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Battle of Cedar Creek: From Triumph to Catastrophe

By Ralph Peters
4/10/2017 • HistoryNet

By the 17th of October 1864, the strategic noose had tightened on the South. The Mississippi Valley had been in Union hands for 15 months. Sherman had taken Atlanta and soon would turn to Savannah and the sea. Grant and Meade had pinned Lee against Petersburg. In a daring attempt to loosen Grant’s grip, Lee had sent Lieutenant General Jubal Early on a grand raid in July, but a desperate stand by Union forces on the Monocacy prevented Early from putting the torch to Washington. (See Battle Studies, July 2014 ACG.)

Yet, even as Early withdrew across the Potomac, the Shenandoah Valley remained the one area of operations in which the Rebels had never lost a single major battle. The Valley had felt the genius of Stonewall Jackson then served as Lee’s invasion route for the Gettysburg Campaign. Recent Union defeats, such as those at New Market and Kernstown, reinforced Confederate pride. The fertile “Valley of Virginia” fed Southern bellies and Southern hopes.

In August 1864, the curtain began to fall. Despite War Department doubts and President Lincoln’s skepticism, Grant was allowed to install his hard-fighting, foul-mouthed young protégé, Major General Philip Sheridan, as the commander of a newly unified and reinforced command, the Army of the Shenandoah. Grant meant to put an end to threats west of the Blue Ridge.

Washington’s nerves and the looming presidential election initially hamstrung Sheridan. Grant wanted him to fight, but Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton feared a defeat more than they desired a victory. They pressed Sheridan to safeguard Washington, first and foremost. Worsening matters, Grant’s orders to Sheridan passed through Washington, where Halleck and Stanton amended them to their liking.

For a month, Sheridan parried Early’s moves in the Lower (northern) Valley, using the time to test his new subordinates and to meld his army of three very different corps into a unified force. (See Shenandoah Valley Campaign map, p. 33.) Meanwhile, he studied the unfamiliar terrain and the practices of his opponent, Jubal Early.

ODD OPPONENTS

The opposing commanders were outliers among Civil War generals, but they shared key characteristics. Both were innately aggressive, preferring to attack whenever they could; both were new to independent command; and both were among the most extravagantly profane men on the continent, renowned for scalding outbursts … with the difference that Early was chronically sour-tempered, while Sheridan was a convivial leader until he encountered incompetence.

At that point in his life, Sheridan showed little interest in women, while Early professed to despise the opposite sex – despite keeping a poor white mistress with several illegitimate children back home in southern Virginia. A West Point graduate (as was Sheridan) who had served in the War with Mexico, Early developed rheumatism that bent his husky frame. Leaving the Army, he had followed a middling career in law and politics, hampered by his merciless wit (men didn’t forget his barbs) and a beard stained with tobacco juice. In 1861, Early opposed secession at Virginia’s convention, but once the decision was made he became a loyal Confederate and, by 1864, had developed a hatred of Yankees that would endure into his old age.

Sheridan, by contrast, had charisma, the alchemy that lifts a leader above science and art. Soldiers adored him: He could revive spirits on a battlefield merely by riding the lines, grinning, barking curses and waving his hat. Yet, Sheridan hardly looked a dashing hero. Standing 5-foot-4 (at most), he had a bull’s chest, ape’s arms and dwarfish legs, and Lincoln joked that Sheridan could lace up his shoes without bending his knees. But up in the saddle, those short legs disappeared, and men saw the mighty chest, rigorous bearing and slanting eyes that shone with sudden bloodlust. On his favorite mount, the black stallion “Rienzi,” Sheridan became a timeless warrior chieftain.

Seen close, Sheridan had a strange-shaped skull, described as a cannonball with a lump at the back. He wore a flat-crowned civilian hat: the only hat that fit and flattered him. A leader given to certainty, Sheridan couldn’t be sure of his own birthplace. His Irish-immigrant parents claimed it was Albany, New York, along their route west to Ohio, but rumors endured that he first bawled out aboard ship in the mid-Atlantic or even back in Ireland. Wherever the scene of his nativity may have been, Sheridan made himself a classic American, shameless in his determination to rise.

Due to Sheridan’s known administrative skills, his initial wartime service had been confined to sorting out the jumbled records and logistics needs of the Union’s western armies, but given belated command of a cavalry regiment, Sheridan fought his way up through the ranks with astonishing speed. By 1864, Grant had chosen him to come east to command the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry. Within weeks of the Overland Campaign’s opening shots, Sheridan outmaneuvered J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederacy’s beloved cavalier, and killed him.

