Battle of Cedar Creek
The Battle of Cedar Creek was the last great battle of the American Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, taking place on October 19, 1864 along Cedar Creek between the towns of Strasburg and Middletown. It marked the end of Confederate power in the Valley, and its timing three weeks before the national elections unquestionably influenced the magnitude of President Abraham Lincoln's reelection. Despite this significance, the battle has been buried in the legend of Major General Philip H. Sheridan's famous ride from Winchester and the controversy over Confederate General Jubal Early's lost victory.
Sheridan's forces had established themselves on both sides of the Valley Pike north of Cedar Creek. Their eastern flank was about 1300 yards from Cedar Creek's confluence with the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. The area east of the Pike was occupied by the VIII Corps. Its First Division was posted considerably forward on a hill almost due east of Hupp's Hill, overlooking the Bowman's Mill Ford across Cedar Creek on the high ground now traced by CR 635. The division entrenched itself on these heights along with three batteries of artillery. Batteries B of the Fifth U.S. and D of the First Pennsylvania, with six guns each, were 400 yards apart on a tongue of land overlooking Bowman's Mill Ford. Battery L, First Ohio Artillery was farther northwest with four guns in a position overlooking the Cedar Creek Bridge and the Pike, now bounded by US 11 and I-81. The Second Division of the VIII Corps, located about 1300 yards to the north in open camp approximately where the Interstate goes over CR 840, was beginning to prepare earthworks south and eastward of its campsite, but they would not be ready in time for the coming battle.
The XIX Corps was entrenched on the west side of the Valley Pike. Its eastern flank was anchored on the Pike overlooking Cedar Creek Bridge beginning where the 128th New York monument now stands. This position was occupied by the corps' Second Division and was further supported by a large portion of the corps artillery. An artillery strong point was set up on the corps' west flank in the First Division area on the high ground immediately southeast of where the Meadow Mills railway trestle now is. This position dominated Cedar Creek and Meadow Brook, a stream flowing parallel to the Pike from north of Middletown and emptying into Cedar Creek. The corps' camps occupied an open, rolling area north of its positions extending almost to Belle Grove Plantation.
The VI Corps went into bivouac west of Meadow Brook when it returned on the 14th. The Third Division overlooked the stream and was oriented southward toward Cedar Creek. The First Division occupied Red Hill farther west while the Second Division was in camp north and east of Red Hill and the modem quarry. The corps' trains (support services units) were on the area between Red Hill and Meadow Brook roughly on a line with Belle Grove and parallel to modem CR 624. The corps was not entrenched at all. By 16 October General Wesley Merritt's Cavalry Division was in bivouac about a mile northwest of Red Hill near Nieswander's Fort, while General George A. Custer's Cavalry Division patrolled possible Cedar Creek crossings on the west side of the Valley in the vicinity of Hite's Chapel, two or more miles beyond.
The Federals were secure in these positions, feeling that Early was too outnumbered to do anything other than harass them. However, evidence that the Confederate commander may have been considering something major continued to accumulate. On 16 October, Sheridan left for Washington and the conference with Stanton, taking the Cavalry Corps with him as far as Front Royal. He intended to send it on a raid to destroy railroads around Charlottesville. But at Front Royal he received information from the acting army commander, General Horatio G. Wright, that a Confederate wigwag message had been intercepted indicating the arrival of reinforcements for Early, led by General James Longstreet. Sheridan suspected a ruse. But true or not, he reasoned that the sending of the message in itself behooved return of the Cavalry Corps to the Cedar Creek camp. The message was actually false, sent by Early in the hopes that it would cause Sheridan to pull farther north. Instead it had the opposite effect. The cavalry returned to be placed entirely on the west side of the Valley by Wright, who was most concerned about a likely attack there. This left one cavalry brigade at Buckton's Ford about two miles east of the VIII Corps and another even farther east near Front Royal. In keeping with Sheridan's concept, the cavalry was concentrated to be used en masse. Divisions and corps were expected to provide their own local security and to send out distant pickets. This had not been the custom in Crook's corps, and the requirement for distant security posts was largely ignored. As a result, it was particularly vulnerable to attack.
