Surprise attack brings scent of victory to South

Offensive: A miscalculation by Gen. Robert E. Lee led to Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's attack at Cedar Creek.

October 10, 2004|By Meaghan C. Ginnetty | Meaghan C. Ginnetty,SUN STAFF

Ranked as one of the two largest battles fought in the Shenandoah Valley, the Battle of Cedar Creek was the last major battle of Union Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's 1864 Valley Campaign.

The fighting began at dawn on Oct. 19, 1864, when the Confederate Army, under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, carried out one of the most daring and successful surprise attacks of the war.

According to Dan Reigle and the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table, Early had two concerns when he entered into battle: to hold Sheridan's forces in the Shenandoah Valley and to strike a blow where possible.

An urgent message

These dual objectives came into play on Oct. 12, seven days before battle, when Early received an urgent message from Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"I have weakened myself very much to strengthen you. It was done with the expectation of enabling you to gain such success that you could return the troops if not rejoin me yourself. I know that you have endeavored to gain that success, and believe you have done all in your power to insure it. ... With your united force it can be accomplished. I do not think Sheridan's infantry or cavalry numerically as large as you suppose."

Lee had miscalculated; the Union had over 30,000 troops and 90 pieces of artillery, whereas Early's forces totaled approximately 13,000 and 34 guns, according to Reigle. Despite this disparity, Early was able to execute his surprise attack.

Observing that Sheridan's troops were vulnerable on the left flank, Confederate officers Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon and Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss were able to locate a narrow, single-file-width path, hidden from Union view, that crossed along the Shenandoah, wound along the base of Massanutten and moved toward the open left flank of the Union army.

Gordon and Hotchkiss proposed that the target could be reached if the Confederates marched all night, and Early accepted their plan, placing Gordon in charge of 5,500 troops from three Confederate divisions, his own division, plus those of headed by Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur and Brig. Gen. John Pegram.

While the thought of battle was imminent in the minds of the Confederates, Union troops were resting peacefully on their side of the creek, enjoying the first leaves of fall.

According to Reigle, one Rhode Islander reported that "there was no more thought of battle in our camp than there is today in the streets of Providence."

Even the Union army commander, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, was unsuspecting of the Confederate initiative.

"I felt satisfied that Early was ... too weak to take the offensive," he wrote later, according to Reigle.

The march begins

But Early was gathering momentum: Gordon's three divisions started marching at 8 p.m., leaving canteens and anything else that would make noise behind. By 4 a.m., they were in position, only yards away from Union cavalry. Everything was going according to Early's plan - including the dense fog that had suddenly settled over the entire area, blocking all of the Union's military sight lines.

"There was now a heavy fog, and that, combined with the smoke from the artillery and small arms, so obscured objects that the enemy's position could not be seen. ... Generals Ramseur and Pegram ... informed me that their divisions were in line confronting the 6th Corps," said Early, according to Reigle.

The action began at approximately 5 a.m. One Confederate officer described the condition of the surprised Union forces at the onset of the battle.

"As we emerged from a thicket into the open, we could see the enemy in great commotion, but soon the works were filled with half-dressed troops, and they opened a galling fire upon us. The distance was too great in this open space to take the works by a regular advance in line of battle, so the men began to call for orders to `charge.' Whether the order was given or not, the troops with one impulse sprang forward."

The combination of fog and pre-dawn darkness added to the success of the surprise attack. Unable to see the enemy, Union Capt. Henry DuPont, an artillery commander, ordered his troops to shoot at the sounds in the distance. According to Reigle, DuPont lost an entire battery due to blind firing, which was quickly turned over and used by the Confederates.

At approximately 5:45 p.m., Gordon had joined forces with Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, as they faced northwest to approach the 6th Corps, under the command of Union Maj. Gen. William H. Emory. Emory, deterred by the fog, but guided by the firing, ordered his 2nd Brigade, 1st Division to cross the pike and occupy a wooded bridge. According to Reigle, a company commander in the 8th Vermont described the fight.

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