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The famous fight at Cedar creek.

General A. B. Nettleton.
When in 1864, with Grant and Meade and Sheridan in the East, and Sherman and Thomas in the West, the National army closed with the Confederate, it was in a struggle which all regarded as the final one. In June, after Grant with all his available force had besieged Richmond and Petersburg, Lee, feeling secure behind fortifications, detached an army of twenty-five thousand picked troops under General Jubal A. Early, including the flower of his Virginia cavalry, to invade the North by way of the Shenandoah Valley, threaten Washington from the rear, and, if possible, compel Grant to retreat from the James, as McClellan had been forced to do two years before. Hunter's failure at Lynchburg, and his painful retreat through the wilderness of West Virginia, had left a virtually open road for Early's force to the boundary of Pennsylvania, if not to Washington, and this open road Early was not slow to travel. The defeat of the Union provisional force at Monocacy, the appearance of the rebel infantry before the western defenses of the National Capital on the 12th of July, and the subsequent burning of Chambersburg by Early's cavalry, under McCausland, had produced a very considerable civilian panic, attracted the anxious attention of the whole country, and convinced Grant, before Petersburg, that decisive measures were required in the neighborhood of the Potomac if he was to retain his grip on the rebel capital. Accordingly, two small-sized infantry corps (Wright's Sixth and Emory's Nineteenth) were dispatched to Washington via Fortress Monroe, and were soon followed by two divisions (the First and [655] Third) of the already famous cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. A new Middle Department was erected, and General P. H. Sheridan, as its commander, was given his first opportunity to earn his spurs in control of a separate army and an independent campaign.

By the middle of August, the armies of Sheridan and Early confronted each other in the Valley north of Winchester. Then ensued that brilliant campaign of the Shenandoah which, through a score of minor engagements, resulted in the thorough defeat of Early's army in the battle of Winchester, or the Opequan, on September 19th, followed on the 22d by its disastrous rout at Fisher's Hill, and its confused retreat beyond Staunton, where the pursuit was discontinued. At this time Sheridan and his whole victorious army considered the enemy in the Shenandoah Valley as thoroughly and permanently broken, dispirited and disposed of. The question asked about our camp-fires was: Where shall we be sent next Our success in the Valley, coupled with Sherman's victories in the West, had lighted up the whole horizon and given the nation the first real glimpse of its final triumph and the coming of peace. But such troops as Sheridan could spare was needed before Richmond, and our army began falling back toward the Potomac, preparatory to such a transfer. During our return march the rear of our several columns was persistently harassed by a large force of surprisingly active cavalry, under General T. L. Rosser, who provokingly refused to consider himself or his command as hors de combat. Among many memories of hard service, those who were among Custer's troopers in the Valley will not soon forget their arduous task of protecting the rear of a victorious army against the onslaughts of the crushed enemy's horsemen!

After several days of this annoyance, and on the night of October 8th, near Fisher's Hill, Sheridan notified General Torbert, Chief of Cavalry, that he would halt the army there for twenty-four hours, and that on the following day he (Torbert) must face about, and “whip the enemy or get whipped himself.” Rosser's saucy cavalry numbered about three thousand effectives, and was supported by some fifteen hundred infantry and two batteries, under Generals Lomax and Bradley Johnston. With Merritt's First Division deployed to the right of the Valley pike, and Custer's Third extending from Merritt's right westward, across the back road, toward the North mountain, the bugles sounded the advance early on the morning of the 9th. The two lines of battle met at Tom's creek, and one of the most spirited cavalry engagements of the war speedily ended in the [656] capture of eleven Confederate cannon, being all the enemy's artillery save one piece, and a galloping pursuit of the defeated force continuing twenty miles beyond the battle-field. The army then, unmolested, resumed its northward march, and crossed to the north side of Cedar creek, where it faced about toward the hypothetical enemy, and went into camp, the centre of the infantry resting on the Valley pike. The Sixth Corps continued on to Front Royal, on its way to join Grant at Petersburg. The three cavalry divisions took their positions as follows: Merritt's on the left (east) of the infantry, picketing the line of the North fork Shenandoah river; Custer's on the right of the infantry, picketing a line five or six miles in length, and extending to the western boundary of the Valley; Powell's West Virginia Division in the vicinity of Front Royal, at the foot of the Blue Ridge, and connecting with Merritt's left.

