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15. CEDAR CREEK (19 October 1864)

County: Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah

General Location: Along US 11, Cedar Creek to Middletown; Belle Grove is a focal point. CS march began from Fisher's Hill

Size of Study/Core Areas: 15,607/6,252 acres

GIS Integrity of Study/Core Areas: 89/89 percent; Good/Good

Field Assessment of Study Area Integrity: Fair

USGS Quadrants: Tom's Brook, Strasburg, Mountain Falls, Middletown

Select to view a Summary of 1991 LAND USE / LAND COVER

Campaign: Sheridan's Valley Campaign

Principal Commanders: [c] Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early; [u]Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright

Forces Engaged: [c] Five infantry divisions (Gordon, Wharton, Ramseur, Pegram, Kershaw), two cavalry divisions, about 15,265; [u] Three infantry corps (Wright, Emory, Crook), two cavalry divisions (Merritt and Custer), numbering 31,944.

Casualties: [c] 2,910 (320k/1,540w/1,050m); [u] 5,665 (644k/3,430w/1,591m)

Significance: The battle of Cedar Creek dealt the crushing blow to the Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley and, together with William T. Sherman's successes in the Atlanta Campaign, spurred the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln. The battle can be ranked in size and intensity with the battle of Opequon (Third Winchester) and both are included among the major battles of the Civil War. The Confederate surprise attack at Cedar Creek is considered one of the most daring and successful maneuvers of its kind and is studied by military theorists today. It was a feat ``unduplicated'' during the Civil War. General Sheridan's arrival on the field of battle to rally his broken troops passed into American verse and folklore as ``Sheridan's Ride,'' and offers a dramatic example of the effect of charismatic leadership. Rarely have the scales of victory and disaster swung to such extremes during battle: the morning's brilliant Confederate success was transformed into a Union victory by day's end.

Description of the Battle

Phase One. US Dispositions Behind Cedar Creek: The Union Army of the Shenandoah, about 32,000 men under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, encamped on the heights above Cedar Creek from near Middle Marsh Brook to south of the Valley Turnpike. On the night of October 18-19, General Sheridan was at Winchester, returning from a conference in Washington, D.C. In his absence, Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, commander of the VI Corps, was left in command of the army, his headquarters at Belle Grove, south of Middletown. The army comprised three infantry corps (Wright's VI, Maj. Gen. William Emory's XIX, and Brig. Gen. George Crook's Army of West Virginia), and a cavalry corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert. The VI Corps was on the far right of the Union infantry on the hills north of Meadow Brook. Torbert's cavalry (Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt's Division), encamped near Nieswander's Fort. Brig. Gen. George A. Custer's division covered the Back Road and the Cedar Creek crossings in the vicinity of Hite's Chapel. The XIX Corps occupied the bluffs above Cedar Creek, extending from Meadow Brook to the Valley Pike bridge. Crook's corps and an attached ``provisional'' division under Brig. Gen. John Howard Kitching were bivouacked south and east of the Valley Pike. The vast trains of the army were parked on level ground west of Belle Grove near the pike. Two of the three corps erected entrenchments. The Union left flank was considered protected by the North Fork Shenandoah River and the rough ground in front of the Massanutten and was lightly picketed by cavalry. Other elements of US cavalry covered Buckton Ford and the roads from Front Royal.

Phase Two. CS Approach and Preparations for Battle: On 17 October 1864, Maj. Gen. John Gordon and topographical engineer Jedediah Hotchkiss climbed to Signal Knob on the Massanutten to survey the Union position behind Cedar Creek. While there, they formulated a daring plan to turn the Union left flank, which Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early approved. After dark on 18 October, the plan was set in motion. Gordon's, Ramseur's, and Pegram's divisions, (Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia) under overall command of Gordon, marched from their entrenchments and crossed the North Fork east of Fisher's Hill. They followed a narrow path along the face of the Massanutten, often in single file, and along the Manassas Gap railroad to a spot opposite McInturff's and Colonel Bowman's fords. After surprising and capturing the pickets, the divisions recrossed the North Fork, passing north on a farm lane, past Col. Bowman's House ``Long Meadow,'' to the vicinity of the Cooley House, where they faced to the left to form a line of battle beyond the left flank of Crook's corps. Gordon's column was in position by 0400 hours.

