1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign
Following his victories in September and October 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and his 32,000 man Army of the Shenandoah conducted a systematic destruction of a 75-mile swath of the Shenandoah Valley. "The Burning" essentially laid waste to the "Breadbasket of the Confederacy." Confident the campaign was over, Sheridan camped his army north of Cedar Creek before traveling to Washington, D.C. to confer with higher authorities about his army’s future movements.
The Battle of Cedar Creek
Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s poorly equipped and ill-fed Confederate Army of the Valley, reduced to between 14,000-15,000 men, seemed to pose little threat. Desperate to achieve a victory, however, Early and his commanders devised a daring plan to attack Sheridan. Following an all-night march along the base of the Massanutten Mountain, including two river crossings, the Confederates rolled out of a dense fog in the pre-dawn hours of October 19. Catching many Northern soldiers sleeping, the Confederate onslaught overran the Union 8th Corps and then 19th Corps, and drove past the Belle Grove Plantation. The Union 6th Corps, given more warning, was able to offer stiffer resistance (including a determined stand amongst the headstones of the Middletown cemetery), but by 10:30 a.m. the stunned Union army was in full retreat. Feeling he had achieved a spectacular victory, Early sought to secure the captured spoils (including 24 Union cannon and over a 1,000 prisoners), while his soldiers solidified their final line just north of Middletown. Exhaustion, along with widespread looting of the captured Union camps, however, reduced the strength of the already outnumbered Confederate army.
Sheridan, riding from Winchester that morning, was completely unaware of the disaster that had befallen his army. Upon hearing the growing sounds of battle, however, he quickened his pace and rode hard to the field. "Sheridan's Ride" (later celebrated in art and poetry) forever cemented his status in American history. Rallying his defeated forces, he then ordered a counterattack at 4:00 p.m. which swept the Confederates from the field, recaptured all of the lost artillery (plus 24 Confederate cannons) and over 1,200 prisoners. Total casualties numbered approximately 8,600 (5,700 Union and 2,900 Confederate), making it the second bloodiest battle in the Shenandoah Valley.
This 17.5-mile tour consists of 9 stops. All of the roads used are public (state or county) and traffic on some can be fairly heavy (especially the Valley Pike, U.S. Route 11). Use caution, especially when pulling into traffic or slowing for a stop. Long Meadow Road and Bowman’s Mill Road, located at the southern end of the park, are unimproved (narrow, gravel surfaced and two-way – Commercial buses and large RVs are not allowed on these roads). Obey all posted speed limits and traffic regulations.
The tour route is marked by these auto tour directional and stop signs.
Stop 1: Eve of Battle –Modern U.S. Route 11 (the Valley Turnpike) was a vital line of supply and communications for both armies. Across the fields and around Belle Grove (Sheridan’s headquarters) was encamped parts of the Union army. Signal Knob, the highest peak of the Massanutten Mountain (with the modern radio tower), is located to the south, and can be seen throughout the tour as a landmark to gauge the flow of the battle.
Gen. Early’s Confederate army was, at this time, located at Fisher’s Hill, approximately five miles to the south, beyond Strasburg. On October 13th Early received 3,000 reinforcements from Gen. Lee in Richmond, along with instructions to launch an offensive in order to regain the Valley for the Confederacy. Although facing long odds, the plan Early and his officers eventually developed was
one of the riskiest and most audacious assaults attempted during the entire Civil War. Proceed straight (south) on U.S. Route 11 to Stop 2.
Stop 2: 8th Corps Camps –This location marked the left end of the Union line. Signal Knob (marked by the modern radio tower) was used by the Southern high command to scout the Union army on October 17th and plan their daring attack. This risky plan called for splitting the much smaller Confederate army into three separate columns, which would then make an all-night march (some along the base of the Massanutten Mountain and crossing the Shenandoah River and Cedar Creek), in order to launch a surprise attack before dawn on October 19th.
The plan worked perfectly, as the first Confederate assault struck here at 5:00 a.m., out of the pre-dawn darkness and fog, completely surprising and routing the 8th Corps. Following this initial success, the Confederate attack continued north, toward the 19th Corps and the Valley Pike (U.S. Route 11).
The Southern Loop – Due to a lack of safe parking areas along Cedar Creek and the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, there are no designated stops at the southern end of the park. However, the tour route does take you past the areas where the Confederate troops made their pre-dawn crossings of these waters, along with some other historic locations. Below is a description of these areas, which you can see from your vehicle, as you pass by them on your way to Stop 3.
Bowman’s Mill Ford -- Gen. Kershaw’s Division of approximately 2,500 Confederates slashed across Cedar Creek here, just prior to their attack on the 8th Corps. After overrunning the Union pickets posted along the creek, Kershaw’s men deployed for battle in the bottom land north of Cedar Creek.
After turning left onto Long Meadow Road, the confluence of Cedar Creek and the North Fork of the Shenandoah River is 1.2 miles along Long Meadow Road.
Long Meadow Farm– The original log cabin built here in 1737 (by Jost Hite and his son Isaac, some of the earliest settlers of the Valley) was replaced by the brick house you now see in the 1840s. Bowman’s Ford, another crossing point for the Confederate army, is just beyond. Approximately 7,500 Southern troops then marched up Long Meadow Road to move into their attack positions. The tour route follows their march and the general flow of the battle from this point. (Long Meadow Farm is privately owned and is not open to the public).
