- James Houser
October 19, 1864 - The Battle of Cedar Creek
Updated: Jun 15, 2021
October 19, 1864. The Civil War is months away from its end. Union General Philip Sheridan’s army has seemingly driven the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. All seems well, and Sheridan rides off for a meeting – when out of nowhere, Jubal Early’s Confederates launch a surprise attack in the early dawn. Will they destroy the Union army? Can Sheridan make it back in time to save the day?
1864 was straight up not looking good for the Confederacy. By the end of summer, all of Kentucky and Tennessee were in Union hands, blue-coated troops walked the streets of New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Memphis, and the blockade shut off all trade with the outside world. Sherman was unstoppably approaching Atlanta from the north, while Grant had Lee pinned down around Petersburg, which guarded the gates to Richmond. If the Confederacy was going to win the Civil War, it was obvious they could not accomplish this through military means by now. They had to accomplish it politically.
Grant and Lee had beaten each other to a pulp in Virginia throughout the summer of 1864 in bloodbaths at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. Though both sides suffered heavily, the long casualty lists drained Union morale in particular. Tired of the long war that had been going on for three years and cost so many of their sons’ lives, the North was experiencing acute war weariness. This was relevant because in November 1864, there was going to be a presidential election. Lincoln was on the ballot, and running against him was George B. McClellan for the Democrats – and McClellan’s party was trying to run on a peace platform. Even though we now (rightfully) remember Lincoln as perhaps our greatest President, the Election of 1864 was very much in doubt as summer turned to fall.
The Confederacy was aware that their last hope for victory was to somehow prevent Lincoln’s reelection by hurting Union morale. Despite his later critics claiming that he had no knowledge of strategy, this was a factor that weighed very much on Robert E. Lee’s mind in 1864. With most of his army locked in combat around Petersburg, how could he influence the course of the war? Lee knew that Grant’s siege of Petersburg, as painful and slow as it might be to the people back home in the North, would only have one outcome: Grant’s superior numbers and resources would eventually overwhelm him. Lee also knew that Sherman was likely to take Atlanta before November. There was one way still open to strike at the North.
In 1862, Lee had enabled Stonewall Jackson to launch a lightning campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, which lies between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies in northwest Virginia. Between Staunton in the south and Winchester in the north, the Valley was not only a critical food and supply resource for the Confederacy, it pointed like a dagger straight into the North. Jackson’s campaign had scared the Washington politicians so much that he had diverted Union forces many times his own strength away from the critical campaign around Richmond. Two years later, Lee hoped to repeat this performance, gambling that another strike down the Shenandoah would again panic Washington and draw troops away from Petersburg – and if he was lucky, deal a crippling blow to Northern morale before the election.
To lead the force heading into the Shenandoah, Lee chose General Jubal Early, a fascinating and strange figure. Early, who had left his law practice to serve the Confederacy, was a crabby, cantankerous atheist, a rank misogynist and generally – no better word for it – an absolute ass, on occasion making fun of a subordinate’s dead wife. But he was an energetic and flexible commander and one of Lee’s main officers after Jackson had been killed at Chancellorsville and Longstreet badly wounded at the Wilderness. Lee, who called Early “my bad old man,” dispatched Early with 15,000 men to drive Union forces from the Valley and threaten Washington.
Early had stormed west first, to head off a Union force approaching the critical rail junction at Lynchburg. General David Hunter had been pillaging his way down the Valley for most of June before he ran into Early right outside the city. In a brief battle on June 18, Hunter made contact with Early in the Battle of Lynchburg; Early’s appearance surprised him so much that he fled into West Virginia, leaving the way wide open for Early to come blazing down the valley and cross into Maryland. (“Down” the valley means north, since the Shenandoah River flows northward to the Potomac.)
Early reached Winchester on July 2, and on the 9th crossed into Maryland. This move sent shockwaves of alarm across the North that both weakened public morale and caused a military crisis. First, how were the Confederates still able to invade Union territory if they were losing the war? It was just like 1862 or 1863, when Lee had invaded the Union only to be stopped at Antietam and Gettysburg. Second, there were barely any troops between Early and the defenses of Washington. Grant had drawn most of Washington’s garrison troops into his army for the campaign against Lee, leaving minimal forces around the capital. As Early raced towards Washington with his small army, the city was gripped with panic.
In truth, Early was never going to take Washington; his army was far too small to penetrate the vast network of fortresses and trenches, and Grant’s reinforcements had already arrived. Still, he made a good show of it, even launching a probing attack at Fort Stevens on July 12. Of note, this was the first and last time in American history that a sitting U.S. President was directly under enemy fire, because Abraham Lincoln went out to Fort Stevens to watch the skirmish. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (making his THIRD appearance on these posts in just over a month) recorded a soldier, not knowing who he was addressing, yelling at the man in the tall hat to “Get down, you damn fool!” Lincoln, amused and suitably chastened, stepped down from the parapet.