Now, though, Sheridan had to command an “all-arms” army in a campaign against an equally fiery veteran, Jubal Early. And Washington dispensed so much “advice” it tied his hands.

At last, Grant came out to meet Sheridan, bypassing Washington. On the morning of September 17th, Grant had been ready to hand him a plan of attack and order him to execute it. But Sheridan first described a plan of his own – for a grand advance in two days.

And so began the fall of the Valley bastion. On September 19th, on the rolling terrain between Opequon Creek and Winchester, Sheridan combined his numerical superiority (over 2-to-1) with brilliant use of his cavalry (armed with Spencer repeating carbines) to defeat Early in a battle that lasted from dawn to dark. “Third Winchester” ended with an inglorious Rebel retreat and an array of senior Confederates dead, dying, or severely wounded. The fallen included Major General Robert E. Rodes – a loss that would be felt in the coming weeks – as well as the grandfather of General George S. Patton.

Three days later, at Fisher’s Hill, Sheridan risked a daring flank attack conceived by his old comrade, Major General George Crook. Maneuvering over an “impassable” mountainside to envelop Early’s left, the sudden appearance of Yankee divisions in the Rebel rear triggered the swift collapse of the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Sheridan’s pursuit lasted through the night, capturing hundreds of prisoners, as well as dozens of guns, caissons, wagons and ambulances. Early’s army was broken – for a time.

What followed was an arguably grimmer “scorched-earth” campaign than Sherman inflicted on Georgia. Grant was determined to ruin the Valley as a source of foodstuffs for the South and as an invasion corridor that could sustain a Rebel army. He ordered Sheridan to burn barns, corncribs, smokehouses, haystacks, mills, depots – anything that might support the South or its ragged soldiers. Homes were to be spared, but enforcement of that order wasn’t rigorous. Pursuing Early into the Upper (southern) Valley, Sheridan executed his mission remorselessly then withdrew slowly northward, with his cavalry screening his army and completing the destruction still remembered locally as “The Burning.”

Sheridan and Grant believed that Early was finished for good, while Southern newspapers castigated the man who had fought so badly outnumbered and heroically. Worse, Early’s own subordinates questioned his suitability for independent command, and Virginia’s vindictive governor, “Extra Billy” Smith, led a slander campaign to have Early relieved. Only Lee maintained faith in “Old Jubilee,” grasping the odds his deputy had faced – and Lee had no other general of sufficient standing and experience to replace him. Instead of relieving Early, he reinforced him with every man he could spare, making good the losses of September.

In the interim, Sheridan reveled in his newfound status as a national hero glorified by the illustrated weeklies. His view that Early posed no serious threat was only reinforced when Early’s cavalry, after harassing withdrawing Union horsemen one time too often, suffered the Confederate mounted arm’s most humiliating defeat of the entire war at Tom’s Brook. The graybacks lost their artillery, wagons and ambulances in their 26-mile flight from Yankee sabers.

By October 17th, with Sheridan absent in Washington (arguing against the static deployment of his troops to cover railways), the Union army in the Valley, encamped north of Cedar Creek, was victorious, proud and beginning to ease its vigilance. The acting commander in Sheridan’s absence, Major General Horatio Wright of the VI Corps, canceled the standing order requiring the men to stand to at 2 a.m.

Every man in blue believed that Jubal Early was finished. The problem was that Early didn’t agree. And on the golden autumn day of October 17th, he was readying his army to attack.

OVERCONFIDENT YANKEES

The Union camps lay scattered above the curls of Cedar Creek. Sheridan had commented that he never liked Cedar Creek as a line of defense, and he hadn’t intended to stay. He planned to pull his army back to Winchester. But Sheridan had been forced to go to Washington– a city he’d already learned to despise – and operations slowed to a near standstill. The timing would have appalling consequences.

Meanwhile, Sheridan’s army went about its chores on the broken, partially wooded terrain between the creek and the high ground rising to Middletown. Crook’s small VIII Corps (previously the “Army of West Virginia”), a force of two divisions totaling only five infantry brigades, held the army’s left, or eastern, flank. Crook had drawn the worst terrain and his lines were not continuous, with one division deployed a mile south of the other to cover fords. To the northwest of Crook, the XIX Corps occupied the geographic center of the Union infantry lines, positioned to cover the Valley Pike, the region’s primary thoroughfare, and the bridge over Cedar Creek. The Army of the Potomac’s veteran VI Corps, to the north, served as the army’s reserve, its encampments wrapping around the headquarters at Belle Grove plantation. The three infantry corps had prepared their standard field entrenchments – aligned to repel an attack coming from the south.

