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.”
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
- 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. [↩]