“The moon was was now shining and we could see the camps,” Confederate commander, Jubal Early wrote after the war. “The division was halted under cover to await the arrival of the proper time, and I pointed out to Kershaw, and the commander of his leading brigade the enemy’s position, and described the nature of the ground, and directed them how the attack was to be made and followed up.”
The fight before Belle Grove Plantation
“A light mist hung over the creek and river,” wrote Jedediah Hotchkiss in his journal. “Soon we heard Rosser driving in the pickets on the left, then Gordon on the right, then Kershaw advanced across Cedar Creek in gallant style, and in almost a moment he was going up the hill and over the breastworks. A few flashes of musketry, a few shots of artillery , and he had the works, guns and all, surprising the enemy, though they had sounded the reveille in many parts of their camps before we attacked.”
“At about 4:30am the enemy advanced in heavy force against the works of the First Division,” wrote Col. Thomas Harris, who was a new division commander in the Eighth Corps, known also as the Army of West Virginia. “The division, having been roused by the firing along the picket-line and the subsequent skirmishing of the pickets with the advancing foe, as also by the division officer of the day, who reported the advance of a heavy force, was quickly formed behind the works, and put in position for defense as far as practicable. Very soon the enemy’s lines advanced close up to the works, and were greeted by a volley from our whole line. The action here was sharp and brief, the greatly superior force of the enemy enabling him not only to turn our left, but also to effect and entrance between the First and Third Brigades, then holding the works. Being thus subjected to enfilading fires, as also to a direct fire from the front, these two brigades were driven from the works, and so heavy and impetuous was the enemy’s advance that their retreat was soon, for the most pat, converted into a confused route, a large proportion of the men flying across the fields to the rear in great disorder.”
Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, his division posted to the right of his retreating comrades, continued the story: “At early daylight we were notified … that the enemy were already driving the First Division from their position. My command was immediately ordered under arms and soon after formed in line of battle, under the direction of Brevet Major-General Crook, Major-General Wright also being present.”
“In the meantime,” reported General Crook, “the Second Division [Hayes] was formed on a ridge parallel to and facing from the pike, with its right nearly opposite to the left of the Nineteenth Corps…. The enemy attacking this line in front was at the same time turning the left flank of Colonel Kitching’s command. This commanded commenced falling back, when the whole line apparently took it up in a good deal of disorder.”
Cedar Creek by Alfred Waud
Fifteen miles to the north, the commander of the Union forces, Philip Sheridan, was just leaving Winchester to return to his army, encamped around Cedar Creek.
“On reaching the edge of town,” he wrote in his post-war memoirs, “I halted a moment, and there heard quite distinctly the sound of artillery firing in an unceasing roar. […] Moving on, I put my head down toward the pommel of my saddle and listened intently, trying to locate and interpret the sound, continuing in this position till we had crossed Abraham’s Creek, about half a mile from Winchester. The result of my efforts in the interval was the conviction that the travel of sound was increasing too rapidly to be accounted for by my own rate of motion, and that therefore my army must be falling back.”
As Sheridan was not yet on the scene, the army’s command was still under Horatio Wright, who would otherwise have been helming the Sixth Corps, now held in reserve. Wright, seeing that everything was falling apart, ordered his old corps to send two divisions to stop the retreat.
Map by Jed Hotchkiss
“I felt every confidence that the enemy would be repulsed,” recalled General Wright after the battle. “In this anticipation, however, I was sadly disappointed. Influenced by a panic which often seizes the best troops, and some of these I had seen behave admirably under the hottest fire, the line broke before the enemy fairly came into sight, and under a slight scattering fire retreated in disorder down the pike.” Seeing that all was lost, Wright ordered all three corps to fall back.
“In conjunction with Gordon,” the Confederate topographer, Jed Hotchkiss continued, “Kershaw swept over the Eighth and nineteenth Corps and drove them in wild confusion across Meadow Run, upon the Sixth Corps and through Middletown, Colonel Payne [Cavalry] at the same time charging their train, &c…. Our troops then formed and drove them from their camps northwest of Meadow Run to the ridge in front of Middletown, where the Sixth Corps made a stand a drove Wharton and Pegram back. Then we hard artillery brought up to near Middletown and massed it on them and drove them from the ridge.”
