It had been a long and grueling War in the Shenandoah Valley with some towns changing hands some seventy times between Union and Confederate forces. On March 2, 1865 it came to an end. Jubal Early’s force, stripped over the winter to shore up Lee’s thin ranks holding the lines at Petersburg, was now reduced to 1500 men. Sheridan was moving South, initially under orders to move into North Carolina and link up with Sherman advancing into North Carolina. Not wanting to leave Early in his rear, Sheridan sent twenty-five year old Brigadier General George Armstrong with a division of cavalry, 2,500 men, to find Early.
Custer had graduated dead last in his class at West Point in 1861, making him the class goat. The “goat” had a spectacularly successful War, rising in rank from Second Lieutenant to Major General of Volunteers. (He had been promoted from Captain to Brigadier General of Volunteers, passing over the intervening ranks, in 1863.) Daring and combative, Custer had helped transform Union cavalry from lackluster to an able strike force.
Early posted his small force on a ridge due west of Waynesboro, Virginia. Arriving at 2:00 PM on March 2, Custer quickly saw that Early had fortified his position and that head on attacks would probably not work, but that Early’s left could be turned. (Early had thought that a thick wood adequately protected this flank.) Sending one brigade to turn the Confederate left while he attacked frontally with two brigades worked to perfection. Virtually the entire Confederate force was taken prisoner with Early and fifteen to twenty Confederates escaping. Here is Sheridan’s account of the battle from his Memoirs: Continue reading
Thomas Buchanan Read was an artist and poet who served as a staff officer in the Civil War. Inspired by Sheridan’s decisive victory at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864, Read dashed off the poem, Sheridan’s Ride in an hour. The poem was a sensation throughout the North. To a war weary population, Cedar Creek was welcome proof that the seemingly endless War would soon end in Union victory. Public performances were held throughout the North. Republican rallies for the upcoming election featured readings of the poem with coconut shells used to mimic the sound of the horse’s hooves on the road. The Cedar Creek sensation helped to re-elect Lincoln.
Here is a newspaper interview of Phil Sheridan on the poem which originally appeared in the Philadelphia Press:
“Boys, those of you who are not cowards follow me; for I’ll sleep in that camp tonight or I’ll sleep in Hell!”
That was the “terrible oath” the author of “Sheridan’s Ride” referred to and it had the effect intended. The soldiers knew that “Little Phil” was frightfully in earnest, and there wasn’t a man in all the shattered army who wouldn’t share his bed. I asked General Sheridan the other day if he knew the author of the poem.
“Yes” he replied, “I knew him well. I first met Mr. Read at the headquarters of Gen. Rosecrans, just before the battle of Stone River. He was a guest of the General, and remained in camp quite a while, so that we all got to know him.”
“Do you know how he came to write the poem?”
“Yes” said the General, “I have heard him tell about it several times. There has been a number of stories published about the origin of the poem, but I will tell you the true one, just as Mr. Read told it to me. Did you know that James E. Murdock suggested the idea?”
“Murdock the elocutionist?”
“The very man. He was an actor at one of the Cincinnati theaters at the time, where I had known him. Murdock has always been a great friend of mine, and I am glad to know the old man keeps so well. I see that he was able to appear at the memorial services in honor of Chief Justice Chase the other day. Murdock lost a son at the battle of Missionary Ridge – the boy was in my command and the old man came down to get the body, don’t you know? The enemy occupied the place where the boy was buried, and Mr. Murdock remained a guest at my headquarters until we recovered the ground. He used to ride the lines with me every day, and always used my black horse ‘Rienzi’ – the one that was afterward called ‘Winchester’ and the same that I had under me on that twenty mile canter. No man ever straddled a better animal, and old Murdock became very fond of him. He was a horse that it was an honor to mount, you see, and in that poem Read gave him a good sendoff.
“Well” continued Sheridan, “things were very exciting down around Chattanooga those days, and Mr. Murdock saw a good deal of war. On Sundays he always used to recite poems to the troops around headquarters, and there was one of Browning’s that the boys never missed a chance to call for. It was a great favorite with me, don’t you know, just as it was with the soldiers, and we never let the old man off without reading it. It was the story of the ride from Ghent to Aix – you remember it.
“Well, you see, after the battle of Cedar Creek, there was published in Harper’s Weekly a story of my ride from Winchester and a picture of me on the back of old Rienzi. Murdock had agreed to recite a poem at the Sanitary Fair that was being held at Cincinnati at that time, and Read had promised to write something new and appropriate for him. But when Murdock called on him for the manuscript the afternoon he was to recite, he hadn’t touched a pen to the paper – said he didn’t know what to write about. Well, Murdock had just seen a man who was in the battle, and was full of the story, being a friend of mine, you see; so he pulled the copy of Harper’s Weekly from his pocket, and repeated to Read all the officer had told him. Read jumped up, locked himself in his room, wrote the poem off-handed in an hour, got his wife to make a copy, and had it over to Murdock’s before dark. The latter was delighted with it, and read it at the Sanitary Fair that night.”
“Where did you first see it?”
The first I ever saw of it was in the newspapers. One of my officers brought it to my tent one morning in the camp down in the Shenandoah Valley.”
