The Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864

James N.

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Part I - Genesis of the Battle of Cedar Creek
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Keith Rocco's painting Reverse the Trenches depicts a dramatic moment during the Battle of Cedar Creek when outflanked and surprised Union troops were forced to cross to the opposite side of their breastworks to meet the Confederate morning assault.

Cedar Creek was the decisive final battle in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign waged between the Union Army of the Shenandoah led by Maj. Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan and Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's Confederate Army of the Valley. During the summer of 1864, Early's mission had been to threaten the Federal capital, Washington, D.C., thereby tying up as many Union troops as possible in the manner of his predecessor Stonewall Jackson in 1862. Early's small army had even moved through Maryland almost unopposed until brushing aside a blocking force at Monocacy and getting into the suburbs of Washington itself before being stopped by Federal troops hastily rushed from the Army of the Potomac. ( For more on Early's Raid please see: http://civilwartalk.com/threads/jubal-earlys-1864-raid-on-washington-d-c.103669/ )

Early then had fallen back into Virginia and for the months of July and August played a game of cat-and-mouse with the larger Union forces, even winning small battles at Cool Spring and Kernstown. Finally his luck had run out, however, when Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant sent Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to take charge of the newly-christened Army of the Shenandoah with orders to crush Early, which he did at the twin September battles of Opequon/Third Winchester and Fisher's Hill. Early then withdrew his shattered army south to recuperate and await reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg.

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Above, Lt. Gen. Jubal Anderson Early and his nemesis Maj. Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan, seen as he appeared at this time sporting a full beard often omitted in drawings and paintings depicting Cedar Creek. Below, map of the entire area covered by the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign showing the principal engagements.

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Attribution: Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com

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By the middle of October Early had received the division of Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw which largely made up for the losses he had incurred at Winchester and Fisher's Hill, so he decided to resume the offensive. At this time Sheridan fortuitously was away attending a conference to decide what the next moves of his army would be now that the Confederate threat had been apparently neutralized. His army was scattered about the vicinity between the town of Strasburg north to the village of Middletown along the banks of meandering Cedar Creek and on the sprawling plantation known as Belle Grove. This area marked the north end of the geographic feature known as Massanutten Mountain, an elevation which dominated the landscape, as seen in the photo above taken from the much lower Hupp's Hill.

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This drawing by artist-correspondent James E. Taylor who covered the campaign making highly detailed drawings depicts Early's second-in-command, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon viewing the spread-out Federal camps along Cedar Creek from the Confederate signal station on Three-Top or Massanutten Mountain's Signal Point; behind him stands Early's topographer Maj. Jedidiah Hotchkiss making notes. From this vantage point it was easy to discern the Federal camps had been positioned for convenience rather than proper military security, many being unsupported by the others, and therefore vulnerable to a surprise attack.

Next, Part II The Confederate attack at dawn.
 
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James N.

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Part II - The Confederates Attack at Dawn
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Alfred Waud's wartime sketch reproduced in Battles and Leaders depicts the surprise in the Federal camps.

Early and Gordon decided on a bold move to attack the unwary Federal camps at dawn on October 19, 1864, by using a little-known trail at the base of Massanutten Mountain to approach the nearest camp, that of the VIII Corps of Maj. Gen. George Crook. Gordon led the men of his own division and those of Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur and Brig. Gen. John Pegram on a night march which forded the rather narrow and waist-deep North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Aided by the bright light of a nearly full moon the Confederates moved into assault positions while the rest of the army under Early waited.

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Attribution: Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com

As dawn approached a thick fog blanketed the valley of the Shenandoah and its tributary Cedar Creek which would aid the outnumbered Confederates in their complete surprise. Gordon successfully maneuvered his men into position and at around 5 am his attack went forward, followed soon by Kershaw's recently-arrived division, striking the two unsuspecting and separated VIII Corps divisions.

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The hilltop here was the location of the camps of the First Division, VIII Corps of Col. Joseph Thoburn, pictured on the Civil War Trails marker at left of Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, whose troops overran the division, scattering it and killing Thoburn. Gordon's divisions attacked and pushed back the Second Division of the corps, led by future U. S. President Col. Rutherford B. Hayes.

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The monument above for the 128th New York Volunteer Infantry stands alongside the Valley Turnpike (modern U.S. 11) and marks the left flank of the trench line constructed in advance of their camps by the XIX Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. William H. Emory. Although also taken by surprise, this corps had time to react, the men reaching their trenches in time to meet the rolling Confederate assault.