By 17 October, Early had reached the point where he had to attack or retreat. The devastation of the Valley made it impossible for him to remain on Fisher's Hill and to sustain his army. His reconnaissances had shown that an attack down the Pike or on the west side of the Valley would have little chance of success. This left the rougher east side which looked so unpromising that the Federals seemed to rely on the terrain alone as their best defense. General John B. Gordon and Early's topographer, Captain Jed Hotchkiss, climbed to a signal station on the top of Three Top, or Massanutten, Mountain to examine the Federal positions. From there, they had a panoramic view of Sheridan's whole camp. In this pre-camouflage era every position, every gun was clearly visible from the Confederate aerie. Gordon said he could even see the color of the piping on the soldiers' jackets and the sores on horses' backs. Thus equipped with detailed information on the Federal dispositions, Gordon and Hotchkiss concocted a plan of attack against Sheridan's weak eastern flank.
Early approved the plan, despite its high risk, as still being promising and feasible with the veteran troops and leaders he had on hand. At its simplest, it was a night attack with four converging columns. Gordon and Hotchkiss had found a small trail passable to infantry south of the North Fork of the Shenandoah at the base of Three Top Mountain. At their urging, Early decided to send Gordon's, General Stephen D. Ramseur's and General John Pegram's Divisions, all under Gordon's command, along this trail to Bowman's and McInturff's Fords across the Shenandoah. Once across, a hike of a mile would get them about a thousand yards to the east of the Second Division, VIII Corps flank. General Gabriel C. Wharton's and Kershaw's Divisions were to move up to Hupp's Hill and wait until Gordon's attack made it feasible to cross Cedar Creek. Rosser was to attack the Federal cavalry in the vicinity of Cupp's Ford on the west side of the Valley. A small brigade of cavalry under General William H. F. Payne, already patrolling the area to be traversed by Gordon's men, was to go with Gordon. Its mission was to raid Belle Grove, known to be Sheridan's headquarters, and to capture the Federal commander. (Early obviously was unaware of Sheridan's absence in Washington.) A larger cavalry force under General Lunsford L. Lomax was to push up the Front Royal-Winchester Road (US 340) to somewhere in the vicinity of Newtown (Stephen's City) and then to interdict Federal trains and any withdrawal. The Confederate artillery, led by Colonel Thomas H. Carter, was to stand by on the Pike between Fisher's Hill and Strasburg until the battle opened, then move forward. It was feared that otherwise the sound of its wheels on the macadamized highway would give the whole attack away. Confederate engineers immediately began to improve and mark the route Gordon's force was to follow. One modification to the plan of attack was made when General Pegram returned from a reconnaissance and reported more entrenchments in the VIII Corps area. Consequently, Early decided to send Kershaw's Division to the Bowman's Mill crossing of Cedar Creek to attack the positions of the First Division, VIII Corps head on. Since Kershaw had no time to reconnoiter, Early planned to go with the column and give Kershaw instructions on the ground.
Early gave his orders at a commander's conference at 1400 on the 18th. The officers synchronized their watches in order to meet the attack hour of 0500, 19 October 1864, as closely as possible. Although risky, the scheme of maneuver was a good one. It gave Early's outnumbered attackers the opportunity to achieve local superiority of mass, allowing them to defeat their enemy in detail in conjunction with the surprise intrinsic to their approach. Early succinctly explained the need for such a gamble: "I can only say we had been fighting large odds during the whole war, and I knew there was no chance of lessening them.... General Lee . . . expressed an earnest desire that a victory should be gained in the Valley if possible and it could not be gained without fighting for it."
While the Confederates made their final preparations, the Federals continued in a false sense of security. One of Custer's cavalry officers remembered the day nostalgically:
- "The 18th of October in the Shenandoah Valley was such a day as few have seen who have not spent an autumn in Virginia; crisp and bright and still in the morning; mellow and golden and still at noon; crimson and glorious and still at the sun setting; just blue enough in the distance to soften without obscuring the outline of the mountains, just hazy enough to render the atmosphere visible without limiting the range of sight. As evening closed above the Valley, the soft pleadings of some homesick soldier's flute floated out through the quiet camp, while around a blazing campfire an impromptu glee club of Ohio boys lightened the hour and their own hearts by singing the songs of home."
