Shenandoah Valley 1864 Cedar Creek: "One of the most daring and brilliant attacks recorded in history"?

JSylvester

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Jul 28, 2021
Cedar Creek: "One of the most daring and brilliant attacks recorded in history"?

In the following I would like to present for discussion an assessment of Jubal Early's attack at Cedar Creek, taken from Jeffry D. Wert's "From Winchester to Cedar Creek - The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864".

CedarCreek.jpg


Personally, I consider both the planning, based mainly on Gordon, and the execution up to the "fatal stop" to be incomparably brilliant given the circumstances and the material available. The only fault, in my view, is that Early subsequently overstimulated his hand. Here are some thoughts from my perspective:

-For the 19th century, I know of no battle whose strategic planning involved a successful night march of an entire army corps along a trail that was in part only passable in single file and yet was not discovered.

-The same applies to the three successive attacks by Gordon, Kershaw and Wharton, which were so perfectly timed that enemy forces that were in the process of reorganisation were crushed again before their completion.

-Such drastic differences in numbers make it almost miraculous that even one of the attacks was crowned with success, let alone all three. According to his own statements (which are in any case accepted as valid with regard to the loss calculations) Early had the following division strengths (effectices) involved in the battle:
Gordon: 1,700 (three brigades)
Pegram: 1,200 (three brigades)
Ramseur: 2,100 (four brigades)
Kershaw: 2,700 (four brigades)
Wharton: 1,100 (three brigades)
Rosser: 1,200 (three brigades)

= 8,800 infantry, 1,200 cavalry

-Simm's Brigade from Kershaw's Division, for example, had just 520 men and yet the men managed to overrun Thoburn's Division head-on, subsequently capturing a battery, turning the guns and thus helping to route Emory's Corps. From today's perspective, something like that seems almost surreal. The same applies to Wharton, who with 1,100 men in three brigades, one of which was led by a captain, crossed Cedar Creek before Grover's eyes and broke through his lines.

-The quality of the Confederate troops was clearly below average. Every unit was far below target strength and commanded by officers of lower rank. Many of the men, for example Simms' Georgians, were replacements and not veterans. The morale of the troops should have been at rock bottom after the defeats at Winchester and Fisher's Hill, Tom's Brook and "The Burning". Nevertheless, they brought Sheridan's better equipped, well fed and highly motivated troops to the brink of a crushing defeat.

What is your opinion?
 
Joined
Jun 24, 2020
Jeff Wert‘s assessment is spot on. The plan and its execution were brilliant. That is the point. Gordon and Hotchkiss saw that the Federal army was not camped in anything like a line of battle. Coming on at dawn behind the fog allowed the army to crush the Federals one corps at a time and quickly. The Army of West Virginia never really got into the fight before fleeing. The 19th Corps was facing the wrong direction, was fed into action a single brigade at a time and was knocked apart from two directions. The 6th Corps was fought a single division at a time. At no time during the Confederate attack did the southerners face the whole Army of the Shenandoah. Their success was planned upon that and achieved. They beat the Federals but then unfortunately quit. Miraculous, yes, but in the end tragic.

The morale was low after Winchester and Fisher’s Hill. Not so much after Tom’s Brook, a cavalry affair that did lower the morale of the cavalry; and definitely not after the burning. The burning caused much anger among the troops and buoyed spirits. The infantry wanted to get after the arsonists.
 

Tom Elmore

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Jan 16, 2015
The problem is that the battle was likely to last the whole day. The people that spent the night marching and the morning fighting were going to face late in the day, a larger army that had been better fed and supplied for weeks. They won the morning but the US Army was gathering strength.
Sounds like a microcosm of the entire war.
 

7thWisconsin

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Nov 21, 2014
A big part of the success of this attack was also excellent intelligence. Gordon himself scouted the Federal lines, dressed as a farmer cutting corn. He knew the condition of his enemy, found and reconned the route of advance and executed a decisive blow. I agree that it´s one of the best assaults of the war. Cedar Creek s unique in the Civil War in that, I believe, it´s that only battle that saw the armies of both combattants rout off the field. But like many a football game, the second half was not a replay of the first.
 

