The veteran Union infantrymen filed into position with the ease of soldiers who knew their work. A dense morning fog obscured the ground in front of them, but the sounds of a fierce engagement kept creeping closer. It was midmorning on October 19, 1864, at Middletown, Virginia, and these Yankees were the last organized body of blue-clad troops south of the village. Some of the men noted ominously that if a stand were to be made, it would have to be here in the town’s cemetery.
A month of Federal successes in the Shenandoah Valley had brought the opponents to this final struggle. On September 19, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah had routed Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley at the Third Battle of Winchester. Three days later the Northerners wrested Fisher’s Hill from the Rebels and opened the upper Valley to Union occupation. Sheridan began retiring northward in early October, with pillars of smoke marking the destruction of barns and mills. Local folks called it “The Burning.”
Sheridan encamped the army along Cedar Creek, south of Middletown, while he traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss its future operations. Behind Sheridan’s army trailed Early’s reinforced ranks. Urged by General Robert E. Lee at Petersburg to strike the enemy, Early approved a subordinate’s bold plan for a dawn assault on the Union camps along the creek. The Confederates marched during the night of October 18-19, with the main body of troops making two river crossings. It had been a brilliantly executed maneuver.
The thick fog aided the Rebels as they charged the surprised Yankees. The onslaught by Early’s redoubtable fighters wrecked two entire Union infantry corps and part of a third. After nearly three hours of combat, the major portion of Sheridan’s infantry was streaming rearward to the north and west of Middletown. Redemption for a month of defeats and “The Burning” seemed at hand. Opposing the victorious Confederates was a single Union infantry division, posted in part among the tombstones of Middletown’s cemetery.
The Northern troops belonged to Brig. Gen. George W. Getty’s division of the VI Corps, Army of the Potomac. The corps had been detached from the Petersburg front in July and formed the bedrock of Sheridan’s army. The Yankees were from Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and Maine—good men who had become good soldiers. Getty formed the line in an arc, or “horse-shoe,” on a hill west of town. Woods framed the open slope where the graveyard lay.
Minutes before 9 o’clock the hellish screech of a Rebel yell announced the enemy advance toward the cemetery position. The Federals knelt, with strict orders not to fire until the attackers were within 30 yards. On came the Southerners, through Meadow Brook Ravine and up the slope to the boundary. The hill flashed death, drowning out the Confederate battle cry. The gray-coated ranks reeled and then stopped. It was more than the attackers could withstand, and they retreated.
Two brigades of North Carolinians soon cleared the defile and charged up the slope. Volleys ripped into their ranks, but they kept coming. One Vermonter asserted that the enemy “pressed us harder and harder, the lines being but a few yards apart.” The advantages of the Federals’ position and the ferocity of their musketry repulsed the North Carolinians. A Confederate officer reported that his brigade had “lost many good and gallant men.”
Early arrived in that section of the battlefield after this second failure. The fog had not entirely lifted, and he had nearby a third unscathed Rebel infantry division. Subordinate commanders convinced him to use the unit in another attempt to seize the hill Early agreed, making a critical mistake by committing his only reserve to a forlorn hope. The Rebels stepped out and were blasted back “in the wildest confusion” by Getty’s ranks.
Getty’s officers and men abandoned the hill when Confederate troops moved against their right flank and rear. They marched past the village to a wooded ridge, where Union officers were re-forming the army’s battered ranks. Early pushed his divisions beyond Middletown and then halted to restore order and gather up stragglers. To the north, Sheridan, riding from Winchester, rejoined his army and determined to salvage a victory from the morning’s disaster.
At 4 p.m. Sheridan’s troops rolled forward and, after some valiant stands by their opponents, routed Early’s army for a third time. The Confederates’ fatal halt north of Middletown reputedly cost them a decisive victory. But it was Getty’s veterans who had bought time for their comrades to regroup and who effectively reversed the tide of Southern victory. On the slope by Middletown’s cemetery the day had been retrieved for the Army of the Shenandoah.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.