previous next

Battle of Cedar Creek, Oct. 19, 1864. [from the Richmond, Va., times-dispatch, Nov. 6,18, 1904.]

An event that has not been told about as importance demands.

by Captain J. S. McNEILY, participant—his views.
Tactics employed by General Early and the results that followed. With Prefatory note by U. S. Senator, J. W. Daniel.

Editor of The Times-Dispatch:
Sir.—I enclose for ‘the Confederate Column’ an article on ‘The Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864,’ by Captain J. S. McNeily, of Vicksburg, Miss. This gentleman, who now edits the Vicksburg Herald, was a participant in that battle, and is much respected by those who know him. He is the son-in-law of Colonel Edmund Berkeley, formerly of the famous 8th Virginia Infantry, succeeding General Eppa Hunton in that honorable command. He has been a student of our battles and battlefields, and is full of a sense of justice, as well as of information and ability. I was not at Cedar Creek because disabled in a previous battle, but I have long believed from my knowledge of the pugnacity and energy of General Early, and of the great disparity of his forces to those of his opponent, that his critics were not appreciative of the companies that environed him-circumstances which ere long swept away all military resistance in Virginia. This review by Captain McNeily is conceived in the spirit of a true soldier who knows those facts and who shared in the event which he so ably analyzes. I will make no further comment at this time, save to say that the high character, intelligence and the experience of the author of the article gives it great weight.

Very respectfully,

No other engagement of equal magnitude and consequence during the war has been so scantily and misleadingly treated as Cedar [224] Creek, fought October 19, 1864. Federal chroniclers have slurred details out of which protruded this central fact: That their army of 30,000 men was forced from a strongly fortified position, leaving their camps and supplies and half their artillery in the hands of an attacking force of no more than half as many Confederates. There was little credit in turning and beating back such an enemy after being driven from successive positions and pursued for some miles. On the other hand, Confederate writers have dismissed Cedar Creek as a victory thrown away in a disgraceful panic. While the battle was all of this, it was more. Held inextricably in Grant's powerful coils in front of the Confederate capital, and realizing that unless he could break the state of siege final defeat was only a question of time, General Lee sent Early with every man he could spare to effect a diversion on Washington, up the Valley. It was an unpromising venture at best, as out of his abundance Grant easily spared an ample force to overwhelm Early. Such as it was the chance was made absolutely desperate after the defeat at Winchester and Fisher's Hill. But circumstanced as he was General Lee could not forego the bare possibility of extrication from a fatal position. Thus he wrote to Early September 27th: ‘I very much regret the reverses that have occurred, but trust they can be remedied. The return of Kershaw will add greatly to your strength. * * * One victory will put all things right. You must do all in your power. Manoeuvre to keep the enemy in check until you can strike with all your strength. * * * The enemy must be defeated and I rely upon you to do it. * * * We are obliged to fight against great odds.’

An earnest, brave, single-minded man, sent to an offensive campaign under such circumstances, and against such odds, should in his ensuing and almost inevitable adversities, have commanded the respect and sincere sympathy of all brave soldiers. Another vital incentive to take big risks was, that it was just before the presidential election, and the most was to be expected from a victory that would be a menace to Washington. Such were the compelling influences that caused Early to assail Sheridan at Cedar Creek. He literally staked his all on the cost of a die. He failed and paid the penalty—from that day until his death he carried the load of defeat, charged up by the unthinking and the personally hostile to his incapacity. And many years after his death one of his subornates has sought to destroy his reputation and merit in history. I allude, of course, to the Reminiscences of the War, by General Gordon. [225] This book has been commended through the Confederate

Veteran as ‘the most important record for the student of correct history of the battle of Cedar Creek.’ Stated concisely, the argument of this ‘record’ is that Early lost this battle, and by not following Gordon's advice. I would be untrue to convictions derived from witnessing that calamitous field, confirmed by reading all that the record contains of it, if I did not challenge the statement that General Gordon's Reminiscenses is ‘correct history’ of Cedar Creek. I can but wish that the task had been taken up by some one better qualified by station and ability to give weight to the truth of which I testify; concerning a battle that General Gordon states ‘no other save Gettysburg has provoked such conflicting and varied comment.’

