Sheridan seizes victory from defeat

Outcome: Tenacious Union commander refuses to withdraw but orders a counterattack instead.

October 10, 2004|By Michael Hilt | Michael Hilt,SUN STAFF

The Union forces encamped at Cedar Creek remained stunned and battered as the surprise battle raged on. Confusion and surprise were felt by all as the Confederates pulled off a completely successful surprise attack.

Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's men attacked the federal position, and the Union troops soon now found themselves scattered, dazed, and in the town of Middletown. The Union would flounder, stragglers, injured, and broken soldiers, until the arrival of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan.

"Up from the South at break of day,/ Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,/ The affrighted air with a shudder bore,/ Like a herald in haste, to the chieftain's door,/ The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,/ Telling the battle was on once more,/ And Sheridan twenty miles away," says the first verse of Sheridan's Ride, by Thomas Buchanan Read. The poem tells the story of Sheridan's ride to Cedar Creek and the events to follow.

Sheridan, in Winchester, Va, learned of the catastrophe facing his forces in the Shenandoah Valley. He quickly rushed to the battle.

While Sheridan was on his way to the battle, the Union forces managed to launch an assault on the Confederates, which was effective to a certain extent, but was very costly.

"The first that the general saw were the groups/ Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;/ What was done? What to do? A glance told him both,/ Then, striking his spurs, with a terrible oath,/ He dashed down the line 'mid a storm of huzzas,/ And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because/ The sight of the master compelled it to pause," tells Sheridan's Ride of Sheridan's arrival to Cedar Creek.

Sheridan returns

According to the National Park Service, Sheridan arrived at 10:30 a.m. and quickly set up a command post near the Valley Post. He could then begin to reorganize his troops and mount an offensive operation against the Confederate forces.

At this point in the battle, the Union forces were in a state of confusion and disarray. Realizing this and needing to take command of the situation, Sheridan rode along the battle lines to re-establish morale and order.

"Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan! Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man," tells Sheridan's Ride of the troops response to their leader's arrival and ride along the lines.

Once order was restored, a complex plan would be set into motion which was designed to push back and disable the Confederates' ability to strike back. First order of business was to secure the flanks of the Union line.

Cavalry attacks

Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, first seen in the Gettysburg Campaign, was in command of the Union cavalry forces placed to the right of the Union infantry forces with Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt's cavalry on the left. The plan was to strike at 3 p.m.

At 3 p.m., Merritt attacked the Confederate position. A half an hour later Custer attacked the Confederates on the opposite flank. Shortly after the beginning of Custer's attack, the Confederate line was facing heavy attacks from both the right and left. This placed a strain on the center of their line.

At 4 p.m., Sheridan ordered a general attack on the Confederate line, which has now received an hour's worth of punishment to its flanks from Union cavalry.

Fighting raged on; some of the attacks on the Confederate line were repulsed, but most were not. The line began to crumble and was sent into retreat with Union cavalry still actively attacking both flanks and now the rear of the line.

The once-surprised Union forces were now pounding on the Confederate lines. The Confederates were now sent into retreat. Cavalry pursued and eventually crossed the Cedar Creek.

The Confederate losses were very high, having lost 10 battle flags, according to the National Park Service. This was the end for the Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley, and the victory is credited to have helped in President Abraham Lincoln's re-election that same year.

Michael Hilt is a junior majoring in political science at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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