Jamieva

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Location
Midlothian, VA
A big part of the success of this attack was also excellent intelligence. Gordon himself scouted the Federal lines, dressed as a farmer cutting corn. He knew the condition of his enemy, found and reconned the route of advance and executed a decisive blow. I agree that it´s one of the best assaults of the war. Cedar Creek s unique in the Civil War in that, I believe, it´s that only battle that saw the armies of both combattants rout off the field. But like many a football game, the second half was not a replay of the first.
I believe Gordon and Hotchkiss had climed to the top of Masannutten mountain to view the federal dispositions as well
 

Claude Bauer

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Jan 8, 2012
The problem is that the battle was likely to last the whole day. The people that spent the night marching and the morning fighting were going to face late in the day, a larger army that had been better fed and supplied for weeks. They won the morning but the US Army was gathering strength.
And a sneak attack at dawn requires a swift victory without allowing the defenders time to recover and regroup. The Confederate troops must have been worn out by the time the attack began. What's more, didn't some of them ford the creek, which would have left them with wet clothes in October? Anyone who's done the Cedar Creek reenactments knows how cold it can get there at night that time of year. I can't imagine standing outside in wet clothes all night and being expected to fight all day afterwards.
 

wausaubob

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Denver, CO
And a sneak attack at dawn requires a swift victory without allowing the defenders time to recover and regroup. The Confederate troops must have been worn out by the time the attack began. What's more, didn't some of them ford the creek, which would have left them with wet clothes in October? Anyone who's done the Cedar Creek reenactments knows how cold it can get there at night that time of year. I can't imagine standing outside in wet clothes all night and being expected to fight all day afterwards.
The trend started when AP Hill's command was unable to move Warren's Corp off the Weldon Railroad. The Confederate attacks no longer had the weight to succeed. Fighting early in the morning often produced surprise. The US forces achieved some of that at the Mule Shoe. But the larger army has a big advantage as the day goes on. Two things happen, some part of the larger army is probably not whipped, and the line of the larger army starts expanding and overlaps the people who were attackers in the morning.
 

Miles Krisman

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Feb 15, 2012
And a sneak attack at dawn requires a swift victory without allowing the defenders time to recover and regroup. The Confederate troops must have been worn out by the time the attack began. What's more, didn't some of them ford the creek, which would have left them with wet clothes in October? Anyone who's done the Cedar Creek reenactments knows how cold it can get there at night that time of year. I can't imagine standing outside in wet clothes all night and being expected to fight all day afterwards.
At about 4:00 A.M. the Infantry filed to the left to Bowman’s Ford on the river, where at about 4.30 A.M. the men commenced wading across the Shenandoah in two columns. The passage was affected with great rapidity and in good order. [1] However, the men came out of the river “nearly frozen” and were anxious to be moving or even fighting in an effort to warm up. The 5th​ Alabama was ordered to attack a Yankee picket post on the bank of the river and were successful in capturing the pickets.[2]

Officers hurried their units forward as the men “trotted up” the road[1] now known as Long Meadow Road. Battle’s Brigade passed Colonel Bowman’s red brick house and continued on for a mile and a half to the Cooley Mansion.[2] The quick pace “was very agreeable after the cold water of the river,” said one man.[3] At the Cooley Mansion, they were formed into line of battle about one mile from the Valley Turnpike[4]


[1]“From Winchester To Cedar Creek – The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864” by Jeffry D. Wert, page 176
[2] “The Battle of Cedar Creek” by Scott C. Patchan, Blue & Gray Magazine, Volume XXIV, page 22
[3] “From Winchester To Cedar Creek – The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864” by Jeffry D. Wert, page 176
[4] Unpublished Report by Colonel Edwin L. Hobson commander of Battle’s Brigade at the Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864, MSS1H6538a60 Virginia Historical Society


[1] O. R. Report of General Bryan Grimes, Commander, Rodes Division (OR, 43, 598-600), Battle of Cedar Creek
[2] “Voices of Company D” by G. Ward Hubbs, page 320
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
To discuss the brilliance of the Confederate attack, is count the leaves on a tree and ignore the forest. What is the purpose of any attack...of any battle? To win. When the sun went down, the Southern army was in precipitous retreat and the Northerners were patting themselves on the back. Early's army was a shadow of its former self; Sheridan's was essentially unchanged.

