by Andy Mateja

During the late summer and early fall of 1864, Maj. General Phillip Sheridan had made a name for himself in the Shenandoah Valley. Taking command of the troops sent by Gen Grant in July to protect Washington DC from the unexpected incursion by Gen Jubal Early along with other scattered Union forces in the region, Sheridan was ordered by Grant to engage Early in battle and destroy his army.
Sheridan began his mission in mid-September by confronting Early at Winchester and a few days later, at Fishers Hill –both of which were resounding victories for Sheridan. President Abraham was so impressed with Sheridan’s victories, he promoted him to the rank of Brigadier General in the regular army.
As early retreated up the valley to lick his wounds and contemplate a counter offensive, Sheridan was summoned to Washington DC to meet with Grant and other military leaders to plan the next phase of the campaign
Gen Grant wanted Sheridan to destroy the railroad between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, the James River Canal, and the Virginia Central Railroad east to Richmond. Sheridan felt that would be extremely hazardous and unlikely to be successful as rebel guerrillas would trap and destroy detachments of Union forces the mountain passes. He instead felt the best policy would be to burn the crops in the valley to end the campaign.
Grant and the powers in Washington agreed with Sheridan, and sent two engineers with him to develop a defensive line in the valley while the rest of his army would be sent back to Petersburg to reinforce Grant. Sheridan intended to start the process on the morning of October 19th ……………..
Sheridan was awakened unexpectedly at 6:00 AM to the sound of cannon fire. He initially thought it was a perhaps a probing effort by his forces to feel out the enemy but he wasn’t sure. He now could not fall back asleep and got dressed, had breakfast and left Winchester and 8:30 AM to return to his army.
About ½ miles south of Winchester, Sheridan came across hundreds of his panic stricken troops in full retreat. Some of the officers had told him of the disaster that just happened at Cedar Creek. Some of them on the road told him all was lost but will be “all right when you get there”. Sheridan became incensed and started yelling orders to the fleeing troops to reorganize and go back to the sound of the fighting. He removed his cap to make sure his men could see his bright red hair and know that was Phil Sheridan himself ordering them turn around and go back into the fight. He continued riding the 20 miles to Cedar Creek at full speed to try to reverse the tide as quickly as possible.
It turned out only a portion of Sheridan’s forces were involved in Early’s surprise attack. There were fresh divisions that Sheridan needed to utilize when he arrived on the field along with rallying the rest of the disorganized regiments in order to launch a counter attack if possible. It was now 11:00AM and Sheridan was still wondering what had actually happened.
When Sheridan left his command on October 15 for the conference in Washington DC, he felt his three army corps was situated in very safe and comfortable positions with his cavalry on both flanks for added protection. Sheridan’s forces consisted of about 35,000 men, of which 10,000 were cavalry.
As Early had retreated after the defeat at Fishers Hill, Sheridan was not expecting another attack from the Confederates. He decided to take his cavalry with him to Front Royal to begin the destruction of the crops and railroads in the Shenandoah Valley.
On the 16th Sheridan received interesting news. Union signal officers intercepted a message being sent to Gen Early. It said “be ready to move as soon as my forces join you and we will crush Sheridan -signed Longstreet. If true, Sheridan began to worry about his right flank. The commander of the VI Corps, Gen Wright, said he would hold this position and watch for an attack on the right. Both did not even think about an attack on his left which, it reality was vulnerable.
Sheridan did not consider his position at Cedar Creek a permanent defensive position. He and his commanders believed the Shenandoah River and the Three Top Mountain would be sufficient protection against an enemy attack. Even though Sheridan thought the message from Longstreet might be a ruse, he decided to play it safe and order his cavalry back to Cedar Creek.
General Wright, in Sheridan’s absence. Positioned two divisions of cavalry on his right flank to watch for the possibility of a flank attack from Longstreet. The scouts did not see any evidence of Confederate movement on the right and felt relatively safe. They were also quite comfortable with the troop dispositions on their left flank and did not anticipate any attack from that direction.