Kershaw's morning attack
The beautiful weather prevailed during the night, allowing Early's forces to get into position with the help of a bright moon just past full. The chances of surprise were enhanced further with a heavy ground fog which developed about 0400 after the units had gotten to their attack positions. Gordon's column, with the longest way to go, left as soon as it got dark, about 2000. The men left behind anything that rattled or clanked, such as their canteens, so as to assure silence on the march. The column halted and closed up a few times; the longest pause being at 0100 where the railroad crossed the Shenandoah east of Strasburg. At about that time, Wharton and Kershaw began moving. Early accompanied Kershaw to Cedar Creek, pointed out the campfires of the Federal positions, and explained how he wanted the attack made. Wharton continued down the Valley Pike to Hupp's Hill. All of the infantry units were in position by 0330. Rosser left about that hour to reach his position just before daybreak. Some of his men skirmished briefly with Custer's vedettes (sentinels) at about 0400, causing a few men in the VI Corps to wake up and roll over in their blankets, nothing more.
Kershaw's men waded across Cedar Creek unopposed at 0430, formed in a line of brigades, and eased so close to the Federals that they could hear the early risers talking to each other in their tents. Gordon's corps crossed at the same time, exchanging a few shots with some surprised pickets, but causing no alarm. The head of his column then began moving up a lane to its attack positions. The size of the force meant that Pegram's people, the last to get across, were still coming up at about 0510 when Gordon began to advance.
The attack opened at 0500 when Kershaw's Division rose up, delivered a thundering volley, and rushed the trenches of Colonel Joseph Thoburn's First Division, VIII Corps. One brigade dissolved in minutes as dazed, half-dressed men ran for safety. One Southerner said the scene gave a new meaning to the word panic. The First Brigade of the division, called under arms by its alert brigadier, Colonel Thomas Wildes, minutes before the assault, fought briefly in its position. Then two of its three regiments successfully delayed rearward, fighting for nearly half an hour until they reached the Pike. A few minutes after Kershaw's attack, Gordon's corps smashed into Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes' Second Division, VIII Corps which desperately resisted for a few minutes. Then, while a small group remained and delayed courageously, many of its men fled to the rear. As soon as Wharton heard Kershaw's attack, he closed up to the Cedar Creek bridge. However, he could go no farther until the XIX Corps units guarding it could be dislodged. Early joined him at about 0515, coming over from Kershaw's position. The Confederate artillery raced forward to Hupp's Hill, going into battery against the XIX Corps by about 0520. The final blows to the VIII Corps were delivered by seven of their own guns which were captured during Kershaw's first rush. Heroic efforts on the part of the Federal gunners saved the other nine.
By this time, about 0535, the XIX Corps Commander, General William H. Emory, and his subordinates were aware that they had been flanked by Gordon. VIII Corps fugitives began to come across the Pike and the sounds of combat could be heard drawing nearer rapidly. General Emory began to reorient his line to meet Gordon's threat. In doing this, he had to remove the covering units he had in the Cedar Creek bridge area, thus allowing Wharton to come over and support the battle. One brigade of the Second Division had been standing to arms preparatory to going on a reconnaissance. It and other elements of the Second Division attempted to shift to their left and north to form a line parallel to the Pike to meet Gordon. The First Division stayed in position but thinned its line to allow two brigades to move in the direction of the fight. When Wildes' battered First Brigade of the First Division, VIII Corps emerged from the maelstrom, he reported the situation to Emory and to General Wright, the acting army commander, who had rushed to the scene. General Emory ordered Wildes to attack into the fray again in order to buy time for the shifting corps units. The brave little unit turned back and fought stubbornly for a few more minutes before being pushed back again. General Wright had gone in with them and received a painful wound in the chin which matted his beard with gore for the rest of the action.
In the meantime, Colonel Stephen Thomas's brigade from the First Division, XIX Corps, made a singular sacrifice play several hundred yards farther up the Pike. There, about 200 yards east of the road it engaged in a brutal brawl for about half an hour before it, too, had to pull back. By this time, most of the XIX Corps, Second Division had withdrawn through the thin line formed by its sister unit. The Confederate onslaught pressed the Federals back to positions centered around Belle Grove, where mixed VIII and XIX Corps elements bought another half hour. Their stand allowed most of the headquarters units and trains to load up and withdraw. Even more importantly, their efforts gave the three-division VI Corps time to get organized for the attacking wave headed its way.
General James B. Ricketts' VI Corps units were able to break camp and to get into line of battle before they became seriously engaged. The Third Division, under General Joseph W. Keifer, established a line oriented toward Cedar Creek. Its easternmost brigade actually advanced farther southeastward to the right flank positions of the XIX Corps. However, the flow of the XIX Corps troops withdrawing made it impossible to hold a line and the brigade withdrew to its original position just west of Meadow Brook. The XIX Corps elements, mostly First Division, reorganized on Red Hill and extended the Third Division lines westward in conjunction with Merritt's cavalry which had come forward to help. It was well they did, as by about 0715 this whole line was engaged in fierce fighting with Kershaw's Division. Contact was lost with the rest of the corps but the Third Division retained its integrity in a swirling struggle which gradually forced it back.
