The last major battle of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign took place at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. The full battle area extended from Fisher’s Hill south of Strasburg north to a point about three miles below Middletown. A few days earlier, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan established his lines along the high ground north of Cedar Creek where he placed his forces after devastating the Valley as far south as Staunton during “The Burning”. Sheridan and his men were confident that they had finished off Gen. Early and his Valley army. Union troops no longer feared any activity from Early’s command. As a result, once at Cedar Creek they focused more on rest and recuperation than they did on a possible renewal of the struggle. This attitude prevailed despite the fact that there had been a sharp cavalry engagement at Toms Brook on October 9 near Round Hill south of Strasburg.
But the Union command misjudged the aggressive Early who had been reinforced again with Kershaw’s division, offsetting his September losses. With renewed strength, Early then quickly pressed northward, spoiling for a fight. He set up on Fisher’s Hill and probed the federal positions for weak points. A sharp fight developed at Hupp’s Hill on October 13 as a result of one of these probes, signaling to the cautious Sheridan that Early was doing more than scouting. The federal forces were deployed in echelon from southeast to northwest, conforming to Cedar Creek’s flow. Gen. George Crook’s VIII Corps was east of the Valley Pike furthest south; its two divisions were almost a mile apart. The XIX Corps was just west of the Valley Pike, occupying strong positions along Cedar Creek where its trenches are still visible today. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps posted itself further north and west. Wright’s command had been recalled by Sheridan while en route to Washington after the Hupp’s Hill fight and had just gotten back in time to set up unfortified camps. On October 16 Sheridan went to a conference in Washington, leaving Gen. Wright in command. Wright placed the large cavalry corps to the west of the VI Corps’ camps.
Early thus seemed stymied by the strong federal positions. He was fast approaching the point where lack of supplies would force him to pull back when one of his division commanders, Gen. John B. Gordon, and his cartographer, Capt. Jedediah Hotchkiss, gave him a plan. The two men had climbed up to Signal Knob on the Massanutten Mountain where they had a full view of the Union positions. They noted the dispersal of the VIII Corps and the apparent reliance on the rough terrain along Cedar Creek and the Shenandoah River to secure its eastern flank. A local resident informed Gordon and Hotchkiss about a trail that infantry could use to cross the tongues of the Massanutten in order to reach fords on the Shenandoah. They could then get on to the Union flank east of the VIII Corps.
Using this information and their recommendations, Early approved a plan of great daring—a three-column, converging night attack with cavalry support on each flank. Gordon took his division along with Gen. Stephen Ramseur’s and Gen. John Pegram’s over the trail to McInturff’s and Bowman’s Fords on the Shenandoah. From there they hustled northward until Ramseur’s lead division reached the Cooley Mansion (just south of modern I-66). Once there all they had to do was stop, face west, and they were one- half mile east of Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes’ 2nd Division, VIII Corps. Meanwhile, Kershaw’s division moved from the Fisher’s Hill assembly area, down the Valley Pike and through Strasburg to Bowman’s Mill Ford across Cedar Creek. From there he confronted the other VIII Corps division led by Col. Joseph Thoburn. Confederate Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton’s division moved further north down the Pike to Hupp’s Hill from which it prepared to cross Cedar Creek at the Pike bridge when conditions allowed.
The Confederate approach was aided by moonlight and then an early morning fog. Kershaw’s men opened the fight as scheduled at 5 a.m., quickly shattering Thoburn’s division. A few minutes later, Gordon’s men smashed into Hayes’ division, forcing it westward into the confused XIX Corps. That body put up greater resistance especially around Belle Grove Mansion which served as corps and army headquarters. Finally, however, it was pressed westward through a line established by the VI Corps. The time bought by the VIII and XIX Corps had allowed the VI Corps to get well established on the high ground just west of Belle Grove. Each of its three divisions fought fiercely although all were slowly pressed back. Finally the VI Corps First and Third Divisions, and the remnants of the VIII and XIX Corps broke contact and moved northward, eventually setting up a line perpendicular to the Valley Pike about three- quarters of a mile north of the modern-day Lord Fairfax Community College.
The Second Division, VI Corps, held on alone in position around the Middletown Cemetery, just northwest of the village. For more than an hour the men resisted everything the Confederates could throw at them. The stand halted the Confederate momentum while buying time for the main federal force to reorganize. Gen. Early lost full vision of the battlefield and called a halt as he concentrated on this one division despite the entreaties of his senior commanders. The Second Division, VI Corps, was finally forced back to the new Union position. The Confederates then established a line westward from the north edge of town. Later, they advanced half a mile further north, waiting for the next Union move.
Finally around 4 p.m. the move came in a massive counterattack led by Gen. Sheridan. He had returned about 10:30 a.m. after a ride from Winchester soon made legendary by poet and artist. The fiery cavalryman quickly reestablished control and restored morale. Then he spent the afternoon carefully planning an assault on Early’s lines. His brilliant use of massed cavalry against the western part of Early’s line soon had the Confederates in a retreat that quickly degenerated into a rout. A bridge broke on the south side of Strasburg, forcing Early’s troops to abandon all their rolling stock and all that they had captured. The infantry survivors rallied at Fisher’s Hill and withdrew southward the next morning.
Gen. Early had succeeded in tying down a large Union force for several months, thus helping Lee’s force around Petersburg. However, at a moment of great opportunity he pulled back fatally. This allowed Sheridan to crush any major Confederate military presence in the Valley forever. The news of Sheridan’s triumph assured a Republican victory in the upcoming November elections and the prosecution of the war to its end on Lincoln’s and Grant’s terms.
About the Author:
Joseph W.A. Whitehorne is a retired United States Army officer who served as a staff historian in the United States and Europe. His last assignment was on staff of the Secretary of the Army. Since retiring in 1989 he has been professor of history at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia. He also serves as a historical consultant to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at James Madison University. The author or co-author of numerous articles and sixteen books he has received a number of awards including the Moncado Prize from the American Military History Institute. In 2005 the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation awarded Whitehorne the Carrington Williams Preservation Award.
This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, “Give the enemy no rest!”: Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Campaign.