October 19, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates launched one more desperate attack against Major General Philip Sheridan’s numerically superior but unsuspecting Federal army in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Sheridan had left his army to attend a conference at Washington. He no longer considered Early a serious threat after defeating him at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill in September. The Federals were encamped along the east bank of Cedar Creek, above the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Their line ran north to south and consisted of three infantry corps:
- VI Corps under Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the army in Sheridan’s absence, held the right (north) flank.
- XIX Corps under Brigadier General William H. Emory held the center.
- VIII Corps (also known as the Army of West Virginia) under Brigadier General George Crook held the left (south) flank.
Early had received reinforcements and regrouped his Army of the Valley. However, his men were short on supplies because Sheridan’s Federals had laid waste to the Valley. Early could have fallen back to replenish his supplies, but he instead decided to launch a bold attack on the unsuspecting Federals.
Through the night of the 18th and early morning of the 19th, Major General John B. Gordon led three Confederate divisions northeast around Massanutten Mountain and over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. This placed them within striking distance of Crook’s unsuspecting Federals on the left. Meanwhile, two supporting divisions took positions on Gordon’s left, poised to hit Emory in the center.
At 5 a.m., 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 their camps. Captain Henry A. du Pont, heading Crook’s artillery, saved nine of his 16 guns and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for staving off complete disaster.
As the sun rose and the fog lifted, Emory shifted his XIX Corps to meet Gordon’s advance. This left a bridge over Cedar Creek open, enabling Major General Gabriel Wharton’s supporting Confederate division to cross and attack. Intense fighting took place near the Belle Grove plantation, where the Federals held their ground long enough for their supply wagons to withdraw and VI Corps to prepare defenses to the north.
The Confederates under both Wharton and Major General Joseph B. Kershaw crashed into VI Corps, which put up a fierce resistance and made brief stands as they slowly withdrew northwest toward Middletown. Early opted to concentrate most of his force against this position instead of destroying VIII and XIX corps. Meanwhile, hungry Confederates stopped to loot captured camps.
By 10 a.m., the Confederates had captured over 1,300 prisoners, 18 cannon, and several battle flags. But Early disregarded Gordon’s advice to continue pressing the attack, instead ordering a halt to regroup. Gordon later wrote, “My heart went into my boots. Visions of the fatal halt on the first day at Gettysburg, and of the whole day’s hesitation to permit an assault on Grant’s exposed flank on the 6th of May in the Wilderness rose before me.”
Sheridan, asleep 15 miles away, woke 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!”
“Sheridan’s Ride” | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org
The troops were revitalized by this spectacular display of battlefield leadership. A VI Corps soldier later wrote, “Such a scene as his presence and such emotion as it awoke cannot be realized but once in a century.” The 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 firm against the lesser Confederate assaults.
Sheridan counterattacked at 4 p.m. The reorganized VI and XIX corps led the effort, while Crook’s VIII Corps was in reserve. The Federals turned Gordon’s left, which crumbled the rest of Early’s line. Brigadier General George A. Custer led a Federal cavalry attack on Early’s rear; panic-stricken Confederates feared that this would block their escape across Cedar Creek. Confederate Major General Stephen D. Ramseur fell mortally wounded as his division tried making a stand before being forced to fall back.
Federal cavalry attacks by Custer and Brigadier General Wesley Merritt turned the Confederate withdrawal into a rout as Early’s men fell back four miles to Fisher’s Hill. They were forced to leave all their captured guns and supplies behind. 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 at Petersburg:
“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.”
Early chastised his men for their conduct in this battle, writing in part, “Many of you, including some commissioned officers, yielded to a disgraceful propensity for plunder… Subsequently those who had remained at their post, seeing their ranks thinned by the absence of the plunderer… yielded to a needless panic and fled the field in confusion.” He later summed up the battle: “The Yankees got whipped and we got scared.”
Lee decided not to 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.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, ordered a 100-gun salute fired into the Confederate defenses at Petersburg in celebration. People serenaded President Abraham 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 Dana traveled to Sheridan’s headquarters and woke him up late on the night of the 23rd to award him the rank of major general in the regular army. Sheridan also received a commendation from the adjutant general “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 Thomas 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 as well as Lincoln’s chances for victory in the upcoming election.
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