The Battle of Cedar Creek-Part One

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Sheridan's 1864 Valley Campaign
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The Battle of Cedar

Creek-Part One

After the defeat of Early’s cavalry at the Battle of Tom’s Brook on October 9, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan considered the major combat in the Shenandoah Valley to be at an end. However, no one had told Lt. Gen. Jubal Early that the fighting was over and he was to make one more attack at Cedar Creek.

In a dispatch to his superior on October 11th, General Ulysses Grant, Sheridan noted, “I have seen no signs of the enemy since the brilliant engagement of the 9th instant…The refugees from Early’s army…are organizing guerrilla parties, and are becoming very formidable and are annoying me very much.I know of no way to exterminate them except to burn out the whole country and let the people go North or South.”

In a dispatch later that same day to General Henry Halleck, he asked that the 6th Corps be ordered to Alexandria and also advised that the repairs on the Manassas Gap Railroad be ended.

On October 12th, Sheridan sent the 6th Corps on its way to Alexandria. From there the unit would eventually return to the siege lines at Petersburg. That night he reported to Grant that they were at Front Royal. He also reported to Grant that Early’s army was a Craig’s Creek, between Brown’s Gap and Waynesboro.

The following day his prediction to Grant that Early’s advance down the Valley was proven to be in error when the Confederates probed Sheridan’s camp along Cedar Creek the very next day. A brigade from Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s Division engaged in a sharp fight with units of the the Army of West Virginia (sometimes erroneously referred to as the 8th Corps). The fight lasted all day with one West Virginia regiment retreating in disorder. Union casualties totaled 209 killed, wounded and missing while Confederate casualties were about 180.

The single-mined Sheridan was not convinced that the engagement was anything but an isolated assault on his army. He continued to believe that any threat posed by the remnants of Early’s force was minor.

Under the circumstances, Grant wanted Sheridan to start a move to the east. He expressed a desire for Sheridan’s army to destroy both the Virginia Central Railroad around Gordonsville and the James River Canal, south of Charlottesville. By accomplishing these objectives, the Union army would completely cut off the Shenandoah Valley from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Sheridan was fixated on the cost of such operations and the attacks that would ensue on his extended supply lines by “the robber bands” of John Singleton Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. He thought that a quick cavalry raid might satisfy Grant.

On the 14th, Sheridan was invited to visit Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to discuss strategy. Despite his desire to make his views known, he was uneasy about leaving his troops leaderless. On the following day, he rode for the Rectortown train station, accompanied by his entire cavalry force who were on their way via Front Royal to Charlottesville.

On his ride, he received a message from Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, who was to be in command in Sheridan’s absence. In it, Wright included an intercepted message that was supposedly from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to Early. The message read, “Be ready to move as soon as my forces join you and we will crush Sheridan. Longstreet.”

The message was a ruse and was attempting to plant doubts about Early’s apparent weakness. Early hoped that Sheridan would retreat northward, thinking that Early and Longstreet would crush him between them. It had the opposite effect on the Union general. He immediately cancelled the cavalry raid and sent them back to rejoin the main army.

Wright expressed a belief to Sheridan that a Confederate attack might come on the right, south of the Belle Grove Mansion. Neither general considered that the Confederate attack might come on the left where the Massanutten Mountain comes to an abrupt end on the south bank of the Belle Grove MansionShenandoah River. Due to the difficult terrain, the Union line was lightly guarded at this point.

Sheridan continued his trip to Washington but didn’t linger. After meeting with Stanton on the morning of the 17th, he returned by special train to Martinsburg at noon. He arrived back at Winchester on the afternoon of October 18th, 14 miles from his army at Cedar Creek.

Originally, Early’s plan was to attack the Union right as Wright had presumed but Gen. John B. Gordon suggested an attack on the left. He had ascended Three Top Mountain with several other officer’s, including the army’s cartographer, Captain Jedediah Hotchkiss.

From this eminence, they were able to see the entire Union Army of the Shenandoah. Three infantry corps were camped along the northern (eastern) bank of Cedar Creek. After Hotchkiss mapped out the Union dispositions, they returned to brief Early. Gordon suggested to Early that based on the placement of the Federal troops, Sheridan would never expect an attack on his left.

Gordon proposed night march around Massanutten Mountain and a crossing at Bowman’s Ford. Despite some misgivings, Early approved the plan. Gordon would take three divisions and cross the Shenandoah, attacking the Union left while while Early would take Wharton’s and Kershaw’s Early and SheridanDivisions along with the artillery up the Valley Pike through Strasburg. Wharton would attack the Federal center while Kershaw would attack Thoburn’s Division.

Early made a crucial error when he sent Lunsford Lomax’s cavalry brigade on a sweeping movement through Front Royal with the objective of hitting Sheridan’s army from the rear. This 1,700-man force accounted for half of his cavalry and they were out of action for the entire battle.

What followed was a two-part battle that started with the morning Confederate assault and near rout of the Union army. In the afternoon, the Union army counterattacked under the personal command one of the most charismatic commanders of the Civil War, Philip Sheridan. His actions on October 19th were to inspire numerous paintings and a poem extolling his exploits.

The next post will cover both halves of the battle, the Confederate assault and the Union counterattack, in detail. For those who are in position to visit Cedar Creek, here is a self guided tour of the battlefield.

 

 

Series Navigation<< Thomas Rosser and The Battle of Tom’s BrookThe Battle of Cedar Creek-Part Two >>

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