The cavalry corps owned the open, rolling terrain to the west, on the army’s right, or western, flank. Sheridan had been the first Union general to wage true combined-arms battles, revolutionizing the use of cavalry based on the multiplied killing power of repeating carbines. In general, Civil War cavalry had been employed for raids, reconnaissance, flank protection, screening movements or guarding trains and only rarely as a full combat arm. Sheridan broke the pattern with stunning results.

Sheridan’s experience leading cavalry (then infantry) in the west had taught him the worth of mobility and shock. In the east, his stunning campaign against J.E.B. Stuart, followed by his dismounted cavalry’s successes defending against infantry at Cold Harbor, had convinced him of the arm’s renewed versatility. On one hand, Sheridan was returning the cavalry to its hoary dragoon role – riding to battle then dismounting to fight with firearms – while, on the other, he wielded mass formations for deep maneuver and mounted shock attacks. Across the months, his well-mounted, well-armed and increasingly well-trained cavalry had eclipsed the South’s hungry horse soldiers on their starving mounts, a situation worsened for those in gray by the loss of their finest cavalry commanders – leading from the front had grown expensive.

Although the cavalry sometimes let Sheridan down, its performance overall had been magnificent, climaxing in the “Woodstock Races” pursuit after Tom’s Brook. The army commander had come to set great store by the flexibility, hitting power and psychological impact of his cavalry corps. On the fields above Cedar Creek, the pains Sheridan had taken to develop that arm would be repaid many times over.

GORDON’S VISION

Confederate Major General John Brown Gordon had never worn a uniform before secession loomed, yet military genius slept within him. If he lacked the skills West Point imparted, he also missed the prejudices. In their place, he had an innate sense of terrain, breathtaking courage (coupled with cunning) and a gift for inspiring soldiers that rivaled Sheridan’s. Repeatedly wounded, Gordon nonetheless maintained impeccable posture in the saddle. He possessed a dramatic voice for public rhetoric and, not least, he had a remarkable sixth sense for what to do on a confused and smoke-ridden battlefield – a talent that led him, on the first day in the Wilderness, to order the brigade he then commanded to execute the distinctly non-Academy action of attacking in three directions at once in tangled undergrowth. That attack had saved the division commanded by Jubal Early.

As Early moved up to corps command, Gordon gained a division. But in one of those rivalries that too often crippled the Southern cause, these two aggressive officers veered between grudging cooperation and spells of destructive spite. For the rough-hewn, foul-tongued Early, with his view of women as frivolous distractions, the dashing, elegant Gordon – followed on campaign by his loving wife – was tailor-made to grate. Worsening matters, Gordon had been correct more than once about tactical opportunities missed by Early. From Gordon’s perspective, Early was pigheaded, intemperate and, to put it mildly, ungentlemanly. The two fought well together, but served together poorly.

On that morning of October 17th, Early made it clear to his subordinates that he intended to strike the following day, but the details of his plan remained uncertain. His army would cross Cedar Creek to the west, where the ground supported maneuver, but a wealth of questions remained. One problem, as Early seemed to realize, was that the western approach, an attack on the Union right, was the obvious course of action and the Yankees had to see it. But the only other option appeared to be frontal attack from the south.

One man thought there might be an alternative. Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, master mapmaker and former aide to Jackson, had a total recall of any terrain he saw, a commission never formalized by Richmond, and a cool disposition amid a quarrelsome congregation of officers. Now he needed the eyes and affirmation of a superior, and the officer he had learned to trust was Gordon.

With no time to waste, Hotchkiss led Gordon and the latter’s favorite subordinate, Brigadier General Clement Anselm Evans (barely recovered from a Monocacy wound), up to the signal station crowning Massanutten Mountain. There was no road, not even a trail, and the climb took hours of scrambling over rocks and through brush laced with the last of the year’s poison ivy (another bane of the soldier we forget). But when the officers reached the signal outpost, the waiting view astonished them.

As Gordon recollected in his memoirs, he could see not only every tent in each camp, but could (presumably, with field glasses) identify the red facings of artillerymen, the yellow of the cavalry, and the light blue that condemned a man to the infantry. He could read the corps flags and verify that the fine, if battered, house at Belle Grove plantation was Sheridan’s headquarters.

