"The most momentous episode of my whole military career"
“The battle of Cedar Creek was by far the most momentous episode of my whole military career.”1
- Capt. Henry A. du Pont
Henry Algeron du Pont was a soldier, businessman and politician from New Castle County, Delaware, and a member of the famous Delaware du Pont family. Born July 30, 1838 near Greenville, Delaware, Henry attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1855, before graduating first in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point just after the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. One of his closest West Point classmates was Stephen D. Ramseur from North Carolina, who graduated in 1860. Du Pont described Ramseur as “a young man of strong character and great good sense, as well as a most excellent soldier” and remembered their relationship as “not only the strongest but the most enduring.”2 At the outbreak of the war, of course, du Pont and Ramseur remained loyal to their native states, little realizing they would eventually meet three years later in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Du Pont served as an artillery officer at various posts throughout the war, before being promoted to captain and being assigned to the Army of the Shenandoah, commanded by Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, in the fall of 1864. Du Pont would eventually receive a brevet promotion to major for gallant service at the battles of Third Winchester (September 19, 1864) and Fisher’s Hill (September 22, 1864). By early October he was serving as chief of artillery for the 8th Corps, commanding three batteries, totaling 16 cannon.
At the Battle of Cedar Creek, fought on October 19, 1864 the Union army was routed from its camps by a pre-dawn surprise attack. This assault first struck the army’s left wing, held by the 8th Corps and achieved complete surprise. Leading one of the Confederate divisions spearheading this assault was Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur.
Despite the fact that the 8th Corps’ entrenchments and camps were completely overrun, with many men being killed or captured in their tents, Captain du Pont managed to save two of his three batteries. Amid the confusion of battle, and a thick fog that blanketed the area, du Pont skillfully withdrew his cannons from a seemingly hopeless trap, and then used them to conduct a fighting retreat with the rest of the army.
By mid-morning, the Union army had re-grouped north of Middletown and began to prepare a counterattack. That counterattack came at 4:00 p.m., with Capt. du Pont’s batteries taking an active part in providing supporting fire to advancing Union infantry lines, and later, assisting in the pursuit of the retreating and demoralized Confederate army. Henry du Pont had been active the entire day, from the pre-dawn Confederate attack, until darkness covered the final withdrawal of the Confederate forces.
Du Pont later recounted that evening:
Night had now fallen and the battle was over…I was almost completely worn out mentally and physically…. I had not tasted food for more than twenty-four hours… [and] had been almost continuously in the saddle since the Confederates attacked us between 4:30 and 5:00 o’clock in the morning…. The only recourse was to seek food and shelter at the headquarters of my corps which were with Army Headquarters at the Belle Grove house. Upon arriving there, one of the first persons I met was General Torbert of Delaware, commander of our cavalry corps, who lost no time in telling me that General Ramseur was mortally wounded and lying in the house, which information so acutely shocked and distressed me that I forgot for the time my own necessities and hastened upstairs to see him.
Ramseur and I had been on terms of most friendly intimacy during the four years we served together at West Point, and although his own surgeon and adjutant-general were present, he turned to me in his suffering and never relinquished his grasp of my hand until the anesthetic given to relieve his agony had rendered him unconscious, which condition continued until the end came. My eventful day closed with this tragic incident….3
Ramseur, only 27, died the next morning, leaving his young wife a widow and his only daughter fatherless.
Years later Henry A. du Pont recounted the battle’s personal significance:
The battle of Cedar Creek was by far the most momentous episode of my whole military career. …it was my fortune to be most suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to act wholly upon my own responsibility as well as to make the instant decisions which…temporarily delayed the advance of [one] Confederate division but of the whole Confederate artillery at the very moment when both were most needed by the enemy. The time thus gained prevented the capture of a large number of officers and men….
I was only a few months over twenty-six at the time—an age which from my present viewpoint seems very youthful, but which I was far from considering as such in 1864. It was a great satisfaction to know that all the measures I had taken met with General Crook’s entire approbation….4
Maj. Gen. George Crook was the 8th Corps commander, who noted in his official report, “Captain Du Pont, chief of artillery, and the officers and men of his batteries are deserving of particular mention for their conspicuous gallantry and the valuable services rendered that day.”5
Thirty-four years later, in 1898, du Pont’s actions at Cedar Creek were officially recognized when he received the nation’s highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. The official citation reads:
By his distinguished gallantry, and voluntary exposure to the enemy's fire at a critical moment, when the Union line had been broken, encouraged his men to stand to their guns, checked the advance of the enemy, and brought off most of his pieces.6
Henry du Pont continued his military service until 1875, when he returned to Delaware, where he served as the president and general manager of the Wilmington & Northern Railroad Company from 1879 to 1899. Du Pont was also twice elected to the United States Senate (1906-1917).
Henry du Pont returned to Cedar Creek one last time to honor his old West Point classmate, Stephen Ramseur. On September 6, 1920 du Pont delivered the key-note address during the dedication ceremony to a monument erected in Ramseur’s memory. The monument is located at the end of Belle Grove lane, within sight of the house where the young general, husband and father had died. Du Pont described Ramseur as “a close friend of my youthful days” and “held him in most affectionate remembrance….” Du Pont also recalled their last meeting, almost 56 years before:
The room was absolutely still—Ramseur, clad in his major general’s uniform, lay on his back in the bed, eyes closed….Approaching the bed I said, “Ramseur, do you know me?” mentioning my name; he opened his eyes, in which I saw recognition and apparently a gleam of pleasure…. Speaking with the greatest effort he said to me: “Du Pont, you don’t know how I suffer,” and then relapsed into silence and closed his eyes—not, however, before extending his hand and firmly grasping and holding mine. I was deeply moved. Strange as it may seem—illogical, if you please, in that supreme moment he turned with content and satisfaction to the one person present who though officially a foe, was still, as he instinctively felt, the steadfast personal friend of former days!7
1 H. A. Du Pont, The Campaign of 1864 in the Valley of Virginia and the Expedition to Lynchburg (National Americana Society, New York, 1925)
2 H.A. Du Pont, Address of Col. H. A. du Pont, September 6, 1920 at the unveiling of the Monument erected to the memory of Major General Stephen D .Ramseur, on the Cedar Creek battlefield, near Middletown, Virginia, (Winterhur Museum, Greenville, Delaware, 1920).
3 H. A. Du Pont, The Campaign of 1864 in the Valley of Virginia and the Expedition to Lynchburg.
5 U.S. War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, 128 volumes (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1888-1901), Vol. 43, part 1, page 366.
6 Henry A. du Pont Medal of Honor Citation, National Archives, Washington, DC.
7 Du Pont, Address of Col. H. A. du Pont, September 6, 1920 at the unveiling of the Monument erected to the memory of Major General Stephen D .Ramseur, on the Cedar Creek battlefield.