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A modern trail follows the trench line through woods that weren't present in 1864; at the time of the battle this was all open farmland like pictured in the painting and drawing above. Confusing the issue, however, was still the presence of the thick fog which concealed Confederate movements although firing could be heard on all sides. The section of trenches above was held by the Second Division, XIX Corps of Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover, pictured on the sign.

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Gordon's attack on Hayes' division of the VIII Corps crossed the Valley Pike into the rear of Emory's XIX Corps here, precipitating a withdrawl to the fields of Belle Grove Plantation where the Union army's supply trains, ambulances, and sutler stores were gathered. As Emory's men began to pull back, these support elements began to hitch up their wagons and flee to the north, many along the Valley Pike.

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Alfred T. A. Torbert - James B. Ricketts - Horatio G. Wright.jpg


Union subordinate commanders at Cedar Creek included left-to-right above: Maj. Gen. Alfred T. A. Torbert, commanding the Cavalry Corps; Maj. Gen. James B. Ricketts, temporarily commanding the VI Corps; and normal VI Corps commander Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, commanding the entire Army of the Shenandoah in Sheridan's absence.

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Wright had moved his headquarters into the manor house of Belle Grove, a substantial stone structure built around 1800. His VI Corps under Ricketts, however, was encamped to the north and west along with much of Torbert's cavalry where they were out-of-support for the embattled VIII and XIX Corps. Ricketts soon had his men up, but they moved relatively slowly into position, causing the entire Federal line to recede northward. One of Taylor's drawings below imaginatively pictures the confusion around Belle Grove as the victorious Confederates swarm through the Union camps.

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For more on Belle Grove Plantation, please see: http://civilwartalk.com/threads/belle-grove-national-trust-historic-site-middleton-virginia.118387/

Next, Part III - Union resistance stiffens.
 
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James N.

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Part III - Union Resistance Stiffens While Sheridan Rides

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The Confederate early morning attack had so far crushed alternately the Federal VIII and XIX Corps of Crook and Emory, but by mid-morning was running out of steam just as Rickett's VI Corps was entering the battle. Torbert's cavalry was even farther removed from the fighting, having just returned from their expedition known as The Burning and gone into camp in the rear of the army instead of between it and the enemy. VI Corps units like the First Vermont Brigade memorialized on the historical marker below and the painting above served to slow the Rebel steamroller long enough for additional units to enter the battle, albeit piecemeal.

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On the Hite Road which paralleled the Valley Pike to the west of Middletown was a significant hill topped by the town's cemetery. Here the Second Division of the VI Corps, led by Brig. Gen. George Getty, formed a crescent-shaped line facing southwest with the cemetery on the left flank. There for about an hour between 8 and 10am Getty resisted several feeble Confederate assaults from the divisions of Gordon, Pegram, Ramseur, and Kershaw. Most of these were made by individual brigades as they came up, and although Union Brig. Gen. Daniel Bidwell was killed here by a shell, his brigade and the rest of Getty's division fought so fiercely that Early may have assumed he was fighting the entire VI Corps.

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The photo above is looking east from Bidwell's position at the cemetery toward the Blue Ridge looming in the background; the intermediate horizion shows the vicinity of the previous photo of the Valley Turnpike and modern industrial buildings on the higher ground along U.S. 11. As Early concentrated his troops here against Getty, the remainder of the Union army withdrew farther north along the Pike to form a line two miles north of Middletown protecting the retreat of the trains and the road to Winchester. Getty's stand bought valuable time for Wright, who had been slightly wounded in the face but remained in command, to sort his units out for further resistance.

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Once Getty withdrew his division to the main Union line the Confederates followed warily, looking to their right flank where most of Torbert's cavalry had gathered and were threatening their flank. About a mile north of the cemetery on the Hite Road stood the Miller House and Mill; the house is still standing, below, but the ruins of the mill are all that remains. Here was the approximate center of the final Confederate line, facing the Federals another mile to the north and visible over the then-open fields.