Gordon also saw what Hotchkiss had suspected: The Yankee left, the eastern flank, lay exposed. Every fortification faced the south. Other than a few meandering cavalrymen, no one seemed attentive to that flank. If Early could strike there in force, the Confederates could roll over two corps – and perhaps defeat Sheridan’s army piecemeal.

The problem was getting there. The approaches seemed impossible – at least to the Union defenders. The road between the armies, from Strasburg toward Front Royal, ran in plain view. South of the road, the Shenandoah River gripped the woods of Massanutten Mountain, creating a chokepoint. It appeared to be a classic case of “you can’t get there from here.”

But Gordon was ablaze with the vision of what might be accomplished, if only an approach-march route could be found. Returning to Early’s headquarters, he persuaded the army commander to delay the attack for one day to allow time to explore the terrain at the base of the mountain more fully. The readiness with which Early agreed implied that he had doubts about his own plan – doubts compounded when Gordon reported that a western attack would first run into Sheridan’s cavalry corps then have to fight through the veteran VI Corps.

Each day mattered, though. Grant had told Sheridan to pick the Valley so clean that “a crow flying over it would have to carry along his own provisions,” and Early’s recent defeats had robbed him of supply wagons. His men were on reduced rations, with nothing to be gleaned from the countryside. And the nights had turned chill. The army had to attack, before it starved and sickened.

On October 18th, Gordon and Hotchkiss set off at first light, accompanied this time by Major General Stephen Dodson Ramseur, a hard-fighting 26-year-old division commander who had just learned of the birth of his first child. Ramseur hoped that a victory over Sheridan would result in a leave to visit his wife and the infant. The explorers found a well-concealed path that twisted along the mountain on the far side of the river. The problem was that the trail was so narrow and crude that men could only walk it single file.

But it was a path, a way. The party appears to have split up at some point, with Gordon and Hotchkiss following the trail to a farm at the northern base of the mountain. The rule in the Valley was that, if you found a farm along a river, you found a ford. Gordon and Hotchkiss borrowed clothes from a farmer and pressed down toward the Shenandoah in civilian disguise, testing the last stretch of the approach route and the depth of the ford they’d have to use (Bowman’s Ford). When they spotted Yankee cavalry videttes out in mid-stream, with the water below their stirrups, they had their puzzle’s final piece. (A report would make its way up one Union chain of command of two men behaving oddly across the river, but the information was dismissed.)

In the discussion that followed Gordon’s return to headquarters, Early expressed doubts about night-marching a substantial portion of the army Indian-file to an attack position under the nose of the enemy. On top of that, the soldiers would have to wade across the Shenandoah twice, once at the outset, then again near the conclusion of their march. The night promised to be cold and the immersions hard on the men.

Desperate to see his plan accepted, Gordon told Early that he would accept all responsibility for failure. Early corrected him: The army’s commander would bear the blame, not his subordinates, so Gordon’s grandiloquent gesture was an empty one.

Yet, Early agreed to the plan. Perhaps he’d felt he had to put up some resistance at first, to force Gordon to justify his assumptions. Or maybe it was just Early being Early. At any rate, once Early accepted the concept, he didn’t stint. He put Gordon in command of the army’s right wing – which would execute the flanking movement – giving him three of the army’s five divisions: Gordon’s own, which would be commanded by Evans, as well as Ramseur’s and Pegram’s. Early would oversee supporting attacks by Kershaw and Wharton to snap up the isolated Union division, draw the attention of the Union forces toward the south, and seize the Valley Pike bridge.

At 2 p.m., the army’s senior commanders met at Early’s headquarters for orders. If anyone had doubts, they weren’t voiced: These men were gamblers, they had to be. The gathered officers seemed to sense that this was a last great chance.

Everything had to happen swiftly and sharply. Gordon’s wing of the army, at least 6,000 men, needed to move the moment darkness fell. Hotchkiss was out posting guides at every fork or turn where the column might stray. The soldiers would advance under orders not to speak or even whisper and to leave behind their canteens, cups, blanket rolls or anything else that might make noise or impede their movement. These veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, a match for the finest light infantry in history, knew what those orders meant.

SURPRISE!

Gordon brought off the miracle of leading his three divisions undetected to the high ground south of Bowman’s Ford. The men were cold and weary, with the senior officers leading them wearier still, when two things happened. Toward morning, a heavy mist began to rise from the river, climbing the heights and clinging to the hollows. Vision decreased to grabbing distance, but every sound carried frightfully. And leading the column down toward the attack position Gordon stopped cold.

