August 15, 1864 (Monday)
There was now no doubt in Phil Sheridan’s mind. Jubal Early’s numbers would soon rival his own. Confederate reinforcements under the helm of Richard Anderson, were in Luray Valley and about to either fall upon his left flank or rear. To slow them and buy himself some time to figure out what to do, he dispatched two brigades of cavalry under Wesley Merritt. In the meanwhile, he drew the Sixth Corps back across Cedar Creek “where it would be in a position enabling me either to confront Anderson or to act defensively, as desired by General Grant.”
While the troopers galloped east, Sheridan took to his maps, looking for a better defensive position. “I examined the map of the valley for a defensive line – a position where a smaller number of troops could hold a larger number.” Just how many Rebels were en route was a matter of debate. Sheridan took Grant’s messages at face value, believing there to be two divisions of infantry and one of cavalry.
As he glanced along the map, he could see no other place to hole up but Halltown, forty-five miles northeast near Harpers Ferry. “Subsequent experience convinced me that there was no other really defensive line in the Shenandoah Valley,” wrote Sheridan after the war, “for at almost any other point the open country and its peculiar topography invites rather than forbids flanking operations.”
There was no two ways about it, this was a retreat. However, it was not without its advantages. Most importantly, he would be able to pick up more troops along the way. Reinforcements were on their way to the Army of the Shenandoah from Washington via Snicker’s Gap.
While Sheridan considered his options for retreating, another drama was unfolding on the southern side of Cedar Creek. The previous day, sixty men from the 12th West Virginia had captured the Confederate signal station atop Signal Knob on Massanutton Mountain. This view provided them with a peek into both the Shenandoah and Luray Valleys. From the summit, they could see not only Early’s main body, but the reinforcements under Anderson. It also gave a splendid view of Sheridan’s army. A few hours later, however, the 12th was overrun and the Rebels once more held the post and all its advantages.
In the early morning hours of this date, Lt. Col. George Taggart of the 14th West Virginia was selected to lead his regiment to Massanutton Mountain before the rising of the sun. This, they accomplished without issue and were at the foot of the mountain as the first slivers of dawn appeared over the Blue Ridge. Company A was then sent forward, guided by a local citzen, but mistakenly wandered into a clearing where they were immediately seen and fired upon by the Rebels at the summit.
While Company A tumbled back down, this created an impromptu diversion for the rest of the regiment. They snaked around the clearing and wound up about a mile behind the enemy’s lines. Through brush and tangled vegetation, the 14th scrambled up to the mountain top and established a line of defense behind the Confederates’ own line of defense. When the Rebels finally took notice of an entire regiment in their rear, they crept upon them and opened fire. A small skirmish ensued, but in the end, Col. Taggart knew he couldn’t hold the summit and ordered the whole enterprise to be abandoned. They returned to Sheridan’s encampment around 1pm.
By the end of the day, Sheridan was certain what needed to be done. He ordered General William Emory, commanding the Nineteenth Corps to pull out at 11pm and march to Winchester, fifteen miles down the pike (that is, north). All the while, the Federal cavalry pulled closer to Front Royal.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 43, Part 1, p801-804; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Loyal West Virginia from 1861 to 1865 by Theodore Lang; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; The Last Battle of Winchester by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]