November 12, 1864 (Saturday)
Jubal Early’s Confederates were on the move once more. Marching north from New Market, they had arrived at the old battlefield at Cedar Creek the day previous. Finding it vacant, Early sent his cavalry farther north, toward Middletown and Newtown, pushing back the Union pickets and espying Philip Sheridan’s army, now entrenching in a new position.
That night, the two cavalry commander, Lunford Lomax and Thomas Rosser, met with Early, and a plan was made for this morning. No doubt they had been discovered, and Early had thrown part of his force into a line of battle to await the enemy.
So too did Sheridan look for battle. “Yesterday evening the enemy’s cavalry made a demonstration on my front south of Newtown,” he wrote to General Grant on this date, “and my scout reported a large infantry force having move down the pike to Middletown with the intention of attacking. This morning I had everything ready, but no attack was made.”
With both sides awaiting the other, it wasn’t until 1pm when the first move was made. It was Sheridan who ordered George Armstrong Custer to attack up two parallel roads – the Back Road and the Middle Road.
All that morning, knowing the Rebels were out there, the cavalry had scouting, probing roads and farms south toward Middletown. General William Powell’s Division, moving along a third parallel road toward the more easterly Front Royal had let loose a brigade an a mission of reconnaissance, and soon found it entangled with the enemy a mile south of the village of Nineveh.
This brigade, helmed by Col. William Tibbits, was actually pushing back the enemy. By the time reinforcements had arrived, they were already under their own guns and Tibbits was moving, according to orders, west toward Middletown and the Middle Road.
Wishing instead to deal with the enemy before him, General Powell prepared to make an attack. “While forming my division for a charge,” he wrote in his report, “the enemy charged my advance. I moved my whole line forward at once with drawn sabers (having lines well supported on each flank and center), charged the enemy, broke his lines, and drove him in great confusion beyond Front Royal and pursued him so closely as to prevent the possibility of his rallying or reforming his lines.”
Meanwhile, Custer was having similar fortune. That morning, two regiments had been on patrol when they were attacked by the Rebels near Cedar Creek. They were driven as they were nearly all the way to their encampment. “I moved out with the whole brigade and attacked the enemy,” wrote Col. Andrew Pennington, commanding in Custer’s Division. “I succeeded in driving him easily until within a mile and a half of the creek, when they made a sharp resistance. I formed my brigade in line of battle, the regiments being in column, with strong line of skirmishers, and having the ‘charge’ sounded, charged the enemy, driving them nearly to the creek, when they again rallied.
“A sharp fight ensued, but the enemy were obliged to give way, and fled in confusion across Cedar Creek. After driving them a mile and a half beyond Lebanon Church, three miles beyond Cedar Creek, I withdrew my brigade near Mount Zion Church, and after forming it moved again to Cedar Creek, and then returned to camp.” In both cases, it was the early dusk that put an end to any pursuit.
The Confederates told a different story – or at least highlighted different aspects of the day. “We had some skirmishing,” wrote Jedediah Hotchkiss in his journal, “but no general engagement. On the Back road Custer drove back a portion of Rosser’s brigade as far as Cedar Creek. He [Rosser] brought up his other brigade and Payne went to him, and they routed the Yankees in turn and scattered them far and wide, saber in hand. We remained in line until about dark, and fell back to Fisher’s Hill, getting to camp at a very late hour.”
As for the fight toward Front Royal, Hotchkiss also gave an initial report: “Late in the P.M. the Yankee cavalry fell on McCausland’s brigade at Cedarville. He repulsed two attack, and then thinking they were gone he halted to feed, but they came on and caught him unprepared an drove him across the river and through Front Royal, capturing two pieces of artillery.”
By Jubal Early’s account, the whole march was one of reconnaissance. He wished, he claimed, if Sheridan had sent troops to General Grant. According to his memoirs, he “discovered by this movement that no troops had been sent to Grant, and that the project of repairing the Manassas Gap railroad had been abandoned.”
Early would retire farther still toward New Market, arriving on the 14th. Shortly after, he would send some of his own men – Kershaw’s Division – to General Lee at Petersburg. So too would Sheridan release men to Petersburg. The Sixth Corps would, in a few weeks, make their way to General Grant. This would leave both Early and Sheridan with some infantry, as well as the bulk of the cavalry they had with them on this date.
This would be the last march north that Early would make.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p512, 533-534; Part 2, p611; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early. [↩]