The last major battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley in the Civil War, it was fitting that the topsy turvy nature of the battle of Cedar Creek reflected the see-saw fights waged by the Union and the Confederacy for control of the Valley since the start of the War.
After his victories in the Shenandoah Valley in September, and his destruction of the most valuable agricultural regions in the Valley, Sheridan assumed that the War was at an end in the Valley for the winter, at least as far as major battles were concerned. Delploying his 31,000 Army of the Shenandoah along Cedar Creek northeast of Strasburg, Viriginia, Sheridan felt secure enough, even with Early’s 21,000 Army of the Valley in the vicinity, to attend a conference with Grant in Washington on October 18. On the evening of October 18 he slept at Winchester, twelve miles from his army.
Sheridan of course did not know that Early had received a letter from General Lee on October 12 urging him to attack. Examing the Union position carefully, Early decided that an attack on the Union left, which relied for its security on natural obstacles might succeed, Early assuming correctly that the Union commanders would be more concerned about an attack from the west which was free of such obstacles.
The Confederates on the evening of October 18 in three columns made a night march against the Union left. By 3:30 AM they were in position to laucher their attack. The attack began at 5:00 AM in darkness and a thick fog. Surprise was complete and the division sized Union Army of West Virginia which was at the far left of the Union force was quickly overwhelmed. By 10:00 AM, Early had driven the seven Union divisions from the field, captured 1300 prisoners, taken 24 cannon, and his famished troops were feeding off Union supplies in the abandoned Union camps. His troops seemed to have won an against the odds victory. Then Sheridan arrived at the battlefield and changed everything.
At 6:00 AM pickets at Winchester reported that they heard the faint sound of artillery. Not expecting an attack Sheridan thought nothing of it. However he ordered his horse Rienzi to be saddled and after a quick breakfast he began at 9:00 AM to ride towards Cedar Creek. The sounds of fighting became louder the closer approached and Sheridan realized a fight was in progress. Sheridan was cheered by stragglers from the fight as he approached Cedar Creek. Sheridan ordered the stragglers to follow him which most of them did, convinced that little Phil would bring them victory again. Sheridan arrived at the battlefield at 10:30 AM.
Sheridan immediately began planning his counterattack. Early had effectively lost control of his army due to the plundering of the Union supplies, and Sheridan had plenty of time to perfect his plan before he launched his attack at 4:00 PM. The smaller Confederate force resisted for about an hour when its left began to crumble and the Confederates routed from the field.
Union casualties were 5,665 to 3000 Confederate. Among the Confederate dead was Major General Stephen Dodson Ramseur, who died the day after the battle in spite of the best medical care his Union captors could provide. The day before the battle he had learned that his wife had borne him a daughter. His last words were “Bear this message to my precious wife—I die a Christian and hope to meet her in heaven.” He was 27 years old.
The battle was decisive and Early’s army was no longer a threat to Union control of the Shenandoah. The victory provided a great boost to the re-election campaign of Lincoln during the closing weeks of the campaign leading up to election day November 8.
Here is Sheridan’s account of the battle in his memoirs: Continue Reading