At a fork in the farm trail above the ford, Gordon had drawn a branch across the track so the men wouldn’t turn the wrong way. But the branch lying before him didn’t seem right. Worn down by days of climbing mountains, scouring the countryside and doing with little sleep, he wondered if he had simply misremembered: Who would have moved the branch? Surely, it was where he’d left it? Had he grown confused about which fork led where?

On such details the fate of battle turns. Gordon was wise enough to heed his instincts. He sent a man back to the farmhouse to confirm which branch of the fork led to the ford. It emerged that the farmer, preparing for winter, had shifted the branch to pass to his far field.

Gordon tugged the branch aside and his wing of the army crept down through a mist so thick it counted as a fog. With remarkable discipline, the men formed up in silence to attack, waiting for a detachment of Virginia cavalry to clear the videttes then shield the attack’s right flank.

Accounts differ as to the precise time of the attack, but between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. Early’s multiple efforts came off with near perfection. (See Battle of Cedar Creek: Confederate Attacks map, p. 39.) Kershaw’s division swarmed over the sleeping men of the southernmost Union division, while Wharton’s division advanced up the Valley Pike all but unopposed. Early ordered his artillery forward. In front of Gordon, wraith-like horsemen splashed into the river and cleared away the Union riders on outpost duty. The infantry rushed into the Shenandoah’s shockingly cold waters.

As the first shots were fired, Union pickets and duty officers dismissed them and let the army go on sleeping. An armed reconnaissance had been planned for the morning and those “in the know” assumed that the movement was the source of the noise. Meanwhile, Gordon’s men swept up from the river in long, silent lines, running to warm their shivering flesh, their presence still completely undetected.

As the Rebels under Kershaw and Wharton smashed into the camps of the utterly surprised VIII and XIX Corps, Sheridan’s army started to disintegrate. Yet, senior commanders still had no sense of the scale of the attack or that the worst was to come – and would come shortly.

The better Union officers did their best. Colonel Rutherford B. “Rud” Hayes, who had performed with decisive valor at Winchester and led the flank attack at Fisher’s Hill (and who would succeed Grant as president), went into action immediately, rousing and rallying his two-brigade division of the VIII Corps, organizing a defense and personally leading his men into position.

It was too late. With wild Rebel yells, Gordon’s troops swept over Hayes’ position from flank and rear. Every prepared defense faced the wrong way and, naturally, shocked-awake soldiers ran to their familiar positions. Now some fought, some fled, and some surrendered. Hayes did all he could to hold his division together, aided by the breathtaking courage of artillerymen under Captain Henry A. DuPont, but what little success Hayes had was measured in minutes. His horse was shot from under him and he was knocked unconscious – briefly – by a spent round that struck his head, but he managed to get back to his feet, commandeer another mount, order the artillery to a secondary position, and try again, futilely, to organize a line.

The Confederates seemed to be everywhere. Each new Yankee line was flanked in moments. Across the Union front, relatively intact regiments were sacrificed in attempts to delay the Confederates and buy time for the army to get organized. Even the bravest stands collapsed upon being enveloped or surrounded.

No one could read the battlefield as a whole. Gun smoke thickened the fog. But the Confederates thrust onward.

Some Johnnies fell out to loot the camps they’d taken, seizing coffee pots from breakfast fires, rooting through captured haversacks and trying on Yankee shoes as dumbfounded, half-ignored prisoners watched in their long-johns. Later, there would be much controversy over how many Confederates paused to help themselves to the Union’s bounty and for how long, but we “all-knowing” critics 150 years on do well to remember that these men were cold, thirsty, hungry and wet through. A tin cup of coffee became a Delilah to many a Southern Samson.

Most of the Rebs charged on, though, with their own formations losing order amid the thrilling chase.

As the long roll sounded across the high fields at last, Union generals gravitated toward the army’s headquarters at Belle Grove, some looking for orders, others making urgent reports, and some just trying to learn what was going on. Meanwhile, staff officers and clerks hastily stuffed documents, maps and personal goods into wagons. Across the field, soldiers who had escaped the immediate threat of capture behaved in a manner that would spark many a comment for its oddity: Few ran; most just walked sullenly and steadily northward, carrying their weapons, not panicked in the classic sense, but quitting, as if they’d decided they’d had enough for one morning.

