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Chapter 48: battle of Cedar Creek, or Belle Grove.

Having heard that Sheridan was preparing to send part of his troops to Grant, I moved down the Valley again on the 12th. On the morning of the 13th we reached Fisher's Hill, and I moved with part of my command to Hupp's Hill, between Strasburg and Cedar Creek, for the purpose of reconnoitring. The enemy was found posted on the north bank of Cedar Creek in strong force, and while we were observing him, without displaying any of my force except a small body of cavalry, a division of his infantry was moved out to his left and stacked arms in an open field, when a battery of artillery was run out suddenly and opened on this division, scattering it in great confusion.

The enemy then displayed a large force, and sent a division across the creek to capture guns which had been opened on him, but when it had advanced near enough, Conner's brigade of Kershaw's division was sent forward to meet this division, and after a sharp contest drove it back in considerable confusion and with severe loss. Conner's brigade behaved very handsomely indeed, but unfortunately, after the enemy had been entirely repulsed, Brigadier General Conner, a most accomplished and gallant officer, lost his leg by a shell from the opposite side of the creek. Some prisoners were taken from the enemy in this affair, and Colonel Wells, the division commander, fell into our hands mortally wounded. The object of the reconnaissance having been accomplished, I moved back to Fisher's Hill, and I subsequently learned that the 6th corps had started for Grant's army but was brought back after this affair.

I remained at Fisher's Hill until the 16th observing the enemy, with the hope that he would move back from his very strong position on the north of Cedar Creek, and [438] that we would be able to get at him in a different position, but he did not give any indications of an intention to move, nor did he evince any purpose of attacking us, though the two positions were in sight of each other. In the meantime there was some skirmishing at Hupp's Hill, and some with the cavalry at Cedar Creek on the Back Road. On the 16th Rosser's scouts reported a brigade of the enemy's cavalry encamped on the Back Road, and detached from the rest of his force, and Rosser was permitted to go that night, with a brigade of infantry mounted behind the same number of cavalry, to attempt the surprise and capture of the camp. He succeeded in surrounding and surprising the camp, but it proved to be that of only a strong picket, the whole of which was captured — the brigade having moved its location.

At light on the morning of the 7th, the whole of my troops were moved out in front of our lines, for the purpose of covering Rosser's return in case of difficulty, and, after he had returned, General Gordon was sent with a brigade of his division to Hupp's Hill, for the purpose of ascertaining, by close inspection, whether the enemy's position was fortified, and he returned with the information that it was. I was now compelled to move back for want of provisions and forage, or attack the enemy in his position with the hope of driving him from it, and I determined to attack. As I was not strong enough to attack the fortified position in front, I determined to get around one of the enemy's flanks and attack him by surprise if I could.

After General Gordon's return from Hupp's Hill, he and Captain Hotchkiss, my topographical engineer, were sent to the signal station on the end of Massanutten Mountain, which had been re-established, for the purpose of examining the enemy's position from that point, and General Pegram was ordered to go as near as he could to Cedar Creek on the enemy's right flank, and see whether it was practicable to surprise him on that flank. [439] Captain Hotchkiss returned to my headquarters after dark, and reported the result of his and General Gordon's examination, and he gave me a sketch of the enemy's position and camps. He informed me that the enemy's left flank, which rested near Cedar Creek, a short distance above its mouth, was lightly picketed, and that there was but a small cavalry picket on the North Fork of the Shenandoah, below the mouth of the creek, and he stated that, from information he had received, he thought it was practicable to move a column of infantry between the base of the mountain and the river, to a ford below the mouth of the creek. He also informed me that the main body of the enemy's cavalry was on his right flank on the Back Road to Winchester.

The sketch made by Captain Hotchkiss, which proved to be correct, designated the roads in the enemy's rear, and the house of a Mr. Cooley at a favorable point for forming an attacking column, after it crossed the river, in order to move against the enemy and strike him on the Valley Pike in rear of his works. Upon this information, I determined to attack the enemy by moving over the ground designated by Captain Hotchkiss, if it should prove practicable to move a column between the base of the mountain and the river. Next morning, General Gordon confirmed the report of Captain Hotchkiss, expressing confidence that the attack could be sucessfully made on the enemy's left and rear, and General Pegram reported that a movement on the enemy's right flank would be attended with great difficulty, as the banks of Cedar Creek on that flank were high and precipitous and were well guarded. General Gordon and Captain Hotchkiss were then sent to examine and ascertain the practicability of the route at the base of the mountain, and General Pegram, at his request, was permitted to go to the signal station on the mountain to examine the enemy's position himself from that point. Directions were given, in the meantime, for everything to be in readiness to move that night (the 18th) and the division commanders were requested [440] to be at my quarters at two o'clock in the afternoon, to receive their final instructions.