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Various reasons have been given for Early's failure to fully capitalize on his success the morning of Oct. 19, 1864: his men were exhausted from their all-night march and dawn attack, followed by several hours of continuous battle; many of them had fallen out to plunder the wide-open Union camps, bursting with tempting goods and laden with rations Confederates could only dream of; Early feared the Union cavalry would attack his exposed flank and pulled his men back; he thought he had already won the battle and become overconfident, waiting for Wright to retreat. Likely it was a combination of all these factors; in his memoirs Gen. Gordon stated he urged Early to continue his attack, but as with other of Gordon's postwar statements this may have been made with a great deal of hindsight.

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One thing was certain, however: feisty Union commander Phil Sheridan had arrived following a rapid twelve-mile ride from Winchester which became the stuff of legend, celebrated long afterward in verse, song, and story. Sheridan had returned from his conference, spending the night in the house above that served as Union headquarters for occupied Winchester. (The large apple in its yard - a symbol of Winchester and its orchard industry - dates from when in the mid 1900's it was offices for the town Chamber-of-Commerce; currently it is a tony clothing store.) When at dawn he heard the cannonading from what was obviously a brewing battle he gathered his staff and rode quickly to the scene of the fighting, arriving around 10:30 am, as pictured below in one of the more accurate of the highly-romanticized versions, this one by artist Thure de Thulstrup.

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All along the way Sheridan encountered wagons from the train, straggling soldiers, and eventually entire retreating units which recognized and began to cheer their commander. His response was, "God d*mn you, don't cheer me! If you love your country come up to the front!" The men responded, turning and following him to the place where Wright had established his line and was sorting out his entangled units. Sheridan quickly assumed command and began preparing his counterattack, riding along the line waving his personal battle flag and "showing himself" to his men to let them know he had returned and taken charge.

Next - Part IV, Union counterattack and Confederate rout.
 
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James N.

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Part IV - Union Counterattack and Confederate Rout
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Center of the Cedar Creek battlefield, home of the annual reenactment, held every October on the weekend nearest the anniversary of the battle. This ground and the wartime Heater House at right center witnessed both the early-morning Union retreat and the late-afternoon Confederate disaster and rout.


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Attribution: Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com

As the map above shows, Sheridan divided Torbert's cavalry, placing a division on each flank of his army; Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt was held on the Union left while that of Brig. Gen. George A. Custer was shifted around to the right. When the attack commenced around 4pm following a lull of several hours while his men were being resupplied with ammunition and placed in line, Crook's battered VIII Corps was left out as a reserve. By then the morning's covering fog had completely dissipated revealing the true size of Early's relatively small force, another inducement - if any were needed - for Sheridan to counterattack.

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As Merritt's cavalry pressed forward against the weak Confederate horsemen of Maj. Gen.'s Lunsford Lomax and Thomas Rosser, the Reserve Brigade of Col. Charles Russell Lowell charged through and around the streets of Middletown; Russel was mortally wounded at their head as depicted in another of James Taylor's drawings below. The monument above stands in Middletown across the street from the house to which he was taken and subsequently died.

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The Confederates resisted stoutly at first, but were themselves running low on ammunition and were being outflanked on their left flank by Custer's division of cavalry. They fell back steadily across the ground below that they had conquered that morning past the Heater House all the way to the grounds of Belle Grove Plantation.

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John B. Gordon - Stephen D. Ramseur - John Pegram.jpg


Above left-to-right: Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon, Early's second-in-command, leading his own division and the Confederate left wing during the retreat; Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, commanding what had once been the Second Corps division of D. H. Hill and Robert E. Rodes; and Brig. Gen. John Pegram, commanding Early's own old division. By this time in the war all these Confederate divisions were only shadows of their former selves following the bloodletting of Grant's Overland Campaign and previous losses in the Shenandoah Valley. Gordon survived the war to write his memoirs which were highly critical of Early's handling of the battle, but Ramseur died here and Pegram fell the following year near Petersburg in the war's waning days.

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During the retreat, Gen. Ramseur was mortally wounded in the vicinity of Miller's Mill, one reason his division began to go to pieces; the ambulance carrying him was captured and brought to Belle Grove House below where he was cared for by Union physicians. He was visited here while on his deathbed by his old friends and former West Point classmates Custer and Merritt. The monument above was erected by his native state North Carolina and stands on U.S. 11 at the sign marking the turn for Belle Grove Plantation, the buildings of which can be seen across the background.

