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Sheridan At Cedar Creek






Inspired repulsed battalions to engage,
And taught the doubtful battle where to rage.
--Addison.


General Sheridan took command of the Army of the Shenandoah in August,
1864. His coming was the signal for aggressive fighting, and for a
series of brilliant victories over the rebel army. He defeated Early
at Winchester and again at Fisher's Hill, while General Torbert whipped
Rosser in a subsequent action, where the rout of the rebels was so
complete that the fight was known as the "Woodstock races." Sheridan's
plan after this was to terminate his campaign north of Staunton, and,
returning thence, to desolate the Valley, so as to make it untenable
for the Confederates, as well as useless as a granary or storehouse, and
then move the bulk of his army through Washington, and unite them
with General Grant in front of Petersburg. Grant, however, and the
authorities at Washington, were in favor of Sheridan's driving Early
into Eastern Virginia, and following up that line, which Sheri dan
himself believed to be a false move. This important matter was in debate
until October 16, when Sheridan, having left the main body of his army
at Cedar Creek under General Wright, determined to go to Washington, and
discuss the question personally with General Halleck and the Secretary
of War. He reached Washington on the morning of the 17th about eight
o'clock, left there at twelve; and got back to Martinsburg the same
night about dark. At Martinsburg he spent the night, and the next day,
with his escort, rode to Winchester, reaching that point between three
and four o'clock in the afternoon of the 18th. He there heard that all
was quiet at Cedar Creek and along the front, and went to bed, expecting
to reach his headquarters and join the army the next day.

About six o'clock, on the morning of the 19th, it was reported to him
that artillery firing could be heard in the direction of Cedar Creek,
but as the sound was stated to be irregular and fitful, he thought it
only a skirmish. He, nevertheless, arose at once, and had just finished
dressing when another officer came in, and reported that the firing was
still going on in the same direction, but that it did not sound like
a general battle. Still Sheridan was uneasy, and, after breakfasting,
mounted his horse between eight and nine o'clock, and rode slowly
through Winchester. When he reached the edge of the town he halted a
moment, and then heard the firing of artillery in an unceasing roar.
He now felt confident that a general battle was in progress, and, as he
rode forward, he was convinced, from the rapid increase of the sound,
that his army was failing back. After he had crossed Mill Creek, just
outside Winchester, and made the crest of the rise beyond the stream,
there burst upon his view the spectacle of a panic-stricken army.
Hundreds of slightly wounded men, with hundreds more unhurt, but
demoralized, together with baggage wagons and trains, were all pressing
to the rear, in hopeless confusion.

There was no doubt now that a disaster had occurred at the front. A
fugitive told Sheridan that the army was broken and in full retreat,
and that all was lost. Sheridan at once sent word to Colonel Edwards,
commanding a brigade at Winchester, to stretch his troops across the
valley, and stop all fugitives. His first idea was to make a stand
there, but, as he rode along, a different plan flashed into his mind. He
believed that his troops had great confidence in him, and he determined
to try to restore their broken ranks, and, instead of merely holding the
ground at Winchester, to rally his army, and lead them forward again to
Cedar Creek. He had hardly made up his mind to this course, when news
was brought to him that his headquarters at Cedar Creek were captured,
and the troops dispersed. He started at once, with about twenty men as
an escort, and rode rapidly to the front. As he passed along, the unhurt
men, who thickly lined the road, recognized him, and, as they did so,
threw up their hats, shouldered their muskets, and followed him as fast
as they could on foot. His officers rode out on either side to tell the
stragglers that the general had returned, and, as the news spread the
retreating men in every direction rallied, and turned their faces toward
the battle-field they had left.