As Jubal Early led his army away, he noted to a staff officer that “We didn’t take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell!” Lincoln himself wasn’t personally scared – after all, he had been out watching the fight like it was a fireworks show – but the politicians were apoplectic and much of the nation was shocked. It was the closest Confederate forces had ever come to Washington. Weren’t they supposed to be winning this war?
Even though Early had withdrawn across the Potomac, he had already accomplished his mission: undermine Northern morale, and draw Union troops back north from their positions around Richmond. Some of the politicians begged Grant himself to come north, or even withdraw the whole army back to defend Washington from Early. Grant refused, since he had Lee pinned at Richmond, and he knew this was exactly what Lee wanted; the reinforcements he had sent would have to take care of it. Instead, disunity of command, political squabbling, and more maneuvers and threats by Early prevented the Union from dealing with the problem. Throughout the rest of July and into August, Early remained a threat hanging over Washington, constantly skittering around western Maryland and Virginia to scare the Yankees.
Grant decided it was time to put a new man in charge. This would be Philip H. Sheridan, the commander of his cavalry and one of the fiercest fighting soldiers the Union had. Small, swarthy, and angry, Sheridan was young – 34 years old – and fiery. He had proven himself in multiple battles, including the legendary charge up Missionary Ridge in November 1863; his cavalry troopers had beaten the Confederates and killed Jeb Stuart at Yellow Tavern earlier that year. Though he was young and had never commanded an army, Grant was confident in his protégé. Sheridan took command of 48,000 men in the Army of the Shenandoah and was given the task of defeating Early and driving him from the Valley.
Sheridan also had another task. Grant wanted to make the Shenandoah Valley useless to the Confederacy. For years, the fertile mountain valley had been a prime source of food and a key invasion route. Grant was going to end this. He ordered Sheridan that “nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return.” Sheridan was to take all the food and provisions he could carry; anything left was to be destroyed. Sheridan’s ravaging of the Valley would presage Sherman’s march through Georgia, still two months away.
Sheridan moved out and hit hard, striking Early at Winchester on September 19. Although his plan for the battle was well-conceived, his troops did not maneuver as fast as Early’s and the victory was not as complete as it could have been. But Sheridan outnumbered Early at least two to one, and his aggressiveness propelled the attack to victory. Again on September 22, he drove Early out of another position at Fisher’s Hill. These victories restored Northern morale and gave Washington confidence in the new general – “Little Phil,” as he was coming to be called by his troops. Future famous names such as Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, and George Custer all fought for the Union in these great battles in the Shenandoah; Colonel George S. Patton of the 22nd Virginia, grandfather of his famous namesake, was killed at Winchester fighting for the South.
As Early’s battered army withdrew, Sheridan began to ravage and strip the Valley. After pursuing the retreating Early up the valley to Harrisonburg, Sheridan sent out raiding parties as far south as Staunton to destroy crops, mills, and livestock, thoroughly ravaging the countryside. The sky above the Shenandoah was marked by pillars of smoke as the Union soldiers completed their work, and the breadbasket of Lee’s army went up in flames. Farms, grain silos, furnaces, tanneries, depots all blazed. Sheridan boasted that “a crow would have had to carry its rations if it had flown across the Valley,” so thorough was his destruction.
Thinking that he had disposed of the threat from the Shenandoah, Sheridan set up his army in a campsite just south of Winchester, along the banks of Cedar Creek. While in camp, Sheridan responded to an order from Washington to report in person to Lincoln and the Secretary of War to discuss future operations. Leaving General Horatio G. Wright in command, Sheridan rode up to Winchester and hitched a train to DC on October 16. What he did not know was that Early had not given up, and was on his way.
Though still outnumbered heavily, Early gambled on one last attack. He knew that Sheridan considered him defeated, but he also knew that the election was only two weeks away. If he could deliver a shocking surprise attack that defeated Sheridan’s army, maybe even destroyed it, he could kill Abe Lincoln’s reelection and possibly turn the tide of the war. It was a long shot; Sheridan had 30,000 men in his camp at Cedar Creek, while Early only had 18,000 Confederates, and they were half-starved for lack of food due to the destruction Sheridan had wrought on the Valley. But if Early could win…
From atop the Blue Ridge, the whole Union position was visible by spyglass. Early and his generals carefully examined the ground and planned their assault. The Confederates would make a night march and descend on the Union army from three directions, surprising them in their blankets and hopefully capturing the whole force. It was an excellent plan, and the Yankees were thoroughly unaware of the Confederate approach. They slept soundly, thinking the Rebels were miles away.
On October 19, 1864, Early launched his attack in the predawn hours. In the dense October fog of the Appalachians, 18,000 greycoats – lean veterans of three years of campaigns, hungry for food and for victory – lurched out of the shadows and clouds into the Army of the Shenandoah. The advance units, those of General George Crook, were caught totally by surprise and driven back in confusion. Sounding the Rebel Yell, Confederate soldiers rampaged across the green hills and ravines of the Valley, knowing this was their last chance for victory in the campaign – perhaps the war. The slopes above Cedar Creek blazed with gunfire, cannons and screams.
