By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved
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”) 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 Sheridan’s absence.
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 Alfred 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 vulnerable state.
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 out to re-organize his army in order to counterattack 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.
- It is 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 was stuffed.
- 21 Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor.
- Jubal 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.
- John B. 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.
- Philip 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.
- George 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.
- George 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.
Bruce Catton. A Stillness at Appomattox. 1953. Doubleday. [Chapter 5 : “No More Doubt”]
Daniel Davis. Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. 2014. Savas Beatie.
Gary Gallagher. The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. 2009. U. North Carolina Press.
Thomas Lewis. The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864. 1989. Time-Life Books.
Thomas Lewis. The Guns of Cedar Creek. 1991. Harper & Row.
Jonathan Noyalas. The Battle of Cedar Creek (VA): Victory from the Jaws of Defeat. 2009. History Press.
Jeffrey D. Wert. From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864. 1987. South Mountain Press.
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