Any account of Cedar Creek calls for a statement of numbers of the two forces. Here there is no little conflict. Figures have probably been handled in partizan spirit by both sides. But the record affords all the data requisite for approximate accuracy, which is my aim. The statement of the Union strength has been carefully, and presumably faithfully, compiled in Livermore's Civil War Numbers and Losses, and it is here quoted:

Sixth and 19th Corps ‘effectives,’20,400
Eighth Corps,4,589
Kitching's Division,1,200
Total infantry and artillery,26,189
Deduct regulars detached,3,080
Deduct losses October 13th,209
Actual infantry and artillery22,900
Effective cavalry,7,929
Total all,30,829

For palpable error Livermore's Confederate table is rejected, and the following is taken from the record:

Early's effective infantry and artillery, September 30th return, 6,291. From this Gordon's Division is omitted. Its September 10th return was 2,961. Deduct Winchester and Fisher's Hill [226] losses, 505, leaving for Gordon's Division at Cedar Creek, 2,405. For Kershaw's Division there is no September report. Returns August 30th, 3,445. Losses: Humphrey's Brigade, at Berryville, Septembr 3d, 148; Bryan, 30; Connor, October 13th, at Cedar Creek Crossing, 182. These deducted leave for Kershaw 3,085. Early's total infantry and artillery at Cedar Creek, 12,780. Early's cavalry, two divisions under Lomax and Rosser, is not enumerated in the record. Battles and Leaders gives it at 2,900; or a total of 15,680. But such was the condition of our cavalry that it was almost a negligible quantity, and Lomax, with the largest division, never got under fire.

Judgment is claimed against General Early on the ground that he should have made his advance continuous, after the morning victory. The claim is founded upon the contention that this was feasible and was caused to halt by General Early. I maintain that such assumption is not warranted by facts. After planning and ordering the assault General Early committed it to the division commanders. It was especially entrusted to Generals Gordon and Kershaw, who led their commands upon separate points, for simultaneous assault, and acted, for the time, independently of each other and General Early; who, after seeing Kershaw's assault launched, posted himself with Wharton's division and the artillery at the pike crossing, until it should be uncovered by Kershaw. Conducted by his division commanders the attack on the Federal left, Crook's Eighth corps, was brilliantly successful. It was so continued until the advance halted itself, for cause, to-wit: It spent its force, and encountered a vastly superior array of the enemy in a strong defensive position. Still, at this juncture, General Early, by his report did order a further advance, by Gordon and Kershaw; which being considered impracticable by them was not made. Then, he states, he did not deem it prudent to press further, and, therefore, determined to be content with trying to hold the advantages gained. Receipt of such order has been denied. But admitting this, what does it matter? If continuous advance was not impracticable, why did it halt? Why did not these division commanders make it continuous, while it was in their hands? No actual order to halt them has been specified. It cannot be contended that any order to advance continuously was necessary. Continuous advance as long as practicable was covered in the original order of attack.

It is true that General Gordon's ‘War Reminiscences’ says ‘orders from headquarters put an end in the early morning to concentration [227] and energy of pursuit.’ There is not only no mention of such early morning orders in the reports, but General Gordon's memory is in conflct with all the record of the facts. The reports from Kershaw's and Ramseur's Divisions narrate how every man was ‘concentrated’ on the front, and all possible energy of pursuit was had until the halt toward noon. Pegram and Wofford were likewise engaged. From personal experence of a neverto-be-forgotten kind, I can say that no such orders reached Humphreys' Brigade skirmish line, which, closely supported by the battle line, pushed ahead as well as it could, and constantly under fire from ‘early morn’ to high noon.