The river makes a circuit to the left in front of the right of the position at Fisher's Hill and around by Strasburg, leaving a considerable body of land between it and the mountain, on which are several farms. Whenever Fisher's Hill had been occupied by us, this bend of the river had been occupied by a portion of our cavalry, to prevent the enemy from turning the right of the position, and it was now occupied by Colonel Payne with his cavalry, numbering about 300. In order to make the contemplated movement, it was necessary to cross the river into this bend, and then pass between the foot of the mountain and the river below Strasburg, where the passage was very narrow, and across the river again below the mouth of Cedar Creek. The enemy's camps and position were visible from a signal station on Round Hill in rear of Fisher's Hill, and had been examined by me from that point, but the distance was too great to see with distinctness. From the station on the mountain, which immediately overlooked the enemy's left, the view was very distinct, but I could not go to that point myself, as the ascent was very rugged, and it required several hours to go and come, and I could not leave my command for that time. I had, therefore, necessarily, to rely on the reports of my officers.

General Gordon and Captain Hotchkiss, on their return, reported the route between the mountain and river, which was a blind path, to be impracticable for infantry, but not for artillery, and a temporary bridge was constructed under Captain Hotchkiss' superintendence, at the first crossing of the river on our right.

The plan of attack on which I determined was to send the three divisions of the 2nd corps, to wit: Gordon's, Ramseur's and Pegram's,under General Gordon, over the route which has been specified to the enemy's rear, to make the attack at five o'clock in the morning, which would be a little before daybreak — to move myself, with [441] Kershaw's and Wharton's divisions, and all the artillery, along the Pike through Strasburg, and attack the enemy on the front and left flank as soon as Gordon should become engaged, and for Rosser to move with his own and Wickham's brigade, on the Back Road across Cedar Creek, and attack the enemy's cavalry simultaneously with Gordon's attack, while Lomax should move by Front Royal, across the river, and come to the Valley Pike, so as to strike the enemy wherever he might be, of which he was to judge by the sound of the firing.

At two o'clock P. M. all the division commanders, except Pegram, who had not returned from the mountain, came to my headquarters, and I gave them their instructions. Gordon was directed to cross over the bend of the river immediately after dark; and move to the foot of the mountain, where he would rest his troops, and move from there in time to cross the river again and get in position at Cooley's house in the enemy's rear, so as to make the attack at the designated hour, and he was instructed, in advancing to the attack, to move for a house on the west side of the Valley Pike called the “Belle Grove House,” at which it was known that Sheridan's headquarters were located.

A guide, who knew the country and the roads, was ordered to be sent to General Gordon, and Colonel Payne was ordered to accompany him with his force of cavalry, and endeavor to capture Sheridan himself. Rosser was ordered to move before day, in time to attack at five o'clock next morning, and to endeavor to surprise the enemy's cavalry in camp. Kershaw and Wharton were ordered to move, at one o'clock in the morning, towards Strasburg under my personal superintendence, and the artillery was ordered to concentrate where the Pike passed through the lines at Fisher's Hill, and, at the hour appointed for the attack, to move at a gallop to Hupp's Hill — the movement of the artillery being thus delayed for fear of attracting the attention of the enemy by the rumbling of the wheels over the macadamized road [442] Swords and canteens were directed to be left in camp, so as to make as little noise as possible.

The division commanders were particularly admonished as to the necessity for promptness and energy in all their movements, and they were instructed to press the enemy with vigor after he was encountered, and to allow him no time to form, but to continue the pursuit until his forces should be completely routed. They were also admonished of the danger to be apprehended from a disposition to plunder the enemy's camps by their men, and they were enjoined to take every possible precaution against it.

