This October 19 marks the 150th
anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah
Valley. It was one of the most dramatic events in the entire Civil
War. Riding his horse Rienzi (memorialized in the stirring poem by
Thomas Buchanan Read – “Sheridan’s Ride, September 19, 1864), from
Winchester, an inspiring Phil Sheridan re-organized and rallied his
almost defeated Army of the Shenandoah in a few hours to defeat the
rebel army of Jubal Early (Robert E. Lee’s “Bad Old Man”), who had
launched a successful surprise attack in the fog that morning in
Months earlier Sheridan had been
selected by Ulysses Grant, with President Lincoln’s support, to
clear out the Valley following Early’s defeat of David Hunter’s army
and subsequent raid all the way to threaten Washington, D.C. in
order to relieve pressure on Lee’s besieged force in Petersburg.
Sheridan’s army consisted of the VI Corps from the Army of the
Potomac, the XIX Corps from Louisiana, and George Crook’s Army of
West Virginia and cavalry commanded by Alford T. A. Torbert (with
division commanders George Custer and Wesley Merritt). Sheridan and
his fellow Ohioan Crook had been close friends at West Point. In his
army Sheridan had many Ohioans: the Second Brigade of the Third
Division of the VI Corps included the 110th, 122nd, and 126th Ohio
regiments; the First Brigade of the First Division of Crook’s small
army included the 116th and 123rd Ohio regiments; the First Brigade
of the Second Division (commanded by future U.S. President from Ohio
Rutherford B. Hayes) included the 23rd and 36th Ohio regiments; the
Second Brigade included the 34th and 91st Ohio regiments and the 1st
Ohio Light Battery L. In Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps there were two
Ohio regiments: 2nd and 8th.
Beginning with the Third battle of
Winchester on September 19 and then at Fisher’s Hill on September
22, Sheridan’s army had smashed the heavily outnumbered Confederate
Valley army (despite reinforcements sent by Lee). Sheridan’s cavalry
played key roles in both battles. On October 9 Custer led his
cavalry against his West Point friend Tom Rosser’s Laurel cavalry
brigade. Custer’s rout of Rosser at Toms Brook became known as the
“Woodstock Races”. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s army carried out Grant’s
order to destroy the farms that were the granary supplying Lee’s
army. On October 10 Sheridan’s army encamped near Middletown around
the Valley Pike and the North Branch of the Shenandoah River.
Early’s defeated army remained close with a signal station atop
Massanutten Mountain, overlooking the camps of Sheridan’s army.
Believing that Early was decisively defeated, Sheridan went off to
Washington to confer about the future role of his army.
Despite being outnumbered both in
infantry and cavalry (32,000 to 21,000), at Lee’s urging, Early
decided upon a bold move. Adopting a plan proposed by division
commander John Gordon (aided by Stonewall Jackson’s Valley
topographer Jed Hotchkiss), Early decided to make a surprise early
morning attack led by Gordon. It required his troops to cross the
Shenandoah in order to attack Sheridan’s left, comprised of Crook’s
army and the XIXth Corps of William Emery (known as “Old Brick Top”
because of his sandy hair). Gordon led his force through a thick fog
along narrow trails and across the river to strike Crook’s First
Division led by Joseph Thoburn (one of ranking officers killed). The
surprised Federal troops were quickly overwhelmed and Crook’s army
was routed. Leading a disorganized retreat was Hayes after his
attempt at a stand with his division failed to stem the Confederate
tide. Hayes was first injured when his horse was killed and then was
stunned by a bullet to his head but he managed to escape when
ordered to surrender. The divisions of Joseph Kershaw and Dodson
Ramseur then rolled over the XIXth Corps, which conducted a fighting
retreat. As the Federals retreated toward the VI Corps and
headquarters at the Belle Grove estate, many of Early’s solders,
tattered in dress, many shoeless, and half-starved, stopped to loot
the captured Federal camps and the many supplies that they
contained. As to whether their looting was a major cause of Early’s
defeat became a major controversy.