But the Union forces recovered quickly from their surprise. Wright, no slouch, was able to make a fighting retreat away from the camp as Union soldiers staggered out of their blankets in half-uniform, grabbed their rifles, and made a fight of it. Though Early’s ambush had struck ferociously, the Army of the Shenandoah was not so easily scared. These men were veterans of Antietam, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania. The VI Corps was one of the best units in the Union Army, once commanded by Uncle John Sedgwick, and they fought as fiercely as ever in covering the Union retreat. Though they had lost 1300 prisoners and 18 cannon, and had been driven a mile north of their camp, the Union army had not been routed – though it was badly shaken.
General John Gordon, the Georgia lawyer who had risen to high rank, urged Early to continue the attack, but Early had good reasons not to. His army was almost as disorganized by its sudden victory as the Union was by the defeat; he also believed that the Union forces were so defeated they would have to withdraw. There was another reason. After 10am, when the Union looked like they were completely routed, many of the starving Confederates broke ranks to plunder the Union camp in search of food. Early would later blame his troops’ “ill discipline” for later events, but starving men could hardly be blamed for trying to feed themselves.
Sheridan, meanwhile, had been on his way back from Washington after a nice chat with President Lincoln. He was sleeping in a hotel in Winchester on the night of October 18 when, at 6am, he was woken up with a report that gunfire was heard to the south. Though Sheridan at first dismissed it as a skirmish, the sound grew too loud to be a mere trifle. Sheridan mounted up quickly and began to ride the 15 miles to Cedar Creek at top speed.
“Sheridan’s Ride,” romanticized in a later poem, became a hallmark of Civil War legend. The fiery little general shouted at stragglers and retreating soldiers, calling on them to return to the field and fight for the Union. Only a half hour after Early’s attack had halted and his soldiers began to fill their bellies, Sheridan arrived to join his army at 10:30. He had made the ride in record time, ready to rejoin his army. To this day, a statue of Sheridan making his climactic journey stands in Sheridan Circle in Washington DC.
It was a daunting situation. The cold, tired, and demoralized Union troops had been shocked awake and driven from their camp, and many of them were barely dressed and short on ammunition. It is no small task to rally men in such a state. But Sheridan, full of fire and fury, lit up the morning, bringing fleeing soldiers back and encouraging the ones still left. “Come on back, boys! Give ‘em hell, God damn them! We’ll make coffee in Cedar Creek tonight!”
As Sheridan reorganized the line for a counterattack, Early launched probing attacks to prepare the way for the completion of his victory. But it was too late. A lot of the credit does go to Wright and Sheridan’s subordinates, who had kept the army from running away altogether and put together a defensive line, but Sheridan’s fire would enable them to win the day. Early’s attitude shifted from triumph…to confusion…to alarm. Not only were the Yankees not broken, they seemed to be…marching forward again?
Early’s fatal halt after his initial victory, the Union generals’ work in rallying their men, and Sheridan’s cinematic return and vigorous leadership all made the outcome inevitable. Sheridan ordered the whole line forward at 4pm, executing a wheel to either side that would strike the Confederates in both flanks. As Early’s infantry began to collapse, the cavalry division of George Custer broke through and raced for the Confederate rear. The southerners panicked at the thought of trying to recross Cedar Creek in the face of the deadly and feared Union cavalry. The young General Stephen Ramseur, a Confederate officer who had just learned of his daughter’s birth that morning, was killed in the struggle to stem the tide. Early lost control of his army, and the retreat turned into an open rout.
At the end of the day, Cedar Creek – which could have been a humiliating defeat – turned into a total Union victory. Early’s army was smashed, having lost most of its artillery and supplies. Though the Union had suffered almost 5,600 casualties to the 3,000 Confederate, without cannon or wagons Early’s army had no means of resistance. Their morale was utterly broken. To the Union, the victory at Cedar Creek was not just a great triumph, but a romantic and stirring one thanks to the near-defeat and Sheridan’s famous ride. In two weeks, Abraham Lincoln would win reelection by a considerable margin. After that, the outcome of the war could not be in doubt.
The fighting in the Shenandoah Valley was over. The remnants of Early’s army made their way back to Richmond without their commander, who Lee had finally relieved. The Shenandoah Valley was left a blackened husk, an emblem of the finality of Union victory.
But Jubal Early would win the peace. After the war, he became one of the most prolific writers and advocates of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, the myth of Southern nobility and prestige, that the Confederacy had been a righteous cause. His virulent racism, deification of Robert E. Lee, and open defiance of the Union victory long after the guns had gone silent still helps to poison the American discourse to this day.
Lee, who did so much after the war to heal the wounds of separation, would have been somewhat appalled at Early’s activities that sowed outright racism and mythmaking for so long. There was a reason he had called him the “Bad Old Man.”