It is on such crude yet positive statements that General Gordon seeks to establish that it was ‘only the marvelous intervention of the Confederate commander saved the doomed 6th Corps, nothing else could have, had the arrangement for its destruction been carried out. It was at that hour largely outnumbered.’ In this battle the 6th Corps numbered quite 1,000 men. On the next page to the above quotations, Gordon's ‘War Reminiscences’ states ‘Early's army was scarcely 12,000 strong.’ Certainly there was no disparity between these numbers ensuring the ‘destruction’ of the less. To further understand why the imperturbable and long headed Early was not carried away by his enthusiastic subordinate's talk of ‘concentrating and destroying the 6th Corps,’ he knew Sheridan's mounted force of 7,000 men was to be reckoned with. He had not forgotten how his army had fled before this same powerful contingent at Winchester and Fisher's Hill. And that it was then menacing his right with a like overthrow. What General Early said to his chief of engineers, Captain Jed Hotchkiss, as he was setting out for Richmond, is used by General Gordon to sustain his attack upon his commander. This was that the captain ‘was not to tell General Lee we should have advanced in the morning at Middletown, for we should have done so.’ While construed as a confession of personal culpability, read in connection with Early's official report, it mean's complaint against others—perhaps against General Gordon, for moving his division to the left, when he expected it to hold by the right.

General Early's report says ‘punctually at 5 A. M. Kershaw reached the enemy's left work and attacked. * * * Very shortly after, Gordon attacked the rear.’ As this order of events has been questioned, to the effect that Gordon attacked first, I will say that my memory is distinct, that the daybreak stillness was unbroken [228] until the firing of Bryan's Georgia brigade of Kershaw's division. Having formed on the creek bank undercover of darkness, at the first sign of dawn it dashed across, overran the Federal picketts, and rushed Crook's surprised men out of their works. Bryan's brigade was commanded by Colonel James P. Simms, and it here performed one of the most daring acts of the war. It was supported by the other brigades of the division. The Federal division at this point was commanded by Colonel Thoburn, who was killed. The report of his successor reads:

The division having been aroused by the firing on the pickett line* *was quickly formed behind the works. * * * The action here was sharp and brief. * * * But so heavy and impetuous was the enemy's advance that the retreat of the first and third brigades was soon converted into a confused rout. * * * I at once hastened towards the headquarters of Colonel Thoburn, commanding division to suggest that he get a line formed by the forces to our rear.

* * * But before the proposed arrangement could be effected, the forces on their left were being assailed.

Crook's line, with the right resting on the Shenandoah across which Gordon came and attacked his extreme left, or rear, as stated in the quoted report, after the works on the creek, where Kershaw struck, were forced.

By the sheer audacity of his brilliantly conceived and skillfully planned attack, the Confederate commander (General Early) surprised and stampeded the 8th Federal Corps, and placed himself on the flank and rear of Sheridan's position. This compelled the quick abandonment by the enemy of their camps and much artillery. It has been quite commonly assumed by Confederate writers that the rout embraced the 19th Corps, Sheridan's centre. Some even include the 6th Corps. This view is given color by Sheridan's report, which it well suits General Gordon's argument to quote. It is enough to say that it has been bitterly assailed by some of his subordinates, for exaggerating the desperation of the situation when he came on the field, that he might receive the more personal credit for saving the day. His picture of the rout and confusion is shown to be highly discolored by all the other Federal reports. Says General Emory, commander of the 19th Corps:

‘At early dawn my whole command was under arms, * * * when I heard firing to the left. Guided by the firing I ordered the 2d Brigade to cross the pike to support General Crook. * * * It soon became fiercely engaged. * * * It was impossible to [229] make a permanent stand in consequence of the steady flanking by the enemy's right. I therefore ordered my command to establish a new line of resistance. About 1 o'clock I received information that the enemy were advancing on me in force. Within an hour they charged my line * * but were promptly driven back, this being, as I believe, the first permanent repulse they received during the day. General McMillan, commanding the 1st Division of this corps, says of the attack on it in the morning: “The 2d Brigade was soon driven by overwhelming force, but not until completely flanked and nearly a third were killed, wounded or captured. The 1st Brigade held their position as long as it was necessary, when they fell back in good order, * * fighting all the way to a line in continuation of the line of the 6th Corps. * * While I was constantly driven back, I do not believe my command was at any time whipped, in its own opinion, or unwilling to turn and attack the enemy.” General Birge, commanding the other division of the 19th Corps, after the wounding of General Grover, says of the morning attack: “Pressed by an overwhelming force, and having already lost very heavily, our line was forced back, retiring in good order. * * From the positions taken by the brigades as described above, they gradually retired, making stands at three different points until an advance was ordered. Every brigade kept its organization during the day, and with few exceptions the behavior of officers and men was all that could be asked for.” ’