Gordon moved at the appointed time, and, after he had started, General Pegram reported to me that he had discovered, from the signal station on the mountain, what he supposed to be an intrenchment thrown up since Gordon and Hotchkiss made their examination; and he suggested the propriety of attacking the enemy's left flank at the same time Gordon made his attack, as he would probably have more difficulty than had been anticipated. I adopted this suggestion and determined to cross Kershaw's division over Cedar Creek, at Bowman's Mill, a little above its mouth, and strike the enemy's left flank simultaneously with the other attacks, of which purpose notice was sent to General Gordon by General Pegram.

At one o'clock on the morning of the 19th, Kershaw and Wharton moved, and I accompanied them. At Strasburg Kershaw moved to the right on the road to Bowman's Mill, and Wharton moved along the Pike to Hupp's Hill, with instructions not to display his forces but avoid the enemy's notice until the attack began, when he was to move forward, support the artillery when it came up, and send a force to get possession of the bridge on the Pike over the creek. I accompanied Kershaw's division, and we got in sight of the enemy's fires at half-past 3 o'clock. The moon was now shining and we could see the camps. The division was halted under cover to await the arrival of the proper time, and I pointed out [443] to Kershaw, and the commander of his leading brigade, the enemy's position and described the nature of the ground, and directed them how the attack was to be made and followed up. Kershaw was directed to cross his division over the creek as quietly as possible, and to form it into column of brigades, as he did so, and advance in that manner against the enemy's left breastwork, extending to the right or left as might be necessary.

At half-past 4 he was ordered forward, and, a very short time after he started, the firing from Rosser, on our left, and the picket firing at the ford at which Gordon was crossing were heard. Kershaw crossed the creek without molestation and formed his division as directed, and precisely at five o'clock his leading brigade, with little opposition, swept over the enemy's left work, capturing seven guns, which were at once turned on the enemy. As soon as this attack was made, I rode as rapidly as possible to the position on Hupp's Hill to which Wharton and the artillery had been ordered. I found the artillery just arriving, and a very heavy fire of musketry was now heard in the enemy's rear from Gordon's column. Wharton had advanced his skirmishers to the creek, capturing some prisoners, but the enemy still held the works on our left of the Pike, commanding that road and the bridge, and opened with his artillery on us. Our artillery was immediately brought into action and opened on the enemy, but he soon evacuated his works, and our men from the other columns rushed into them.

Just then the sun rose, and Wharton's division, and the artillery were ordered immediately forward. I rode in advance of them across the creek, and met General Gordon on the opposite hill. Kershaw's division had swept along the enemy's works on the right of the Pike, which were occupied by Crook's corps, and he and Gordon had united at the Pike, and their divisions had pushed across it in pursuit of the enemy. The rear division of Gordon's column (Pegram's) was crossing the river at the time Kershaw's attack was made, and General Gordon [444] moved rapidly to Cooley's house, formed his troops and advanced against the enemy with his own division on the left, under Brigadier General Evans, and Ramseur's on the right, with Pegram in the right supporting them.

There had been a delay of an hour at the river before crossing it, either from a miscalculation of time in the dark, or because the cavalry which was to precede his column had not gotten up, and the delay thus caused, for which no blame is to be attached to General Gordon, enabled the enemy partially to form his lines after the alarm produced by Kershaw's attack, and Gordon's attack, which was after light, was therefore met with greater obstinacy by the enemy than it would otherwise have encountered, and the fighting had been severe.

Gordon, however, pushed his attack with great energy, and the 19th and Crook's corps were in complete rout, and their camps, with a number of pieces of artillery and a considerable quantity of small arms, abandoned. The 6th corps, which was on the enemy's right, and some distance from the point attacked, had had time to get under arms and take position so as to arrest our progress. General Gordon briefly informed me of the condition of things and stated that Pegram's division, which had not been previously engaged, had been ordered in. He then rode to take command of his division, and I rode forward on the Pike to ascertain the position of the enemy, in order to continue the attack.