In his memoirs, Sheridan says, in speaking of his ride through the
retreating troops: "I said nothing, except to remark, as I rode among
them 'If I had been with you this morning, this disaster would not have
happened. We must face the other way. We will go back and recover our
camp.'" Thus he galloped on over the twenty miles, with the men rallying
behind him, and following him in ever increasing numbers. As he went by,
the panic of retreat was replaced by the ardor of battle. Sheridan had
not overestimate the power of enthusiasm or his own ability to rouse it
to fighting pitch. He pressed steadily on to the front, until at last he
came up to Getty's division of the 6th Corps, which, with the cavalry,
were the only troops who held their line and were resisting the enemy.
Getty's division was about a mile north of Middletown on some slightly
rising ground, and were skirmishing with the enemy's pickets. Jumping a
rail fence, Sheridan rode to the crest of the hill, and, as he took
off his hat, the men rose up from behind the barricades with cheers of
recognition.

It is impossible to follow in detail Sheridan's actions from that
moment, but he first brought up the 19th Corps and the two divisions of
Wright to the front. He then communicated with Colonel Lowell, who was
fighting near Middletown with his men dismounted, and asked him if he
could hold on where he was, to which Lowell replied in the affirmative.
All this and many similar quickly-given orders consumed a great deal of
time, but still the men were getting into line, and at last, seeing that
the enemy were about to renew the attack, Sheridan rode along the line
so that the men could all see him. He was received with the wildest
enthusiasm as he rode by, and the spirit of the army was restored. The
rebel attack was made shortly after noon, and was repulsed by General
Emory.

This done, Sheridan again set to work to getting his line completely
restored, while General Merritt charged and drove off an exposed battery
of the Confederates. By halfpast three Sheridan was ready to attack.
The fugitives of the morning, whom he had rallied as he rode from
Winchester, were again in their places, and the different divisions were
all disposed in their proper positions. With the order to advance,
the whole line pressed forward. The Confederates at first resisted
stubbornly, and then began to retreat. On they went past Cedar Creek,
and there, where the pike made a sharp turn to the west toward Fisher's
Hill, Merritt and Custer fell on the flank of the retreating columns,
and the rebel army fell back, routed and broken, up the Valley. The day
had begun in route and defeat; it ended in a great victory for the Union
army.

How near we had been to a terrible disaster can be realized by recalling
what had happened before the general galloped down from Winchester.

In Sheridan's absence, Early, soon after dawn, had made an unexpected
attack on our army at Cedar Creek. Surprised by the assault, the
national troops had given way in all directions, and a panic had set in.
Getty's division with Lowell's cavalry held on at Middletown, but,
with this exception, the rout was complete. When Sheridan rode out of
Winchester, he met an already beaten army. His first thought was the
natural one to make a stand at Winchester and rally his troops about him
there. His second thought was the inspiration of the great commander. He
believed his men would rally as soon as they saw him. He believed that
enthusiasm was one of the great weapons of war, and that this was the
moment of all others when it might be used with decisive advantage. With
this thought in his mind he abandoned the idea of forming his men at
Winchester, and rode bareheaded through the fugitives, swinging his hat,
straight for the front, and calling on his men as he passed to follow
him. As the soldiers saw him, they turned and rushed after him. He had
not calculated in vain upon the power of personal enthusiasm, but, at
the same time, he did not rely upon any wild rush to save the day. The
moment he reached the field of battle, he set to work with the coolness
of a great soldier to make all the dispositions, first, to repel the
enemy, and then to deliver an attack which could not be resisted. One
division after another was rapidly brought into line and placed
in position, the thin ranks filling fast with the soldiers who had
recovered from their panic, and followed Sheridan and the black horse
all the way down from Winchester. He had been already two hours on the
field when, at noon, he rode along the line, again formed for battle.
Most of the officers and men then thought he had just come, while in
reality it was his own rapid work which had put them in the line along
which he was riding.

Once on the field of battle, the rush and hurry of the desperate ride
from Winchester came to an end. First the line was reformed, then the
enemy's assault was repulsed, and it was made impossible for them to
again take the offensive. But Sheridan, undazzled by his brilliant
success up to this point, did not mar his work by overhaste. Two hours
more passed before he was ready, and then, when all was prepared, with
his ranks established and his army ranged in position, he moved his
whole line forward, and won one of the most brilliant battles of the
war, having, by his personal power over his troops, and his genius in
action, snatched a victory from a day which began in surprise, disaster,
and defeat.





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Previous: Charles Russell Lowell



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