An army of 11,000 attacked an army of 30,000, what other result would you expect. For that matter this skirmish pales in comparison to the assault launched by AS Johnson at Shiloh. There the armies were essentially numerically equivalent. Johnson achieved not only total strategic surprise, he tactically stunned Grant's army. If you subtract the "magic bullet", which not only found AS J in the middle of the battlefield, but even further magically found him almost immediately after he had ordered his personal physician not to accompany him, AND managed to wound him in a place where nobody could find the wind and apply first aid; potentially saving his life but also allowing him to continue directing the course of battle. With him in charge it is not hard to imagine a Shiloh that has no 2nd day, where Grant is not only defeated but more importantly discredited and thereby does not rise to C-in-C.

But to go back to the original proposition, what happens next. Suppose Sheridan does not make or finish his famous ride? His army flees northward in total panic. 10 miles later, or 20, or 30 miles...at some point their officers finally bring an end to the flight and restore order. Sheridan again takes command and takes his 20,000 man army back into the invasion of the Valley and Early is left with less than 10,000. Since I don't think anyone questions Sheridan's competence, do you really believe that there would be a repeat of his leaving his army to be surprised by his opponent.
 

danny

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Location
Hattiesburg
To discuss the brilliance of the Confederate attack, is count the leaves on a tree and ignore the forest. What is the purpose of any attack...of any battle? To win. When the sun went down, the Southern army was in precipitous retreat and the Northerners were patting themselves on the back. Early's army was a shadow of its former self; Sheridan's was essentially unchanged.

An army of 11,000 attacked an army of 30,000, what other result would you expect. For that matter this skirmish pales in comparison to the assault launched by AS Johnson at Shiloh. There the armies were essentially numerically equivalent. Johnson achieved not only total strategic surprise, he tactically stunned Grant's army. If you subtract the "magic bullet", which not only found AS J in the middle of the battlefield, but even further magically found him almost immediately after he had ordered his personal physician not to accompany him, AND managed to wound him in a place where nobody could find the wind and apply first aid; potentially saving his life but also allowing him to continue directing the course of battle. With him in charge it is not hard to imagine a Shiloh that has no 2nd day, where Grant is not only defeated but more importantly discredited and thereby does not rise to C-in-C.

But to go back to the original proposition, what happens next. Suppose Sheridan does not make or finish his famous ride? His army flees northward in total panic. 10 miles later, or 20, or 30 miles...at some point their officers finally bring an end to the flight and restore order. Sheridan again takes command and takes his 20,000 man army back into the invasion of the Valley and Early is left with less than 10,000. Since I don't think anyone questions Sheridan's competence, do you really believe that there would be a repeat of his leaving his army to be surprised by his opponent.
I do.

His successes are marked with overwhelming advantages
 

LCYingling3rd

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2021
Cedar Creek: "One of the most daring and brilliant attacks recorded in history"?

In the following I would like to present for discussion an assessment of Jubal Early's attack at Cedar Creek, taken from Jeffry D. Wert's "From Winchester to Cedar Creek - The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864".

View attachment 410944

Personally, I consider both the planning, based mainly on Gordon, and the execution up to the "fatal stop" to be incomparably brilliant given the circumstances and the material available. The only fault, in my view, is that Early subsequently overstimulated his hand. Here are some thoughts from my perspective:

-For the 19th century, I know of no battle whose strategic planning involved a successful night march of an entire army corps along a trail that was in part only passable in single file and yet was not discovered.

-The same applies to the three successive attacks by Gordon, Kershaw and Wharton, which were so perfectly timed that enemy forces that were in the process of reorganisation were crushed again before their completion.

