On September 12, 1864, five weeks after appointing Gen. Philip Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah, a frustrated President Lincoln wrote to Gen Ulysses S. Grant, "Sheridan and Early are facing each other at a dead lock. Could we not… [reinforce Sheridan to] enable him to make a strike?"
Low Morale in the North
Northern morale flagged in 1864 as the war dragged on. Although Gen. Sherman's capture of Atlanta on September 2nd was a much-needed boost, the constant threat posed by Gen. Jubal Early's forces in the Shenandoah Valley continued to drain confidence in the war effort. By late October, however, the Shenandoah Valley would be firmly in Federal control and its rich resources lain waste. These results were brought about by the 1864 Fall Shenandoah Valley Campaign and had direct political implications that fall.
Lack of Progress in the Valley
Lincoln's impatience and Sheridan's lack of progress, in mid-September, were understandable. Sheridan's caution resulted from the final directive he received from Grant; avoid another Federal defeat in the Valley. The scene of unending military setbacks, the Shenandoah had become the "Valley of Humiliation." With the presidential election looming in early November, another disaster in the Valley would be devastating. Sheridan later wrote, “in consequence of the instructions of General Grant, I deemed it necessary to be very cautious..." For Lincoln's part, having witnessed a parade of military ineptitude in the Valley throughout the war, it is little wonder he felt Sheridan was repeating the same pattern.
Reversals & Cedar Creek
With his decisive victories at Third Winchester, Fisher's Hill, and Tom's Brook, however, along with "The Burning," Sheridan had put Lincoln's fears to rest. The campaign seemed over. And then came Cedar Creek.
An audacious pre-dawn surprise attack by Early routed Sheridan's army, seemingly beyond repair. It was a stunning reversal, felt throughout US Army ranks. One Northern soldier later described his despair that morning:
"… the Army of the Shenandoah… was in danger of annihilation… humiliated by an undeniable defeat... Gloomily our men tramped across the fields, depressed in spirits... They feared that their former victories had all been rendered profitless by this one miserable defeat. They reflected what a crushing weight the news of this battle must fall upon the North, and they trembled for the Federal cause."
The Federal war effort was in jeopardy, something Sheridan clearly understood. He later described his first sight of his army upon completing his famous "Ride" that morning:
"… there burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army—hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others unhurt but badly demoralized… all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion, telling only to plainly that a disaster had occurred at the front."
Rejecting suggestions to order a full-scale retreat, Sheridan realized any type of withdrawal would be, by all appearances, a defeat. Thus the Federal counterattack came, and with it a total reversal of fortune, both on the battlefield and home front.
Within weeks an epic poem by Thomas Buchanan Reed, "Sheridan's Ride," was published, extolling Sheridan's inspirational leadership. Immensely popular, the Republican Party used it as a campaign tool to remind voters that tide of the war had changed. "Sheridan's Ride" even appeared on the front page of the New York Tribune on Election Day in an attempt to sway voters.
“Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan,
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high,
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier’s Temple of fame,
There. with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright;
“Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester - twenty miles away!’”
—Thomas Buchanan Read
Letter From the President
Lincoln certainly recognized the importance of Sheridan's victories and penned his congratulations three days after the battle.
Washington, Oct. 22, 1864
Major General Sheridan
With great pleasure I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation and my own personal admiration and gratitude for the month's operations in the Shenandoah Valley and especially for the splendid work of October 19, 1864.
Your [Obedient Servant]