In the meantime, Kershaw's and Wharton's divisions accompanied by the army's artillery, advanced down the pike, by Spangler's Mill and through Strasburg. Kershaw's column, accompanied by Gen. Early, diverged to the right on the road to Bowman's Mill Ford, where it prepared for the dawn attack. Wharton continued on the pike past the George Hupp House to Hupp's Hill, where he deployed. The CS artillery massed on the Valley Pike south of Strasburg to await developments at the front. In conjunction with these maneuvers, Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser's cavalry division advanced on the Back Road to Cupp's Ford. Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax's cavalry division was ordered to advance on the Front Royal-Winchester Road and then cross over to the Valley Pike in the vicinity of Newtown (Stephens City). Lomax did not advance as directed.

Phase Three. Surprise Attack on US Left Flank: Before dawn a heavy fog descended on the area. At precisely 0500, Kershaw's division fired a thunderous volley and rushed the entrenchments of Thoburn's division (Crook), overrunning them. Gordon's force began to advance and a few minutes later smashed into Brig. Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes' division (Crook) and Kitching's provisional division. Hayes' veterans attempted a stand which soon evaporated as Confederates closed in on both flanks of the disorganized units. Union soldiers, surprised in their camps, streamed rearward. At the sound of firing, Wharton's division advanced to the creek and deployed, awaiting further developments. The CS artillery raced to the front and opened fire on the XIX Corps from the heights overlooking Cedar Creek. A detachment of CS cavalry with Gordon attempted to reach Belle Grove, where they expected to capture Sheridan.

By 0530, mobs of stragglers from Crook's and Kitching's commands streamed west across the Valley Pike, confirming the scope of the disaster. Emory withdrew the units that covered the turnpike bridge and attempted to form a defensive line parallel with the pike. As he did so, Wharton's division crossed Cedar Creek at Stickley's Mill and rushed the heights, capturing 7 guns. Only desperate action enabled the rest of the US artillery to escape. Colonel Thomas Wilde's brigade (Crook's corps) went into line just east of the pike to contest the CS attack. General Wright directed their advance personally and was painfully wounded in the chin. A second US brigade under Col. Stephen Thomas (XIX Corps) advanced to high ground about 200 yards east of the pike and fired volley after volley into the fog, suffering heavy casualties. The stand of these brigades bought time for the Union trains parked near Belle Grove to escape to the north. The advanced US units were steadily driven back to Belle Grove. Crook's corps and Kitching's command were shattered and out of the fighting for the rest of the day.

Phase Four. VI Corps and XIX Corps Resistance: The VI Corps deployed to meet the approaching assault. While elements of the XIX Corps reorganized on Red Hill, Ricketts's Division (VI Corps) formed a line of battle anchored on Cedar Creek and fought an isolated battle against Kershaw's division which furiously attacked their line. Wheaton's Division (VI Corps) advanced to high ground in the fields north of Belle Grove Mansion, where they were assaulted by Gordon. The fog burned off and for the first time the opposing forces could see one another clearly. CS batteries were brought to bear against the US line. Kershaw assaulted repeatedly but was repulsed. Gradually, all US forces in the area withdrew and retreated northeast along Middle Marsh Brook.

Phase Five. Getty's Defense of Cemetery Hill: While fighting raged to his right, Maj. Gen. George Getty maneuvered his division (VI Corps) toward Middletown, seeking to extend the Union line to cover the Valley Pike. When US forces on the right began to withdraw, however, Getty established a defensive salient on Cemetery Hill, supported by artillery. General Early concentrated against Getty's position, launching disjointed attacks with elements of four different divisions which were successively repulsed with heavy casualties in the area near the Sperry House and the Ridings House. The CS artillery massed along the Valley Pike and concentrated a deadly fire on Cemetery Hill. After about an hour, Getty withdrew to join the rest of the army which was rallying, first along the Old Forge Road and then in a salient across the Valley Pike. Getty's stand broke the momentum of the CS assaults and enabled other US units to withdraw north of the cemetery to regroup.