The Sixth Corps remote from the. Early morning attack.

The Sixth corps, the largest, formed Sheridan's right, and was remote from the force on which Early's daylight blow so crushingly fell. General Wright, until Sheridan came, the commander-in-chief, says in his report: ‘The proceedings to this point were bad enough for us, as it gave the enemy, almost without a struggle, the centre left of our line with considerable artillery, not a gun of which had fired a shot. But the reserve of this line * * * was in no way involved in the disaster of the first line, which was, after all, but a small part of our whole force, being only one weak division, and its loss was in no wise to be taken as deciding the fate of the day.’ General Getty, commanding the Second division of the Sixth corps, thus tells how it was moved on the line of resistance:

“Obliquing to the right to gain the pike, the division retired in perfect order, marching slowly and making several halts to a position about a mile north of Middletown.” Says Geifer, commanding [230] Third Division, Sixth corps: ‘My line was at no time driven from any position, but was withdrawn from one position to another under orders.’ There is no report from the other division of the corps, but the brigade reports show the same general facts as the other two.

These reports, it will be perceived, wholly disprove certain critic views of the condition of the Union forces, the extent of the disorder and dismay that prevailed after the rout of Crook's corps, and with this disproof of the continuous advance theory, on which has been founded the impeachment of the brave and capable though unlucky and unpopular General Early, sustains a puncture. The exaggerated idea which the record dispels was not altogether unnatural the morning of the battle. The din and dust raised by the wild flight down the pike by Crook's command, swelled by the camp followers and transportation of the Nineteenth corps, the sight of the abandoned camps and much artillery, by all of the infantry, did look like the whole of Sheridan's army was in it.

General Early was misled into stating in his report that Kershaw and Gordon swept everything before them, routing the Eighth and Nineteenth corps. Part only of the Nineteenth was routed. Extrication from a very awkward position compelled the rapid rearward shifting of the Sixth and Nineteenth corps to get round Early's centre and in front of his right. This movement, performed under constant pressure of attack, enforcing a quick abandonment of successive lines of battle formed to beat off our advance, presented an appearance of rout which it was not.

How Appearances Deceived General Gordon.

The appearance was especially calculated to deceive General Gordon. Having transferred his command from the right to the extreme left of our advance, the sequential retrogressions, while bringing on contact and collision with Kershaw and Ramseur, were quite away from Gordon. He thus failed to perceive the extent of his resistance to our advance, in front of the center and right. To make this clear, the report of Ramseur's Division, by General Grimes, is here quoted from: ‘Grimes' Brigade, ordered forward, charged most gallantly, but being greatly overlapped on both flanks, was forced to fall back. Smith's Brigade of Wharton's Division charged the same wooded hill, but was likewise repulsed.’ Wofford, of Kershaw, was then sent to help make the ‘advance continuous’ on our right. But, after it came up, this report reads, [231] ‘it was not thought advisable to move it against this strong position. * * * The infantry remained quiet until by a concentrated fire of the artillery the 6th Corps was dislodged. * * The division was reformed and rested upwards of an hour. * * * The enemy had again made a stand about three-quarters of a mile in advance. * * * Here again we halted perhaps for an hour.’ These affairs and halts, unordered by Early, tell why our ‘advance’ was not ‘continuous.’ The experience of the brigade of Kershaw—Humphrey's—connecting with Ramseur, is remembered by the writer as similar to this. After the rout of Crook on the east of the pike, about 7 A. M., Kershaw led his division across it to assail the 19th Corps. This brought on a serious fight, in which the Mississippi brigade was repulsed. The other brigades of the division, except Wofford, coming in on our left, the enemy was forced to withdraw. We followed up with halting and fighting, much as told in General Grimes' report of Ramseur's division, which he commanded after that officer fell.