“It is said that you have the original manuscript.”
“I wish I had, but I have never seen it. I don’t suppose it is in existence. As I understand, it was originally written in pencil, and Mrs. Read copied it for Mr. Murdock.”
“How did Read come to paint the picture of Sheridan’s Ride?”
“Well, the poem made a great sensation, you know, and Read, being a painter as well as a poet, got a commission from the Union League Club of Philadelphia for the picture. They sent him down to New Orleans, where I was stationed, and I sat for him there. He was going to Rome that fall and did not finish it, but made some sketches and then completed the picture in Italy. I have never had a copy of the picture, but he afterward gave me the sketches, which I still have at my house.”
“Who were with you on that ride?”
“Sandy Forsythe, who is down in New Mexico with the Fourth Cavalry, and Colonel O’Keefe. The latter was killed at the battle of Five Forks.” Continue reading
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
After his defeat at the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864, go here to read about it, Early retired south to a strong position near Strasburg, Virignia, with his right anchored on the North Branch of the Shenandoah River, and his left on Fisher’s Hill, grandiloquently known during the Civil War as the Gibraltar of the Valley. The position was a very strong one, but with only 10,000 men to cover four miles, Early did not have enough troops to man it adequately.
Sheridan with 29,000 men quickly decided that a frontal attack would be fruitless without a flank attack. Crook was sent with his corps on an arduous march to flank the Confederate left on Fisher’s Hill. Crook was in position to commence his attack at 4:00 PM on September 22, while Sheridan pressed Early from the front. After some desultory fighting, the Confederate army routed. Battle losses in dead and wounded were minimal, but 1000 Confederates were taken prisoner. Early retreated to Waynesboro leaving Sheridan in undisputed control of the lower Valley, a control that Sheridan was going to use to destroy the granary of the Confederacy.
Here is Early’s report to General Robert E. Lee on the engagement: Continue reading
The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, lives his days.
For a while the sky above him is very dark.
There are fifty thousand dead in these last, bleak months
And Richmond is still untaken.
The papers rail,
Grant is a butcher, the war will never be done.
The gaunt man’s term of office draws to an end,
His best friends muse and are doubtful.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
By the beginning of August 1864 Lincoln began to suspect that he was going to lose re-election and the Union was going to lose the War. Grant, at an immense cost in blood, had pushed Lee back to Richmond and Petersburg, but both cities still were controlled by the Confederates and Lee’s army was still a force to be reckoned with. The North was still reeling from Early’s victories in the Shenandoah, his daring raid on Washington and his burning of Chambersburg on July 30. In the West the Confederate Army of Tennessee still clung to Atlanta, and the Confederacy still controlled almost all of its heartland. The War seemed to be entering a stalemate, and if it remained so until November, Lincoln would be a one term president and the Union would be permanently sundered. With that on his mind, Lincoln sent a warning telegram to Grant. Lincoln never lost his faith in Grant, but clearly he wanted Grant to understand that unless victories were forthcoming the Union was in peril. Ironically, in this telegram Lincoln approves Sheridan being place in command in the Shenandoah, and it was Sheridan’s string of victories in the fall that probably ensured Lincoln’s re-election: Continue reading
Earlier this week I referred in this thread to General Sheridan’s quip about Hell and Texas. Here is the background story on Sheridan’s comparison of the Hot Place and the Hot State.
Phil Sheridan could be a nasty piece of work on duty. A bantam Irish Catholic born in Albany, New York on March 6, 1831, to Irish immigrants, Sheridan carved a career in the Army by sheer hard work and a ferocious will to win. He had a hard streak of ruthlessness that Confederates, Indians and the many officers he sacked for incompetence could attest to. His quote, “If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him.” after he ordered the burning of crops in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864 to deny them to Confederate troops indicated just how hard a man he could be when waging war.
Off duty he was completely different. He had the traditional Irish gift of gab and in social settings was charming and friendly.
After the Civil War he commanded an army of 50,000 troops in Texas to send a none-too-subtle hint to the French who had used the opportunity of the Civil War to conquer Mexico that it was time for them to leave. The French did, with the Austrian Archduke Maximillian they had installed as Emperor of Mexico dying bravely before a Mexican firing squad. During his stay in Texas Sheridan made his famous quip about Texas. It was swiftly reported in the newspapers:
“14 April 1866, Wisconsin State Register, pg. 2, col. 3:
GEN. SHERIDAN, after his recent Mexican tour, states his opinion succinctly and forcibly, as follows: “If I owned h-ll and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place!”
“19 April 1866, The Independent, pg. 4:
But these states are not yet reduced to civil behavior. As an illustration, Gen. Sheridan sends word up from New Orleans, saying, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” This is the opinion of a department commander.”
“15 May 1866, Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman (Boise, ID), pg. 7?, col. 3:
GEN. SHERIDAN does not have a very exalted opinion of Texas as a place of resident. Said he lately, “If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place.” In former times, before Texas was “re-annexed,” Texas and the other place were made to stand as opposites. Thus, when Col. Crockett was beaten in his Congressional district, he said to those who defeated him, “You may go to hell, and I’ll go to Tex!” which he did, and found a grave.”