Kershaw penetrates Union center

Surprise: The plan for a surprise attack called for a second blow at the 19th Corps position in the center of the Union camp.

October 06, 2002|By Stacy Malyil | Stacy Malyil,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's part in the surprise attack on Union forces at Cedar Creek was to cross the creek and drive back the Union center.

The planning for Kershaw's advance occurred the night before. Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon and mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss had climbed to the top of Massanutten Mountain to Signal Knob on Oct. 17, surveying the position of the Union army at Cedar Creek. This climb took several hours and, once at the top of the signal station, Gordon and Hotchkiss devised a plan of attack.

Gordon and Hotchkiss observed that Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's army was vulnerable on the left, eastern side, if Confederate forces could reach the left flank between the mountain and the Shenandoah river. Gordon and Hotchkiss saw their chance to turn the Union left flank.

Within the Union camps, most soldiers did not expect action, and as Sheridan wrote later of Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, "I felt satisfied that Early was too weak to take the offensive."

Crook complains

Not everyone in the Union camp was optimistic.

Both Brig. Gen. George Crook of the 8th Corps and Maj. Gen. William H. Emory of the 19th Corps complained to Union Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright that they felt the left flank was weakly secured. Wright sent the calvary's pickets closer to Crook's line, but basically left the formation unaltered.

Gordon and Hotchkiss presented their plan to Early. After locating a feasible attack route, Early agreed to the plan.

The attack route would have Confederate troops crossing the Shenandoah, moving along the base of Massanutten Mountain, traveling over fords to recross the river, and moving upon the left flank of the Union army.

On the night of Oct. 18, Early gave orders to his commanders to implement the plan. According to military records, the weather was beautiful that night, and the nearly-full moon helped the Confederate army get into position. However, an early-morning fog rolled in over Cedar Creek about 4 a.m. on the 19th. This fog helped conceal the oncoming Confederate onslaught, aiding the efforts of the surprise attack.

While the divisions of Gordon, Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur and Brig. Gen. John Pegram, with Gordon serving as the commander of this group, moved into position on the eastern flank, Kershaw and Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton led their divisions and the Confederate artillery down the Valley Pike.

Kershaw's division, accompanied by Early, veered right on the road to Bowman's Mill Ford. At this point, Early pointed out Union positioning to Kershaw and outlined how he wanted the attack made. Meanwhile, Wharton's division continued its procession on the Valley Pike to Hupp's Hill. The infantry units for both divisions were in place by 3:30 a.m.

Advance at 4:30 a.m.

Kershaw's division advanced at approximately 4:30 a.m. The men waded across Cedar Creek without any obstructions. They organized themselves in brigade lines, and ventured as close as possible to the Union camp.

Confederate Maj. James M. Goggin of Kershaw's division described the actions of that night and early morning in his report: "I have the honor to report that on the 18th instant, at 11:45 p.m., this brigade, in pursuance of orders received during the afternoon, moved from its camp to the turnpike, in rear of Fisher's Hill.

"Soon after reaching there, the other brigades being put in motion, it fell into the position previously assigned it as the rear brigade of the division, and moved noiselessly and in good order to the north side of Cedar Creek on the road - where just after daybreak it rapidly formed in line of battle and pushed forward at once in support of the other brigades of the division, then advancing on the enemy's works."

Kershaw's men were in such close proximity to the Union soldiers that they could hear a few of them talking inside of their tents, according to military records.

At the same time, Gordon's division crossed Cedar Creek, surprising a few Union pickets, but remaining concealed. Meanwhile, Ramseur and Pegram's divisions began to cross the creek.

At 5 a.m., under the cover of heavy fog that had descended over the valley, Kershaw's division opened the surprise attack. The infantry fired upon Col. Joseph Thoburn's division, charging their entrenchments.

Two corps of Union infantrymen were driven from their tents along the banks of Cedar Creek. Thoburn's men were caught off guard and Kershaw's men overran them.

Gordon's men simultaneously advanced onto Brig. Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes' division. As Gordon and Kershaw closed in on both Union flanks, the Union position began to crumble. The Union soldiers fled as the Confederate artillery fired upon the 19th Corps from the heights above Cedar Creek.

Wharton's division had closed in on the Cedar Creek Bridge and was attempting to cross it, though it was guarded by Union forces.

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