‘But the Enemy Were Obliged to Give Way’ – Early Makes His Retreat

November 12, 1864 (Saturday)

William Tibbits would soon be more than a colonel.

William Tibbits would soon be more than a colonel.

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.

Today's incredibly approximate map.

Today’s incredibly approximate map.

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.”

William Powell

William Powell

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

  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. []

Jubal Early Pushes North Once More

November 11, 1864 (Friday)

Let's try this again....

Let’s try this again….

Word had come to Jubal Early that Philip Sheridan was preparing to send troops to Grant’s army before Petersburg. Since being defeated at the battle of Cedar Creek, Early’s command had licked their wounds near New Market. Sheridan, it was told, had vacated his position at Cedar Creek and moved north, perhaps to Middletown or Newtown. And so, Early began his march north on the day previous.

Perhaps a threat could keep the Union number close. By the close of the first day, they made Woodstock, a march of twenty-two miles. The cavalry fanned out, one division trotting to Fairview, the other to Front Royal.

On this day, the march began at 6am, the weather cold, and the sky clear. But when they arrived on the old battlefield, they found it deserted, save a small body of cavalry, which was on picket. With both divisions of cavalry spread wide, Early retained still a brigade commanded by Gen. William Payne in his immediate front.

Payne’s Virginians met the Federals, surprised as they were, tossing them back and out of their vicinity. They were dogged through Middletown and nearly to Newtown, which was where they found the Federal army.

The alarm, if it could be called that, was sounded. The Federal cavalry had belonged to George Armstrong Custer, and he now ordered his first brigade to “attack and drive the enemy at once.” The second brigade had already formed their lines, but were being pushed back by the men in Payne’s Brigade. This, despite their orders to “attack the enemy with your entire force and drive him.”

So small was this threat, that the artillery was hardly even offered. “If you think you can use any artillery to advantage,” came Custer’s word, “you can have one section [two guns] of Captain Ransom’s battery.”

The fight came so late, however, that darkness fell before it could really transpire. After the sun set, Early met with this cavalry commanders to discuss the following day. They would advance, despite Sheridan’s force. His infantry, however, would remain behind.

In Sheridan’s words, he “got everything ready,” though making ready an entire army is worthy of more then a handful of words. Writing in hindsight, this latest foray hardly compared to that of Cedar Creek, but still, his orders rang out.

“Corps commanders will have their commands under arms and everything hitched up by daylight tomorrow, 5.30a.m.”

And by daylight, Sheridan would be ready to receive whatever Early had gathered.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p537, 584; Part 2, p603, 605, 611; 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. []

‘The Yankees Got Whipped, and We Got Scared’ – The Battle of Cedar Creek

“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

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

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

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

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.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p53, 158-159, 194, 365-366, 372, 403, 562-563; 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. []

‘Fixed Upon a Plan of Attack’ – Early to Commit Everything to Battle

October 18, 1864 (Tuesday)

“As I was not strong enough to attack the fortified position in front,” wrote Jubal Early in his memoirs, “I determined to get around one of the enemy’s flanks and attack him by surprise if I could.”

Jed Hotchkiss' Way

Jed Hotchkiss’ Way

Early’s men were grossly outnumbered, and it would only be by surprise that he might stand a chance of besting Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, now entrenched behind Cedar Creek.

The day previous, Early had sent topographer Jedediah Hotchkiss, along with Generals John Gordon and Clement Evans, to Three Top Mountain to peer over the Federal position.

“I made a map of the position,” wrote Hotchkiss in his journal, “and General Gordon and myself fixed upon a plan of attack to suggest to General Early, which we discussed fully as we came back.” But they were late in returning, and little was discussed on the 17th.

Also out on a mission of reconnoitering was General John Pegram. He was just as convinced as Hotchkiss that an attack upon the lines over which he examined would be best.

The next morning, Hotchkiss and Pegram met with Early, and when Pegram suggested his own plan, Hotchkiss bade that they wait for Gordon, who would be the officer to detail Hotchkiss’ plan. He unrolled the map he made and tried to stall for time, so certain was he of success.

Soon, the division commanders were assembled, and the matter was discussed. Early, hearing the details from Gordon, decided to adopt Hotchkiss’ plan.

As it was laid out, Gordon would helm the Second Corps, consisting of his own division, as well as Pegram’s and Stephen Ramsur’s. They were to cross the North Fork of the Shenandoah twice, the final time at a ford near the mouth of Cedar Creek. This would bring them down upon the Union left-rear.


A fourth division, commanded by Gabriel Wharton, was to march up the Valley Pike with the artillery, only crossing Cedar Creek when Gordon’s Corps was across. Due to the curves in the creek, this would bring him upon the Union front. The final division, under Joseph Kershaw, was to cross on the Pike and fall upon the Union left, supporting Gordon.

But before any of this could happen, Early wished for a touch of the dramatic. The small cavalry brigade of Col. William Payne was to race before even Gordon to Belle Grove Plantation to capture Philip Sheridan himself.

Once the meeting was adjourned, Hotchkiss, Gordon and Ramseur tramped around Three Top Mountain and nearly to Waterlick Station, plotting out the exact route across the river.

Meanwhile, General Pegram climbed to the summit of Three Top and believed that he discovered another set of breastworks, newly constructed, immediately in the path of Gordon’s attack. Hotchkiss was unsure – they had not been there the day previous – but all deferred to Early, who “saw no occasion to change his plans.” Gordon’s Division stepped off at 8pm, and were shortly followed by Kershaw and Wharton, taking the Pike.

Across Cedar Creek, the Federal lines were mostly sleeping, and there was no inkling of a coming attack. Philip Sheridan, rather than being at his headquarters at Belle Grove, was in Winchester, having nearly returned from his short trip to Washington.

The army was under Horatio Wright’s command. He had dispatched a brigade toward the Rebel position, but could find nothing close at hand. Scheduled for the following morning, Wright ordered another such reconnaissance to step off at dawn.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p562; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert. []

‘And We Will Crush Sheridan’ – Catching Up with the Shenandoah Valley

October 17, 1864 (Monday)

Belle Grove Plantation - Sheridan's (and then Wright's) Headquarters

Belle Grove Plantation – Sheridan’s (and then Wright’s) Headquarters

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.”

Wright's got this.

Wright’s got this.

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

  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. []