There was now a heavy fog, and that, with the smoke from the artillery and small arms, so obscured objects that the enemy's position could not be seen; but I soon came to Generals Ramseur and Pegram, who informed me that Pegram's division had encountered a division of the 6th corps on the left of the Valley Pike, and, after a sharp engagement, had driven it back on the main body of that corps, which was in their front in a strong position. They further informed me that their divisions were in line confronting the 6th corps, but that there was a vacancy in the line on their right which ought to be filled. [445]

I ordered Wharton's division forward at once, and directed Generals Ramseur and Pegram to put it where it was required. In a very short time, and while I was endeavoring to discover the enemy's line through the obscurity, Wharton's division came back in some confusion, and General Wharton informed me that, in advancing to the position pointed out to him by Generals Ramseur and Pegram, his division had been driven back by the 6th corps, which, he said, was advancing. He pointed out the direction from which he said the enemy was advancing, and some pieces of artillery, which had come up, were brought into action. The fog soon rose sufficiently for us to see the enemy's position on a ridge to the west of Middletown, and it was discovered to be a strong one. After driving back Wharton's division he had not advanced, but opened on us with artillery, and orders were given for concentrating all our guns on him.

In the meantime, a force of cavalry was advancing along the Pike, and through the fields to the right of Middletown, thus placing our right and rear in great danger, and Wharton was ordered to form his division at once, and take position to hold the enemy's cavalry in check. Wofford's brigade of Kershaw's division, which had become separated from the other brigades, was ordered up for the same purpose. Discovering that the 6th corps could not be attacked with advantage on its left flank, because the approach in that direction was through an open flat and across a boggy stream with deep banks, I directed Captain Powell, serving on General Gordon's staff, who rode up to me while the artillery was being placed in position, to tell the General to advance against the enemy's right flank and attack it in conjunction with Kershaw, while a heavy fire of artillery was opened from our right; but as Captain Powell said he did not know where General Gordon was and expressed some doubt about finding him, immediately after he started, I sent Lieutenant Page of my own staff, with [446] orders for both Generals Gordon and Kershaw to make the attack.

In a short time Colonel Carter concentrated 18 or 20 guns on the enemy, and he was soon in retreat. Ramseur and Pegram advanced at once to the position from which the enemy was driven, and just then his cavalry commenced pressing heavily on the right, and Pegram's division was ordered to move to the north of Middletown, and take position across the Pike against the cavalry. Lieutenant Page had returned and informed me that he delivered my order to General Kershaw, but the latter informed him that his division was not in a condition to make the attack, as it was very much scattered, and that he had not delivered the order to General Gordon, because he saw that neither his division nor Kershaw's was in a condition to execute it. As soon as Pegram moved, Kershaw was ordered from the left to supply his place.

I then rode to Middletown to make provision against the enemy's cavalry, and discovered a large body of it seriously threatening that flank, which was very much exposed. Wharton's division and Wofford's brigade were put in position on Pegram's right, and several charges of the enemy's cavalry were repulsed. I had no cavalry on that flank except Payne's very small brigade, which had accompanied Gordon, and made some captures of prisoners and wagons. Lomax had not arrived, but I received a message from him, informing me that he had crossed the river after some delay from a cavalry force guarding it, and I sent a message to him requiring him to move to Middletown as quickly as possible, but, as I subsequently ascertained, he did not receive that message. Rosser had attacked the enemy promptly at the appointed time, but he had not been able to surprise him, as he was found on the alert on that flank, doubtless owing to the attempt at a surprise on the night of the 16th.

There was now one division of cavalry threatening my right flank and two were on the left, near the Back Road, [447] held in check by Rosser. The force of the latter was too weak to make any impression on the enemy's cavalry, and all he could do was to watch it. As I passed across Cedar Creek after the enemy was driven from it, I had discovered a number of men in the enemy's camps plundering, and one of Wharton's battalions was ordered to clear the camps, and drive the men to their commands.

It was reported to me, subsequently, that a great number were at the same work, and I sent all my staff officers who could be spared, to stop it if possible, and orders were sent to the division commanders to send for their men.

After he was driven from his second position, the enemy had taken a new position about two miles north of Middletown, and, as soon as I had regulated matters on the right so as to prevent his cavalry from getting in rear of that flank, I rode to the left, for the purpose of ordering an advance.

I found Ramseur and Kershaw in line with Pegram, but Gordon had not come up. In a short time, however, I found him coming up from the rear, and I ordered him to take position on Kershaw's left, and advance for the purpose of driving the enemy from his new position-Kershaw and Ramseur being ordered to advance at the same time. As the enemy's cavalry on our left was very strong, and had the benefit of an open country to the rear of that flank, a repulse at this time would have been disastrous, and I therefore directed General Gordon, if he found the enemy's line too strong to attack with success, not to make the assault. The advance was made for some distance, when Gordon's skirmishers came back, reporting a line of battle in front behind breastworks, and Gordon did not make the attack.

