The Battle of Cedar Creek, or Battle of Belle Grove, fought October 19, 1864, was the culminating battle of the Valley Campaigns of 1864 during the American Civil War. Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early launched a surprise attack against the encamped army of Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, across Cedar Creek, northeast of Strasburg, Virginia. During the morning fighting, seven Union infantry divisions were forced to fall back and lost numerous prisoners and cannons. Early failed to continue his attack north of Middletown, and Sheridan, dramatically riding to the battlefield from Winchester, was able to rally his troops to hold a new defensive line. A Union counterattack that afternoon routed Early’s army.
At the conclusion of this battle, the final Confederate invasion of the North was effectively ended. The Confederacy was never again able to threaten Washington, D.C. through the Shenandoah Valley, nor protect one of its key economic bases in Virginia. The stunning Union victory aided the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and won Sheridan lasting fame.
Grant’s strategy in 1864
At the beginning of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of all Union armies. He chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, although Maj. Gen. George G. Meade remained the actual commander of that army. He left Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in command of most of the western armies. Grant understood the concept of total war and believed, along with Sherman and President Lincoln, that only the utter defeat of Confederate forces and their economic base would bring an end to the war. Therefore, scorched earth tactics would be required in some important theaters. He devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia near Richmond; Sherman to invade Georgia and capture Atlanta and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks to capture Mobile.
The final coordinated offensive was to be conducted by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel through the Shenandoah Valley. During the Civil War, the Valley was one of the most important geographic features of Virginia. The watershed of the Shenandoah River passed between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west, extending 165 miles southwest from the Potomac River at Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry, at an average width of 25 miles. By the conventions of local residents, the “upper Valley” referred to the southwestern end, which had a generally higher elevation than the lower Valley to the northeast. Moving “up the Valley” meant traveling southwest, for instance. Between the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River, Massanutten Mountain soared 2,900 feet and separated the Valley into two halves for about 50 miles, from Strasburg to Harrisonburg. During the 19th century, there was but a single road that crossed over the mountain, from New Market to Luray.
The Valley offered two strategic advantages to the Confederates. First, a Northern army invading Virginia could be subjected to Confederate flanking attacks pouring through the many wind gaps across the Blue Ridge. Second, the Valley offered a protected corridor that allowed Confederate armies to head north into Pennsylvania unimpeded, and a hard-surfaced road, the Valley Pike (current U.S. Route 11), allowed relatively swift movement—this was the route taken by Lee to invade the North in the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863. In contrast, the orientation of the Valley offered little advantage to a Northern army headed toward Richmond. But denying the Valley to the Confederacy would be a significant blow. It was an agriculturally rich area—the 2.5 million bushels of wheat produced in 1860, for example, accounted for about 19% of the crop in the entire state and the Valley was also rich in livestock—that was used to provision Virginia’s armies and the Confederate capital of Richmond. (Mark Grimsley, writing in The Hard Hand of War, argues that by 1864 Lee was receiving most of his supplies from the Deep South, so that the agricultural importance of the Valley has been overstated. The Union wanted to control it to close the invasion route to the North and to deny the use of its supplies to guerrillas operating in the area.) If the Federals could capture Staunton in the upper Valley, they would threaten the vital Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, which ran from Richmond to the Mississippi River.
Sigel and Hunter
Sigel, in command of the Department of West Virginia, had orders from Grant to move “up the Valley” with 10,000 men to destroy the railroad center at Lynchburg. Sigel’s force was quickly intercepted by 4,000 Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge, and defeated at the Battle of New Market on May 15. He retreated to Strasburg and was replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter. Hunter resumed the Union offensive and defeated Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, who was killed in the Battle of Piedmont on June 6. Hunter occupied Staunton and joined with Brig. Gen. George Crook. His force of 20,000 men, ordered by Grant to live off the land, began a campaign of destruction.
Gen. Robert E. Lee, who’s Army of Northern Virginia was being maneuvered by Grant into a siege around Richmond and Petersburg, was also concerned about Hunter’s advances in the Valley. He sent his Second Corps, now designated the Army of the Valley, under Jubal Early to sweep Union forces from the Valley and, if possible, to menace Washington, D.C., hoping to compel Grant to dilute his forces around Petersburg. Early was operating in the shadow of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, whose 1862 Valley Campaign against superior forces was fabled in Confederate history.