In the meantime, Custer's division, after throwing back Rosser's feeble attempt to gain the US rear, joined Merritt on the far left of the Union line, east of the pike and north of Middletown. This concentration of cavalry threatened Early's right flank and forced him to redeploy heavy force in this area.

Phase Six. Sheridan Arrives/ US Army Regroups: About 1030, Sheridan arrived on the field after riding from Winchester. He established his command post near the Valley Pike (vicinity of the Dinges Farm) and began to reorganize his forces. The VI Corps was deployed on the left, adjacent to the Valley Pike, with the XIX Corps on the right. Crook's disorganized command was placed in reserve along the pike. In a dramatic moment, Sheridan rode along the front of the reestablished battle line. The men responded with a tremendous cheer. As skirmishing continued, Sheridan placed a cavalry division on each of his flanks, Merritt on the left and Custer on the right. About 1500, he prepared to launch a counterattack.

Phase Seven. CS Line Advances to Miller's Mill Road: After the US withdrawal from Cemetery Hill, Early advanced to occupy the hill and called a halt to regroup. He placed his divisions in a line about two and a half miles long, just north of Middletown, and pushed Ramseur and Kershaw forward to Miller's Mill Road. The CS divisions from left to right were: Gordon, Kershaw, Ramseur, Pegram, Wharton. As the afternoon wore on, skirmishing continued and several probes were made of the newly reestablished US line, but no serious fighting developed. Early appeared convinced that he had won the battle and that US forces would retreat after dark.

Phase Eight. Cavalry Maneuvers/Collapse of CS Left: About 1500 hours, Merritt advanced on the Union left, putting pressure on the CS right flank north of Middletown. Heavy US skirmish lines forced CS skirmishers back on their main line along the Miller's Mill Road and west. Custer maneuvered into position on the US right flank, confronting Gordon's men near Middle Marsh Brook. About 1530 Custer's division of cavalry and elements of the XIX Corps advanced against the CS left flank (Gordon and Kershaw), which was hanging in the air. Custer continued extending west beyond Middle Marsh Brook, thinning the CS line. He then launched a powerful attack that overran and scattered Gordon's division. The Confederate line now began to unravel from west to east, putting additional pressure on Ramseur's command at the center.

Phase Nine. Union Counterattack: At 1600 Sheridan ordered a general advance which led to fierce fighting along the front. Ramseur's division at the Confederate center near Miller's Mill bore the brunt of the attacks and repulsed several, in spite of the withdrawal of Kershaw and Gordon on his left. Fighting raged around the D. J. Miller House and mill until Ramseur fell mortally wounded. Then CS resistance in this area began to collapse. CS forces along the pike retreated hastily, although in fairly good order, up the Valley Pike toward the Union camps they had captured in the morning. Delaying actions fought by artillery and infantry units kept pursuing Union forces at bay. Merritt pressed forward with his division, pursuing closely as Confederates retreated across Cedar Creek.

Phase Ten. CS Retreat to Fisher's Hill: Custer's division advanced south along Middle Marsh Brook, gaining the rear of the Confederate army. As the CS rout continued, Custer crossed Cedar Creek at Hottel's Mill Ford and joined Merritt's division on Hupp's Hill at dusk about 1830. The cavalry advanced, pursuing the Confederates back along the Valley Pike. The bridge near Spangler's Mill collapsed causing Early to lose most of his artillery and many wagons. The cavalry pursuit continued after dark, ending at Fisher's Hill. The US cavalry captured 43 cannons, more than 200 wagons, and many prisoners. The Confederates lost at least ten battle flags, which symbolized the progressive disintegration of the army.