What the casualty lists indicate.

The casualty lists of the Confederates are very imperfect, but enough is given, with the Federal losses, to dispel the idea that our advance was unresisted. Of Early's corps proper the losses are given for only one brigade—Grimes' (North Carolina) of Ramseur's division. It lost 119 men killed and wounded. Three brigades of Kershaw's division sustained losses as follows: Connor's (South Carolina), killed and wounded, 185, missing, 205; Simms' (Georgia), ‘about 200 killed and wounded.’ This probably includes the ‘missing.’ Humphrey's, 117 killed and wounded, 67 missing; most of the missing were killed or wounded. The brigades were all small. Connor had about 1,250 officers and men in line; Simms about 600, and Humphreys about 500. It will be readily seen that their casualties, while not extraordinarily heavy for Confederate troops, do not sustain the character of the advance as pictured in Gordon's war reminiscences. They were mostly sustained before the evening fight and rout. The casualties of the Union troops tell with even greater emphasis that they were in a fight as well as a foot race. The Sixth corps lost 2,26; the Nineteenth, 2,368; the Eighth, 960; cavalry, 196—total, 5,665; of which over 4,000 were killed and wounded. The Nineteenth corps losses were practically all sustained in the morning, when assailed by Kershaw.


The Gap in the Confederate line.

Such losses go far to sustain the conviction that considering the disparity of numbers, barring the evening rout for which he was not responsible, Early got all out of the battle that was possible. Of the Confederate break up in the afternoon, Gordon's ‘War Reminiscences’ reads: ‘There was a large gap between my right and the main Confederate line. One after another of my staff was directed to ride with all speed to General Early and apprise him of the hazardous situation. Receiving no satisfactory answer, I myself finally rode to headquarters to urge that he re-enforce the left and fill the gap. . . or else that he concentrate his entire force for desperate defense or immediate withdrawal. He instructed me to stretch out the already weak line and take a battery to the left. I rode back at a furious gallop to execute these most unpromising measures. It was too late. The last chance had passed of saving the army from its doom. I reached my command only in time to find the initial columns of Sheridan rushing through the gap.’ As our whole force was on the front, and every inch of the line menaced, where could Early have drawn re-enforcements from? The center had already been attenuated by detaching Wofford's brigade to the right. And how could ‘concentration or withdrawal’ have been effected in the open country, in the presence of such a cavalry? There was nothing to be done but to fight where we stood. At the very time General Gordon rode to Early to ask help for the left, our right and center were fighting for life. The break up of the line reached Kershaw and Ramseur shortly after they had inflicted a decided and bloody repulse on the enemy's attack — an attack that may not have succeeded had it been met with equal resolute spirit on the left. Where the Mississippi brigade stood, the fighting was at close quarters, and on the field in our front the dead and wounded lay thick. Connor's South Carolina brigade was on our left, and the report of its commander, Major James M. Goggin, reads:

‘Soon after this the enemy made an attack on Humphrey's which was met by such a heavy fire, so coolly delivered by that brigade and the right of my own, that the enemy were checked and driven back. A repetition of the attack met with a like result, and the firing ceased along the whole line.’


The Federal Cavalry and the panic in Gordon's Division.

The fact is Sheridan's attempt to win back the day was beaten by this repulse in the centre; by Kershaw and Ramseur. It was only revived by the panic that originated on our (Gordon's) left. How that occurred is thus told in General Custer's report:

‘About II A. M. I was directed to transfer my command again to the right flank and take charge of affairs. . . There being no connection between the left of the enemy and Rosser's cavalry, I succeeded in moving a portion of my command to a position almost in rear of the enemy. . . . I caused my battery to open and at the same time charged with three regiments. The effect was surprising. . . It was apparent that the wavering in the enemy s ranks betokened a retreat, and that retreat might be converted into a rout. . . .Seeing so large a cavalry force bearing rapidly down upon an unprotected flank, and their line of retreat in danger of being intercepted, the line of the enemy, already broken, now gave way in the utmost confusion.’