The destruction of the crops in the valley was very serious issue for the Confederate forces in Virginia. Early received reinforcements and now and now had an effective force of 18,000 of which 4000 or cavalry. He had to decide to either move back and leave the valley to Sheridan or attack and force the enemy from their current position. In the true spirit of the Army of Northern Virginia, Early decided to attack.
Early was also being pressured by Gen Robert E. Lee , who had send him reinforcements from his already overstretched lines protecting Richmond and Petersburg, with the hopes that Early would go on the offense again and win a victory. In doing so, Lee believed General Ulysses S. Grant would have to divert more troops into the Shenandoah Valley which would ease the pressure on Lee. Unfortunately for Lee, he had no idea of the size of the forces that Early was already facing in the valley.
Early decided a frontal assault at Cedar Creek was out of the question. The vantage point the Confederates used atop Three Top Mountain allowed them to see Sheridan’s entire force and the disposition of each corps . Early and his division commanders determined that the Union right was too well defended by cavalry and decided to launch a surprise flank attack on the lightly defended Union left. His battle plan was to have all of his divisions converge on the Union left an attack in echelon. His only error in his almost flawless plan was dividing his limited cavalry forces and placing almost half out of reach of the battle.
The surprise attack was scheduled to begin at 5:00 AM on the morning of October 19. Early was determined not to repeat the same mistake he made at Winchester and this time concentrate his entire force in the attack instead of engaging the troops piecemeal by division.
The Confederate forces moved into position in the dark of night and had to be very quiet so the Union pickets would not hear their movements. Early’s attack was launched on time at 5:00 AM and was an instant success. The rebel yell startled the Union forces, caught completely by surprise in the early dawn. They quickly became a frightened and disorganized mob falling back and colliding with another Union Corps who could not see what was going on.
As the sun began to rise, the ground fog obscured vision and made the surprise attack even more ominous. The next Union Corps in line also began to retreat. Fortunately, Sheridan’s cavalry commander on the field moved his troops from the right to the left flank to try to repel further Confederate attacks. One of the Union cavalry commanders transferred to the left flank was Gen George Armstrong Custer.
It was now passed 11:00 AM and Sheridan arrived on the scene. He immediately began to reorganize his shaken and disorganized troops for the counterattack he had been planning throughout his 20 mile ride. The reorganization took several hours. While this is going on, strangely Early’s forces did not press the attack and chose instead to stop and plunder the Union camps they had just overrun. This action, under the very nose of Jubal Early, proved to be the fatal blow to the success of the battle and to his career.
At 4:00PM Sheridan launched his counterattack. Now it was the Confederates turn to panic under fire –especially when they saw their battlefield commanders being killed and wounded. . As the Confederates retreated, Union cavalry under George Custer and Wesley Merritt launched into them, increasing the panic and turning the retreat into a rout. The goal of the Union cavalry was to intercept the fleeing Confederates before they crossed Cedar Creek. Many of them were captured or cut down before they got the creek. Early’s entire army was completely routed a totally disorganized. His well-executed stunning victory in the morning turned out to be a disastrous defeat by late afternoon. For some reason Early could not manage his troops to finish the victory. Early also lost all of the supplies his troops had captured that morning including the much needed provisions, arms, ammunition and cannons. He even lost 23 of his own artillery pieces.
Early’s superbly executed attack did result in a complete surprise that should have been a major victory. However, unlike Stonewall Jackson who would have pressed for the complete destruction of Sheridan’s forces, Early did not press for victory and began blaming everyone but himself for the loss. He even offered to step aside and allow General Lee to replace him with another commander.
Sheridan had now defeated in Early decisively three times in little over a month. The Shenandoah Valley was now completely useless to the Confederate forces as the fall harvest crops were burned to the ground and the railroads were permanently disrupted. President Lincoln promoted Sheridan again in less than a month, first as brigadier general and now major general in the regular army.
This stunning victory for Phil Sheridan all but ensured Lincoln’s reelection three weeks later and put an end once and for all of Confederate military occupation of the Shenandoah Valley.
There was even a poem written several months later by Thomas Buchanan honoring “Sheridan’s Ride” the 20 miles from Winchester to Cedar Creek atop his mighty steed Rienzi to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat…………