The VI Corps turned to repel the
attack from its east instead of the south and fought stubbornly to
halt the rebel advance. Its commander Horatio Wright (in overall
command in Sheridan’s absence) was wounded and his temporary
replacement as commander of the VI Corps James Ricketts was also
wounded (for the sixth time in the war). On the Valley Pike near
Middletown Union cavalry arrived to prevent a further advance north
by the Confederates, while many of Sheridan’s wagons and stragglers
leaving the field back toward Winchester clogged the Pike. That
morning Early believed that he had won a great victory but Gordon
urged him to continue the assault. Instead, Early replied: “Well,
Gordon, this is glory enough for one day”. Gordon disputed that,
claiming that the VI Corps could be destroyed but remembered that
Early responded: “No use in that; they will all go directly”. Gordon
responded: “That is the Sixth Corps, General. It will not go unless
we drive it from the field.” Whether because of the state of his
exhausted troops, abetted by those who dropped out to loot the
captured camps, Early declined to continue the attack. Fatally, he
did not realign his victorious troops into a more defensible
position and left his left wing (Gordon’s division) in a very
Sheridan's Ride, chromolithograph by Thure de Thulstrup
Sheridan awakened in Winchester
that morning. Being informed of firing to the south, he and others
thought that this was only a reconnaissance. However, he was shortly
informed that his army had been routed and was in retreat. Mounting
his steed Rienzi, accompanied by his aides and a cavalry escort,
Sheridan then headed south to rejoin his army. As they encountered
fleeing wagons and retreating soldiers, Sheridan urged his soldiers
to join him, saying “Boys, if I had been with you this morning this
would not have happened”. Shouting his name, many did turn around
and headed back to the battlefield. Cheers accompanied his arrival
to greet George Getty, Ricketts’ replacement and then Crook, whom he
embraced. He then found the wounded Wright, who informed him that
“We’ve done the best we could”. Emery then arrived and informed
Sheridan that his corps was ready to cover the retreat to
Winchester, to which Sheridan replied: “Retreat, hell. We’ll be back
in our camps tonight”. Sheridan then set to re-organize his army in
order to counter-attack Early’s army. At aide “Sandy” Forsyth’s
suggestion, Sheridan rode Rienzi along the lines to the resounding
cheers of his rejuvenated troops to assure them of his return to
lead them. Bruce Catton reported their reaction by the historian of
the Vermont Brigade: “Such a scene as his presence produced and such
emotions as it awoke cannot be realized once in a century”.
By late afternoon, Sheridan was
ready and ordered an attack along his whole line to the sound of
blaring bugles. After initial resistance, eventually the
Confederates gave way on their outflanked extreme left. This in turn
led the other units to crumble and a wild retreat south began, with
Sheridan’s cavalry in pursuit. Sadly, Colonel Charles R. Lowell, Jr.
was killed by a sharpshooter as he led the Reserve cavalry brigade.
Trying to rally his division, Dodson Ramseur had two horses shot
under him before being hit himself. A new father hoping to see his
newborn child, Ramseur was taken to Belle Grove, where he was
visited by his friend Custer. Ramseur died the next morning.
generally agreed that Sheridan’s victory, after the previous
Federal victories at Atlanta and Mobile, assured Lincoln’s
re-election in November.
Sheridan’s Horse: He was renamed “Winchester”. He died in 1878 and
Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor.
Early: Lee recalled most of Early’s surviving army. On March 2,
1865 at Waynesboro Custer’s cavalry scattered his small remaining
force. Early escaped to rejoin Lee but was in disgrace and sent
home. After the war, he became a leading proponent of the “Lost
Cause”. He and Gordon engaged in continued recriminations over
responsibility for the defeat.
Gordon: He became a Corps commander and led the surrender of the
Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. He later became a member
of the Klu Klux Klan and then a U.S. Senator from Georgia.
Sheridan: He won the battle of Five Forks, forcing Lee’s retreat
from Petersburg and he then cornered Lee's much reduced army at
Appomattox. He and Crook engaged in a continuing dispute over
credit for the victories in the Valley campaign. He became the
Army commander-in-chief in 1883 following Sherman’s retirement.
Rutherford B. Hayes: Elected governor of Ohio, he was then elected
the 19th president of the United States, following Grant, in the
controversial contested election of 1876.
A. Custer: He was prominent in the Appomattox campaign, was
a postwar favorite of Sheridan, and gained glory/infamy with his
defeat and death at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Crook: He too became a cavalry commander in the West. He resigned
in a dispute with Sheridan and Nelson Miles over the treatment of
the captured Apache chief Geronimo.
- Cedar Creek 150th Commemoration:
October 18-20, 2014: Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, Cedar
Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.
A Stillness at Appomattox. 1953. Doubleday. [Chapter 5 : “No More Doubt”]
Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. 2014. Savas Beatie.
The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. 2009. U. North Carolina Press.
The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864. 1999. Time-Life Books.
The Guns of Cedar Creek. 1988. Harper & Row.
The Battle of Cedar Creek (VA): Victory from the Jaws of Defeat. 2009. History
Jeffrey D. Wert.
From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864. 1987. South Mountain
|Alford T. A.