Early got off to a good start. He drove down the Valley without opposition, bypassed Harpers Ferry, crossed the Potomac River, and advanced into Maryland. Grant dispatched a corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright and other troops under Crook to reinforce Washington and pursue Early. Early defeated a smaller force under Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace in the Battle of Monocacy on July 9, but this battle delayed his progress enough to allow time for the reinforcement of the defenses of Washington. Early attempted some tentative attacks against Fort Stevens (July 11–12) on the northern outskirts of Washington, but then withdrew to Virginia. A number of small battles ensued as the Union pursued, including the defeat of Crook at the Second Battle of Kernstown on July 24.
Grant decided that Early’s threat had to be eliminated, particularly in the wake of a cavalry raid that burned Chambersburg. He saw that Washington had to be heavily defended as long as Early was still on the loose. One problem was that Early’s moves cut through four federal departments. Grant considered unity of command to be essential and recommended George Meade for the position, but Lincoln vetoed that because Radicals had launched a major political attack on Meade. Grant’s next choice was a man aggressive enough to defeat Early: Philip Sheridan, the cavalry commander of the Army of the Potomac. Sheridan took command of all forces in West Virginia, western Maryland and the Middle Military Division responsible for operations around the Shenandoah Valley. His field army was called the Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan initially started slowly, primarily because the impending presidential election of 1864 demanded a cautious approach, avoiding any disaster that might lead to the defeat of Abraham Lincoln.
After a month of maneuvering with a few small battles between Sheridan and Early, the Confederates became complacent about the threat. Robert E. Lee ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s division to return to Richmond on September 16. Sheridan reacted immediately and struck Early with his entire force near Winchester, on September 19. The Battle of Opequon (the Third Battle of Winchester) was the largest of the campaign and Early sustained ruinous casualties. His army retreated to the south, taking up defensive positions on a long ridge called Fisher’s Hill. Although this position was theoretically nearly impregnable, Early lacked the manpower to hold the entire line in strength. Sheridan hit Early in a flanking attack on September 22, again routing the Confederates, who retreated to Waynesboro.
With Early damaged and pinned down, the Valley lay open to the Union. And because of Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Lincoln’s re-election now seemed assured. Sheridan pulled back slowly down the Valley and conducted a scorched earth campaign that would foreshadow Sherman’s March to the Sea in November. The goal was to deny the Confederacy the means of feeding its armies in Virginia, and Sheridan’s army did so aggressively, burning crops, barns, mills, and factories. The operation, conducted primarily from September 26 to October 8, has been known to locals ever since as
“the Burning” or “Red October”.
It encompassed the area of Harrisonburg, Port Republic, Staunton and Waynesboro. Early was reinforced by the return of Kershaw’s division and the arrival of Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser’s cavalry division. As Sheridan began to withdraw down the Valley and Early began to pursue, Union cavalry defeated Rosser at Tom’s Brook on October 9. The Union army encamped north of Cedar Creek, in parts of Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
Prelude to battle
Believing that Early could no longer muster attacks after more than a month of battling, Sheridan ordered the VI Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright to return to the Petersburg siege lines. However, Early’s troops arrived at Hupp’s Hill, just north of Strasburg, on October 13, deployed in battle formation, and began shelling Federal camps around Belle Grove plantation. Col. Joseph Thoburn’s Union division moved forward to silence the guns and engaged in a sharp fight with Kershaw’s division, resulting in 209 Union casualties, 182 Confederate. Sheridan recalled Wright’s corps, which by this time had reached Ashby’s Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He departed on October 16 for a conference in Washington with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, accompanied by his Cavalry Corps as far as Front Royal, intending that those two divisions would then raid the Virginia Central Railroad. However, Sheridan changed his plan when he was notified that Early was sending wig-wag signals implying that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps might join him from Petersburg. This was disinformation on Early’s part, hoping that it would induce the Federals to withdraw down the Valley, but instead Sheridan brought all of his forces back to the camps along Cedar Creek.
In a letter of October 12, 1864, Lee told Early,
“You had better move against him and endeavor to crush him. … I do not think Sheridan’s infantry or cavalry numerically as large as you suppose.”
Early examined the Union position behind Cedar Creek and found an opening. Expecting an attack across the open valley floor to the west, the Union left relied on natural obstacles for cover. Furthermore, Sheridan expected each of his subordinate commands to provide for its own security, using pickets deployed well forward of their camps. General Crook’s army was not accustomed to that practice and discounted Sheridan’s guidance, leaving the Union left more vulnerable. Early’s choice was either to retire from the area to replenish his dwindling supplies or to attack. He chose boldness and planned an assault on superior forces, using surprise to his advantage—cross the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and Cedar Creek to attack the Union left, rolling up the line and defeating each part in detail.