The First Division of the VI Corps, led by General Frank Wheaton, had a similar experience just north of its sister unit. It moved first to a position on high ground just east of Meadow Brook looking toward Belle Grove. But it soon was forced back by Gordon's assaulting force to a line on the high ground west of the brook. By this time, between 0730-0800, the fog began to burn off and the Federal soldiers at last began to see their attackers. The First Division slowly withdrew from this high ground position to link with the Third Division about a mile to the northwest. From this position the two units reorganized and established a tenuous link with the Second Division of the corps which in the meantime had waged a magnificent fight closer to the Pike.
The Second Division had been in the northernmost bivouac site when the fighting in the VIII and XIX Corps areas was heard. The division commander, General George W. Getty, marched his units toward the sound of battle intending to link his right with the left of the First Division. He then planned to pivot on the First Division onto the plain between Meadow Brook and the Pike, north of Belle Grove. He was in the act of doing so when the First Division was forced to withdraw, leaving him unsupported on the plain. Undismayed, he delayed briefly on a rise on the southern edge of Middletown, and then about 0800 he pulled his force onto a hill west of Middletown where the town cemetery is located. There, for about an hour, the Second Division, VI Corps aggressively repelled successive assaults from each of four Confederate divisions. The defense was so ferocious that Early assumed he was fighting the whole VI Corps.
The fierce fighting had the effect of causing Early to lose focus on the overall engagement while he concentrated on one problem, and the Confederate attack thus lost momentum all along the line. Finally, in frustration, Early directed all of his artillery to concentrate on the Second Division, VI Corps in an attempt to blow it off its position. After about thirty minutes of this, Lewis Grant, by then the acting commander, felt it best to retire to the main Federal line being formed about a mile farther north. He pulled back to a line on the northern edge of Middletown, defined by CR 627, rested for about 20 minutes, and then, unopposed, moved back a mile to a more defensible position just south of CR 633. It should be noted that by the time of the Second Division's stand, most of the Federal cavalry had been moved to the east side of the Federal line. It had linked with the Second Division and was threatening Early's flank. Recalling what cavalry had done to him in two earlier fights may have influenced Early's decision to put most of his strength on this flank.
The Confederate forces now occupied the line just north of Middletown recently vacated by the Second Division, VI Corps, and Early called a halt to reorganize, much to the chagrin of many of his commanders. The armies were now facing each other front to front in lines perpendicular to the Pike a little over a mile apart.
At about 1030, General Sheridan, returning from his conference in Washington, arrived on the scene after a ride from Winchester which has become legend. His presence inspired his battered forces tremendously. One soldier said it was like an "electric shock." Sheridan completed the rebuilding of the line already begun by General Wright in time to repulse a halfhearted Confederate probe launched at 1300 which brought Gordon's, Kershaw's and Ramseur's units up to a line parallel with CR 634.
Sheridan placed a cavalry division on each flank with the VI Corps and XIX Corps on line. VIII Corps elements were in reserve. His plan for counterattack called for the cavalry to press both of Early's flanks while the XIX Corps pivoted southeastward on the VI Corps. By 1530 the Confederate skirmishers had been pushed in, and the main attack began around 1600. Confederate resistance north of Middletown was fierce for about an hour. Then Gordon's thinner lines to the west were broken, and Custer's Federal cavalry on that flank moved for Early's rear. This created panic along the whole Confederate line, which quickly turned into a rearward stampede. The Confederate artillery with a few infantry made brief delays at the old XIX Corps positions and at Stickley's and Hupp's Hill, but Early had lost control as his forces dissolved in an effort to escape the Federal pursuit.
The disaster was compounded when a small bridge near Spangler's Mill on US 11 south of Strasburg broke. This caused a jam which prevented any rolling stock from moving farther south. Thus, most of the guns and wagons captured in the morning, plus nearly all those belonging to Early's forces, had to be abandoned to the rampaging Federal cavalry. Early's shattered force gathered at Fisher's Hill and withdrew southward before dawn the next day. Confederate military power in the Valley was ended forever.
Jubal Early summarized the fight with the observation: "The Yankees got whipped and we got scared."