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Following the battle the fields surrounding the manor house and its outbuildings held over a thousand Confederate prisoners, forty-five cannon, and hundreds of wagons taken in the flight of Early's army. Over twenty of the guns and many wagons and ambulances had been captured only that morning from the Federals in their camps. After leading the pursuit, George Custer returned here at twilight to greet his diminutive commander; according to eyewitness James Taylor, Custer grabbed Sheridan around the waist, lifting him off the ground, swinging him around while shouting joyously, "We've cleaned them out of all their guns and got ours back!"

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Early might have gotten away with less damage had two wagons not become entangled at the narrow stone bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah at the southern edge of Strasburg near Spengler's Mill below. Teamsters cut their traces riding their mounts to safety while others fled on foot abandoning wagons and teams and several artillery pieces as well. Another similar disaster occurred at another smaller bridge a little farther south.

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For more on Spengler's Mill please see: http://civilwartalk.com/threads/two-that-survived-the-burning.118308/

Next - Part V, Aftermath of the battle.
 
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James N.

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This is a battle and campaign that I've read very little about. What books could you recommend, James (and to the group in general)?

R

RP,

Due to time constraints today, I'll have to put this off until Monday unless someone else would like to comment.
 

Buckeye Bill

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This is a battle and campaign that I've read very little about. What books could you recommend, James (and to the group in general)?

R

Start out with this book. I purchased this book at the Cedar Creek National Battlefield visitor center last September. It is small but it is packed with a punch!

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JPinta

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Having just moved two months ago from Winchester to Columbus, OH, this post brought a nice smile to my face. I lived just two blocks from Sheridan's Headquarters (now Kimberly's), and Belle Grove was the site of mine and my now-wife's engagement photos. To live in Winchester, or the lower valley in general, is to be constantly surrounded by the memories of the war, and this summary of Cedar Creek brought me back to the area.

Excellently done!
 
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MaryDee

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James, I wish I'd had your excellent account when I was at the 150th Cedar Creek reenactment a year ago! The summary with the program they gave out was horrible. I had read Jeffry D. Wert's From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 a couple of months before, but found it a bit tedious. I should have reread the appropriate sections while riding in my son's truck from southern Ohio to the Shenandoah Valley, but I was too busy rubbernecking fall foliage!

The countryside at Cedar Creek is beautiful, especially in mid-October! I was with the Union cavalry, which was camped along Meadow Brook in the northwestern corner of the National Battlefield, a lovely spot. I got to watch the dedication of the Vermont Monument and almost froze to death--there was a really cold wind! Unfortunately the politicians present insisted on lengthy speeches! My eldest son's group, the 6th Ohio Cavalry, had the honor to represent the 1st Vermont cavalry (a few Vermont cavalry folks joined them and brought their flag) in the suffering at the dedication. They not only were cold, but had been told to hydrate really well before the event by some who thought it was going to be a warm day and hadn't anticipated the lengthy speeches--I leave the rest to your imagination….
 

Dave G

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Very interesting. I see that I missed a lot.

At one time the guides at the Visitor Center were providing a self-guided tour book. I mostly only visited points along the pike but it shows many of the locations shown above. I don't know if it's still available.
The Battle of Belle Grove or Cedar Creek -- Self-Guided Tour -- by Joseph W.A. Whitehorne.

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Cover
I'm a big fan of james E. Taylor ... so:
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Ramseur Falls in Federal Attack - by James E. Taylor

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Another drawing by James E. Taylor shows Federal cavalry driving the Confederates down the Valley Pike.
 

CadmusWilcox

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Have always loved Ramseur. Have ordered that book from a company in Arizona. (I am in England.)
Will be three weeks before it arrives, but am excited.
Thank you for the recommendation.
 
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frontrank2

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My family and I did the 135th anniversary of the Battle, my wife and daughters as civilians, me and my son as Union soldiers. After Saturday's battle ( a rebel victory BTW ) we decided to get some good food for supper instead of going back to camp. We changed into our civilian clothes and stopped at a little tavern just down the road. While we were looking at our menus, a couple of local fellows were sitting nearby. The first one said " That was a good battle today. We sure kicked the H*** out of the Yankees." The other one replied " Yup, one good Southerner was worth ten Yankees." I don't know if they acted that out for our benefit, but I don't think there was anything that gave us away as Northerners.
So evidently the War continues to be played out even today. :eek:
 

bdtex

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Good read James N. The maps were a big plus too. Thanks .
 
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