On October 18, the eve of battle, Sheridan was spending the night in Winchester, on his way back from the Washington conference. Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright was in temporary command of the Army of the Shenandoah.
Early’s men began to form into three columns on the evening of October 18. Gordon’s column (the divisions of Ramseur, Pegram and Evans), with the farthest to march, departed just after it became dark, about 8 p.m. They stealthily followed a narrow path (a “pig path”) between the Shenandoah and the nose of Massanutten Mountain, previously scouted by Gordon and mapmaker, Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss. The path required single file passage in places, and did not support the movement of artillery. The columns of Wharton and Kershaw departed at about 1 a.m. on October 19, and all three columns of infantry were in position by 3:30 a.m. Rosser’s cavalry prepared to advance along the western side of the valley to attack in the vicinity of Cupp’s Ford. The 300-man cavalry brigade of Col. William H. Payne, Rosser’s division, was assigned to lead Gordon’s men to the battle and then break off in an attempt to reach Belle Grove and capture General Sheridan from his headquarters. The Confederates were unaware that Sheridan was not present that morning. Lomax’s cavalry was to advance on the Front Royal–Winchester Road to cut off any Union withdrawal in the area of Newtown (current Stephens City).
Surprise was virtually complete and most of the Army of West Virginia troops were caught unprepared in their camps. The Confederates’ quiet approach was complemented by the presence of heavy fog. Kershaw’s Division attacked the trenches of Col. Joseph Thoburn’s division at 5 a.m. A few minutes later, Gordon’s column attacked the position of Col. Rutherford B. Hayes’ division. Crook’s division-sized “army” was overwhelmed and many fled, half-dressed, in panic. A brigade under Col. Thomas Wildes was one of the more alert units, and it conducted a fighting withdrawal over 30 minutes to the Valley Pike. Heroic leadership by Capt. Henry A. du Pont, acting chief of Crook’s artillery, saved nine of his sixteen cannons while he kept them in action, stalling the Confederate advance, eventually establishing a rallying point for the Union north of Middletown. (Du Pont later received the Medal of Honor and a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in the regular army for his efforts.)
At the XIX Corps camps, General Emory reacted to the sounds of battle and Crook’s fleeing men entering his lines by reorienting his lines to face Gordon’s oncoming attack. In doing so, he removed a covering force that was protecting a bridge over Cedar Creek, allowing Wharton’s column to move forward unimpeded at 5:40 a.m. Col. Wildes’ brigade of Crook’s army was ordered by Emory to stop its withdrawal, turn around, and attack the advancing Confederates to buy more time for reorienting the Union lines. General Wright accompanied Wildes and received a painful wound to his chin. The XIX Corps brigade of Col. Stephen Thomas made a similar gallant stand for over 30 minutes while McMillan’s division withdrew through the thin lines of Grover’s division. These actions around Belle Grove delayed the Confederates enough that most of the headquarters units and supply trains were able to withdraw to safety and the VI Corps could prepare a better defense on the high ground just northwest of the plantation.
The three divisions of the VI Corps were able to establish proper defensive lines. Kiefer’s division aligned itself with Cedar Creek, but as retreating XIX Corps soldiers flowed through, they were unable to hold their position and withdrew to just west of Meadow Brook. Elements of McMillan’s division and Merritt’s cavalry extended their line to the west. At 7:15 a.m., Kershaw’s Division hit the line hard, gradually forcing it back. Wheaton’s division, just to the north, was similarly forced back by Gordon’s continued attack. The two Union divisions eventually linked up about a mile to the northeast, joining with Getty’s division, which was pulling back from a fierce fight at the Middletown cemetery. Getty had originally marched his division toward the sound of battle, but when Wheaton withdrew, his men were unsupported. Briefly defending a slight rise south of Middletown, at 8 a.m. he moved his division to the town cemetery, on a hill to the west. For over an hour, Getty’s division defended this position against assaults from four Confederate divisions. Jubal Early assumed by the ferocity of the defense that he was fighting the entire VI Corps. He allowed himself to become distracted, which diluted the momentum of the overall Confederate attack. Directing all of his artillery to concentrate on the cemetery position for 30 minutes, he was able to dislodge Getty’s division, ordered to withdraw to the main Federal line, now being formed about a mile to the north, by temporary commander Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Grant. (The VI Corps’ temporary commander, Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts, had been wounded and Getty assumed corps command.)