Just south of Winchester, General Philip Sheridan was still making his way toward the sounds of battle.
“At Abraham’s Creek,” wrote the general in his memoirs, “my escort fell in behind, and we were going ahead at a regular pace, when, just as we made the crest of the rise beyond the stream, there burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army – hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others unhurt but utterly demoralized, and baggage-wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion, telling only too plainly that a disaster had occurred at the front. On accosting some of the fugitives, they assured me that the army was broken up, in full retreat, and that all was lost’ all this with a manner true to that peculiar indifference that takes possession of panic-stricken men.”
The Sixth Corps’s temporary commander, James Ricketts, had been wounded, and so it fell to General George Getty to hold the line. But this line was not one that could be held.
“The enemy brought up his batteries and concentrated on the division a sever fire of artillery,” recorded Getty soon after, “but being sheltered by the ground the loss from this cause was lighter than could have been expected. After holding this position for over an hour, it at length became necessary to withdraw the division, the enemy having turned the right and opened a flank and reverse fire upon the line.”
General Sheridan made his way up the Valley Pike, around Newtown, continuing toward Middletown and the battle. His first thought was to allow the army to retreat to Winchester and reform them there. But he soon thought better. The troops, he believed, had confidence in him. “I felt that I ought to try now to restore their broken ranks, or, failing in that, to share their fate because of what they had done hitherto.” And so he continued south, collecting as he could the remnants of his beaten command.
General Getty and the Sixth Corps were not part of this broken mass of men. They did not simply retreat. By Wright’s word, the Sixth Corps “moved steadily to the rear, and by well timed attacks did much toward checking the enemy’s advance, giving time thereby for the change of front which was necessary and for taking up the new position.”
This new position was first seen by Sheridan upon leaving Newtown. It was two divisions drawn up in line, but before him, he could see another, now engaging the Rebels. He rode toward this line, which was holding its own upon the reverse slope of a hill, against breastworks thrown together with fence rails.
“Jumping my horse over the line of rails,” wrote Sheridan, “I rode to the crest of the elevation, and there taking off my hat, the men rose up from behind their barricade with cheers of recognition…. I then turned back to the rear of Getty’s division, and as I came behind it, a line of regimental flags rose up out of the ground, as it seemed, to welcome me. They were mostly the colors of Crook’s troops, who had been stampeded and scattered in the surprise of the morning. […]
“I had already decided to attack the enemy from that line as soon as I could get matters in shape to take the offensive.”
All this took time. Sheridan met with several officers and considered his plans. A lull had fallen over the battlefield.
“We lay there some time,” wrote Jed Hotchkiss, “using some artillery on the right and left and advancing our skirmishers a little, but making no decided move. We skirmished with the cavalry on the right and they charged our lines several times, but were repulsed. Thus we lay until 4pm, making a few efforts to et off the immense captures we had made of artillery and everything else. We had some twenty-three guns. The enemy having had time to rally, had collected in rear of the large body of woods in our front and formed a line of battle and advanced at 4:30pm.”
Jubal Early, commanding the Confederate army, was sure that his men still had fight in them. During the lull, he wished to fill in a gap in the lines on the right, and sent a division to do just that. “In a very short time,” wrote Early in his memoirs, “and while I was endeavoring to discover the enemy’s line through the obscurity, Wharton’s division came back in some confusion, and General Wharton informed me that, in advancing to the position pointed out to him… his division had been driven back by the Sixth Corps, which he said was advancing.”
“I started in behind the men,” remembered Sheridan after the war, “but when a few paces had been taken I crossed to the front and, hat in hand, passed along the entire length of the infantry line; and it is from this circumstance that many of the officers and men who then received me with such heartiness have since supposed that that was my first appearance on the field. But at least two hours had elapsed since I reached the ground.”
Sheridan’s Ride by Waud
But this was still not the Federal attack. The Rebels made a stab toward them and all was once again stopped.
Through the day, Early’s troops had become scattered and worn. He wanted to launch an attack against the Sixth Corps, but nothing could be done to bring his troops to the ready. Early rode back to Middletown to see what he could do about at least forming a line of defense. But when he arrived, he discovered Federals not far off.
