October 17, 1864 (Monday)
Since last we left the Shenandoah Valley, Philip Sheridan’s Union Army of the Shenandoah had crossed to the northerly side of Cedar Creek to more or less hunker down. Sheridan, feeling Jubal Early was less of a threat than ever before, began to select troops to leave his own army and to join Generals Grant and Meade before Petersburg and Richmond.
Namely, this was the Sixth Corps, helmed by Horatio Wright, and on the 10th it struck out for Front Royal and a round-about tramp to the Confederate capital. But there it was paused for two days as Sheridan and Washington sorted things out. But since Jubal Early’s infantry had been silent and still for an entire week, Sheridan believed them whipped and ordered the Sixth Corps to resume its march with a stopover in Washington.
But they were indeed on the march. On the 12th, Early stabbed northward, marching quickly enough to be a mile or two away from the Federal camps along Cedar Creek by mid-morning of the 13th.
The Rebels, prepared for a reconnaissance in force, lobbed several shells into the closest cavalry camps, deployed infantry on either side of the Valley Pike and actually advanced into the unknown ahead.
“The flight from the camp was a perfect stampede,” wrote Jedidiah Hotchkiss, Stonewall Jackson’s former topographer (and now Early’s). “Then a column of Yankees came down from Hite’s house to the bridge across the bottom. We played on them and scattered them some. They crossed the bridge and formed at right angles to the pike and advanced.” But the Rebels formed and “moved in fine style and driving the enemy back, the artillery playing on the enemy at the same time.”
Nearly the whole of the Rebel army was deployed, but in the end, it was only a scrape. The Southerners took some prisoners, left the dead and wounded and returned to Fisher’s Hill, the other side of Strasburg.
The next two days, the 14th and 15th, saw minor skirmishing and probing by the Federals. By their end, Hotchkiss recorded “enemy on north bank of Cedar Creek fortifying.” And that was how this day was spent as well.
When the Confederates mysteriously appeared before Sheridan’s lines, he was about to leave for Washington to consult with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But with them knocking, Sheridan canceled. “The day’s events pointing to a probability that the enemy intended to resume the offensive,” he wrote in his memoirs, “to anticipate such a contingency I ordered the Sixth Corps to return from its march toward Ashby’s Gap. It reached me by noon of the 14th and went into position to the right and rear of [William Emory’s] Nineteenth Corps, which held a line along the north bank of Cedar Creek, west of the Valley pike. [George] Crook [commanding the corps-size Army of West Virginia] was posted on the left of the Nineteenth Corps and east of the Valley pike….”
Sheridan wished to attack Early as soon as the Sixth Corps was ready, but before that could happen, the Confederates faded back to Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan called off the idea and instead decided to go to Washington, and to leave the army under the command of Horatio Wright. To create a sort of diversion, Sheridan ordered two divisions of his cavalry to raid across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
This left open his right flank, which was worrisome to General Wright. His worry was compounded when a message from a signal station was intercepted and decrypted. It appeared to be from General James Longstreet to Jubal Early, reading: “Be ready to move as soon as my forces join you, and we will crush Sheridan.”
Sheridan, at first, dismissed it as “a ruse, and hardly worth attention.” But the more he considered it, the more the doubted himself. “On reflection,” wrote Sheridan in his memoirs, “deemed it best to be on the safe side, so I abandoned the cavalry raid toward Charlottesville, in order to give General Wright the entire strength of the army, for it did not seem wise to reduce his numbers while reinforcements for the enemy might be near, and especially when such pregnant messages were reaching Early from one of the ablest of the Confederate generals.”
In trying to figure out if the message was true, or even if it had been correctly deciphered, Sheridan wrote to Henry Halleck, Chief of Staff in Washington. “Have you heard that any rebel force has been detached from Richmond?” he asked.
It was clear that James Longstreet had recovered from the earlier wounding and had returned from Richmond. “General Grant says that Longstreet brought with him no troops from Richmond,” came Halleck’s reply, “but I have very little confidence in the information collected at his headquarters.” Halleck then bade Sheridan to continue to Washington.
Even with the possibility of Longstreet joining Early, Sheridan trusted Wright and felt “confident of good results,” as he told Halleck at the time. Right before getting back on the road, he wrote to Wright, telling him that he would return to Cedar Creek by the 18th.
The close of day saw Sheridan at Front Royal and headed toward Washington. It saw Jubal Early with his army at Fisher’s Hill to the south, and the Federal army, now headless but for Wright, along Cedar Creek. The message supposedly from Longstreet was indeed a ruse, sent to keep all of Sheridan’s troops in the Valley and away from Petersburg. They had no way of knowing that this was accomplished before any signal flags were waved. It saw the return of most of the two divisions of Federal cavalry, but little more. Much, however, would be decided the following day.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p561; Part 2, 386; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. [↩]