-Such drastic differences in numbers make it almost miraculous that even one of the attacks was crowned with success, let alone all three. According to his own statements (which are in any case accepted as valid with regard to the loss calculations) Early had the following division strengths (effectices) involved in the battle:
Gordon: 1,700 (three brigades)
Pegram: 1,200 (three brigades)
Ramseur: 2,100 (four brigades)
Kershaw: 2,700 (four brigades)
Wharton: 1,100 (three brigades)
Rosser: 1,200 (three brigades)

= 8,800 infantry, 1,200 cavalry

-Simm's Brigade from Kershaw's Division, for example, had just 520 men and yet the men managed to overrun Thoburn's Division head-on, subsequently capturing a battery, turning the guns and thus helping to route Emory's Corps. From today's perspective, something like that seems almost surreal. The same applies to Wharton, who with 1,100 men in three brigades, one of which was led by a captain, crossed Cedar Creek before Grover's eyes and broke through his lines.

-The quality of the Confederate troops was clearly below average. Every unit was far below target strength and commanded by officers of lower rank. Many of the men, for example Simms' Georgians, were replacements and not veterans. The morale of the troops should have been at rock bottom after the defeats at Winchester and Fisher's Hill, Tom's Brook and "The Burning". Nevertheless, they brought Sheridan's better equipped, well fed and highly motivated troops to the brink of a crushing defeat.

What is your opinion?
Thanks for the excellent thread! This is my favorite battle to study since my great grandfather was with the 87th PA in the 1st Bgd., 3rd Div., 6th Corps and my great, great grandfather was with the 7th VA Cav. of Rosser's Bgd. at Cedar Creek. Also, because I believe it is one of the most interesting battles of the war and, may even have effected the outcome of the 1864 election.

I do agree with you that the planning and execution of the Confederate surprise attack was "incomparably brilliant" considering the circumstances. I, personally, believe it was one of the best executed surprise attacks in military history, yet fails to make any of the top lists because it did not result in victory. Jackson's flank march at Chancellorsville often makes the lists, however, I believe the Cedar Creek attack surpasses even that historic moment.

As to the assault's failure; that I believe to be complicated. Yes, much can be made of the infamous, "fatal halt." (The best discussion of that I have read is Keith S. Bohannon's excellent essay, "'The Fatal Halt' versus 'Bad Conduct'" in the book, "The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864" edited by Gary W. Gallagher) Whether continued pursuit could have been executed and whether it would have resulted in victory, we may never know with surety; I, however, believe it could have and would have contributed to victory when combined with other factors. And I agree with Bohannon that blame applies to both Early and the plundering troops.

Another key in my mind, that has not been mentioned, is the horribly lackluster performance of both Rosser and Lomax's Cavalry commands. I am especially interested in Rosser's failures because he could have possibly kept Union Cavalry from their integral participation in the afternoon counter-attack and may have even been able to unleash a flank attack on the Union right, either contributing to the morning rout or totally disrupting the afternoon counter-attack. Why the Confederate Cavalry attacks were not better coordinated or successful is an interesting question to me. I believe this is an issue as important as the fatal halt yet seldom included in critical discussions of the battle.

I also believe Horiatio Wright's performance as temporary commander of the army is also overlooked. I have to agree with Theodore C. Mahr when he says, "After the war, Sheridan would receive all the accolades for the surprising and electrifying comeback later in the day and Wright would be cast as the inept leader who had invited disaster. This simply was not true. Without Wright's tactical judgement in the morning fight, the potential for Sheridan's great victory in the afternoon would not have been there" (Pg 173 "The Battle of Cedar Creek: Showdown In The Shenandoah October 1-30, 1864" 1992) Not only does Mahr lay out a solid argument for this, William W. Bergen's excellent essay, "The Other Hero of Cedar Creek," also in the Gallagher edited "The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864," also sheds light on how well Wright actually performed on October 19, 1864.

Circumstances occurred as they did, however, Early's attack at Cedar Creek was extremely well planned and executed. And, I believe, it might just have succeeded had the Confederate Cavalry attacks on the flanks been effective, the Infantry continued it's pursuit mre swiftly, and Wright not performed as well as he did. Sheridan's arrival on the field was certainly timely and inspiring, however, it alone did not "save the day."
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
Thanks for the excellent thread! This is my favorite battle to study since my great grandfather was with the 87th PA in the 1st Bgd., 3rd Div., 6th Corps and my great, great grandfather was with the 7th VA Cav. of Rosser's Bgd. at Cedar Creek. Also, because I believe it is one of the most interesting battles of the war and, may even have effected the outcome of the 1864 election.