Proceed to Stop 3 (19th Corps) which is located at the 128th New York Monument. Park in the gravel lot beyond the monument.
Stop 3: 19th Corps/128thNew York monument – This monument honors the 128th New York, which held the left end of the 19th Corps. After crushing the 8th Corps, the Confederate attack struck the 19th Corps’ left and rear at this location. A second Confederate force struck their front (southwest). Fighting lasted about an hour before the Union lines were overrun, and forced to retreat toward Belle Grove. A self-guided walking trail (approximately one mile long) follows the trenches constructed by the 19th Corps. (Permission to visit this site can be obtained from the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation Headquarters (540) 869-2064).
Proceed to Stop 4, the Morning Attack Trails. As you turn left onto U.S. Route 11.—USE EXTREME CAUTION, AS VISIBILITY TO YOUR LEFT IS VERY LIMITED
Upon arriving at Stop 4, proceed to the end of the driveway and park at the designated spots near the house and trailhead sign.
Stop 4: Morning Attack Trails – A series of three trails covers one area where the Confederate attack that morning overran part of the the Union defenses. The trails (marked by brown posts) can be hiked individually or combined (1.7 miles total). The trails include the 8th Vermont monument (one of only three veteran placed monuments in the park) and marks the location where the regiment made a sacrificial stand (losing nearly 70% of their men) in order to slow the Confederate attack. An 8-page trail brochure is available at the trailhead.
Stop 5: Belle Grove - Belle Grove was built in 1797 by Isaac Hite Jr., grandson of Jost Hite (who helped his son, Isaac, build Long Meadow). This plantation served as Sheridan’s headquarters before and after the battle, and thus it was surrounded by hundreds of tents, wagons and other military equipment. Heavy fighting swirled around the house as the Union high command desperately attempted to evacuate army headquarters before the Confederate advance overran this area at approximately 7:00 a.m.
Visitors are encouraged to visit the site. Belle Grove is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is managed and operated by Belle Grove, Inc. Guided tours of the house are offered (for a fee) on a regular basis during the visitor season. Tickets, a Museum Shop, exhibits and restrooms are available at the Beverley B. Shoemaker Welcome Center, which is located in the large bank barn. Touring the plantation grounds is free.
As you leave Belle Grove to continue on the tour route, you are generally following the flow of battle. The final Union corps on the field, the 6th, fought a delaying action along Meadow Brook and across the fields to the west. The railroad tracks you cross did not exist at the time of the battle.
Part of the 6th Corps also made a desperate stand on the high ground west of Middletown, known as Cemetery Hill. Stop 6 (Mt. Carmel Cemetery) is located at the small gravel parking area in front of the second set of brick entrance gates to Mt. Carmel Cemetery. Please be respectful of the cemetery grounds. This is an active cemetery. (Do not enter the cemetery grounds if a funeral procession is in progress).
Stop 6: Mt. Carmel Cemetery – Fighting amongst the cemetery headstones, Union Brig. Gen. George Washington Getty’s 2,400 man division held this prominent hill for 1 ½ hours (8:00-9:30 a.m.), slowing the Confederate attack for the first time. Getty repulsed two Confederate infantry assaults and then endured a 30 minute bombardment from Early’s artillery (located along U.S. Route 11 near the modern factories). Facing a third Confederate attack that threatened to cut him off, Getty finally ordered a withdrawal.
Proceed along High Street in order to reach Stop 7 (Miller’s Mill). Park along Cougill Road, near the wayside exhibit. The Miller House is privately owned and not open to the public.
Stop 7: Miller’s Mill – This brick house marks the furthest point of advance for the Confederate army. Early formed his line along Miller Lane (modern Cougill Road), which was then lined with stone walls. As the Confederates halted to reorganize and rest, others had left their ranks to pillage the Union camps for much needed food and supplies. Some accounts estimate that nearly a third of the Confederate troops were absent from their ranks due to this unauthorized looting.
As you drive along Cougill Road (Miller Lane) on your way to Stop 8, keep in mind you are following the length of the final Confederate battle line that afternoon.
Once you turn right onto Kline’s Mill Road (which existed at the time of the battle) and begin to drive along it, imagine the defeated and demoralized Union soldiers attempting to rally themselves in the open fields to your right.
Stop 8: Sheridan’s Arrival –Sheridan arrived back in the Valley on October 18th and spent the night in Winchester, 15 miles north. On the morning of the battle, he was alerted to trouble by the sound of distant artillery and began his famous “Sheridan’s Ride” back to his army, arriving around 10:30 near this location. Riding the length of his disorganized battle lines, the sight of Sheridan instantly rallied his men. Sheridan then began to prepare a counterattack which commenced that afternoon.
As you turn right onto U.S. Route 11 (Valley Pike), you will be following the direction of the Union counterattack, which extended on either side of the road, and even beyond modern day Interstate 81 to your left (east).
Stop 9: Union Counterattack – This area marks the Confederate line, which stretched across U.S. Route 11 along Miller Lane (Cougill Road); the Miller House is visible in the distance. At 4:00 p.m. the Union counterattack swept across the fields before you and struck the Confederate line here. After fierce resistance, the Confederate line collapsed from west to east, setting off a full-scale retreat. By nightfall Early’s army had disintegrated and Cedar Creek had ended as a resounding Union victory.
Last updated: June 4, 2020