October 19, 1864 – Confederate General Jubal Early launched one more desperate attack against Major General Philip Sheridan’s numerically superior but unsuspecting Federals in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Sheridan had left his army encamped along Cedar Creek while he attended a conference in Washington. He no longer considered Early a serious threat after defeating him at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill last month. Early sought to prove him wrong. General John B. Gordon had taken three of Early’s five divisions to positions on the Federal left the night of the 18th. At 5 a.m. the next morning, the Confederates attacked through the fog between Cedar Creek and Middletown.
Many Federals were still asleep when the attack began, and their lines soon disintegrated as Gordon’s forces swept through the camps of Federal VIII Corps. Then as the sun rose and the fog lifted, the Confederates drove XIX Corps from their entrenchments near Belle Grove plantation. Gordon’s men captured over 1,300 prisoners, 18 cannon, and several battle flags in just four hours. But Early disregarded Gordon’s advice to continue pressing the attack.
As two of Sheridan’s three corps dispersed across the plain south of Middletown, Early’s other two divisions crashed into the Federal right. Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the army in Sheridan’s absence, held this sector with his VI Corps. Wright’s Federals put up a fierce resistance between 7 and 9 a.m., making brief stands as they slowly withdrew northwest toward Middletown. Meanwhile, hungry Confederates stopped to loot captured camps.
Sheridan, asleep 15 miles away, awoke to the sound of battle at 6 a.m. He began moving toward the fight two hours later, when the sound became “an unceasing roar.” Sheridan hurried from Winchester and arrived on the scene around 10:30 a.m., where he found thousands of demoralized Federal troops in retreat. Sheridan rode through the men, waving his hat and shouting, “Turn back! Turn back! Face the other way!” When the soldiers cheered him, Sheridan yelled, “God damn you! Don’t cheer me, fight! We will lick them out of their boots!”
The newly motivated Federals stabilized their wavering lines north of Middletown, after having been pushed back four miles. At 3 p.m., Early finally allowed Gordon to follow up his morning attack. But by that time, the strengthened Federal lines held against the lesser Confederate assaults.
Sheridan counterattacked with his reorganized VI and XIX corps at 4 p.m. The Federals turned Gordon’s left, which crumbled the rest of Early’s line. Confederate General Stephen Ramseur fell mortally wounded as his division tried making a stand before being forced to fall back. Federal cavalry attacks by Generals George A. Custer and Wesley Merritt turned the Confederate withdrawal into a rout as they fell back four miles to Fisher’s Hill. Custer celebrated the dramatic Federal victory by hoisting “Little Phil” Sheridan off the ground and dancing with joy.
The Federals suffered 5,665 casualties (644 killed, 3,430 wounded, and 1,591 missing) out of about 30,000, while Confederate losses were estimated at 2,910 (320 killed, 1,540 wounded, and 1,050 missing) from roughly 18,000. Early reported to his superior, General Robert E. Lee:
“I found it impossible to rally the troops, they would not listen to entreaties, threats, or appeals of any kind… The rout was as thorough and disgraceful as ever happened to our army… It is mortifying to me, General, to have to make these explanations of my reverses. They are due to no want of effort on my part, though it may be that I have not the capacity or judgment to prevent them. If you think that the interests of the service would be promoted by a change of commanders, I beg you will have no hesitation.”
Lee did not replace Early, who led his forces to New Market to regroup and possibly confront Sheridan once more. But after being routed three times within a month, the Confederates could no longer contend with the Federals’ superior size, supply, and armament. The troops gradually dispersed, and the Federals gained permanent control of the Valley and its vital resources.
Federal General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant ordered a 100-gun salute fired into the Confederate defenses at Petersburg in celebration. People serenaded President Lincoln at the White House, where Lincoln proposed three cheers for “all our noble commanders and the soldiers and sailors…” Lincoln then wrote to Sheridan, “With great pleasure, I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation and my own personal admiration and gratitude for the month’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and especially for the splendid work of October 19.” The Chicago Tribune stated, “The nation rings with praises of Phil Sheridan.”
Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana awoke Sheridan just before midnight on the 23rd and awarded him the rank of major-general in the regular army. In addition, the U.S. adjutant-general commended Sheridan “for the personal gallantry, military skill, and just confidence in the courage and patriotism of his troops… whereby, under the blessing of Providence, his routed army was reorganized, a great national disaster averted, and a brilliant victory achieved.”
Sheridan became a northern hero, and “Sheridan’s Ride” from Winchester to the battlefield became a famous poem by T. Buchanan Read. The Federal victory at Cedar Creek stopped any future Confederate threat to Washington, which enabled the Federals to devote more resources to the siege of Petersburg and Richmond. This victory greatly boosted northern morale and Lincoln’s chances for victory in the upcoming election.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 180-82
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 518, 540
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 11818-59, 11870-900, 11915-35, 11959-2022, 12033-43
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7988, 8000
- Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135, 137-41, 144-58
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