While the demoralized rout that ensued has commonly been stigmatized as disgraceful, after the left was put to flight nothing but a rapid movement behind Cedar creek, or to the river, saved the whole army from the possibility of capture. And matters would have been much worse but for the splendid service of the artillery, commanded by Colonel Thomas H. Carter, which held the pursuing cavalry in check. The retreat was communicated to Humphrey's Brigade in a very difficult situation. For strength of position it had been projected somewhat beyond the general line, behind a projecting stone fence. And on the first motion of withdrawal the force we had beaten came on us and Ramseur's left with a rush. As soon as we got on fighting ground the men were rallied. Here the resistance was spirited. But the misfortune of the fatal day culminated in the death of our brigade-commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John H. Sims, of the 21st Mississippi. A man of daring spirit and coolest courage, possessed of a personal dominance that swayed all around him; after his fall the brigade was resolved into the general rout.

The great Cavalry force of Sheridan the obstacle to our continuous advance.

The fatal obstacle to the ‘continuous advance’ theory was Sheridan's mounted force. In the face of the experience of its prowess [234] at Winchester a month before, it is treated by Early's Cedar Creek censors as a negligible quantity. It really decided the day that begun in triumph and ended in gloom. It embraced about 7,000 men, equipped with horses and arms of the best. In numbers our cavalry was no more than a half, and was made inefficient and timid by poor mounts and frequent defeat fighting against vast odds. In his report of a previous engagement Major-General Lomax says:

‘I lost four pieces of artillery on account of the miserable condition of the horses. . . . I will state that this division has been wanting in organization, in discipline, in arms. It is composed of good material.’

In his report of this affair General Early said: ‘The enemy's cavalry is so superior to ours in numbers and equipment that it is impossible for ours to compete with his; . . . besides, the command is demoralized. It would be better if they could be put into infantry. But if that were tried I am afraid they would all run off.’

To show the strength and importance of the Union cavalry on this field, I will quote from Annals of the War, an account by Major Nettleton, of the Second Ohio cavalry:

‘The divisions of Merritt and Custer, aggregating nearly 8,000 of the finest mounted troops in the world, were on the right of the infantry. . . . It was no longer a matter of indifference where 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. With their Spencer repeating carbines, their experience in transferring themselves into foot soldiers, Sheridan's mounted force was at once the eye and the right arm of his fighting column. . . . “Custer, advance to the centre,” was the laconic command from General Wright. And as the sun was rising four thousand troopers, with accompanying batteries, marched into the fight.’

Both Custer and Merritt were marched from Sheridan's right and interposed across the advance of Early's right. Says General Merritt's report:

‘About 10 o'clock the First division was moved to the left and disposed so as to cover the Valley pike and the country to the left.’

Custer's report reads:

‘An order received to move all my command except three regiments to the extreme left.’


Lomaxs Cavalry Division about; and Custer's and Merritt's divisions present advance.

Such a force drawn across its front seems a perfect answer in itself to the question ‘should Early's advance have been continuous?’ It is brushed aside in his book of War Reminiscences, by General Gordon, in the following:

‘The brave and steady 6th Corps could not possibly have escaped had the proposed concentration and assault upon it been permitted. . . . In thirty minutes the yelling Confederate infantry would have been rushing relentlessly on its flanks, front and rear. We halted, we hesitated, we dallied, we waited, for what? It is claimed by the confederate commander that we were threatened with cavalry on our right, whereas General Lomax was on that flank.’