Sheridan was at Winchester at the start of the battle. At 6 a.m., pickets south of Winchester reported back that they heard the distant sounds of artillery. Not expecting any significant action from Early that day, Sheridan dismissed the report. As additional reports arrived, he assumed it was
“Grover’s division banging away at the enemy simply to find out what he was up to”,
but he ordered his horse, Rienzi, to be saddled and ate a quick breakfast. At 9 a.m. he departed with three staff officers, and soon he was joined by a 300-man cavalry escort, and with them he rode aggressively to his command. He noticed that the sounds of battle were increasing in volume quickly, so he inferred that his army was retreating in his direction. At Newtown, he ordered a young officer from Crook’s staff, Capt. William McKinley (elected President 32 years later, in 1896), to set up a line that would intercept stragglers and send them back to the battlefield. He reached the battle about 10:30 a.m. and began to rally his men to complete the defensive line north of Middletown that General Wright had begun to organize. His presence electrified the Union soldiers and he shouted,
“Come on back, boys! Give ’em hell, God damn ’em! We’ll make coffee out of Cedar Creek tonight!”
General Sheridan wrote in his official report an account of the famous ride:
“[I] was unconscious of the true condition of affairs until about 9 o’clock, when having ridden through the town of Winchester, the sound of the artillery made a battle unmistakable, and on reaching Mill Creek, half a mile south of Winchester, the head of the fugitives appeared in sight, trains and men coming to the rear with appalling rapidity. I immediately gave directions to halt and park the trains at Mill Creek, and ordered the brigade at Winchester to stretch across the country and stop all stragglers. Taking twenty men from my escort, I pushed on to the front, leaving the balance under General Forsyth and Colonels Thom and Alexander to do what they could in stemming the torrent of fugitives. I am happy to say that hundreds of the men, when of reflection found they had not done themselves justice, came back with cheers. … still none behaved more gallantly or exhibited greater courage than those who returned from the rear determined to reoccupy their lost camp.”
Thomas Buchanan Read wrote a popular poem, Sheridan’s Ride, to commemorate Sheridan’s exploit. The general took notice of the widespread public acclaim by renaming his horse “Winchester”. In 1908, Gutzon Borglum created an equestrian statue of Sheridan and Winchester riding to Cedar Creek, which stands in Sheridan Circle, Washington, D.C.
The “fatal halt”
Fortunately for Sheridan, Early’s men were too occupied to take notice of the Union general’s dramatic arrival; they were hungry and exhausted and fell out of their ranks to pillage supplies from the Union camps. By 10 a.m., Jubal Early had developed a stunning Confederate victory, capturing 1,300 Union prisoners, 24 cannons, and driving seven infantry divisions off the field with a smaller force. But rather than exploiting his victory, Early ordered a halt in his offensive to reorganize, a decision for which he later received criticism from his surviving subordinates. John B. Gordon wrote years later,
“My heart went into my boots. Visions of the fatal halt on the first day at Gettysburg, and of the whole day’s hesitation to permit an assault on Grant’s exposed flank on the 6th of May in The Wilderness rose before me.”
Early wrote to Robert E. Lee,
“So many of our men had stopped in the camp to plunder (in which I am sorry to say that officers participated), the country was so open, and the enemy’s cavalry so strong, that I did not deem it prudent to press further, especially as Lomax had not come up.”
The two armies stood about a mile apart in lines perpendicular to the Valley Pike. At 1 p.m. Early gave a half-hearted order to Gordon to attack the Union line, but
“not if he found the enemy’s line too strong to attack with success.”
Gordon’s division moved forward against the XIX Corps, with Kershaw and Ramseur ready to support them, but after firing a heavy volley into the Union line, they withdrew.
