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Chapter 17: with Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley (continued). Cedar Creek

The Army of the Shenandoah settled down in its fortified camp behind Cedar Creek with perfect confidence that it was secure from any successful attack by the forces under General Early. But that doughty warrior thought otherwise and planned to make one more attempt to win back his laurels as a fighter and strategist. His first plan was to make a surprise attack upon the right flank of the Union army. But General Gordon persuaded him to make the attack on the left.

Gordon led his men by a narrow path along the front of the mountain Front Royal, very quietly single file, in darkness and fog, and at dawn of day was ready to assail the unprotected flank, while yet the defenders were fast asleep. Of the confusion that followed and the utter rout of the 8th and 19th Corps, many persons have written and our narrative involves only the story of the part, a portion of the 6th Corps took in the affair. It is enough to say of the entire corps, that it was not at any time disorganized, that it fell back to a more favorable position in good order, that General Wright had succeeded in rallying a large portion of the 19th Corps and considerable of the 8th, and that there had been no serious fighting for two hours, when General Sheridan came up. No doubt his presence and words were cheering [190] and inspiring to the entire army. A tried and trusted leader is always a source of courage and determination to an army, even in a time of extreme hazard. But the reputation and work of General Wright, commanding the army in the absence of General Sheridan, have not received the credit that was really due him.

Comrade Beckwith writes very interestingly of the condition of affairs in the camp on the night of the 18th. His description of the feeling of security and gaiety that prevailed among officers and men, reminds one of Lord Byron's description of the care free gaiety in Belgium's Capital the night before the battle of Waterloo.

He says,

In the interval between the 14th and the 19th we lay in camp at Cedar Creek. I went out one day with the teams for forage, and in addition got some honey, apple butter, butter, apples, and mutton, also visited a cave in the vicinity and explored it with several others.

On the 17th we were paid, as I remember, and on that day, all who were voters had the privilege of sealing up their votes and sending them home. Each party had a representative in camp. I don't know how the vote stood in our regiment as I never heard it announced, except that it was said that President Lincoln had a majority. We also drew clothing and shoes, and the sutlers came up and opened a tempting display of their goods, which were eagerly sought after. Supplies and mails from home, and the exhilaration of our late victories made life as pleasant, if not more so, than we had known it while in the service. The weather was delightful, the days bright, warm and pleasant, the nights cool, making a blanket comfortable. I remember I was corporal of the guard that day with but light duty, three guards in a relief, one at Colonel Olcott's headquarters, one at the commissary [191] and one at the sutler's. One of the men in my relief had just come back to the regiment, and he entertained me with his experiences while away. When my relief was off, instead of going to sleep I played penny ante with Rowle Boothroyd, Judson Chaplin, Baldwin and some others until nearly time to go on my relief. There was a party also at the headquarters of the 65th New York or the 2d Connecticut, and our colonel was over there and they were having a jolly time. It was a bright moonlight night. Off toward the creek a streak of fog was rising, which in the distance looked like a long, narrow streak of snow against the side of the mountain. Our camp was located to the right and rear of the army, between Meadow and Middlemarsh brooks, two small tributaries to Cedar Creek, which is quite a good sized creek, and is tributary to the north fork of the Shenandoah, emptying into the river a little over a mile from the left of the entrenchments, in front.

The entrenchments extended from this point to the right and to the Middletown and Strasburg turnpike. From this pike extending to Meadow Brook was entrenched the 19th Corps. A division of the 8th Corps occupied the entrenchments on the left flank of the army, commanded by General Thorburn. In rear of this division camped on the pike was R. B. Hayes' division of the 8th Corps. Pickets and videttes covered the flanks and front along the North Fork and Cedar Creek. General Gordon says that the cavalry videttes were stationed in the river itself and could be heard splashing through the water while traversing their beat. But the dense fog obscured their vision.

At 5 o'clock on the morning of the 19th I was called to stand my trick. The entertainment of the night before, had robbed me of some needed sleep, [192] and I was reluctant and slow about turning out. Finally I got out, rubbed my eyes and shook myself, looking round to get my bearings. Everything was quiet, except the snoring of the men in the tents. I walked to the fire and crouched around it to get warm letting the corporal I was to relieve, growl for my not hurrying up. The rest of the relief by this time were up and ready, so we marched around and posted them and the relieved guard turned in. I asked where the officer of the day, and the officer of the guard were, and think that I was told that they were at the headquarters of the colonel of the 65th New York. I filled and lit my pipe and sat down by the fire, thinking I would take a walk over there as soon as I got warm and see what was going on. I had been smoking a few minutes by the fire and was getting sleepy. “This won't do,” I thought, and got up and stretched myself and took a look about. Looking towards the Belle Grove House, General Wright's headquarters and extending my gaze to the right over the line of camps, I noticed they were hid in a bank of fog, and that the moon had gone down or was obscured. The time could not have been over half past 5, and all was as peaceful and quiet as though no sign of war would ever be seen in that peaceful valley again. Sheridan's army lay in quiet upon the beautiful fields, oblivious of the fact that a Rebel host in battle array was close upon it, and in an hour one of the most remarkable battles in the annals of war would be in progress.

As I turned to the fire again, I heard a few shots down to the left. Then a few shots followed by a volley, then a volley to the right. Instantly I thought that some of Moseby's bushwackers, as we called them, had attacked our cavalry outposts. Immediately another volley was fired. I immediately [193] ran to the tents, and kicking the feet of the sleepers, yelled, “Get up. There is an attack on the line.” On the left two or three came running up, and I sung out, “Wake up the drummers. Call the Colonel and the Officer of the Day.” In a moment the men came swarming around. In the mean time more musketry was heard, and the noise of the awakening camps grew on the ear, and the long roll of the drums broke out in the different regiments. The men rapidly got on their accoutrements, the officers came up, and before the long roll had ceased we were mostly in line, with our arms, ammunition, blanket-rolls, haversacks and canteens slung, waiting for orders. The roar of the battle increased, growing nearer rapidly. We moved a short distance in the direction of the sound, then filed abruptly toward the left and toward the Middletown pike, the left of the regiment in advance. For some distance the fog was so dense nothing could be seen, but enough could be heard to warn us that some dreadful calamity had befallen the army. Finally we were halted, faced to the front and advanced a short distance. The 2d Connecticut was on our left towards the pike, the 65th and 67th New York (consolidated) on our right and the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania (now consolidated) on the right of the brigade.

By this time the first gray of dawn began to show, and up from the fog in our front came men moving rapidly toward us, the continued noise and tumult of conflict growing nearer all the time. The first men to reach us were partially clothed and without arms, and pausing an instant under orders of our officers to halt and rally, they told us that they had been fired upon in bed, and had run away to prevent being taken prisoners, not having time to dress or get their arms. Following these came a disorderly mass of men, officers and [194] privates, as helpless and panic-stricken a crowd as ever was seen. They evidently had been aroused from sleep, and grabbing whatever they could put their hands on, had rushed away from the foe they had not seen, and kept on running until they struck our line. Our officers made strenuous efforts to check and compose them, but with no success. Colonel Higinbotham of the 65th New York begged and pleaded with them to shake off their fear and be men, but without avail. They were simply insane with fear, and so cursing them, we permitted them to continue their flight. And it was well that this was done, because they would have been of no use with us. They belonged to many commands and were only partially armed and clothed and there was nothing to organize. It was pitiful to see men who had behaved gallantly on other battlefields and performed heroic service, so lost to all sense of reason. But I suppose that almost any body of troops under like circumstances, fired into as they were, while lying asleep in their beds, would have been panic-stricken and stampeded.

Finally our officers, seeing that there was no use in attempting to rally them, rode out in front into the fog and hurried them back behind the lines, so that they would not impede our action in checking the advance of the Rebels. We could hear the artillery and wagon trains along the road and near headquarters, rushing away in disordered haste to our left to reach the Winchester pike and get to the rear. The whistle of bullets began to become distinct in our vicinity. We were close to the road that runs from the pike to Hortle's Ford on Cedar Creek. There were no troops to the left of our brigade toward Middletown. It was reported afterwards that a brigade of the 19th Corps had been posted on our left when we first formed. [195] If there was we never saw them. At this time it was possible to distinguish a man fifty paces off. We had been in this position a short time and the men from the surprised camp had about all passed. A few brave fellows coming back kept firing as they retreated. We moved towards the rear a short distance, our regiment being posted along the top of a little ridge, with the other regiments in the road. Battery C (Lamb's) 1st Rhode Island was posted along the ridge with us. As the enemy came up we opened fire, and the onward career of Gordon's division was checked. His division consisted of Evans' (Georgians), of Terry's (Virginians), of Hays and Safford's (Louisianians) whom we had met at Rappahannock Station. The tide of battle was stayed for a time, but they poured a withering fire upon our little brigade, and Lamb's gunners and our men were falling fast. We maintained our position for nearly half an hour, until the fog lifted and revealed our position to be perilous in the extreme. To our left the enemy had advanced past our rear, and on the right our line sagged away back to our old camp. As the fog lifted the enemy in our front saw the exposed position we occupied, and the fewness of its defenders, and charged for the guns of Lamb's battery. But our well-directed fire drove them back, and we, receiving orders to retire, withdrew in good order and brought the guns with us, hauling one by hand.

