Battle of Cedar Creek
In the early morning hours of October 19, 1864 Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched a surprise attack on Union forces along Cedar Creek south of Middletown, Virginia. The Federal Army of the Shenandoah was under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan, who had been given orders to rid the Valley of any remaining Confederate forces.
It would be the zenith of the 1864 campaign in the Valley, and the outcome of the battle would have far-reaching consequences for both sides…
In the Summer of 1864, Phil Sheridan was given command of the Union Army of the Shenandoah by Ulysses Grant, with express orders to root out the remaining Southern resistance and deny the Confederacy the benefit of the Valley’s bounty in food and supplies. Grant had literally ordered that the Valley be reduced to such a condition that a crow flying over it would need to carry its own provisions.
Sheridan’s force consisted of the Union Army XIX, VI and VII Corps; a force of just under 32,000 men. By contrast, Early’s forces fluctuated between 11,000 and 16,000 men at any given time during the 1864 campaigns. His primary objective was to draw Union forces away from the stalemate which had developed around Petersburg, Virginia between Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac under Ulysses Grant.
Sheridan and Early first met on September 19 at the Third Battle of Winchester, which resulted in a Union victory. Following that engagement, Early withdrew to the south to the vicinity of Fisher’s Hill outside of the town of Strasburg. Fisher’s Hill, known as the “Gibraltar of the Valley” had been an entrenched defensive line for the Confederates since the beginning of the war.
The next meeting between Early and Sheridan came on Sept. 20-21 at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill, another resounding Federal victory. Early moved further south, and Sheridan withdrew his forces just north of Cedar Creek. In the early morning hours of October 19th, Early’s five Divisions began their march toward Cedar Creek. At 5 a.m., the well coordinated attack commenced on the Federal positions of the XIX Corps (entrenched West of the Valley Pike) and the VIII Corps camps to the East of the Pike.
The initial attack threw the Federals into a panicked retreat North toward Middletown across the Belle Grove Plantation. The Confederates saw some fierce pockets of resistance West of the plantation house, and on the cemetery hill above Middletown.
Early’s forces did falter initially, when his provision-deprived troops took time to loot and scavenge as they overran the Federal camps. Save for some exceptions, the Union force was in a panicked and disorganized retreat across the plantation fields towards Middletown.
When Early’s attack was launched that morning, Maj.Gen. Sheridan was not on site; he had gone to Winchester for a meeting, some 12 miles distant from the battlefield. The sound of cannon fire travels a good distance in the Valley, and when Sheridan became aware that this was not some random skirmish fire, he mounted his horse Rienzi and commenced a hard ride back to his camps.
Arriving just after the noon hour, he found his army in complete disarray and immediately began to rally his troops, riding up and down waving his hat in the air as the lines reformed. By this time the Confederate advance was also coming to a halt just north of town – Early’s men had been marching and fighting since 1 a.m. that morning, and it was beginning to take its toll.
By mid-afternoon, the tide began to turn. With his lines reformed, Sheridan commenced his counter-attack and began to drive the Confederate line back toward Middletown. Initially a fierce exchange of gunfire was held, but the bedraggled Confederates began to falter rather quickly. As they were being driven south of town, Custer took his cavalry division in a sweeping arc around the Union right flank.
The thunderous noise of 10,000 horses descending on Early’s forces drove his army into a rout as they were pursued across Cedar Creek and down the Valley Pike through Strasburg.
Sheridan kept up his pursuit until nightfall, finally bringing an end to Jubal Early and the last significant Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan’s victory also helped hand Abraham Lincoln a second term in office in the elections of 1864.