As Major General Horatio Wright and his subordinates realized that they had to abandon Belle Grove – and quickly – the immediate hope to save the army lay with the veteran VI Corps and its hard-as-granite division commanders.

THE SUN OF MIDDLETOWN

Federal misfortunes were far from over. The ground fog persisted, making it difficult for commanders to orient their lines to meet an enemy who might burst out of the mists from any angle. The Confederates, too, were sometimes surprised to encounter sudden volleys, but on their side they had momentum, the exuberance of victory and, not least, a sense of redemption after the bitter losses of the past month.

Two of the Union VI Corps’ three divisions were soon disabled in bitter fighting. New to division command, Brigadier General Frank Wheaton had to fight his division piecemeal amid the confusion. He lost control. Temporarily in command of the VI Corps, Brigadier General James Ricketts, who had saved the capital by sacrificing much of his division on the Monocacy, was shot in the chest and shoulder (a steadfast officer, Ricketts would survive the war with a total of five wounds). Ricketts’ division, too, began to break. Of Sheridan’s seven infantry divisions, only one remained intact.

That division was commanded by Brigadier General George Washington Getty, an old Regular Army man who prided himself on never failing to carry out an order. On that shrouded morning, he had only the roughest instructions – to resist the Confederates – but he soon showed that an old Regular could not only follow orders but do without them.

Initially, Getty fought from the high ground northeast of Belle Grove, only to realize that, with his flanks exposed, the position was untenable. Maintaining remarkable order amid the chaos and poor visibility, he withdrew his brigades to a do-or-die position around a cemetery on high ground southwest of Middletown. A veteran of the War with Mexico, Getty had also fought the Seminoles twice, where he’d learned to pay attention to each nuance of the landscape. When the Confederates attacked, he already knew which terrain suited the defense.

A believer in clear orders and no nonsense, Getty set in his brigades and any other regiments he could bully. He had good fields of fire, a steep draw to the front of his position and soldiers who trusted him.

The Confederates didn’t waste time before renewing their attack. In a bloody succession of assaults, Getty’s men appear to have faced elements of three of the divisions. When a section of his line wavered, Getty would see to it himself, and his brigade and regimental commanders caught the fever, vying to see who could hold their position the longest. Regimental and state rivalries stiffened the men’s determination. And, as so often was the case that day, the Union artillery proved steadfast and courageous. Even after Getty received Wright’s order to rally the rest of the corps after Ricketts was wounded, his stern Vermont Brigade commander, Brigadier General Lewis A. Grant, clung to the battered position.

Three things happened to the Confederates: First, their attack reached a culminating point, with units intermingled, soldiers looting conquered camps, and Getty’s men breathing fire amid the gravestones.

Second, Early had overtaken Gordon along the Valley Pike and resumed command of the entire army, with Gordon returning to division command.

Third, the mist began to clear and the sun shone crimson above the eastern horizon.

Recalling Napoleon’s famed remark about the “sun of Austerlitz,” the excited Southern commander cried out, “The sun of Middletown! The sun of Middletown!” It would be Jubal Early’s last moment of glory.

GORDON VS. EARLY

Getty and Lew Grant had bought time for Sheridan’s army to withdraw north of Middletown, but as the mists lifted Confederate batteries rolled into position across the draws and high fields, and the movements of Confederate brigades made it all too clear that a massed assault was coming.

Getty decided that his division had done all it could do from its position – now isolated from the rest of the army – and the course of wisdom was to preserve the last undefeated infantry force in blue. Getty ordered Grant to execute a northward withdrawal to a newly forming line, leaving the fields around Belle Grove and the village of Middletown to the Confederates.

Meanwhile, the cooperation between Early and Gordon that had yielded such brilliant results had begun to collapse.

Early ordered a halt. When Gordon questioned the decision, the army commander told him they’d had success enough. Bewildered, Gordon pleaded with Early to continue the attack, to finish the destruction of the Federals. But Early was adamant.

Gordon insisted that they had to complete the destruction of the VI Corps, the backbone of Sheridan’s force. Gesturing toward Getty, who was still in position, Early said that the rest had gone and “soon they will go, too.”

Getty withdrew, unmolested, as they watched.

Gordon was livid, outraged. He saw a complete victory slipping away. The controversy over that disagreement lingers today. From a classroom standpoint, Gordon was correct: The attack needed to continue, to finish the job. But Early was responsible for the last free-agent Confederate army east of the Appalachians, and that army had not eaten or slept, but had fought and defeated a force more than twice their number. Gordon saw the mission, Early the men.

