Army of West Virginia tarnished at Cedar Creek

Battle: The Union 8th Corps was surprised and routed at dawn on Oct. 19, 1864, and that dark hour has ever since overshadowed a record of hard service and courage under fire.

October 10, 2004|By Darl Stephenson | Darl Stephenson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the early morning of Oct. 19, 1864, the Confederate Army of the Valley led by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early attacked the Union Army of the Shenandoah under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan by surprise at Cedar Creek.

The first unit of the Union Army to feel the wrath of that Confederate attack was the little "Army of West Virginia" (AWV) or 8th Corps led by Brig. Gen. George Crook, now much reduced in numbers after hard campaigning and fighting since May. It was hardly an army and not much of a corps because of these reduced numbers. But it contained mostly hard-bitten Ohio and West Virginia men who had seen much service and would not yield to anyone if the terms of combat were anywhere near even.

This morning the odds were hardly even, and the Army of West Virginia had to give way in what some would call panic. In fact, their hasty retreat was the act of seasoned fighters who knew when the odds were against them.

After all, they had been the instrument of a similar disaster for the Confederate Army of the Valley at Fisher's Hill when that organization had been surprised and forced into a precipitous retreat.

Testimony from many men of the AWV indicate they did try to stand and even charged into the face of the enemy despite all odds. What has never been disputed is that their artillery under Capt. Henry A. Dupont fired blindly but with great effect into the Confederates attacking through the morning fog.

The Army of West Virginia had received its share of glory in the spring and summer of 1864. It had participated in the daring Virginia and Tennessee Railroad raid in early May of that year, culminating in the short but bloody Battle of Cloyd's Mountain.

The AWV had some outstanding units that had seen hard service. The 36th Ohio Infantry was commanded originally by the now commander of the army, Brig. Gen. George Crook. It had seen some of the most diverse service of any regiment in the Civil War from Antietam to Chicamauga and now the Shenandoah.

There were also regiments such as the 34th Ohio Infantry that had started out the war as a dashing Zouave unit that had also seen hard service.

But perhaps no unit represented the AWV better than the 9th West Virginia Infantry. This unit, supported by the veteran 91st Ohio Infantry had routed the Confederates out of their position at Cloyd's Mountain in one of the most audacious - and successful - charges of the Civil War. The 9th suffered horrible casualties in that battle in what ended as hand to hand fighting but they carried the day.

At the Battle of Winchester on Sept. 19 the Army of West Virginia gained great glory by flanking the Confederates after crossing the morass of a creek called Red Bud Run. They gained the glory in the newspapers while the vaunted 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac had been slugging it out with the Army of the Valley head on.

The 6th Corps had a great reputation, fighting at Gettysburg and throughout Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's spring campaign of 1864, and the veterans of the corps were almost certainly shocked by being upstaged by what they might have considered to be a rather ragtag unit compared with the spit and polish demanded of the Army of the Potomac.

Just a few days later the circumstances were the same. The 6th Corps was hurled at the front of the Confederate Army of the Valley while the 8th Corps was sent in a daring flanking maneuver against Fisher's Hill, often called the "Gibraltar of the Valley."

The attack was designed by the daring commander of the Army of West Virginia, Crook, but a commander so reticent to trumpet his own plans that he had future president and then Col. Rutherford B. Hayes present them to Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, the overall commander of the Union Army of the Shenandoah.

Once again, in the aftermath of the attack the little army of westerners gained the laurels of victory in the press while the 6th Corps was left to lick its wounds it achieved in the hard slug of a frontal assault.

After Fisher's Hill, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's army retreated and many thought it would not have the strength or the will to once again challenge Sheridan's superbly equipped army.

But the Confederates were never short of courage or audacity; two traits that made the American Civil War as costly as it was.

Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon and topographical engineer Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss surveyed the Union positions on Cedar Creek on Oct. 17 from Signal Knob on Massanutten Mountain.

A bold plan

They devised a bold plan for an attack on the Union left flank that was approved by Early. This attack was put into place on the night of Oct. 18, 1864.

Advancing on what has been called a "pig track," the Confederates arrived in place in the early hours of Oct. 19 to launch a crushing blow against the little "Army of West Virginia."

The West Virginians did not stand a chance. Outnumbered by more than 3-to-1 and in a dense fog, the veterans did the only rational thing they could do: They got out of the trap as quickly as possible.

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