Tide of battle turns at Cedar Creek Battle: What began on Oct. 19, 1864, as a victory by surprise attack at dawn for the Confederates ended as a defeat against overwhelming odds at nightfall. Cedar Creek


On the night of Oct. 18, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Union army was encamped on three low parallel ridges north of Cedar Creek. Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's force was four miles west at the base of Fisher's Hill.

At the left of the Union army, farthest from Early's troops, was Maj. Gen. George Crook's 8th Corps. Crook's position was protected on the flank by the Shenandoah River; at this point Massanutten Mountain was very steep, and the river ran around it. There was no road, and the area was guarded by a cavalry picket.

Half a mile to the rear, across the Valley Pike and to the right of Crook, was Maj. Gen. William H. Emory's 6th Corps, and farther to the right and considerably in the rear of all was Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright's 19th Corps.

From the extreme right to the extreme left the infantry positions took up three miles. Still farther to the right was Maj. Gen. Alfred T. Torbert's cavalry corps. The positions of Crook and Wright were protected by breastworks and artillery batteries.

Early wrote after the war, "The enemy was found posted on the north bank of Cedar Creek, in a very strong position and in strong force. I was now compelled to move back from want of provisions and forage, or to attack the enemy in his position, with the hope of driving him from it, and I determined to attack."

Early's plan

Early's plan was to turn both flanks by surprise, notwithstanding the disadvantage he had in numbers of troops. The federal force numbered 30,829 and the Confederates had 18,410 men, according to Lt. Col. Mark M. Boatner III, a scholar of the Civil War. It is probable that Early was unaware how heavily he was outnumbered. He believed that a considerable portion of Sheridan's army was at Front Royal, Va., or farther away on the march to Washington.

Early sent Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon and Capt. Jedediah Hotchkiss, his topographical engineer, to examine the left flank and Brig. Gen. John Pegram to examine the right flank.

Early said, "Captain Hotchkiss returned to my headquarters after dark and reported the result of his and General Gordon's examination, and gave me a sketch of the enemy's position and camps. He informed me that ... he thought it was practicable to move a column of infantry between the base of the mountain and the river." Gordon confirmed the assessment and expressed confidence that an attack could be made upon the Union flank and rear, but Pegram reported that a movement on the enemy's right flank would be attended with great difficulty, as the banks of Cedar Creek on that flank were high and precipitous and were well guarded.

Early ordered Gordon to lead the 2nd Corps (including Gordon's, Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur's and Pegram's divisions) around Massanutten Mountain and cross the Shenandoah River at Bowman's Ford. Gordon was to attack about 5 a.m. Oct. 19, and turn the federal left flank to secure the Valley Pike. Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's division was to pass through Strasburg, proceed in the direction of Bowman's Mill near the mouth of Cedar Creek, and attack the enemy at that point.

Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton's division, followed by the artillery, was to advance down the Valley Pike. Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser's cavalry was to cross Cedar Creek at Mohamy's Mill and occupy the Union cavalry on the federal right flank.

The march along Massanutten Mountain was a difficult one. Gordon's force began its march around the base of the mountain at 8 p.m. Oct. 18. The column descended a steep gorge, waded the North Branch of Shenandoah River above Cedar Creek and then recrossed the river below Cedar Creek at McInturff's Ford and Bowman's Ford, skirting Crook's front in a deep ravine for three miles and moving scarcely 400 yards from the Union picket line. The Southern soldiers had left their swords and canteens behind so that there would be as little noise as possible while they crept by the Union positions. Before dawn, Gordon's three divisions had completed a seven-mile march and had turned Crook's left flank without having been detected.

At 5 a.m. the attack began, with Gordon's force striking the rear left of Crook's line, divisions commanded by Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Col.. J. Howard Kitching.

Simultaneously, Kershaw's column dashed across Cedar Creek at Roberts' Ford and fell upon Col. Joseph Thoburn's division. Thoburn was killed while trying to rally his surprised and fleeing men. Kershaw's troops captured six guns at Thoburn's position and turned them on the fleeing federal troops.

Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas, a Maryland officer of Early's staff, reports that in these attacks, "the federals were driven back with little resistance. The federals were driven in confusion from their camps, which fell into our hands with many wagons and many prisoners and eighteen pieces of artillery. Rosser was off on our left with his cavalry and [Brig. Gen. Lunsford L.] Lomax off on our right, but they were not able to do much. The pursuit was continued to and beyond Middletown and then a line of battle formed. It was immediately evident that the enemy greatly outnumbered us."

From the Union point of view, Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, said, "The plan of this attack was carefully made; the routes the troops were to pursue, even after the battle had commenced, were carefully designated. The attack was made at early dawn. The surprise was complete.

"Crook's camp, and afterward Emory's, were attacked in flank and rear and the men and officers driven from their beds, many of them not having the time to hurry into their clothes, except as they retreated half awake and terror-stricken from then overpowering numbers of the enemy. Their own artillery, in conjunction with that of the enemy, was turned on them, and long before it was light enough for their eyes, unaccustomed to the dim light, to distinguish friend from foe, they were hurrying to our right and rear intent only on their safety. Wright's infantry, which was further removed from the point of attack, fared somewhat better, but did not offer more than a spasmodic resistance.

"The cavalry on the right was on the alert. The rule that in the immediate presence of the enemy the cavalry must be early prepared for attack resulted in the whole 1st Division being up with breakfast partly finished, at the time the attack commenced. A brigade sent on reconnaissance to the right had opened with its guns some minutes before the main attack on the left, for it had met the cavalry sent by Early to make a demonstration on our right.

"The disintegration of Crook's command did not occupy many minutes. With a force of the enemy passing through its camp of sleeping men, and another powerful column well to their rear, it was not wonderful that the men as fast as they were awakened by the noise of battle thought first and only of saving themselves from destruction. The advance of Gordon deflected this fleeing throng from the main road to the rear, and they passed over to the right of the army and fled along a back road. Emory made an attempt to form a line facing along the main road, but the wave of Gordon's advance on his left, and the thunders of the attack along the road from Strasburg, rendered the position untenable, and he was soon obliged to withdraw to save his lines from capture."

Merritt continues, "At this time, there were hundreds of stragglers moving off by the right to the rear, and all efforts to stop them proved of no avail. A line of cavalry was stretched across the fields on the right, which halted and formed a respectable force of men, so far as numbers were concerned, but these fled and disappeared to the rear as soon as the force which held them was withdrawn.

"By degrees the strength of the battle died away. The infantry of the 6th Corps made itself felt on the advance of the enemy, and a sort of confidence among the troops which had not fled from the field was being restored. A brigade of cavalry was was ordered to the left to intercept the enemy's advance to Winchester. ... The artillery with the cavalry was the only artillery left with the army. The other guns had either been captured or sent to the rear. This battery remained on the infantry lines and did much toward impeding the enemy's advance until the

cavalry changed position to the Winchester-Strasburg road. This change took place by direction of General Torbert about 10 o'clock. In making it the cavalry marched through the broken masses of infantry direct to a point on the main road north-east of Middletown. The enemy's artillery fire was terrific. ... Getty's division ... of the 6th Corps advanced to the position on the cavalry's right. Then [Col. Thomas C.] Devin and [Col. Charles Russell] Lowell charged and drove back the advancing Confederates. Lowell dismounted his brigade and held some stone walls whose position was suited for defense. Devin held on to his advance ground. Here the enemy's advance was checked for the first time, and beyond this it did not go.

"The enemy's infantry sheltered themselves from our cavalry attacks in the woods to the left, and in ... the town of Middletown. But they opened a devastating fire of artillery. This was the state of affairs when Sheridan arrived."

Attack bogs down

At this point, the Confederate attack bogged down.

Douglas said, "Why we did not attack at once, before they got over the confusion and demoralization caused by the surprise and stampede, I do not know. We had much to gain by taking the offensive, everything to lose by delay. True, our infantry had been scattered and demoralized in stopping to plunder the camps they went through, and the temptation of food and the smell of cooking were too great for their famished stomachs to resist. At any rate, our victory was over at 10 o'clock. The enemy, knowing their strength and our precarious situation, took their time to get ready, and six hours passed away in virtual inactivity. Sheridan arrived an hour before noon and took command of his army."

