him off prematurely." And these had been close friends!
Whether or not you agree that the battle at Cedar Creek was the "most unique day in the annals of war" as Gordon claimed in 1903, we can at a minimum say with confidence that it was a day full of surprises and reversals, as well as discipline, courage, fear, sacrifices, suffering, and loss.

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