Surprise attack hits Union soft spot

Surprise: At dawn Oct. 19, 1864, Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon led a devastating surprise attack on the eastern flank of the Union army at Cedar Creek.

October 06, 2002|By Kevin Canberg | Kevin Canberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the Shenandoah Valley, high atop Massanutten Mountain, Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon and an engineer peered out over the 32,000-man Union army encamped below.

Gordon, who commanded a portion of just over 15,000 Confederates under Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, spotted a weakness in the Union left from his perch. Outnumbered but crafty, Gordon decided to take a risk: sneak his forces through the trees along the base of Massanutten under cover of night and surprise the Union flank at daybreak.

In the mind of Gordon, Oct 19, 1864, would become "the most unique day in the annals of war ... a most brilliant victory converted into one of the most complete and ruinous routs of the entire war."

Outnumbered and out-positioned by Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's troops, and under pressure to make an attack by Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gordon and Early began to formulate a plan.

The Union position

On Oct. 17, Gordon and engineer Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss climbed Massanutten. The trek took several hours and brought the men to Signal Knob, a bald outcropping on the mountaintop offering the two men a clear view from between the trees.

From their perch, Hotchkiss mapped Sheridan's entire position - encampments, artillery placements, firing positions, even the locations of the federal pickets that were scattered about the valley below. After gathering the information, Gordon and Hotchkiss descended the mountain, presenting Early with their maps early the next day.

Jubal Early and John Gordon, who both survived the war, would go on to die bitter at one another for the outcome of Cedar Creek. But on the morning of the 18th, Early was pleased with Gordon's and Hotchkiss' reconnaissance mission up the mountain.

Early's troops were starving and ill-equipped, and he knew Sheridan had spent the previous nine days ravaging the Shenandoah, igniting thousands of barns and commandeering livestock. Sheridan himself was under pressure from Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who wanted him to turn the Shenandoah into "a barren waste."

Lee wrote Early on Oct. 12, saying, "I have weakened myself very much to strengthen you. It was done with the expectation of enabling you to gain success." Faced with pressure, and despite circumstances favoring Sheridan, Early gave a green light to Gordon and Hotchkiss to use what they had gathered to devise a plan of attack.

Cedar Creek itself runs along the base of Massanutten, eventually emptying into the Shenandoah River.

Gordon's plan

Sheridan's troops were encamped on the river, but Gordon believed that the Union left flank was weak.

If he could figure out how to get his troops between the river and the mountain, it would be feasible that his men would have a chance to surprise the Union troops.

Gordon decided on a covert attack: cross the river, march the men single file along the base of Massanutten, recross the river, and reform on the Union left flank. The key to the movement would be to do it under cover of night. Early agreed to the plan, and gave Gordon command of 5,500 troops in three divisions.

About 8 o'clock that evening, Gordon's three divisions began to march. They left behind any equipment that would create noise, and headed toward the Union line.

A Confederate who participated in the advance would later recall, "We moved cautiously to the edge of the mountain, and after a few minutes' rest, we started in single file along the mountainside, which was only a pig's path, climbing over logs, stones, and many other obstacles. Every tree was familiar to me, because as a boy, I walked and rode almost daily over this section ... only a mile from this lane my mother and family lived."

The 5,500 men walked single-file among the trees. Despite the unusual approach, Gordon's men were in position about 4 in the morning, and they also got some help from the weather. The entire area was blanketed in a thick predawn fog, concealing the Confederates who were poised to strike the Union camps.

Sheridan's men did not expect thousands of troops in gray to come streaming at them through the fog. In fact, the troops became comfortable in their camps along the river, receiving new supplies and even a mail call on the 18th.

As a Rhode Islander put it, "there was no more thought of a battle in our camp than there is today in the streets of Providence." Sheridan himself said, "I felt satisfied that Early was ... too weak to take the offensive."

It was precisely the element of surprise that brought Gordon his "most brilliant victory."

In the evening before the battle, Early, considering the information he had been receiving from Gordon and others, decided that another general, Joseph B. Kershaw, should lead his forces directly at the Union entrenchments as a support for Gordon's roundabout attack. Kershaw's troops also advanced under cover of night, and began the attack at 5 a.m.

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