Confederates pause after surprise attack

Controversy: Confederate generals Jubal A. Early and John B. Gordon quarreled until the end of their lives over responsibility for the Southern defeat at Cedar Creek.

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

Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan had spent the night before the battle of Cedar Creek in Winchester, Va., resting after a war strategy meeting with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Washington.

When he awoke that morning to the sound of cannon and guns, he quickly saddled his horse and headed for his troops, expecting to witness little more than a skirmish.

As he galloped through town, however, he saw something much more dreadful: His men had been routed and were staggering through the town, dazed by a Confederate surprise attack.

Sheridan would reorganize his troops and eventually claim victory from the initial setback - but he had Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early to thank for the opportunity.

Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon had devised the plan to attack the firmly entrenched Union troops at Cedar Creek. His plan, which called for movement through the trees under cover of night and attack before daybreak, was so successful that it caught many Union soldiers still in camp, and some not even dressed.

The Union army, which had almost a 5-to-2 manpower advantage over the Confederates, had been completely dislodged from its positions, and was entangled in a hasty, disorganized retreat.

For Early and Gordon, the 19th of October began as a great and total victory. Before long, however, Early and his troops would be the ones on the run, never again to fully recover from the Union counterattack.

`Completely Broken'

About 10:30 a.m., Sheridan could take stock of his routed forces. Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, who had been left in command during Sheridan's absence, appeared in position to restore order and re-organize his men.

Wright's Report on the Battle of Cedar Creek recounts the story:

"About this time Major-General Sheridan came up and assumed command and I returned to the command of the Sixth Corps.

"Soon after the lines had been fully formed the enemy made a sharp attack on the Sixth Corps, but was rudely repulsed, falling back several hundred yards to a stone wall behind which a part of this line took shelter.

"Everything having been prepared and the men somewhat rested from the fatigue of the morning, an advance was ordered by General Sheridan of the entire line.

"The Second and First Divisions moved forward steadily, but the Third was for a time seriously checked by the fire from behind the stone wall before alluded to.

"A movement made by the Nineteenth Corps toward flanking this wall (in which a regiment of the Third Division, Sixth Corps, detached for the purpose, took part) shook the enemy, and a gallant charge of the line started him into full flight, pursued by our victorious forces.

"But little further resistance was experienced in the advance to Cedar Creek, where our infantry was halted in its old camp, while the pursuit was continued by the cavalry. The enemy being entirely demoralized and his ranks completely broken, he retreated without regard to order.

"The battle, which in its earlier stages looked anything but favorable for our success and occasioned a fear of defeat to many a brave hearted soldier, resulted through the admirable courage of our troops, the bravery and good conduct of their officers and the persistence of the commander of the army, in a complete victory."

A Fatal Pause

Early, who had accepted Gordon's plan for the surprise attack on Cedar Creek, was presented with a wonderful opportunity: Gordon's advance had not only been a successful attack, it had turned into a rout.

But instead of pursuing the fleeing Northerners, Early decided to hold his ground.

Early offered this explanation in his Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States, written in his later years:

"It was now apparent that it would not do to press my troops much further. They had been up all night and were much jaded. In passing over rough ground to attack the enemy in the early morning, their ranks had been much disordered, and the men scattered, and it had required time to re-form them.

"Their ranks, moreover, were much thinned by the advance of the men engaged in plundering the enemy's camps.

"The delay which had unavoidably occurred had enabled the enemy to rally a portion of his routed troops, and his immense force of cavalry, which remained intact, was threatening both of our flanks in an open country, which of itself rendered an advance extremely hazardous.

"I determined, therefore, to try and hold what had been gained, and orders were given for carrying off the captured and abandoned artillery, small arms and wagons."

Early's critical pause at Cedar Creek seemed to suggest that the general was satisfied with the gains he had made, and decided to give his battle-weary troops a rest. The troops involved in the advance had gone all night without sleep, and many hadn't had anything to eat or drink in close to 15 hours, including the almost six hours of battle.

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