On the 12th, our scouts reported that Early's reorganized infantry force had advanced to Fisher's Hill, their old Gibraltar, six miles south of our position at Cedar creek, which unexpected intelligence caused Sheridan to halt the Sixth Corps near Front Royal to await developments. At this juncture, Lieutenant General Grant recommended that a part of Sheridan's force should establish a strong position in the vicinity of Manassas gap, from which a fresh campaign against Gordonsville and Charlottesville could be executed. To this Sheridan demurred, and, on the 13th of October, he was summoned to Washington, by Secretary Stanton, for a conference about future operations. Having decided not to attack Early immediately in his strong position at Fisher's Hill, and having no apprehension of his taking the offensive, Sheridan started for Washington, on the 16th, and, in order to improve the time during his absence, he took the bulk of the cavalry force with him to Front Royal, designing to send it on a raid against the Virginia Central Railroad at Charlottesville. General H. G. Wright, as the senior officer, was left in command of the main army, which had been rejoined by the Sixth Corps. On arriving at Front Royal, on the evening of the 16th, Sheridan received the following dispatch from Wright:

headquarters Middle military Division, October 16th, 1864.
Major General P. H. Sheridan, Commanding Middle Military Division.
General:--I enclose you dispatch which explains itself (see copy following). If the enemy should be strongly reinforced by cavalry, he might, by turning our right, give us a great deal of trouble. I shall hold on here until the enemy's [657] movements are developed, and shall only fear an attack on my right, which I shall make every preparation for guarding against and resisting.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

H. G. Wright, Major General Commanding.


Be ready to move as soon as my forces join you, and we will crush Sheridan.

Longstreet, Lieutenant General.

This dispatch, translated by our signal officers from the rebel signal flag on Three-Top mountain, whether genuine or a ruse, seemed to betoken activity of some sort on the part of the Confederates. Sheridan attached to it sufficient significance to induce him to abandon the raid on Charlottesville, and to order all the cavalry back to the army at Cedar creek, with the following message to General Wright, dated the evening of the 16th:

The cavalry is all ordered back to you; make your position strong. If Longstreet's dispatch is true, he is under the impression that we have largely detached. I will go over to Augur, and may get additional news. Close in Colonel Powell, who will be at this point [Front Royal]. If the enemy should make an advance, I know you will defeat him. Look well to your ground, and be well prepared. Get up everything that can be spared. I will bring up all I can, and will be up on Tuesday, if not sooner.

On the same night, after having thus provided for the safety of his army, Sheridan himself, escorted by the Second Ohio Cavalry from Custer's Division, passed on to Piedmont, east of the Blue Ridge, whence he took cars for Washington.

On the return of the cavalry to the army, instead of being placed in its former position, the divisions of Merritt and. Custer, aggregating nearly eight thousand of the finest mounted troops in the world, were both ordered to the right of the infantry, where Wright anticipated attack, should any be made, while Powell's Division, instead of being “closed in,” as directed in Sheridan's last message, was left in the neighborhood of Front Royal, near the eastern margin of the Valley-its attenuated line of pickets only connecting with the left of the infantry along the river front.

It was no longer a matter of indifference where the cavalry was placed. For the first time during the war the Federal cavalry was really raised to the dignity of a third arm of the service, and given its full share in the hard fighting, heavy losses, and great victories under the leadership and discipline of Sheridan. With their Spencer repeating-carbines, their expertness in transforming themselves [658] on occasion from troopers into foot soldiers, not unfrequently fighting rebel infantry behind breastworks-added to the celerity of movement and audacity of spirit, without which cavalry is well-nigh useless-Sheridan's mounted force was at once the eye and the right arm of his fighting column.

Cedar creek, flowing from the west and north, joins the North fork of the Shenandoah near Strasburg, on the Valley pike. About the same point the North fork turns sharply eastward toward the Blue Ridge, the two streams thus forming a partial line of defense nearly across the Valley. In the bend of the river rises the bold front of Massanutten mountain — the northern extremity of a subordinate range extending southward from this point parallel to the Blue Ridge, and dividing the Shenandoah Valley lengthwise. The Valley pike, the race-track of armies, and formerly one of the noblest highways of the continent, leads southward to Staunton and beyond, and northward through Winchester to the Potomac.