“It was now apparent,” wrote Early, “that it would not do to press my troops further. They had been up all night and were much jaded. In passing over rough ground to attack the enemy in the early morning, their own ranks had been much disordered, and the men scattered, and it had required time to reform them. Their ranks, moreover, were much thinned by the absence of the men engaged in plundering the enemy’s camps.”
And so seeing that he could gain no more, Early determined “to try and hold what had been gained.” The Federal cavalry attacked here and there, but were handily repulsed. But then came the Federal infantry.
“Between half-past 3 and 4 o’clock,” Sheridan continued, “I was ready to assail, and decided to do so by advancing my infantry line in a swinging movement, so as to gain the Valley pike with my right between Middletown and the Belle Grove House; and when the order was passed along, the men pushed steadily forward with enthusiasm and confidence. General Early’s troops extended some little distance beyond our right, and when my flank neared the overlapping enemy, he turned on it, with the effect of causing a momentary confusion, but General McMillan quickly realizing the danger, broke the Confederates at the reentering angle by a counter charge with his brigade, doing his work so well that the enemy’s flanking troops were cut off from their main body and left to shift for themselves…. My whole line as far as the eye could see was now driving everything before it, from behind trees, stone walls, and all such sheltering obstacles, so I rode toward the left to ascertain how matters were getting on there.”
“General Gordon,” Jubal Early recalled, “made every effort to rally his men, and lead them back against the enemy, but without avail… Every effort was made to stop and rally Kershaw’s and Ramseur’s men, but the mass of them resisted all appeals, and continued to go to the rear without waiting for any effort to retrieve the partial disorder.”
“Simultaneous with this charge,” Sheridan wrote in his official report, “a combined movement of the whole line drove the enemy in confusion to the creek, where, owing to the difficulties of crossing, his army became routed.”
To this, Early agreed: “The enemy again made a demonstration, and General Ramseur, who was acting with great gallantry, was wounded, and the left again gave way, and then the whole command, falling back in such a panic that I had to order Pegram’s and Wharton’s commands, which were very small and on the right, to fall back, and most of them took the* panic also. I found it impossible to rally the troops. They would not listen to entreaties, threats, or appeals of any kind. A terror of the enemy’s cavalry had seized them, and there was no holding them. They left the field in the greatest confusion.
“After the utter failure of all my attempts to rally the men I went to Fisher’s Hill with the hope of rallying the troops there and forming them in the trenches, but when they reached that position the only organized body of men left was the prisoners, 1,300 in number, and the provost-guard in charge of them, and I believe that the, appearance of these prisoners moving back in a body alone arrested the progress of the enemy’s cavalry, as it was too dark for them to discover what they were. Many of the men stopped at Fisher’s Hill and went to their old camps, but no organization of them could be effected, and nothing saved us but the inability of the enemy to follow with his infantry and his expectation that we would make a stand there. The state of things was distressing and mortifying beyond measure. We had within our grasp a glorious victory, and lost it by the uncontrollable propensity of our men for plunder, in the first place, and the subsequent panic among those who had kept their places, which was without sufficient cause, for I believe that the enemy had only made the movement against us as a demonstration, hoping to protect his stores, &c, at Winchester, and that the rout of our troops was a surprise to him.”
“The direct result of the battle,” wrote Sheridan after the war, “was the recapture of all the artillery, transportation, and camp equipage we had lost, and in addition twenty-four pieces of the enemy’s artillery, twelve hundred prisoners, and a number of battle-flags. But more still flowed from this victory, succeeding as it did the disaster of the morning, for the re-occupation of our old camps at once re-established a morale which for some hours had been greatly endangered by ill-fortune.”
As General Early lie upon the ground at Fisher’s Hill that night, he had not yet turned to blaming his plundering men for the defeat. Turning to Jed Hotchkiss, he said, “The Yankees got whipped and we got scared.” Early would start his beaten force toward New Market the following day. Sheridan would not follow.
The Confederates suffered 1,860 killed and wounded, and lost 1,200 captured. The Federals lost 569 killed, 3,425 wounded, and 1,770 missing. The Confederate General Stephen Ramseur would die of his wounds soon after.