Here we lost heavily, Captains Douw and Burrell being desperately and fatally wounded and Lieutenant Johnston severely. W. H. H. Goodier was shot by my side. We made an effort to get our wounded back but the enemy was so close upon us that we were obliged to abandon the effort and they fell into the hands of the enemy. However, Wilber M. Phillips of Company D, who [196] here lost a leg, was saved by comrades from falling into the hands of the enemy. Falling back across the open ground we made a stand in a belt of timber about 800 yards distant and kept up a fire on the enemy to our left who were nearest us. Those in our front did not press us, evidently reluctant to face any more of the music we had been giving them. To our right the enemy were pushing our men back, and to our left, even after falling back, we seemed to be as far advanced as any portion of our line, and we had a splendid view each way. We had no confusion in our ranks nor sign of demoralization. The stampede of the other troops and the spectacle they presented, I think, stimulated every one of us to do his share, and their's too if possible. Our officers had exhibited great heroism and daring, offering too fair a mark for the enemies' rifles, and many of them in the brigade had been shot down. After remaining a little while in the woods firing upon a battery which the enemy placed near the place vacated by Lamb's Rhode Island battery, an officer rode up and ordered us back, and we formed again in a field to the rear and right of the timber we had vacated, without the enemy's coming up to rifle range, although they still continued their artillery fire. We remained in this position for some time, and Colonel McKenzie of the 2d Connecticut took command of the brigade in place of General Hamblin who had been wounded. Colonel McKenzie then deployed our regiment in heavy skirmish order, and we moved back again slowly for a long distance. The enemy did not follow us closely, and we advanced again about the same distance and formed line of battle in a piece of woods. Our brigade and the New Jersey brigade were formed in two lines with the 65th New York, the 95th Pennsylvania and the 2d Connecticut in the first [197] line, and our regiment and the Jersey brigade in the second line. Here we remained until about 3 o'clock when we were ordered to advance. At this time General Sheridan rode upon the field and along the line from our left. There were a number of officers with him, among whom I saw Colonel McKenzie and Colonel Olcott. He rode rapidly along, making some remarks I did not hear; but we cheered him enthusiastically. A few moments after he had passed the order to advance was given and forward we moved. As the first line reached the edge of the woods they received a heavy volley and halted. Colonel McKenzie rode out in front and cheered them forward and they moved forward again some distance and again were checked. We were then ordered up and reaching our front line, charged forward and drove the enemy from the hill in front, and occupied it. Colonel McKenzie being wounded, Colonel Olcott took command and we held the crest for some time and kept up a continuous fire upon the Rebels who were posted behind some stone walls running nearly parallel to our line, about two hundred and fifty yards in front. The enemy opened some guns upon us from a high hill behind their line of battle, making our position very uncomfortable. Here James Jenks, our color sergeant, received his death wound. He was kneeling with the color staff in front of him when a shell burst and a fragment tore away the lower part of his face and lacerated both hands. Eli Oaks said, “Carry him back, he is a dead man,” but the gallant fellow raised himself up and attempted to unbuckle his body belt, but we did it for him. Doctor Slocum said he had the greatest nerve of any man he ever saw, and if he had been in a hospital where he could have had extra good care, he believed he would have recovered. But he was so terribly wounded that he died several [198] days later. The noble fellow had lived through all the battles of the regiment and had borne the colors to the front on every field, ever since he had taken them from the hand of Sergeant Bain at Salem Church. No better soldier ever lived. The enemy along the stone wall kept up a severe fire, and a good many were hit here, and John Rowland of Company D was instantly killed by a solid cannon ball. One of those hit was Swartout, of Company F, through the shoulder. He used to be our fortune teller. His predictions were all good whether they came true or not. After remaining, it seemed to me an age, we were ordered to charge and drive the enemy from his position. It looked like death to us all, but the moment we jumped up and advanced over the crest, the devils behind the wall broke and ran as fast as they could, and it was a race without any order, after them all the way to Cedar Creek. But before we reached it, the cavalry came in on the left. I stood on the bank and fired at the last of them, as the cavalry swarmed down upon them, and continued the pursuit on horseback which we had begun on foot. They kept up the pursuit until they had driven the fugitives that escaped behind the fortifications of Fisher's Hill. All the captures of the morning except the prisoners were retaken and as many more of men and cannon. In the last charge Lieutenant Tucker was killed and Major Galpin and Lieutenant Howland were wounded. Our losses for one day had been one officer killed, two mortally wounded (Captains Douw and Burrell) and two wounded, nine men killed and thirty-eight wounded, seven mortally, out of a total of eight officers and two hundred and twenty-one men present for duty in the morning, nearly one-fourth of the entire command. The other regiments of the brigade had suffered equally. So in a blaze [199] of glory had ended the battle of Cedar Creek. The appaling disaster of the morning had been retrieved and a brilliant victory won from the tried veterans of General Early. His beaten and disorganized army, in apparently irretrievable disorder was pursued by our relentless cavalry far up the valley, toward their mountain fastness and hiding places.

Coming back from Cedar Creek after the cavalry had taken up the pursuit, we went over the ground the Rebels had taken, and it was an awful sight. They had stripped our dead and wounded, and many of their wounded still lay where they had fallen, although the ambulance corps men were gathering them up as fast as possible. Going to where we had the first fight in the morning, I saw several of our regiment dead and nearly naked. I remember Cady of Company A because he had a peaceful look on his face and appeared as natural as life. Captain Douw had an awful experience. He had on a pair of fine high top boots, and they had pulled off the one on his sound leg and attempted to do the same from his wounded leg, but could not because it had swollen so, and it caused him terrible pain. Finally a Rebel officer came along and made them desist, and covered the wounded leg with some straw. Both Captains Douw and Burrell were gallant soldiers and great favorites with the men, Captain Burrell especially so. We buried our dead with simple ceremonies and visited our wounded at the division hospital on the 20th. We slept in our old camp the night of the 19th. It had been fought through and was a wreck, several dead men lying in it when we returned.

Much has been said and written about the battle of Cedar Creek, but none of the Union writers have given to General Horatio G. Wright, our [200] corps commander, and the commander of the army during that trying and terrible day, the praise and credit due to his superb courage and skill which saved the army from utter defeat.

General Gordon, however, gives to General Wright the credit of having restored the morale of the demoralized corps and bringing the army of the Shenandoah into readiness to renew the battle before the arrival of General Sheridan.)

“Buchanan Read's poetical description of Sheridan's ride from Winchester to the army on that day seems to have hidden the deeds of our grand corps commander, and deprived him of his just mede of praise. His own corps knew what he did and what they did, and gave him his just reward, by their admiration for the heroic part he performed at the battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864.”

After returning to the former location and again pitching his tent and setting up the desk of the A. A. General, the writer noticed a body lying unburied a little way off and went to see why it had been left unburied. A bullet had torn the scalp from the top of the man's head and from the wound his brains were oozing out, but he was lying absolutely still and breathing as regularly and quietly as an infant. Another visit in the morning and again in the afternoon disclosed no change in his condition except a weaker action of his lungs; but the next morning he was dead, and they buried his body.

General Gordon in describing the battle of Cedar Creek, says that when he arrived with his division in front of the 6th Corps he made preparation to attack it, but was restrained by General Early who assured him that the corps would soon retreat, and that he answered, “General, that is the 6th Corps, and it will not leave the field without a fight.” But [201] Early was certain of a complete victory already won, and did not want to lose any more of his men in what he considered unnecessary fighting. He exulted in the conviction that he had avenged his defeat of a month before at Winchester.

The cavalry pursued the retreating Rebels, followed and supported by the 19th Corps as far as Strasburg and Fisher's Hill. The cavalry pushed on to Edenburg keeping the Johnnies on a jump and gathering prisoners and spoils of war at every step.

This virtually ended the services of the 121st in the valley of the Shenandoah.

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