I do agree with you that the planning and execution of the Confederate surprise attack was "incomparably brilliant" considering the circumstances. I, personally, believe it was one of the best executed surprise attacks in military history, yet fails to make any of the top lists because it did not result in victory. Jackson's flank march at Chancellorsville often makes the lists, however, I believe the Cedar Creek attack surpasses even that historic moment.

As to the assault's failure; that I believe to be complicated. Yes, much can be made of the infamous, "fatal halt." (The best discussion of that I have read is Keith S. Bohannon's excellent essay, "'The Fatal Halt' versus 'Bad Conduct'" in the book, "The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864" edited by Gary W. Gallagher) Whether continued pursuit could have been executed and whether it would have resulted in victory, we may never know with surety; I, however, believe it could have and would have contributed to victory when combined with other factors. And I agree with Bohannon that blame applies to both Early and the plundering troops.

Another key in my mind, that has not been mentioned, is the horribly lackluster performance of both Rosser and Lomax's Cavalry commands. I am especially interested in Rosser's failures because he could have possibly kept Union Cavalry from their integral participation in the afternoon counter-attack and may have even been able to unleash a flank attack on the Union right, either contributing to the morning rout or totally disrupting the afternoon counter-attack. Why the Confederate Cavalry attacks were not better coordinated or successful is an interesting question to me. I believe this is an issue as important as the fatal halt yet seldom included in critical discussions of the battle.

I also believe Horiatio Wright's performance as temporary commander of the army is also overlooked. I have to agree with Theodore C. Mahr when he says, "After the war, Sheridan would receive all the accolades for the surprising and electrifying comeback later in the day and Wright would be cast as the inept leader who had invited disaster. This simply was not true. Without Wright's tactical judgement in the morning fight, the potential for Sheridan's great victory in the afternoon would not have been there" (Pg 173 "The Battle of Cedar Creek: Showdown In The Shenandoah October 1-30, 1864" 1992) Not only does Mahr lay out a solid argument for this, William W. Bergen's excellent essay, "The Other Hero of Cedar Creek," also in the Gallagher edited "The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864," also sheds light on how well Wright actually performed on October 19, 1864.

Circumstances occurred as they did, however, Early's attack at Cedar Creek was extremely well planned and executed. And, I believe, it might just have succeeded had the Confederate Cavalry attacks on the flanks been effective, the Infantry continued it's pursuit mre swiftly, and Wright not performed as well as he did. Sheridan's arrival on the field was certainly timely and inspiring, however, it alone did not "save the day."
I think no one is gonna assert that Sheridan was an incompetent commander. Nor do I think anyone asserts that Early attacked with full knowledge that he opposite was not on the field of battle and he could therefore take advantage of the fact.

If so then why would you not assume that had he been on the field the Union responses would have been much quicker and more effective. The Southern attack would not have been as effective and as LCYingling3rd put it so "incomparably brilliant"
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
And when he collects his scattered army he is still left with overwhelming superiority.
War is not a chess tournament where evenly ranked players compete on a level board with the same number of assets. The goal is to defeat the enemy using all available combat multipliers to destroy the enemy´s logistics, command and control and freedom of maneuver. Phil Sheridan is the man I most love to hate during this period. I don´t think in any way I would have gotten along with the arrogant little banty rooster. His campaigns on the post-war plains were appalling. But the man understood war. He went about ¨smashing things¨ to use his own words. He repeatedly hammered a weaker opponent with overwhelming force until he was broken. I don´t like Little Phil, but Little Phil understood war.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
War is not a chess tournament where evenly ranked players compete on a level board with the same number of assets. The goal is to defeat the enemy using all available combat multipliers to destroy the enemy´s logistics, command and control and freedom of maneuver. Phil Sheridan is the man I most love to hate during this period. I don´t think in any way I would have gotten along with the arrogant little banty rooster. His campaigns on the post-war plains were appalling. But the man understood war. He went about ¨smashing things¨ to use his own words. He repeatedly hammered a weaker opponent with overwhelming force until he was broken. I don´t like Little Phil, but Little Phil understood war.
There are two ways to win a war. One way is to kill your enemy. The other is to demonstrate to your enemy that his opposition is futile and hopeless. Sheridan saw that.
 

