and executed could not well be surpassed.
To move a fully equipped army of infantry and artillery on a still night along the front of a powerful and presumably watchful enemy, twice ford a considerable stream, noiselessly capture or “relieve” the hostile pickets on the river bank, place a turning force on the enemy's flank, surprise the bulk of the hostile army in bed, and, after reducing it one-sixth in numbers, drive it in pell-mell retreat, shelled by its own artillery, requires, it need not be said, some of the very highest military qualities in both commander and troops.
Whether the chief credit for the achievement is due to General Early
, or to his subordinate, General Gordon
, is a question of personal, rather than of public, interest.
The negligence which could expose Sheridan
's victorious army to the possibility of such a surprise, humiliation and rout, especially after the distinct warning of three days before, stands without explanation, and without excuse.
Forty-one hundred men killed and wounded are a heavy price to pay for the failure to keep one's eyes open, and make a timely reconnoissance.
Early's neglect to relentlessly press his advantage during the forenoon of the 19th, before Sheridan
reached the field, and while there was in his immediate front, for much of the time, only one battered division of infantry and two divisions of cavalry, indicates that he was overcome with causeless timidity in the hour of his greatest triumph — an experience not uncommon to commanders whose persistent courage (not personal bravery) in the open field does not equal their genius for unusual strategic enterprises.
Several of Early
's most intelligent subordinates attribute the fatal delay to three things-their commander's willingness to let well enough alone; the profound respect of Early
's army for Sheridan
's cavalry, which had never been surprised, and never known defeat, and the impossibility of preserving discipline among the destitute Confederate soldiers so long as there was anything to plunder in the captured Federal camps.
The last-named cause receives grim confirmation from the fact that, on repossessing the battle-field of the morning, we found that hundreds of the Union
slain had been stripped to entire nudity — the writer having counted sixty-three instances of this in riding hurriedly across a single section of the plain.
Stripped of all poetic glosses, and analyzed after fourteen years of peace, when nil admirari
seems to have become the motto of all, the result achieved by Sheridan
's matchless generalship, after he reached his shattered army on the field of Cedar creek
— as an illustration of the wonderful influence of one man over many, and an example of snatching a great victory from an appalling defeat-still stands without a parallel in history.