After the ceaseless activity, watchfulness and fighting of the Valley campaign, then considered at an end, our troops found the quiet of camp life a luxury to be appreciated. Arrears of sleep were to be made up, neglected correspondence revived, wardrobes renovated, and toilets attended to. Since the 10th of October this quiet of the main army had only been varied and amused by the invariable day-break skirmish between our pickets and the enemy's scouting parties; the usual grapevine telegrams, announcing the wholesale surrender of the Confederacy to Grant; the customary pleasantries at the expense of the hundred day troops, who were so eager to get to the front and smell powder before their term expired; the prevalent wicked offers to bet that “Old Jubal” was still on the retreat toward the Gulf, and the perennial grumbling about rations, with a corresponding alacrity in consuming them.

The 18th of October in the Shenandoah Valley was such a day as few have seen who have not spent an autumn in Virginia; crisp and bright and still in the morning; mellow and golden and still at noon; crimson and glorious and still at the sun setting; just blue enough in the distance to soften without obscuring the outline of the mountains, just hazy enough to render the atmosphere visible without limiting the range of sight. As evening closed above the Valley the soft pleadings of some homesick soldier's flute floated out through the quiet camp, while around a blazing camp-fire an impromptu glee club of Ohio boys lightened the hour and their own hearts by singing the songs of home. An unusually large letter mail arrived that evening, and was distributed to the men, which reminds me that the [659] First Connecticut Cavalry, belonging to Custer's Division, had a unique and pleasant manner of announcing the arrival of a mail; the regimental trumpeters, constituting a sort of a cornet band, would form in front of the colonel's tent and play “Home, sweet home,” sometimes following that immediately with “The girl I left behind me.”

The letters were all read and their contents discussed, the flute had ceased its complaining, the eight o'clock roll-call was over, taps had sounded, lights were out in the tents, cook-fires flickered low, the mists of the autumn night gathered gray and chill, the sentinels paced back and forth in front of the various headquarters, the camp was still — that many-headed monster, a great army, was asleep. Midnight came, and with it no sound but the tramp of the relief guard as the sergeant replaced the tired sentinels. One o'clock, and all was tranquil as a peace convention; two, three o'clock, and yet the soldiers slept. At four the silence was broken by sharp firing in the direction of our cavalry pickets, toward the western side of the Valley. The firing increased in volume, suggesting an attack in force by cavalry. General Custer (than whom, by the way, the wars of the century probably have not developed an abler leader of a cavalry division) quietly dispatched a regiment to support our outposts and awaited developments, which speedily came. Fifteen minutes later heavy skirmish firing was heard on the left of the infantry, two miles from where our cavalry division was encamped. The firing on our extreme right gradually died away and. that in front of the infantry line rapidly increased, showing that the movement on our right had been a feint, while the real attack had now begun against the centre and left.

“Boots and saddles!” was blown from division, brigade, and regimental headquarters. The darkness rang with the blare of bugles and the shouts of officers hurrying the troopers from their dreams to their horses. The rattle of musketry in front of the infantry increased to heavy volleys, the volleys thickened into a continuous roar, and now, as day began to dawn, the deep bass of the artillery came in to complete the grand but terrible chorus of battle. The cavalry were speedily mounted and in line by regiments, awaiting orders. Awaiting orders! That is the time that tries the courage of the bravest. Once in the heat, and hurry, and inspiration of the battle, the average soldier forgets fear in the excitement of the hour; but to stand at a safe distance, though within easy sight and hearing of the conflict, ready, expectant, every nerve strung, awaiting the word of command to march into the hailstorm of death [660] --that is the crucial test. It is at such a time that all the mental struggle involved in a soldier's death is undergone, leaving nothing but the mere physical pang of sudden dying to complete the sacrifice.

