Re-enactors tackle Cedar Creek battle

Civil War: 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.

October 10, 1999|By Michelle Lawyer | Michelle Lawyer,Special to the Sun

Organizers in Middletown, Va., are putting the final touches on preparations for the 135th anniversary of the Civil War battle of Cedar Creek. The event, to be held Oct. 15-17, is expected to attract up to 6,000 re-enactors.

Admission to the re-enactment is $20 for all three days; $15 for a weekend pass; and $10 daily. Children 12 years old and under are admitted free. Parking is free.

To obtain tickets, contact the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation at P.O. Box 229, Middletown, Va. 22645, or call 540-869-2064.

The 1864 battle all happened in less than a day. A surprise attack. A counter-attack. A glorious success. A devastating defeat. In the dark chill of Oct. 18, 1864, a turning point in the Civil War took place at Cedar Creek, near Middletown, Va.

Thick fog loomed over Cedar Creek, where Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's Union troops camped. That evening, Sheridan was not with his troops. Instead, he was in Winchester, leaving the command of his army to Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright. This army contained three infantry corps, including Wright's 6th Corps, Maj. Gen. William H. Emory's 19th and Brig. Gen. George Crook's Army of West Virginia, sometimes identified as the Union 8th Corps. These troops, as well as a cavalry corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred T. Torbert, peppered the land around Cedar Creek.

But, just one day earlier, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early had planned a surprise attack against the Union position. The Confederates acted on this plan after nightfall on Oct. 18, sending the infantry divisions of Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon, Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur and Brig. Gen. John Pegram to assault the left flank of Crook's corps at 4 a.m.

Attack at dawn

Meanwhile, Early and Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's division prepared for an attack at dawn at the left of the Union position, while Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton led his men to follow up the attack on the Union center. The Confederate artillery gathered on the Valley Pike to support the infantry.

An hour later, the battle began with a boom. Kershaw's troops fired at and drove back Col. Joseph Thoburn's entrenched but unwary Union division. Thoburn was killed while trying to rally his men.

On the eastern flank, Gordon's troops overcame the divisions of Brig. Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes and Brig. Gen. John H. Kitching. Brig. Gen. William H. F. Payne's 300-man brigade of Confederate cavalry headed for Sheridan's headquarters at Belle Grove mansion to capture the Union commander.

Some federal soldiers panicked and fled from their camp.

Sheridan heard the noise of the battle from Winchester and made an epic ride of about 14 miles to the battlefield, returning from Winchester about 10:30 a.m., screaming at his retreating men as he rode by, "Come on back, boys. Give 'em hell, God damn 'em. We'll make coffeee out of Cedar Creek tonight," according to the general's memoirs.

He established a command post near Valley Pike and decided on some table-turning strategies. Sheridan began by placing the 6th Corps on the left of Valley Pike, the 19th Corps on the right and Crook's Army of West Virginia along the pike. At noon he rode in front of his newly formed battle line. The effect was electric.

According to Roy Morris Jr., in his biography "Sheridan," as Sheridan rode down the line "swinging his hat in his right hand to give the soldiers a glimpose of his familiar bullet-shaped head, a mighty cheer swept down the line. Perhaps no other general -- certainly no other Northern general -- could have had a comparable effect of his men at this time in the war., when virtually every soldier was a battle-scarred veteran, and not just fromenemy bullets, but also from the decisions of his own frequently inept commanders. Phil Sheridan, unlovable though he may have been, engendered a feeling more important to an army than love: an unassailable confidcence born of battles shared and won."

After that moment, it was clear that the fight was on. Custer's cavalry joined the right flank and Merritt's joined the left in preparation for a counterattack.

A long pause

On the Confederate side, there was a pause. Douglas Southall Freeman gives this account in his classic study, "Lee's Lieutenants":

" 'Well, Gordon.' [Early] exclaimed when he next met the major general who was leading brilliantly the 2nd Corps., 'this is glory enough for one day!' Early went on: 'This is the 19th. Precisely one month ago today we were going in the opposite direction.'

"Gordon had abundant reason to remember the 19th of September at Winchester, but his thought was of the battle in progress. 'It is very well so far, General; but we have one more blow to strike, and then there will not be left an organized company of infantry in Sheridan's army.'

"He pointed as he spoke to the front of the 6th Corps and explained what he intended to do. Early listened but did not appear to be impressed. 'No use in that,' he said, 'they will all go directly!'

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