LCYingling3rd

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Joined
Apr 25, 2021
I think no one is gonna assert that Sheridan was an incompetent commander. Nor do I think anyone asserts that Early attacked with full knowledge that he opposite was not on the field of battle and he could therefore take advantage of the fact.

If so then why would you not assume that had he been on the field the Union responses would have been much quicker and more effective. The Southern attack would not have been as effective and as LCYingling3rd put it so "incomparably brilliant"
Interesting question.

I, however, see little evidence that Sheridan's absence effected the outcome of the morning attack. He knew that Early was back at Fisher's Hill, however, he was not worried about Early attacking enough for him to cancel his trip to Washington on October 15th. Therefore, I think Sheridan would have been as surprised as Wright on the morning of the 19th. Further, I see no evidence that Early was aware of Sheridan's absence; so I do not see how that could have effected his planning.

I still agree with @JSylvester that Early's plan up to the Fatal Halt was "incomparably brilliant," and I believe Wright's response was excellent considering the circumstances. He coordinated as good a defense as can be expected, bravely led troops into battle himself despite being wounded, and even started regrouping his troops north of Middletown before Sheridan arrived back on the field. If anything, I think Sheridan's trip to Washington was a stroke of luck. I do believe his timely arrival back to the battlefield on the 19th did help rally and reinvigorate his army and if he had not gone to Washington that would not have happened.

I also agree with @7thWisconsin about Sheridan; he did understand war. However, I believe Sheridan made a mistake going to Washington on the 15th. After "The Burning," there was a flurry of communications between Grant, the leaders in Washington, and Sheridan. Grant had requested that Sheridan return part of his army to Petersburg. On the 10th Sheridan moved his army north, down the Valley through Strasburg toward Middletown. He set the 8th and 19th Corps into camp along the high ground above the Cedar Creek and ordered the 6th Corps to the Manassas Gap railroad to start their return to Petersburg. Tom's Brook happened that day so he figured only weak Cavalry was following him.

The morning of the 13th though, he received communications that Grant wanted him to threaten the Virginia Central Railroad and he should move towards Charlottesville, VA. Believing he would need the 6th Corps for that, he sent an order to Wright directing him to return. He still didn't know that Early had followed him north and had occupied Fisher's Hill and sent Gordon to Hupp's Hill on the 12th. Gordon attacked on the 13th though and Thoburn's 8th Corps Division engaged them in the battle of Hupp's Hill. Sheridan should have known then not to go. On the 15th Custer and Merritt's Cavalry and Emory's 19th Corps Divisions all engaged in reconnaissance and confirmed that Early was at Fisher's Hill. Despite this, he still decided to head to Washington. Then on the 16th Early had his signalmen flag a fake message indicating Longstreet was reinforcing Early. Wright intercepted it and sent that to Sheridan who was at Front Royal by then. Yet, instead of returning to take command of his army, he messaged with Washington who told him Longstreet was still on Petersburg, but Kershaw might be gone. Halleck told Sheridan he didn't need to come to Washington, but all Sheridan did was sent Merritt back to reinforce Wright and continue on.

I think "what if's" can be fun, but we will never really know. I think all this evidence supports an argument that Sheridan would have been just as surprised as Wright, if not more so (Wright was more concerned about the fake signal than Sheridan was), and that the Union response would not have been "quicker and more effective" had he been on the field. It seems clear to me that he was not worried that Early was a serious threat, therefore I believe the morning probably would have gone pretty much just as it had under Wright. And without the added effect of him riding down and rallying fleeing troops, I think the day could have gone worse had he been there? I think Sheridan should be criticized for leaving for Washington on the 15th with overwhelming evidence that Early was near, being aggressive (Hupp's Hill), and probably being reinforced by a Division at the least.
 
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