The battle of Cedar Creek took place on October 19, 1864. In the last great battle in the Valley, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early tries to reverse his losses with a surprise attack at dawn. Union Gen. Philip Sheridan will rally his army at the eleventh hour in one of the greatest reversals of the war.
Located in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, 15 miles south of Winchester, today portions of the battlefield have been preserved by the American Battlefield Trust and the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation. Notable sites include the Belle Grove Plantation and the Ramseur Monument.
This is one of the major battles in the Shenandoah Valley and part of the last phase of the 1864 Valley Campaign, also known as Sheridan’s Campaign.
Gen. Philip Sheridan aimed to carry out Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s orders to clear the Shenandoah Valley once and for all which would eliminate the breadbasket of the Confederacy and the invasion route of the North.
In September 1864, while Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was outside of the gates of Richmond at Petersburg, Gen. Sheridan delivered a stunning set of victories in the Valley at Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Toms Brook.
Next, in late September and early October of 1864, he destroyed crops, barns, manufacturing centers, and anything that would aid the Confederate war effort. This period in the Valley was known as “The Burning”.
With the Confederate Army of the Valley no longer an apparent threat, Gen. Sheridan was called back to Washington to discuss where his army might be needed next.
Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee sent Confederate Gen. Jubal Early reinforcements from Longstreet’s Corps. Gen. Gordon, Gen. Early’s second in command, saw an opportunity to get at a large concentration of Federals camped on the east bank of Cedar Creek.
The outnumbered Confederates devised a plan to get three columns in place silently at night for a surprise dawn attack.
At dawn on October 19, 1864, the three-pronged surprise attack would cross Cedar Creek and drive three Union Corps back. Though some brave Federal soldiers made a stand, by midmorning, 14,000 Confederates had pushed 32,000 Union soldiers into a general retreat.
Gen. Early believed the battle had been won while Gen. Gordon urged continuing the pursuit. The advance came to stop as tired and hungry soldiers who had marched at night and fought all morning needed to rest. Many other rebels plundered the Union camps looking for much-needed supplies. This was known as “The Fatal Halt”, a decision that would haunt both men.
Gen. Sheridan arrived back at Winchester the day before. Hearing the distant guns from his headquarters in Winchester, he made a dramatic and famous ride to the front. Along the way, he will stop retreating units and direct them back to the fighting. He rode the length of his battle lines, restored his men’s morale, and made plans to counterattack. This legendary moment became known as “Sheridan’s Ride”.
Gen. Sheridan’s reformed battle lines stretched for nearly two miles. The Union counterattack began at 4:00 pm. Though the Union advance met strong resistance, the Confederate left was ultimately turned. The Union cavalry then struck hard, and the Confederate line unraveled turning into a retreat. The Federals took back all of the ground they had lost that morning.
In the end, Union casualties would be nearly 6,000 while Confederate casualties were 3,000. This became the last major battle of the Valley and Gen Early will never be able to make another serious offensive again. This was one of the Union victories in late 1864 that would help to secure President Lincoln’s reelection.
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