Sheridan’s boast about making coffee from Cedar Creek that evening meant that he was immediately contemplating a counterattack. He placed a cavalry division on each end of the line, which was made up of Wright’s VI Corps and Emory’s XIX Corps. Crook’s Army of West Virginia was in reserve. While his cavalry pressed both of Early’s flanks, Sheridan planned for the XIX Corps to execute a “left half-wheel” to the southeast, pivoting on Getty’s VI Corps division, and driving the Confederates into the Pike. The main attack began at 4 p.m., meeting significant Confederate resistance north of Middletown for about an hour. Early’s left flank began to crumble and Custer’s cavalry raced into the Confederate rear. Many of the Confederate soldiers panicked as they envisioned their escape route across Cedar Creek being blocked by the Federal cavalrymen who had been so successful during the campaign. After the breakthrough on the Union right, Sheridan stepped up the pressure with an attack on Ramseur’s Division. General Ramseur was mortally wounded and his men joined the retreat. Although the Confederate artillery made a few delaying stands along the way, Early had lost control of his army.
The situation worsened for the Confederates when a small bridge on the Valley Pike collapsed, making it impossible to cross with wagons or artillery over “No Name Creek” south of Strasburg. Early’s army was forced to abandon all of the captured Union guns and wagons from the morning attack, as well as most of their own. Sheridan’s pursuit ended at nightfall. The retreating Confederate soldiers gathered temporarily on Fisher’s Hill and then the army retired the following day to New Market.
Casualties for the Union totaled 5,665 (644 killed, 3,430 wounded, 1,591 missing). Confederate casualties are only estimates, about 2,910 (320 killed, 1,540 wounded, 1,050 missing). In addition to the mortal wounding of Confederate general Ramseur (who died at Belle Grove in the company of Union officers who were former colleagues and friends), two Union brigadier generals were killed at Cedar Creek: Daniel D. Bidwell and Charles R. Lowell, Jr.
The battle was a crushing defeat for the Confederates. They were never again able to threaten the northern states through the Shenandoah Valley, nor protect the economic base in the Valley. In fact, Early still had the problem of feeding his army. The re-election of Abraham Lincoln was materially aided by this victory and Phil Sheridan earned lasting fame. Ulysses S. Grant ordered a 100-gun salute be fired in his honor at Petersburg and he was rewarded with a promotion to major general in the regular army.
Jubal Early told Jed Hotchkiss that night that the
“fatal halt” was because, “the Yankees got whipped and we got scared.”
But he soon became bitter about his defeat, heaping blame on his soldiers. He wrote to Robert E. Lee,
“but for their bad conduct I should have defeated Sheridan’s whole force.”
Three days after the battle he addressed his army:
“Many of you, including some commissioned officers, yielded to a disgraceful propensity for plunder. … Subsequently those who had remained at their post, seeing their ranks thinned by the absence of the plunderer … yielded to a needless panic and fled the field in confusion.”
Early’s military career was effectively ended. His surviving units returned to the Army of Northern Virginia in Petersburg that December. He was left for the winter with a command of fewer than 3,000 men at Waynesboro. On March 2, 1865, Sheridan marched his command to join Grant in Petersburg and Custer’s cavalry division routed Early’s small command along the way. Early escaped with a small escort and spent the next two weeks running from Federal patrols before reporting to Lee’s headquarters. On March 30, Lee told him to go home.
Medals of Honor
Twelve Union enlisted men and nine officers received the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Battle of Cedar Creek. One of the officers was a captain of the 5th U.S. Artillery and future U.S. Senator, Henry A. du Pont.
Preserving the Cedar Creek Battlefield
More than 1,450 acres (5.9 km2) of the Cedar Creek Battlefield are preserved as part of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, a partnership park, with much of the land owned by non-profit preservation groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Belle Grove Plantation, the Potomac Conservancy, and the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation. In addition, non-profit groups such as the Civil War Trust have contributed substantial funding toward protection of these lands.
In May 2008, the Frederick County Board of Supervisors voted to allow Carmeuse Lime and Stone to expand its existing operation on the Cedar Creek Battlefield. The vote permits Carmeuse to mine 394 acres (1.59 km2) of core battlefield land at Cedar Creek. In response to this decision, an alliance of national and local preservation groups formed the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove Coalition to increase public awareness about the impact of the new mining on the battlefield, as well as to promote future preservation efforts at Cedar Creek.
The 1st Vermont Brigade’s actions in the battle are commemorated by a large wall-sized painting in the Cedar Creek Room on the second floor of the Vermont State House in Montpelier. In 1997, proposed highway construction threatened a Virginia ridge where the 8th Vermont Regiment, commanded by Stephen Thomas, lost nearly two-thirds of its men in a heroic early morning stand. The proposal prompted the Vermont State Legislature to adopt a resolution stating that more Vermont units took part in this battle than in any other in the war and asking Virginia to prevent building on the ridge.