It was now apparent that it would not do to press my troops further. They had been up all night and were much jaded. In passing over rough ground to attack the enemy in the early morning, their own ranks had been much disordered, and the men scattered, and it had required [448] time to re-form them. Their ranks, moreover, were much thinned by the advance of the men engaged in plundering the enemy's camps. The delay which had unavoidably occurred had enabled the enemy to rally a portion of his routed troops, and his immense force of cavalry, which remained intact, was threatening both of our flanks in an open country, which of itself rendered an advance extremely hazardous.

I determined, therefore, to try and hold what had been gained, and orders were given for carrying off the captured and abandoned artillery, small arms and wagons. A number of bold attempts were made during the subsequent part of the day, by the enemy's cavalry, to break our line on the right, but they were invariably repulsed.

Late in the afternoon, the enemy's infantry advanced against Ramseur's, Kershaw's and Gordon's lines, and the attack on Ramseur's and Kershaw's fronts was handsomely repulsed in my view, and I hoped that the day was finally ours, but a portion of the enemy had penetrated an interval which was between Evans' brigade, on the extreme left, and the rest of the line, when that brigade gave way, and Gordon's other brigades soon followed. General Gordon made every possible effort to rally his men, and lead them back against the enemy, but without avail. The information of this affair, with exaggerations, passed rapidly along Kershaw's and Ramseur's lines, and their men, under the apprehension of being flanked, commenced falling back in disorder, though no enemy was pressing them, and this gave me the first intimation of Gordon's condition.

At the same time the enemy's cavalry, observing the disorder in our ranks, made another charge on our right, but was repulsed. Every effort was made to stop and rally Kershaw's and Ramseur's men, but the mass of them resisted all appeals, and continued to go to the rear without waiting for any effort to retrieve the partial disorder. Ramseur, however, succeeded in retaining with [449] him two or three hundred men of his division, and Major Goggin of Kershaw's staff, who was in command of Conner's brigade, about the same number from that brigade; and these men, with six pieces of artillery of Cutshaw's battalion, held the enemy's whole force on our left in check for one hour and a half, until Ramseur was shot down mortally wounded, and the ammunition of those pieces of artillery was exhausted. While the latter were being replaced by other guns, the force that had remained with Ramseur and Goggin gave way also. Pegram's and Wharton's divisions, and Wofford's brigade had remained steadfast on the right and resisted all efforts of the enemy's cavalry, but no portion of this force could be moved to the left without leaving the Pike open to the cavalry, which would have destroyed all hope at once.

Every effort to rally the men in the rear having failed, I now had nothing left for me but to order these troops to retire also. When they commenced to move, the disorder soon extended to them, but General Pegram succeeded in bringing back a portion of his command across Cedar Creek in an organized condition, holding the enemy in check, but this small force soon dissolved. A part of Evans' brigade had been rallied in the rear, and held a ford above the bridge for a short time, but it followed the example of the rest. I tried to rally the men immediately after crossing Cedar Creek, and at Hupp's Hill, but without success.

Could 500 men have been rallied, at either of these places, who would have stood by me, I am satisfied that all my artillery and wagons, and the greater part of the captured artillery could have been saved, as the enemy's pursuit was very feeble. As it was, a bridge broke down on a very narrow part of the road between Strasburg and Fisher's Hill, just above Strasburg, where there was no other passway, thereby blocking up all the artillery, ordnance and medical wagons and ambulances which had not passed that point; and, as there was no force to defend [450] them, they were lost, a very small body of the enemy's cavalry capturing them.

The greater part of the infantry was halted at Fisher's Hill, and Rosser, whose command had retired in good order on the Back Road, was ordered to that point with his cavalry. The infantry moved back towards New Market at three o'clock next morning, and Rosser was left at Fisher's Hill to cover the retreat of the troops, and hold that position until they were beyond pursuit. He remained at Fisher's Hill until after ten o'clock on the 20th, and the enemy did not advance to that place while he was there. He then fell back without molestation to his former position, and established his line on Stony Creek, across from Columbia Furnace to Edinburg, seven miles below Mount Jackson. My other troops were halted at New Market, about seven miles from Mount Jackson, and there was an entirely open country between the two places, they being very nearly in sight of each other.

