Prelude to the Battle
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Battle of Lynchburg
As Grant pressed Lee in Eastern Virginia during the spring and summer, the Confederate general devised a plan to divert Union forces away from his army. Lee designated Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s corps as the Army of the Valley and in June he ordered Early to re-deploy his army from Petersburg to the Shenandoah Valley. On June 17–18, Early’s army defeated Major General David Hunter’s Union forces at the Battle of Lynchburg, leaving control of the valley in Confederate hands. Early then launched his own offensive, invading Maryland and eventually threatening Washington, DC before being forced to retreat into the Shenandoah Valley.
Early’s successes in Maryland threatened President Lincoln’s re-election bid in November. Coupled with Grant’s mounting casualty totals in Eastern Virginia, Southerners had good reason to hope that the Northern electorate might opt for a peace candidate and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy to end the war.
Sheridan Goes to the Valley
Outside of the political arena, Confederate operations in the valley had become a source of irritation to Grant. Thus, on August 1, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan to the valley and on August 8 placed him in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah. Grant’s orders for Sheridan were twofold: destroy Early’s army and to “Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions… so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”
Sheridan succeeded at both.
After a slow beginning, which concerned both Lincoln and Grant, Sheridan’s soldiers defeated Early’s outnumbered army at the Battle of Opequon (September 19) and the Battle of Fisher’s Hill (September 22). With Early’s army nearly neutralized after those two battles, Sheridan spent the next few weeks attending to his other task—laying waste to the Shenandoah Valley. By early October, Federal leaders convinced that Rebel resistance in the valley was near an end, began shifting troops from the Shenandoah Valley to the Petersburg area to support Grant’s pursuit of Lee.
As the Federals were moving troops out of the Shenandoah Valley, Lee was moving troops into it. Reinforcements boosted the size of Early’s Army of the Valley to 21,000 soldiers. Although still outnumbered by over 10,000 men, Early launched a surprise attack on Sheridan’s troops encamped at Cedar Creek.
On the evening of October 18, 1864, Early’s army embarked on a night march toward Sheridan’s encampment. At dawn, Major General John B. Gordon’s division routed Major General George Crook’s unsuspecting 8th Corps and took hundreds of prisoners.
Joined by Major General Joseph Kershaw’s division, Gordon next overpowered Major General William H. Emory’s 19th Corps. The Confederates then hit Major General Horatio G. Wright’s 6th Corps who offered more resistance before retreating in an orderly fashion. By that time, Early believed that he had won the battle, and the assault petered out as hungry Rebel soldiers went on a looting spree throughout the Federal encampment. Early’s failure to pursue Wright’s Corps and keep his keep army focused proved to be his undoing.
Sheridan Rallies His Troops
When the initial attack began, Sheridan was at nearby Winchester, returning from a summit meeting in Washington. Hearing the sounds of artillery in the distance, Sheridan dashed off to the site of the battle. He reached his fleeing army at mid-morning and began rallying his soldiers. At around 3 p.m., Early tried to resume his advance, but the reorganized Federals repulsed him. A half-hour later, the Union 19th Corps, supported by Major General George Custer’s cavalry division, successfully assaulted Early’s left flank. Sheridan then ordered a general counterattack at about 4 p.m. that routed the Rebel army. The remnants of Early’s shattered army limped back to Eastern Virginia to assist Lee in his struggle with Grant.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Cedar Creek, which began with such promise for Early, was a crushing defeat for the Confederacy. Sheridan’s army suffered more casualties (5,665 killed, wounded, and missing/captured) than the Confederates (2,910 killed, wounded, and missing/captured), but Sheridan forced the Rebels to abandon the Shenandoah Valley.
The valley ceased to be a source of sustenance for the Confederacy. The Battle of Cedar Creek ended the final Confederate invasion of the North during the Civil War. Coupled with Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, Sheridan’s success in the valley helped ensure Lincoln’s re-election and the continuation of the war. The Union victory also freed Sheridan’s forces to rejoin the Army of the Potomac and hasten the end of the Civil War by taking part in the Appomattox Campaign.