“There burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army— hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others… utterly demoralized, …all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion, telling only too plainly that a disaster had occered at the front.”
U.S. Gen. Philip Sheridan, 1864
The Union victory at Cedar Creek had substantial military and political impacts.
The Beginning of the End
A series of battles fought in eastern Virginia during May and June 1864 resulted in massive Union casualties and stalemate before Richmond and Petersburg. With much of the North frustrated with Grant’s war efforts, Abraham Lincoln’s reelection prospects looked grim. Only after successes at Cedar Creek and in Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign did the situation improve.
Victory from the Jaws of Defeat
Cedar Creek was a turning point of the war. An extremely daring pre-dawn surprise Confederate attack routed the Union army. Feeling he had achieved a spectacular victory, General Early called a halt to reorganize around 10:30 a.m. Meanwhile, General Sheridan, riding from Winchester, was completely unaware of the disaster. Upon hearing the growing sounds of battle, however, he quickened his pace and rode hard to the field. Rallying his defeated forces, he then ordered a counterattack at 4:00 p.m. which swept the Confederates from the field. Sheridan’s timely arrival and charismatic leadership completely reversed the tide of battle.The Union victory ended further Confederate military resistance in the Valley. Combined with the capture in Atlanta, the Battle of Cedar Creek reignited optimism in the North and paved the way for Lincoln’s reelection three weeks later.
"A victory turned from disaster…"
Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan followed his victories in the Shenandoah Valley by laying waste to the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” In September and October of 1864, Sheridan and his 32,000-man Army of the Shenandoah destroyed a 75-mile swath of the Shenandoah Valley. Confident the campaign was over, Sheridan camped his army north of Cedar Creek, around Belle Grove Plantation near Middletown, before traveling to Washington, D.C. to confer with his superiors.
Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, commander of the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley, and his army— poorly equipped, ill-fed, and reduced to 14,000 or 15,000 men— posed little apparent threat. Desperate for a victory, Early and his commanders planned a daring assault on Sheridan’s soldiers encamped around Belle Grove Plantation. In the pre-dawn hours of October 19, after an all-night march and two river crossings along the base of the Massanutten Mountain, the Confederates came out of a dense fog to attack the Federal positions.
Early’s Confederates caught many Federal soldiers sleeping. Their onslaught overran the U.S. 8th Corps, then the 19th Corps, and pushed the Federals north of Belle Grove Plantation. The U.S. 6th Corps, with more warning, offered stiffer resistance— including a determined stand among the stones of the Middletown cemetery)— but by 10:30 a.m. the stunned Federal forces were in full retreat.
Early felt his troops had won a spectacular victory. He halted their advance just north of Middletown. The Confederates used the pause to secure their captured spoils, including 24 cannon and over 1,000 prisoners, and to solidify their positions. Exhaustion, and looting of the captured camps, lessened the strength of the already outnumbered Confederate army.
Sheridan rode from Winchester back to Middletown that same morning, unaware of the disaster befalling his army. Hearing the growing sounds of battle, he quickened his pace and rode hard to the battlefield. "Sheridan's Ride," later celebrated in art and poetry, forever cemented his status as a great American general. Sheridan rallied his defeated forces, then ordered a counterattack at 4:00 p.m. which swept the Confederates from the field. The Federals recaptured their lost artillery— with 24 Confederate cannons— and took more than 1,200 prisoners.
The Battle of Cedar Creek ended with 5,700 Federal and 2,900 Confederate casualties, making it the second bloodiest of the Shenandoah Valley campaigns.
The Federal victory shattered Early's army. Further Confederate resistance in the Valley ended. Coming just three weeks before the U.S. presidential election, news of the Battle of Cedar Creek gave sagging Northern morale a much needed boost and helped carry Abraham Lincoln to a landslide reelection.