This passage is transparently extravagant. Under any circumstances foot soldiers can, in an open country, withdraw and ‘escape’ from foot soldiers. As to Lomax's cavalry, it was miles away, on the Front Royal-Wincester pike, and engaged with another Federal cavalry division. It was designed for him to effect connection with the right, but he never got up. In his report he states he ‘was unable to communicate with General Early through the day. I endeavored to strike the pike at Middletown, but found it occupied by the enemy.’ This was after our rout had set in. The only cavalry ‘on that flank’ was Payne's Brigade, 300 strong.

Of the movement and the use of the Union cavalry Gordon's War Reminiscences says:

‘The Union cavalry was sent back to Sheridan's left, when it was discovered there was no danger of serious assault by Early.’

The two cavalry divisions were shifted from one of the Union flanks to the other to check Early's right, on which his whole advance pivoted. Everything depended on our right—so long as it advanced, Sheridan's base was menaced and his retreat forced. To show this was so, I quote Custer's report more fully:

‘An order was received to move to the extreme left and arrest the enemy at that point, where he had turned our flank and was driving our line before him with every prospect of obtaining possession of the pike to Winchester. But for the cavalry the enemy would have penetrated to the rear of the army.’ [236]

I will now quote from the report of General Merritt, who commanded Sheridan's other cavalry division, and who secured position in front of Early's right at 10 A. M.:

‘Orders were sent to every brigade to press the enemy warmly. Never did men fight better. The line advanced nearly to Middletown. This advance was intended more as an offensive defense. The enemy withdrew from the open country. Sheltered by the woods and houses in our front, Kershaw (Wofford's Brigade) and Pegram continued a sharp skirmish, varied by attacks on both sides.’

Here we read a complete explanation of why Early's advance halted. The centre, which had its own troubles besides, could not go forward with the right-checked by Sheridan's 7,000 mounted men-halted. And it was when it had been halted, and a division of the 6th Corps had joined the cavalry, that Custer's division—not the whole cavalry force, as stated by General Gordon—was ‘sent back to Sheridan's right.’

The mistake of General Gordon in moving his Division to the left of the line.

I will record here an opinion: That had General Gordon not shifted his division from our pivotal right, the point of effecting ‘concentration,’ where was most needed the momentum of his splendid ‘firing line’ presence, it might never have fallen to his lot to deplore the morning halt in Early's advance; and certainly no evening rout. His attack on his commander must not be permitted to divert attention from General Gordon's morning mistake, and its influence upon his evening mishap. ‘I am confident the services of the cavalry on the left flank cannot be overestimated.’ It was this check, duly given, that enabled Sheridan to form his ranks for the evening assault and victory.

‘There is the man entitled to your cheers.’

The attempted conviction of General Early for the Cedar Creek disaster, which is so unfairly and strenuously argued in Gordon's War Reminiscences, is a renewal of attacks that appeared in Richmond papers of the period. Gordon was taxed by Early with instigating them, and they quareled. The controversy was camp talk, intensified, as it was, by an order read to the regiments in which General Early bitterly reproached them for the loss of the [237] victory by misconduct. In his report it is charged that ‘so many of our men had stopped in the camp to plunder, in which I am sorry to say that officers participated.’ In the order referred to, which may be found in the old Richmond files of newspapers, he was much more severe. In it he said, as recalled in substance by memory, that ‘the general officer who details a guard over a captured sutler's wagon is as guilty as the private who plunders a knapsack.’ This reference applied to a certain case reported by the officer of the quartermaster's department who was ordered to bring off the captured wagons, supplies, etc., which was well calculated to anger General Early. But I am sure that he was mistaken as to the plundering. This did not go to the extent of materially weakening the battle line. As to Kershaw's division, I speak from knowledge. Moving to the attack on the Nineteenth corps after the rout of Crook, its line of battle swept through the deserted camps, abounding in all that our soldiers lacked, without a man leaving ranks. General Early spoke in heat, and much allowance is due him. His brilliant victory had been thrown away, and his reputation ruined by the panic of the evening.

Covered as he was with the cloud of defeat, a popular hue and cry was raised against General Early which resulted in his loss of popular confidence. But among the officers and soldiers of Cedar Creek there was a strong feeling that fate had dealt most unjustly with him. This was my belief then, and it has been changed to positive conviction by reading the reports of the record. It was, certainly, the common opinion among the officers and men of Kershaw's division, which had its full share of the fighting. The 21st Mississippi, to which I belonged, suffered more heavily than any. Of one hundred, rank and file, seventeen were buried on the field, thirty-four wounded and nineteen missing. Few, if any, of our command considered Early culpably responsible for the defeat. After the close of the fighting in the morning, he rode across our brigade front with Kershaw, our gallant and trusted division commander. In the cheering with which they were greeted, Kershaw's name was called. Drawing rein and turning to the line, he pointed to Early and said: ‘There is the man entitled to your cheers.’ For fair and dispassionate judgment of Cedar Creek, testimony from Kershaw's division possesses peculiar value. It did not belong to the 2d Corps, but was sent from Richmond as a reinforcement in the Valley operations. After a month's stay, it was ordered back. But, overtaken at Culpeper by news of the Winchester defeat, it [238] was returned again to the Valley On rejoining Early, Kershaw's men were impressed by the loss of confidence in him among his troops. This seemed as severe and unreasoning as the demoralization incident to it was surprising and unprecedented in the Army of Northern Virginia. But it did not infect Kershaw's division.

General Lee's high estimate of General Early.

That General Early's unpopularity and loss of confidence was due to repellant manner and the foment of personal ill-will, more than military mistakes or lack of capacity, there can be no doubt. In the month between his Winchester and Cedar Creek defeats opposition to him took shape in an effort for his displacement from command of the Valley forces. This was urged upon General Lee through Governor Smith, who had commanded a brigade in Early's division. The correspondence between them appears at page 893, el seq., Part II, Vol. XLIII, Rebellion Records. The Governor bases his request for Early's removal from command of the Valley army on ‘a letter from an officer who has my entire confidence.’ The following is quoted from the letter:

General Early's appearance along the line of march excites no pleasure, much less enthusiasm and cheers. No salute is given. He is not greeted at all by private or officer, but is allowed to pass, neither receiving or taking notice. The army once believed him a safe commander and felt they could trust to his caution, but unfortunately this has proved a delusion and they cannot, do not, and will not, give him their confidence. He was surprised at Winchester. He did not expect a general engagement that day. This destroyed the confidence in him, and Fisher's Hill was the terrible sequence.’

General Lee replied, asking the name of the officer quoted-that justice to General Early required that he should be informed of the accusations against him, and the name of his accuser. This, in a second letter, Governor Smith stated he did not feel at liberty to furnish. But he resumed the request for a change of commanders and rehearsed the charges on which the request was based at much length. In General Lee's response he defended General Early with vigor. Of his conduct at Winchester he said: ‘General Breckenridge, who was present on that occasion, informed me that, in his opinion, the dispositions made by General Early to resist the enemy were judicious and successful until rendered abortive by a misfortune which he could not prevent, and which might have befallen any other commander. He also spoke in high terms of General [239] Early's capacity and energy as displayed in the campaign while General Breckenridge was with him.’ As General Breckenridge had been urged by Governor Smith as Early's successor, this excerpt very naturally ended the correspondence. And there is every reason to believe that General Lee went to his grave with his estimate of General Early unchanged. The following is taken from President Davis's endorsement on the correspondence between Governor Smith and General Lee:

‘With less opportunity to learn all the facts than General Lee possessed, I had reached the conclusion which he expresses. With the knowledge acquired after events, it is usually easy to point out modes which would have been better than those adopted. . . . A gallant officer who was with General Early in all his movements until the battle of Winchester, in which he was wounded, has given me a very favorable account of his conduct as a commander, and certainly differs very decidedly from the correspondent of the Governor as to the estimate in which General Early is held by the troops of his command.’

Any calm review of Cedar Creek, of the attack from a force of Confederate infantry upon a strongly fortified position held by near twice their number, supported by a cavalry more than double our cavalry, will rather condemn General Early for not having halted his advance sooner, than for failure in effort to make it continuous.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: