Sunday, October 19, 2014

Battle of Cedar Creek

After defeating Early at the Battles of Opequon and Fisher's Hill, Sheridan's Union army moved down the Shenandoah Valley, leaving destruction in their wake. This was in line with the Federal policy in other areas of the war – to break the Confederate will to fight by destroying homes, crops and barns as they marched through the countryside. Unlike Sherman in his march through Georgia, Sheridan's men pillaged and burned under his orders. The valley was sometimes called the Breadbasket of the Confederacy, and Sheridan was determined that when he was finished, it would not be able to provide any assistance to the Confederate cause. As one Union soldier wrote, “The Valley is all ablaze in our rear.”

Early was not content to remain passive while the Yankees wrought this work of destruction. Major General John Gordon and staff officer Jedidiah Hotchkiss scouted a route that would take the army along a narrow path on the northern slope of Massanutten Mountain and across the Shenandoah River, so that they could strike the left flank of the Union army, which was positioned along Cedar Creek. The march went off without a hitch. Leaving on the evening of October 18, the Confederates were in position to strike early the next morning.

The Confederate attack
At 5 am, 150 years ago today, the Rebels charged toward the Union positions. The Federals were completely surprised. Some units had not set out adequate pickets, and many troops were caught unprepared in their camps. The Army of West Virginia, the southernmost part of Sheridan's force, was broken. Next up the line, Emory's XIX Corps, got in line to resist the Confederate attack. They stood firm for some minutes, but they were able to do little more than delay the Southern waves while other units fell back. Soon they too were retreating, falling back north of Middletown. They had, however, held long enough for Wright's VI Corps to get in line. They too were driven back, though Getty's division held a position in a cemetery for an hour. At that point the Federals had established a main line to the north.

Early did not continue to press. His men were hungry and tired after their all-night march and morning of fighting. They believed the victory was already won, and they had the spoils to prove it. They had captured 1,300 prisoners and 24 cannon. Sheridan had actually been absent from the army when it was broken by this Confederate attack. He was in Winchester, returning from a meeting in Washington. When he heard the sounds of a major battle, he set out to join the army, making what would become a famous ride on his horse, Rienzi. When he reached his men he found them rallying, but dispirited after their defeat. His arrival was just the inspiration they needed. Although it is doubtful that if Sheridan had been on the battlefield that morning he would have prevented the disaster, it gave the Yankee soldiers a way to rationalize their reverse. Now that Sheridan was on the field, they thought, their troubles would be over. He rode along the lines, rallying and encouraging his men. “Come on back, boys!” he shouted, “Give 'em h—l! … We'll make coffee out of Cedar Creek tonight!”

Sheridan rallies the Union troops
Sheridan soon launched a counterattack. He placed the VI Corps on his left and the XIX on his right, with the Army of West Virginia in reserve and divisions of cavalry on both flanks. At 4 pm this line advanced, and drove back Early's men toward Middletown. Soon the superior Federal numbers drove the Confederates back. Some Confederates put up a good fight, including Stephen Dodson Ramseur's division. He gathered a few hundred men and resisted Sheridan's advance. Finally he fell mortally wounded, with two horses shot from under him and balls through his arm and both lungs.

The Union counterattack
Under Sheridan's orders, George Custer's cavalry division charged to try to cut off the Confederate line of retreat to the river. He failed to do so, but his charge inspired panic in the Confederate troops. In their hurry to get away, a bridge collapsed on the small “No Name Creek.” Unable to repair this in the face of the enemy, Early had to abandon and captured guns or wagons north of the creek. The army was also thrown into confusion as they hurried through the difficult crossings.

Sheridan leads the charge
The Federals lost 5,764 in this battle, including 1,770 captured; the Confederates 2,910, with 1,050 captured. The Battle of Cedar Creek was a major blow to the Confederate cause. Sheridan was free to continue up the valley, burning and pillaging at will. The Confederates began by willing a glorious victory, but the attacks were halted and the men turned to plundering. They gave the Federals time to rally, and Sheridan's counterattack turned the balance of the day. As Early told Hotchkiss, “The Yankees got whipped and we got scared.”


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