Tide of battle turns at Cedar Creek Battle: What began on Oct. 19, 1864, as a victory by surprise attack at dawn for the Confederates ended as a defeat against overwhelming odds at nightfall. Cedar Creek

October 11, 1998|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,SUN STAFF

On the night of Oct. 18, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Union army was encamped on three low parallel ridges north of Cedar Creek. Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's force was four miles west at the base of Fisher's Hill.

At the left of the Union army, farthest from Early's troops, was Maj. Gen. George Crook's 8th Corps. Crook's position was protected on the flank by the Shenandoah River; at this point Massanutten Mountain was very steep, and the river ran around it. There was no road, and the area was guarded by a cavalry picket.

Half a mile to the rear, across the Valley Pike and to the right of Crook, was Maj. Gen. William H. Emory's 6th Corps, and farther to the right and considerably in the rear of all was Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright's 19th Corps.

From the extreme right to the extreme left the infantry positions took up three miles. Still farther to the right was Maj. Gen. Alfred T. Torbert's cavalry corps. The positions of Crook and Wright were protected by breastworks and artillery batteries.

Early wrote after the war, "The enemy was found posted on the north bank of Cedar Creek, in a very strong position and in strong force. I was now compelled to move back from want of provisions and forage, or to attack the enemy in his position, with the hope of driving him from it, and I determined to attack."

Early's plan

Early's plan was to turn both flanks by surprise, notwithstanding the disadvantage he had in numbers of troops. The federal force numbered 30,829 and the Confederates had 18,410 men, according to Lt. Col. Mark M. Boatner III, a scholar of the Civil War. It is probable that Early was unaware how heavily he was outnumbered. He believed that a considerable portion of Sheridan's army was at Front Royal, Va., or farther away on the march to Washington.

Early sent Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon and Capt. Jedediah Hotchkiss, his topographical engineer, to examine the left flank and Brig. Gen. John Pegram to examine the right flank.

Early said, "Captain Hotchkiss returned to my headquarters after dark and reported the result of his and General Gordon's examination, and gave me a sketch of the enemy's position and camps. He informed me that ... he thought it was practicable to move a column of infantry between the base of the mountain and the river." Gordon confirmed the assessment and expressed confidence that an attack could be made upon the Union flank and rear, but Pegram reported that a movement on the enemy's right flank would be attended with great difficulty, as the banks of Cedar Creek on that flank were high and precipitous and were well guarded.

Early ordered Gordon to lead the 2nd Corps (including Gordon's, Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur's and Pegram's divisions) around Massanutten Mountain and cross the Shenandoah River at Bowman's Ford. Gordon was to attack about 5 a.m. Oct. 19, and turn the federal left flank to secure the Valley Pike. Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's division was to pass through Strasburg, proceed in the direction of Bowman's Mill near the mouth of Cedar Creek, and attack the enemy at that point.

Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton's division, followed by the artillery, was to advance down the Valley Pike. Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser's cavalry was to cross Cedar Creek at Mohamy's Mill and occupy the Union cavalry on the federal right flank.

The march along Massanutten Mountain was a difficult one. Gordon's force began its march around the base of the mountain at 8 p.m. Oct. 18. The column descended a steep gorge, waded the North Branch of Shenandoah River above Cedar Creek and then recrossed the river below Cedar Creek at McInturff's Ford and Bowman's Ford, skirting Crook's front in a deep ravine for three miles and moving scarcely 400 yards from the Union picket line. The Southern soldiers had left their swords and canteens behind so that there would be as little noise as possible while they crept by the Union positions. Before dawn, Gordon's three divisions had completed a seven-mile march and had turned Crook's left flank without having been detected.

At 5 a.m. the attack began, with Gordon's force striking the rear left of Crook's line, divisions commanded by Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Col.. J. Howard Kitching.

Simultaneously, Kershaw's column dashed across Cedar Creek at Roberts' Ford and fell upon Col. Joseph Thoburn's division. Thoburn was killed while trying to rally his surprised and fleeing men. Kershaw's troops captured six guns at Thoburn's position and turned them on the fleeing federal troops.

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