Custer's Division to the centre!” was the laconic command from General Wright; and as the sun was rising, our four thousand troopers, with accompanying batteries, marched into the fight. As we came into full view of the field, the whole sickening truth flashed upon us — the infantry had been surprised in their beds by Early's reinforced army; our best artillery was already in the hands of the Confederates and turned against us; thousands of our men had been killed, wounded, or captured before they could even offer resistance; Sheridan's victorious and hitherto invincible army was routed and in disorderly retreat before a confident, yelling, and pursuing enemy. The roads were crowded with wagons and ambulances hurrying to the rear, while the fields were alive with wounded, stragglers, camp-followers, and disorganized troops, without officers, without arms, and without courage-all bent on being the first to carry the news of the disaster back to Winchester. A brave nucleus of the army, which had not shared in the surprise and the consequent demoralization, was fighting with determined pluck to prevent disaster from becoming disgrace. The timely arrival and the spirited onset of the cavalry soon checked the pursuit by the Confederates and gave time for our infantry to begin re-forming their lines; but the battle and the retreat continued. Two regiments of cavalry were speedily deployed across the country-well to the rear — for the purpose of checking the stampede and turning back the flying mob of panic-stricken infantrymen; but the attempt was fruitless and was soon abandoned. Our two divisions of cavalry deployed in heavy lines to the right and left of the Valley pike, and began their hot day's work against rebel infantry and artillery.

At nine o'clock a portion of the enemy's troops occupied, and were plainly seen plundering, the camps where the Sixth Corps had slept the night before; our left was being pressed with great vigor by a flanking force which seemed determined to reach the pike, and thus strike our wagon trains; General Wright had unquestionably resolved on a retreat to a new line near Winchester, and the best we hoped for was, that our mounted troops could so protect the retreat and retard the pursuit, as to prevent the annihilation of the broken army and the exposure of Washington. The universal thought and, in varying phrase, the spontaneous utterance was: “Oh for one hour of Sheridan.” The unvarying success that had attended our leader in all his campaigns; the instinctive promptness with which he [661] seemed to seize the key of every situation, however difficult; the amazing quickness and precision with which he formed new plans on the field, and his thunderbolt method of executing each design; his success in imparting to his infantry much of the mobility and dash of cavalry, and to his cavalry much of the coherency and steadiness of infantry-all these had combined, in spite of not a few unheroic personal traits, to give his army unbounded faith in his leadership and enthusiasm for the man. But Sheridan was twenty miles away, at Winchester, where he had arrived the day before from Washington. Meantime, the battle and the day wore on together. The sulphurous cloud that overhung the field, and the dense volumes of dust that rose behind the wheeling batteries and the charging troops, contrasted grimly with the sweet light of that perfect October day, as it could be seen beyond the limits of the battle-field. At noon, and for some time previously, the enemy was opposed only by Merritt's and Custer's cavalry and Getty's Division of infantry, with their accompanying batteries, while the main portion of the Sixth Corps was more than two miles to the right and rear of Getty, engaged in reorganizing, and the Nineteenth Corps was, in turn, to the right and rear of the Sixth.

At this juncture, those of us who were stationed near the Winchester pike heard, far to the rear of us, a faint cheer go up, as a hurrying horseman passed a group of wounded soldiers, and dashed down that historic road toward our line of battle. As he drew nearer, we could see that the coal black horse was flecked with foam, both horse and rider grimed with dust, and the dilated nostrils and laboring breath of the former told of a race both long and swift. A moment more and a deafening cheer broke from the troops in that part of the field, as they recognized in the coming horseman their longed — for Sheridan. Above the roar of musketry and artillery, that shout arose like a cry of victory. The news flashed front brigade to brigade, along our front, with telegraphic speed, and then, as Sheridan, cap in hand, dashed along the rear of the struggling line, thus confirming to all eyes the fact of his arrival, a continuous cheer burst from the whole army. Hope took the place of fear, courage the place of despondency, cheerfulness the place of gloom. The entire aspect of things seemed changed in a moment. Further retreat was not longer thought of. At all points to the rear stragglers could be seen by hundreds voluntarily rejoining their regiments, with such arms as they could hastily find-order seemed to have come spontaneously out of chaos, an army out of a rabble. [The cannonade of the early morning, when the battle opened, had. [662] been attributed by Sheridan, at Winchester, to a reconnoissance, which he knew had been ordered from our lines, and it was only when the head of the column of fugitive troops and baggage wagons was seen, between nine and ten o'clock A. M., approaching Winchester “with appalling rapidity,” that a conception of the real situation dawned on the astounded general, and promptly started him on his now famous “ride” to the front.] The enemy, believing the continued cheers announced the arrival of Federal reinforcments, became more cautious, and even, like ourselves, threw up temporary breastworks. Our commander instantly decided to hold the line we were then fighting on, and sent galloping orders to the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps to hasten up to our support before the enemy should attack. By two o'clock our lines were fully re-formed, the various infantry divisions, greatly strengthened by the return of stragglers, were in position, and the cavalry had been sent to the flanks-Custer to the right, and Merritt to the left. Everything now indicated that we should be able to hold our ground without further retreat. By this time Early, apparently satisfied that we had received no reinforcements, made a confident and persistent assault upon our lines-obviously determined to close the day with our final rout, and, returning the courtesy of thirty days before, send the remnant of Sheridan's army “whirling through Winchester.” The attack was repulsed at every point. This defensive success under Sheridan's leadership perfectly restored the courage and spirit of the army. It had got over its panic, and was again ready for business.