Current Condition of the Battlefield

In spite of the damage wrought by interstate highway construction, encroaching development in the vicinity of Middletown, and a large-scale quarry along Middle Marsh Brook, the integrity of Cedar Creek battlefield is high. The battlefield core is very large, extending from Hupp's Hill to rte. 633 north of Middletown, and from the North Fork Shenandoah to Middle Marsh Brook. The study area encompasses the initial Confederate position at Fisher's Hill.

Beginning with surviving entrenchments on Fisher's Hill, the line of Gordon's flank march can be traced along the base of Massanutten through a pristine natural landscape. The fords where Confederate infantry crossed the North Fork can be located and waded. The Col. Bowman and Cooley houses, which figured prominently in the Confederate deployment, are there and in good condition. Union entrenchments remain on Hupp's Hill and along Cedar Creek. Belle Grove (Sheridan's headquarters) is preserved by the National Trust. Two hundred-fifty-eight acres of the surrounding fields are held by the National Trust and the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation (CCBF). An additional 100 acres adjacent to Cedar Creek in the vicinity of Bowman's Fort has recently been donated to the National Trust/CCBF. Cedar Creek Battlefield is registered as a National Historic Landmark. The acreage included within the landmark boundaries fairly accurately reflects the size of the battlefield's core area. The CCBF is currently raising funds to renovate the historic Heater House.

The view from Getty's position on Cemetery Hill remains scenic in spite of new townhouse construction at the base of the hill. The Historic District of Middletown is a contributing resource. The D. J. Miller House and the McDaniel House, where Ramseur was mortally wounded, stand. Undisturbed fields to the north and east witnessed the counterattack directed by Sheridan late in the day, although new construction has begun that may impact upon this area. These and related parcels allow in-depth interpretation of the battle.

Perception of Threats to the Battlefield

In recent years, the pace of subdivision and new construction in the area has stepped up. An industrial/business park was built along US 11 south of Middletown (ironically, on the very ground labelled ``Cedar Creek Battlefield'' on the USGS quadrant). This industrial park currently consists of three large, but low- profile buildings, south of the Victorian house called Montvue. On this crest Confederate artillery massed against Cemetery Hill and General Early established his command post, during the battle. These buildings are visible from many parts of the battlefield. Construction northeast of Belle Grove along rte. 624 would tend to degrade the viewshed of the land preserved by the National Trust and CCBF. A modern house is currently under construction in this area.

The area between Cemetery Hill and Old Town Middletown has filled in with townhouses and apartments in the past few years. Residential development has also occurred and continues adjacent to the I-81 interchange (#77). New construction of several large homes on 3-5 acre lots began in early 1991 and is ongoing south of rte. 634 and west of the Miller-McDaniel Farm (ground has being recontoured). This area saw severe fighting in later phases of the battle. Of all residential construction, this new development is potentially the most damaging to battlefield integrity, because it establishes a foothold in the rural landscape west of town. Other construction has been more or less associated with the existing town. Lord Fairfax College and the new elementary school were built north of town, along US 11, on ground separating the two final battle lines of the armies and fought over by Wesley Merritt's cavalrymen and Gabriel Wharton's, John Pegram's, and William Wofford's infantrymen.

The quarries along Cedar Creek and Middle Marsh Brook are large- scale operations that are gradually working northeast along the valley. It appears that the quarry company owns land all the way to rte. 627 and possibly beyond. If continued north another half mile, this quarrying will eradicate the ruins of 18th-century Nieswander's Fort, site of Merritt's bivouac and George A. Custer's decisive flanking attack against John B. Gordon. The quarry works are visually intrusive from various parts of the battlefield.

The battlefield south of the junction of interstate highways I-66 and I-81 does not seem immediately in jeopardy because there is no interchange and access to the area is restricted to four county roads. This block of land retains very high rural/historic integrity and contains the Colonel Bowman and Cooley houses.

Identified Sites and Features Associated with the Battlefield


End Battle Summaries


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Creation Date: 3/10/95

Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC