Re-enactors tackle Cedar Creek battle; Civil War: 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.


Organizers in Middletown, Va., are putting the final touches on preparations for the 135th anniversary of the Civil War battle of Cedar Creek. The event, to be held Oct. 15-17, is expected to attract up to 6,000 re-enactors.

Admission to the re-enactment is $20 for all three days; $15 for a weekend pass; and $10 daily. Children 12 years old and under are admitted free. Parking is free.

To obtain tickets, contact the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation at P.O. Box 229, Middletown, Va. 22645, or call 540-869-2064.

The 1864 battle all happened in less than a day. A surprise attack. A counter-attack. A glorious success. A devastating defeat. In the dark chill of Oct. 18, 1864, a turning point in the Civil War took place at Cedar Creek, near Middletown, Va.

Thick fog loomed over Cedar Creek, where Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Union troops camped. That evening, Sheridan was not with his troops. Instead, he was in Winchester, leaving the command of his army to Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright. This army contained three infantry corps, including Wright's 6th Corps, Maj. Gen. William H. Emory's 19th and Brig. Gen. George Crook's Army of West Virginia, sometimes identified as the Union 8th Corps. These troops, as well as a cavalry corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred T. Torbert, peppered the land around Cedar Creek.

But, just one day earlier, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early had planned a surprise attack against the Union position. The Confederates acted on this plan after nightfall on Oct. 18, sending the infantry divisions of Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon, Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur and Brig. Gen. John Pegram to assault the left flank of Crook's corps at 4 a.m.

Attack at dawn

Meanwhile, Early and Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's division prepared for an attack at dawn at the left of the Union position, while Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton led his men to follow up the attack on the Union center. The Confederate artillery gathered on the Valley Pike to support the infantry.

An hour later, the battle began with a boom. Kershaw's troops fired at and drove back Col. Joseph Thoburn's entrenched but unwary Union division. Thoburn was killed while trying to rally his men.

On the eastern flank, Gordon's troops overcame the divisions of Brig. Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes and Brig. Gen. John H. Kitching. Brig. Gen. William H. F. Payne's 300-man brigade of Confederate cavalry headed for Sheridan's headquarters at Belle Grove mansion to capture the Union commander.

Some federal soldiers panicked and fled from their camp.

Sheridan heard the noise of the battle from Winchester and made an epic ride of about 14 miles to the battlefield, returning from Winchester about 10:30 a.m., screaming at his retreating men as he rode by, "Come on back, boys. Give 'em hell, God damn 'em. We'll make coffeee out of Cedar Creek tonight," according to the general's memoirs.

He established a command post near Valley Pike and decided on some table-turning strategies. Sheridan began by placing the 6th Corps on the left of Valley Pike, the 19th Corps on the right and Crook's Army of West Virginia along the pike. At noon he rode in front of his newly formed battle line. The effect was electric.

According to Roy Morris Jr., in his biography "Sheridan," as Sheridan rode down the line "swinging his hat in his right hand to give the soldiers a glimpose of his familiar bullet-shaped head, a mighty cheer swept down the line. Perhaps no other general -- certainly no other Northern general -- could have had a comparable effect of his men at this time in the war., when virtually every soldier was a battle-scarred veteran, and not just fromenemy bullets, but also from the decisions of his own frequently inept commanders. Phil Sheridan, unlovable though he may have been, engendered a feeling more important to an army than love: an unassailable confidcence born of battles shared and won."

After that moment, it was clear that the fight was on. Custer's cavalry joined the right flank and Merritt's joined the left in preparation for a counterattack.

A long pause

On the Confederate side, there was a pause. Douglas Southall Freeman gives this account in his classic study, "Lee's Lieutenants":

" 'Well, Gordon.' [Early] exclaimed when he next met the major general who was leading brilliantly the 2nd Corps., 'this is glory enough for one day!' Early went on: 'This is the 19th. Precisely one month ago today we were going in the opposite direction.'

"Gordon had abundant reason to remember the 19th of September at Winchester, but his thought was of the battle in progress. 'It is very well so far, General; but we have one more blow to strike, and then there will not be left an organized company of infantry in Sheridan's army.'

"He pointed as he spoke to the front of the 6th Corps and explained what he intended to do. Early listened but did not appear to be impressed. 'No use in that,' he said, 'they will all go directly!'

"Gordon answered, 'This is the 6th Corps, General. It will not go unless we drive it from the field.'

" "Yes, it will go directly.'

"... What was deep in the mind of 'Old Jube' at the moment, history will never know. If he correctly recorded his state of mind in his military autobiography, he believed at the time of the conversation with Gordon that the victory had been won. He did not know that Sheridan had been absent from the battle and, at the first news of it, had been quick to throw himself on his horse and start for Cedar Creek. It seemed incredible to Early that a federal army which had lost 1,300 prisoners and 18 guns would attempt to stand. It had been beaten; it should be in retreat; it soon would be."

But, by 3 p.m., that thought seemed foolish. Merritt's Union soldiers set their sights on the Confederacy's right flank while other Union ranks forced Confederates back to their main battle line along Miller's Mill Road and west of it. Just one half-hour later, Custer's division, accompanied by some members of the 19th Corps, attacked the Confederate divisions under the command of Gordon and Kershaw. Custer wore down the Confederates from west to east.

Sheridan attacks the front

Then, at 4 p.m., Sheridan concentrated on the Confederate front. Ramseur's troops suffered greatly, but their resistance ended only when Ramseur himself was mortally wounded. This was the Confederacy's last hope, and it too was lost. After this loss, they could not regain control in any area. They had no choice but to retreat under the pressure of Merritt's and Custer's divisions. The two divisions joined forces around dusk on Hupp's Hill, while the cavalry explored the Valley Pike. The cavalry fought well into night, capturing many prisoners, cannons and wagons.

According to David Smith, former president of the Cincinatti Civil War Round Table, the Battle of Cedar Creek was significant for many reasons.

"First, it was the beginning of the end for Confederate presence in the Valley during 1864," he said. "Confederate General Jubal Early's surprise attack at the Union army encamped on Cedar Creek came as a nearly complete surprise to federal generals, and caught commander Philip Sheridan back in Winchester so sure was he that no attack was contemplated. Following the victory, however, significant Confederate presence in the valley had ended.

"Second, it marked, perhaps, the significant victory in the career of Sheridan, and cemented the relationship between Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant and his subordinate. That relationship would set up Sheridan's future career in the army, including promotion to full general in 1888.

"And third, the battle, fought in October 1864, provided a significant Union victory for President Abraham Lincoln. With the presidential elections only a month off, the victory was extremely significant and welcome for the administration in Washington."

The Battle of Cedar Creek was a major cause of Confederate disintegration, though the Confederate plan of attack was admired. Conversely, it also contributed to the Union's eventual success. However, despite the Union's success, both sides lost an outrageous number of soldiers and weapons. It is difficult to believe that such a loss and yet such a gain happened in less than a day.


Friday, Oct. 15

Noon: Camps open to the public.

2 p.m.: Middletown March.

4 p.m.: Battle.

7 p.m.: Camps closed to public.

Saturday, Oct. 16

10 a.m.: Camps open to public.

11 a.m.: Signal Corps demonstration.

Noon: Cavalry skirmish; drama, "The Temptation of Pvt. Dobbins, or, the Evils of Strong Drink," Cold Water Thespian Troupe, events tent.

1 p.m.: Artillery duel; symposium, "Sheridan's Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley," by historian John Heatwole, events tent.

2 p.m.: Infantry skirmish; debate, "Jefferson Davis vs. Abraham Lincoln" by Philip McGourty and John Baylis, events tent.

3 p.m.: Battle.

4 p.m.: Civil War-era music, Tuckahoe Social Orchestra.

6 p.m.: Camps closed to the public.

Sunday, Oct. 17

10 a.m.: Camps open to the public.

11 a.m.: Church service in camp; symposium, "Sheridan's Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley," by historian John Heatwole, events tent.

Noon: Artillery and cavalry demonstration; drama, "The Temptation of Pvt. Dobbins, or, the Evils of Strong Drink," Cold Water Thespian Troupe, events tent.

1 p.m.: Debate, "Jefferson Davis vs. Abraham Lincoln" by Philip McGourty and John Baylis, events tent.

2 p.m.: Battle.

5 p.m.: Camps closed to public.


Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, P.O. Box 229, Middletown, Va. 22645; phone 540-869-2064.

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