Shortly after this attack and repulse, report came from the Front Royal pike, which was held by Powell's cavalry, that a strong column of rebel infantry was marching past our left, and toward Winchester — a report which, although proving erroneous, delayed the execution of Sheridan's quickly-formed intention to attack the enemy and save the day. At four P. M. the command was sent along the line to prepare for a general forward movement. Everything was soon ready; two hundred bugles sounded the advance; all our artillery opened on the enemy with shot and shell, and the long line of cavalry and infantry moved steadily forward across the open plain, under a heavy fire, toward the rebel position, with a coolness and order I never saw surpassed during four years of service. To one who had seen the rout and panic, and loss of the morning, it seemed impossible that this was the same army. The enemy was evidently astonished at our taking the offensive, but met our attack with confident coolness, and then with determined fury. As soon as the [663] Confederate infantry was fully engaged with ours in the centre, the order was given for the cavalry divisions to charge both flanks of the enemy's line. The bugles sounded, the horses caught the spirit of the hour, and pressed forward with steady but resistless speed; seven thousand troopers, with drawn sabres, sent up a battle yell wild enough to wake the slain over whom we galloped, and we were in the midst of that grandest of martial movements — a genuine cavalry charge.

The effect was magical. The enemy's mounted troops first made a stout resistance, then scattered like sheep to the hills, and his infantry line, having both flanks turned back upon itself by our cavalry, and its centre crushed by a final magnificent charge 6f our infantry, broke in confusion, and started southward in confused retreat. Panic seized every part of the rebel force; infantry vied with artillery, and both with the wagon trains, in a harum-scarum race for the Cedar creek ford, and, as the sun went down, the army, which at daybreak had gained one of the most dramatic and overwhelming victories of the war, was a frantic rabble, decimated in numbers, and flying before the same army it had, twelve hours before, so completely surprised and routed. Our cavalry pressed the pursuit with a vehemence and success that astonished even the much-expecting Sheridan. Merritt on the left of the pike, and Custer on the right, met with no opposition from the scared and fugitive mob of mingled “horse, foot, and dragoons.” The pike was blockaded for miles with cannon, caissons, ambulances, and baggage wagons, which our troopers easily captured, and turned backward toward our lines. The chase continued, with constant captures of prisoners and war material, until, near the foot of Fisher's Hill, the dense darkness enforced a truce between pursuers and pursued. Both infantry and cavalry returned to sleep in their camps of the night before, hungry and half dead with fatigue, but happy, and having about them, as trophies of the day's work, forty-five pieces of captured and recaptured artillery, and a field full of wagons, ambulances, and prisoners of war. This ended the career of Early's army. As an army it never fought another battle-its commander never again attempted to redeem the Shenandoah Valley, nor to invade the North.

This free-hand sketch of an historical military episode, taken from the point of view of a participant with the Union cavalry, and making no pretensions to microscopic accuracy of detail, suggests one or two obvious commentaries:

First. The skill, the courage, and the self-command with which the initial part of Early's movement of October 19th was planned [664] 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.

Second. 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.

Third. 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.

Fourth. 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.

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