Ranks thinned by plundering

Early said of the delay: "As the enemy's cavalry on our left was very strong, and had the benefit of an open country to the rear of that flank, a repulse at this time would have been disastrous, and I therefore directed General Gordon, if he found the enemy's line too strong to attack with success, not to make the assault. The advance was made for some distance, when Gordon's skirmishers came back reporting a line of battle in front behind breastworks, and General Gordon did not make the attack.

"It was now apparent that it would not do to press my troops further. They had been up all night and were much jaded. In passing over rough ground to attack the enemy in the early morning their own ranks had been much disordered and the men scattered, and it had required time to re-form them. Their ranks, moreover, were much thinned by the absence of the men engaged in plundering he enemy's camps. The delay which had unavoidably occurred had enabled the enemy to rally a portion of his routed troops, and his immense force of cavalry, which remained intact, was threatening both of our flanks in open country, which of itself rendered an advance extremely hazardous. I determined, therefore, to try and hold what had been gained, and orders were given for carrying off the captured and abandoned artillery, small-arms and wagons."

Merritt says, "Stopping at Winchester overnight on the 19th, on his way from Washington, General Sheridan heard the noise of the battle the following morning, and hurried to the field. His coming restored confidence. A cheer from the cavalry, which awakened the echoes of the valley, greeted him and spread the good news of his coming over the field.

"He rapidly made the changes necessary in the lines, and then ordered an advance. The cavalry on the left charged down on the enemy in their front, scattering them in all directions.

"The infantry, not to be outdone by the mounted men, moved forward in quick time and charged impetuously the lines of Gordon, which broke and fled. It took less time to drive the enemy from the field than it had for them to take it. They seemed to feel the changed conditions of the Union ranks, for their divisions broke one after another and disappeared toward the rear. The cavalry rode after them and over them, until night fell and ended the fray at the foot of Fisher's Hill."

According to Douglas, "Sheridan's line moved forward against us about 4:30. At first the resistance of our line was admirable, but being hopelessly overpowered, demoralization succeeded to defeat, and our army was driven from the field in confusion. Trying to hold his feeble line to its place, with grim determination, the dashing and fearless Ramseur was mortally wounded and left in the hands of the enemy."

Merritt assessed the cost on the Union side: "The victory was dearly bought. The killed or mortally wounded included General [Daniel D.] Bidwell and Colonels Thoburn and Kitching, besides many other officers and men. Among the killed in the final charge by the cavalry at Cedar Creek was Col. Charles Russell Lowell. VTC He had been wounded earlier in the day, but had declined to leave the field.

War in valley ends

With the defeat, fighting ended in the Shenandoah Valley. The remnant of Early's force rejoined Gen. Robert E. Lee at Petersburg, Va. His own three divisions had only enough men left to form one small division.

Early made a bitter address to his troops. After recounting the brilliant success of the morning, he added: "I have the mortification of announcing to you that, by your subsequent misconduct, all the benefits of that victory were lost, and a serious disaster incurred. Many of you, including some commissioned officers, yielded to a disgraceful propensity to plunder, deserted your colors to appropriate the abandoned property of the enemy; and subsequently those who had previously remained at their posts, seeing their ranks thinned by the absence of the plunderers, when the enemy, late in the afternoon, with his shattered columns, made but a feeble effort to retrieve the failures of the day, yielded to a needless panic, and fled the field in confusion."

The defeat was as total as Early represented it, but the reproach was undeserved. The Southerners had fought themselves out in the morning. The victory was won by surprise against superior numbers, but the surprise was over in the afternoon.

The federal victory was complete by evening. Sheridan's losses were 5,665, of whom 1,591 were missing, mostly prisoners, more than a third of them were from Crook's corps, captured in the surprise. This corps lost 65 killed and 654 missing.

Early lost 2,910. There were 1,050 prisoners and probably about as many killed and wounded, nearly all in the final fight in the afternoon. He also lost most of his artillery, with 25 guns captured, 16 of which he had seized in the morning.

Pub date 10/11/98

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