Not least, Early saw the day as having redeemed his reputation and he did not want to risk what had been accomplished. In a frank remark made after the battle, he admitted, “The Yankees got whipped, and we got scared.”

But not all of the beleaguered Yankees were whipped. After easily blocking the timid advance of the Rebel cavalry, the horse-soldier rivals, Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and George Armstrong Custer, chafed as they listened to the sound of a major battle off to the east. Both division commanders wanted to fight, not just to keep an eye on the enemy’s nags.

At last, orders came down from a reluctant chief of cavalry, Major General Alfred T.A. Torbert, to ride east to save the army: Horatio Wright had issued his single most important order in Sheridan’s absence, calling on his cavalry to enter the fight en masse – to Torbert’s unaccountable chagrin. Leaving a detachment to keep an eye on the cowed Confederate horsemen, the cavalry generals, Merritt and Custer, rode to the sound of the guns. No further orders were needed: Each of these superb horse soldiers knew what had to be done.

Arriving amid the wreckage of a retreating army, the cavalrymen established a dismounted line with mounted reserves in the fields north of Middletown and eastward. And they waited, armed with those fearsome repeaters, for the Rebs to come on.

The better Union brigades began to regroup behind the cavalry. The cockiness of Custer’s red-scarved troopers and the murderous cool of Merritt’s veterans encouraged soldiers to stop and seek out their regiments. And, unaccountably, the Confederates appeared to have halted their pursuit.

An army began to re-emerge from a catastrophic defeat. But its commander was still missing.

SHERIDAN’S RIDE

Sheridan’s return to his army from Washington had become a grim comedy. Although he had bested Halleck and Stanton in the argument over what his men should do next, Halleck had saddled him with two engineer colonels who were supposed to help him plot winter lines near Winchester. Remembering how much he owed “Old Brains” from the early years of the war, Sheridan had played along, only to find that the engineers barely knew how to ride. Travel from the railhead to Winchester had been gruelingly slow, after which Sheridan had to waste the entire day of October 18th giving the engineers a tour of the area. Fed up, he meant to return to his army at last on the 19th – two days later than planned.

On that fateful morning, the sound of distant guns roused Sheridan from his bed in Winchester. At first, he, too, assumed that the noise was routine. Then the thunder increased. Hours away from his army, Sheridan grasped that he faced a serious battle.

Sheridan had Rienzi saddled and, staff trailing, he galloped south on the Valley Pike toward his army’s headquarters, 15 miles distant (not 20, as often cited). He had gone only a short distance when he encountered the first fleeing wagons and sullen rear-area troops who’d run early on. If Sheridan had a crisis of fear and doubt, it quickly passed. Enraged and energized, he delegated staff officers to staunch the rearward flow and ordered the Provost Marshal to restore discipline.

But the magic that turned the tide came from Sheridan himself. That ineffable charisma let him curse, cajole and swiftly conquer the spirits of fleeing men. Flashing anger and confidence, he slowed now and then to fire a stream of obscenities aimed at the Rebels, mixed with assurances that, by damn, his army was going to turn around and sleep in its same tents that night.

And Sheridan’s soldiers believed him. Defeated men straightened their backs and turned around. As he rode nearer to the fighting, soldiers cheered him.

Spurring his great horse brutally, Sheridan arrived on the northern edge of the battlefield in the late morning. The fighting had fallen into a lull, with the Confederates in Middletown and a new Union line coalescing a cannon-shot from the houses.

Sheridan’s arrival sparked an uproar, a celebration by defeated men. Wherever he appeared, men howled with relief and a joy that verged on frenzy. Sheridan’s reception surprised even his senior generals, one of whom made the mistake of telling Sheridan his men were prepared to cover the army’s retreat.

Sheridan made it instantly clear that retreat was not on the menu.

Sensing that the Confederate attack had exhausted itself, Sheridan didn’t rush to counterattack but patiently ordered his lines, giving officers and men time to recover physically and, especially, mentally from the blow they’d received that morning. Belatedly, the Rebels did probe northward again, but the effort promptly crumbled. For hours, the armies faced each other, with the gorgeous autumn afternoon nicked by occasional firing.

At an aide’s suggestion that he ride his entire line, Sheridan did so – it was his favorite rallying technique, a canter in front of his troops and in sight of the Rebels. (He had traded the exhausted Rienzi for a fresh mount christened “Breckinridge” in mock-honor of the former U.S. vice president and current Confederate general from whom the horse had been captured.) Sweeping along before his men, Sheridan was met with wild cheering. Flags waved madly and veterans of horrific battles found their eyes growing moist.

