South nearly gets a victory

Profile: Veteran Confederate general broke through the Union 19th Corps at the outset of the fighting at Cedar Creek, but he couldn't drive the Union 6th Corps from the field.

October 12, 2003|By Katherine Tiernan | Katherine Tiernan,SUN STAFF

Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw had a distinguished military career in the Confederate army, the high point being his role in the surprise attack at Cedar Creek.

Kershaw was a South Carolina lawyer who attained his rank in the early days of the Civil War through his social status. His competent fighting throughout the war helped him rise through the ranks to become a major general.

Under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, the Confederate army launched a coordinated attack against the Union troops in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 19, 1864.

At 1 a.m. the Confederate army set out from Fisher's Hill, a stronghold they had captured a few days earlier. Kershaw was stationed south of the pike with Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon to the north and Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton to the left of Gordon.

Gordon's attack on the Union eastern flank at dawn resulted in the rout of the Union 8th Corps, but Gordon's troops were worn out from their all-night march and their subsequent assault across uneven terrain, and were unable to continue pushing the federal army to the north as the day wore on.

By 3:30 a.m. Kershaw and the 4,000 men under his command were in place when a heavy fog rolled in. They were a half-mile upstream from the Shenandoah River and were to take the road from Strasburg and cross the creek.

At 4:30 a.m. Kershaw's division began to move toward the federal line in total silence. Each man, carrying 60 rounds of ammunition, marched under cover of thick fog in relative quiet, not speaking or carrying things like canteens that might have rattled.

Kershaw sent out several sharpshooters to pick off Col. Joseph Thoburn's men at the Cedar Creek ford. He was so close to the Union camp that his men could hear federal troops talking outside their tents.

Assault begins

"It was not ushered in by a few preliminary shots, as was generally the case, but it was a prolonged roll, without cessation, for apparently five minutes. After the volley was over the echo of it seemed to roll back and forth over the valley a half a dozen more times. When it had once died away it would return to you again from another direction," said Confederate Maj. Daniel A. Grimsley of Kershaw's 5 a.m. assault.

James P. Simms of Georgia, a colonel in Kershaw's division led the brigade that poured into the ranks of the sleeping 5th New York Heavy Artillery, taking prisoner 309 men of the 349-man unit, according to Thomas A. Lewis in The Guns of Cedar Creek, published in 1988.

Kershaw's assault took only 15 minutes.

The federal troops were overwhelmed and fled, and Kershaw continued his attack, approaching from the right the New England brigade, which consisted of the 12th Connecticut, 160th New York, 47th Pennsylvania and the 8th Vermont. A fierce fight ensued, leaving both sides with heavy casualties and in chaos.

In the confusion, looting broke out, leaving many Confederate soldiers behind as Kershaw continued his assault.

Because the North's line was completely broken, Kershaw was able to see the Union 19th Corps a mile away and direct his troops in that direction. Once they encountered commander Brig. Gen. William H. Emory's 19th Corps, Kershaw's division was aided by Brig. Gen. Clement A. Evans, whose troops were the only men fighting east of Meadow Brook.

The first brigade to charge took the heaviest casualties in Kershaw's division.

After a brief skirmish the 19th Corps retreated, leaving the broken 38th Massachusetts trailing behind the 156th New York.

When Kershaw came upon them, his troops quickly took 115 prisoners, according to Jeffry D. Wert's From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1894, published in 1987.

As Kershaw pursued the fleeing Union troops he encountered Early and was directed to go with Evans to attack the Union Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton's 6th Corps division. At about 7:30 a.m. Kershaw attacked Col. J. Warren Keifer's position as Brig. Gen. George W. Getty was withdrawing.

At this point Early wanted for Kershaw to continue attacking, despite being under attack by cavalry. Early believed that despite fighting for two consecutive hours and taking heavy losses, Kershaw's men would be able to fight at 1 p.m. that day if necessary.

Thick of fighting

Kershaw's division was taking the brunt of the action because it was the only major organized Confederate formation on the field at that point in the battle.

Kershaw attacked 6th Corps' flank, causing Keifer to waver momentarily. Despite that Keifer was able to regroup quickly, routing Kershaw's men and forcing them to flee, thereby finally stopping Kershaw's assault. The federals charged, causing Edmund Pendleton's line to break. William Terry's Virginia line was next, shortly followed by Kershaw's division.

The Confederate plan had worked for the most part due to the element of surprise, however there were major coordination problems that were exacerbated due to the fog.

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