Lomax had moved, on the day of the battle, on the Front Royal road towards Winchester, under the impression that the enemy was being forced back towards that place, and he did not reach me. When he ascertained the reverse which had taken place in the latter part of the day, he retired up the Luray Valley to his former place at Millford, without molestation.

My loss in the battle of Cedar Creek was twenty-three pieces of artillery, some ordnance and medical wagons and ambulances, which had been carried to the front for the use of the troops on the field, about 1860 in killed and wounded, and something over 1,000 prisoners. Major General Ramseur fell into the hands of the enemy mortally wounded, and in him not only my command, but the country sustained a heavy loss. He was a most gallant and energetic officer, whom no disaster appalled, but his courage and energy seemed to gain new strength in the midst of confusion and disorder. He fell at his post fighting like a lion at bay, and his native State has reason to be proud of his memory. Brigadier General Battle [451] was wounded at the beginning of the fight, and other valuable officers were lost. Fifteen hundred prisoners were captured from the enemy and brought off, and his loss in killed and wounded in this action was very heavy.

This was a case of a glorious victory given up by my own troops after they had won it, and it is to be accounted for on the ground of the partial demoralization caused by the plunder of the enemy's camps, and from the fact that the men undertook to judge for themselves when it was proper to retire. Had they but waited, the mischief on the left would have been remedied. I have never been able to satisfy myself that the enemy's attack in the afternoon was not a demonstration to cover his retreat during the night. It certainly was not a vigorous one, as is shown by the fact that the very small force with Ramseur and Goggin held him in check so long; and the loss in killed and wounded in the division which first gave way was not heavy, and was the least in numbers of all but one, though it was the third in strength, and its relative loss was the least of all the divisions.

I read a sharp lecture to my troops, in an address published to them a few days after the battle, but I have never attributed the result to a want of courage on their part, for I had seen them perform too many prodigies of valor to doubt that. There was an individuality about the Confederate soldier which caused him to act often in battle according to his own opinions, and thereby impair his own efficiency; and the tempting bait offered by the rich plunder of the camps of the enemy's well-fed and well-clothed troops was frequently too great for our destitute soldiers, and caused them to pause in the career of victory.

Had my cavalry been sufficient to contend with that of the enemy, the rout in the morning would have been complete; as it was, I had only about 1,200 cavalry on the field under Rosser, and Lomax's force, which numbered less than 1,700, did not get up. My infantry and artillery was about the same strength as at Winchester. The reports [452] of the Ordnance officers showed in the hands of my troops about 8,800 muskets in round numbers, as follows: in Kershaw's division 2,700, Ramseur's 2,100, Gordon's 1,700, Pegram's 1,200 and Wharton's 1,100. Making a moderate allowance for the men left to guard the camps and the signal station on the mountain, as well as for a few sick and wounded, I went into this battle with about 8,500 muskets and a little over forty pieces of artillery.

The book containing the reports of the chief surgeon of Sheridan's cavalry corps, which has been mentioned as captured at this battle, showed that Sheridan's cavalry numbered about 8,700 men for duty a few days previous, and from information which I had received of reinforcements sent him, in the way of recruits and returned convalescents, I am satisfied that his infantry force was fully as large as at Winchester. Sheridan was absent in the morning at the beginning of the fight, and had returned in the afternoon before the change in the fortunes of the day.1

It may be asked why with so small a force I made the attack. I can only say we had been fighting large odds during the whole war, and I knew there was no chance of lessening them. It was of the utmost consequence that Sheridan should be prevented from sending troops to Grant, and General Lee, in a letter received a day or two before, had expressed an earnest desire that a victory should be gained in the Valley if possible, and it could not be gained without fighting for it. I did hope to gain one by surprising the enemy in his camp, and then thought and still think I would have had it, if my directions had been complied with, and my troops had awaited my orders to retire.

1 The retreat of the main body of his army had been arrested, and a new line formed behind breastworks of rails, before Sheridan arrived on the field; and he still had immense odds against me when he made the attack in the afternoon.

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