Anyone who doubts the power of leadership need only look at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Through sheer presence and decisive actions, one man, Philip Sheridan, transformed a broken army into a horde of avengers.

Sheridan also recognized – to his great satisfaction – that the Confederates had chosen poor ground on which to halt their advance, leaving their flanks in the air.

It was a situation perfectly suited for his splendid cavalry. The infantry would advance on the Rebel line while the mounted divisions maneuvered to turn Early’s flanks and create a double envelopment.

Weary though they were, the Johnnies refused to fold without a fight. Initially, Sheridan’s counterattack was grinding and costly, with his infantry facing ferocious Rebel resistance, while Merritt’s horsemen took painful losses on the Union left.

But Sheridan pressed on relentlessly and Early’s line started to buckle. Threatened with envelopment, Gordon’s division on the Confederate left hurriedly shifted to refuse the flank, opening up a gap with the rest of the army. Gordon galloped over to beg Early to plug the hole, but in Gordon’s absence the great disaster began.

After dealing with a belated probe by the Rebel cavalry, Custer brought his division pounding back over the ridges and fields to descend on Gordon’s rear – just as the Union infantry made headway. Gordon’s soldiers tried to withdraw fighting, but swarms of horsemen cut their efforts to pieces. Brave men ran.

With the army’s left flank turned, one gray-coated division after another began to dissolve. Early’s right collapsed, too, and Merritt’s troopers pounced. Only Ramseur kept his men in hand a little longer as the young general rode among them, taking the flat of his saber to anyone turning to bolt.

The Union attack became too much for even the valiant Ramseur. The Rebel defense collapsed. As Ramseur struggled to rally his soldiers, the new father fell from his horse with a mortal wound.

The withdrawal became a retreat, and the retreat became a rout. Seasoned soldiers caught the panic and raced toward Cedar Creek, retracing the miles gained so boldly that morning. Discarding treasures looted from Yankee tents, soldiers threw themselves into the water, desperate to escape. A few infantry regiments and selfless artillerymen tried to cover the bridge along the Valley Pike, only to find themselves trapped in a deadly pincers, with Custer’s riders thundering in from the west and Merritt’s troopers slashing down from the east, sabers hard at work in the October twilight.

As darkness fell, the confusion only worsened. Cut off, Gordon had to spur his horse blindly over a cliff. The fall knocked Gordon unconscious, but he awoke in time to make his escape. Meanwhile, the ambulance bearing Ramseur was captured and the boy-general was taken back to Belle Grove, where his West Point comrades in blue did what they could to ease his final hours.

Vengeful, the Yankee cavalry pressed southward, cutting off the retreat again and again, mincing the sorry remnants of Early’s army, capturing its artillery, its trains and exhausted soldiers who could not go on.

As the ruckus of the cavalry pursuit faded beyond Fisher’s Hill, Sheridan’s men returned to the camps from which they’d been driven that morning. Sheridan had kept his promise.

THE ECHOES OF CEDAR CREEK

At the bitter end of the war’s final winter, Early would make a last stand in the upper Valley, leading a withered army of 2,000 men. Facing their tormenters in driving sleet, the ragged Confederates were routed in minutes by an “impossible” flank charge led by George Armstrong Custer.

Early would reject reconciliation with the victorious Union, heading first to Mexico, then to Canada, before returning to Virginia to lead the Lost Cause faction in Southern society. An angry man to the end, the only human being he seemed to have truly loved was Robert E. Lee, whom Early helped transform into a legend.

Gordon would be summoned to Petersburg, where, by war’s end, he would be Lee’s favored subordinate. When Lee and Longstreet declined to lead the Army of Northern Virginia to its formal surrender, Gordon had the moral courage to do it.

Custer would be remembered not for his spectacular performances on Civil War battlefields, but for his greatest failure.

And Sheridan would be in on the kill at Appomattox. He would end a long career as Commanding General of the U.S. Army.

 

Ralph Peters is the author of the acclaimed Civil War novels “Cain at Gettysburg” and “Hell or Richmond.” His forthcoming novel “Valley of the Shadow” (May 2015) covers the fighting from Monocacy through Cedar Creek. Ralph is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team, a former Army enlisted man and officer, a widely published military theorist, and a Fox News strategic analyst.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Armchair General.

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