To add insult to injury, General Early laid the blame of the loss at the feet of the Confederate soldier himself. After the war Early's work in the "Lost Cause" literary movement helped to cement perceived notions into so called fact.
"No battle of the entire war, with the single exception of Gettysburg, has provoked such varied and conflicting comments and such prolonged controversy as this remarkable engagement between Sheridan and Early at Cedar Creek. No battle has been so greatly misunderstood in important particulars, nor have the accounts of any battle been so productive of injustice to certain actors in it, nor so strangely effective in converting misapprehensions into so called history." (1)
|General Jubal A. Early|
|General John B. Gordon|
"Through tangled underbrush and over giant boulders and jutting cliffs we finally reached the summit, from which the entire landscape was plainly visible. It was an inspiring panorama........
It was unmistakably evident that General Sheridan concurred in the universally accepted opinion that it was impracticable for the Confederates to pass or march along the rugged and almost perpendicular face of Massanutten Mountain and assail his left."(2)
This is precisely what Gordon proposed in a plan of attack to his superior, Jubal Early. Early accepted the plan and troops under Gordon Crossed the mountain through a pass that was discovered. It took the better part of the night of the 18th for the soldiers to cross and be ready. Early morning fog helped to conceal the troops movements then it was time for the attack. One last obstacle was in the way. The North Fork of the Shenandoah River.
"As soon as Payne had cleared the ford for the infantry, Evans, with his Virginians, North Carolinians, and Georgians, the Old Stonewall Brigade leading, rushed into the cold current of the Shenandoah, chilled as it was by the October nights frosts.The brave fellows did not hesitate for a moment.Reaching the eastern bank drenched and cold, they were ready for the "double quick," which warmed them up and brought them speedily to the left flank of Sheridan's sleeping army."(3)
The Confederates had done it. While Gordon's men slammed into General George Crooks Army of West Virginia, General Gabriel Wharton's men attacked the Federal line consisting of General William Emory's XIX Corp. The combined effort rolled up the left flank and cause two whole Union Corps to rout. Only Union General James Ricketts' VI Corp was left. Then the unthinkable happened around noon.
(From L-R) General Phil Sheridan, General James Ricketts commander of VI Corps that day. General George Crook, commander of Army of West Virginia commonly known as VIII Corps.
Confederate Generals Joseph Kershaw and Gabriel Wharton
"As Colonel Carter surveyed the position of Sheridan's Sixth Corps (it could not have been better placed for our purpose), he exclaimed; "General, you will need no infantry. With enfilade fire from my batteries I will destroy that Corps in twenty minutes." At this moment General Early came upon the field, and said:
"Well, Gordon, this is glory enough for one day. This is the 19th. Precisely one month ago to-day we were going in the opposite direction."
His allusion was to our flight from Winchester on the 19th of September. I replied: "It is very well so far, general; but we have one more blow to strike, and then there will not be left an organized company of infantry in Sheridan's army." I pointed to the Sixth Corps and explained the movements I had ordered, which I felt sure would compass the capture of that corps- certainly its destruction. When I had finished, he said: "No use in that; they will all go directly."
"That is the Sixth Corps, general. It will not go unless we drive it from the field."
"Yes, it will go too, directly."
My heart went into my boots. Visions of the fatal halt on the first day at Gettysburg, and of the whole day's hesitation to permit an assault on Grant's exposed flank on the 6th of May in the Wilderness, rose before me. And so it came to pass that the fatal halting, the hesitation, the spasmodic firing, and isolated movements in the face of the sullen, slow, and orderly retreat of this superb Federal corps, lost us the great opportunity, and converted the brilliant victory of the morning into a disastrous defeat in the evening."(4)
Sheridan hearing the sounds of battle rode his horse from Middletown and rallied his troops. Late that afternoon they came back to the scene with a vengeance. The Federal Army swept the field of the Confederate Army. After actions reports by General Early blamed the disaster on the "lack of discipline" the Confederate Army had shown. It was stated that they had broke formation to scavenge the field and emptied camps for food and provisions.
"To begin with, I quote fully and carefully from General Early's reports to general Lee, which I did not see until they were published by the government in the records of the "War of the Rebellion." In his dispatch dated October 20, 1864, speaking of his troops, general Early says: "But for their bad conduct I should have defeated Sheridan's whole force." (War Records, First Series, Vol. XLIII, Part I, p 560.) In his more formal report of October 21st, speaking of an order said to have been sent to Kershaw and Gordon to advance, he says: "They stated in reply that... their ranks were so depleted by the number of men who had stopped in the camps to plunder that they could not advance. (Ibid., pp. 562 and 563.) In the same report on the same page, he says: "So many of our men had stopped in camp to plunder (in which I am sorry to say that officers participated)," ect. Again, in another connection, he says: "We had within our grasp a glorious victory, and lost it by the uncontrollable propensity to plunder, in the first place, and the subsequent panic... which was without sufficient cause," etc. In another connection, speaking of the efforts to guard against plundering, he says: "The truth is , we have few field officers worth anything," etc. Before closing his report he again says: "But the victory already gained was lost by the subsequent bad conduct of the troops." Ch 25 pg 364.
"General Kershaw is dead, but were he living he would unite with me, as shown by the reports of his officers, in the statement that no such order ever reached us as the one which General Early sent. No reply was ever returned by General Kershaw or myself to the effect that we could not advance. The truth is we were not only urgently anxious to advance to advance, but were astounded at any halt whatever. Our troops were not absent. They were there in line, eager to advance, as will appear from the unanswerable proofs submitted. General Evans, who commanded my division while I commanded the Second Corps in the morning victory says: "When you congratulated me on the field immediately after our great victory... I was so impressed by your remarks as to be convinced that we would at once pursue our advantage... I had small details sent over the ground we had traversed in order to bring up every man who had fallen out for any cause except wounds... When the attack (afternoon) came from the enemy my command was not straggling and plundering... I wish I could see my men fully vindicated as to their conduct in this battle."
General Cullen A. Battle says: "I saw no plundering at Cedar Creek, not even a straggler. My troops were in the best possible condition." In another statement he says: "I never saw troops behave better than ours did at Cedar Creek."
Major-General Wharton, who was in the best possible position to know if there where any straggling or plundering, uses these words: "The report of the soldiers straggling and pillaging the enemy's camps is not correct... I had a pretty fair view of a large part of the field over which you had driven the enemy. It is true that there were parties passing over the field and perhaps pillaging, but most of them were citizens, teamsters and persons attached to the quartermaster's and other departments, and perhaps a few soldiers leaving their commands and pillaging."
Of all the reports of Cedar Creek which have been published in the War Records, not one except General Early's alone remotely hints at plundering as the cause of that unprecedented revulsion after the morning victory. Only two of these reports refer to the matter in any way whatever, and in both the language completely exonerates these devoted men. General Bryan Grimes, who was promoted to command of Ramseur's division, says: "Up to the hour of 4 p.m. the troops of this division, both officers and men, with a few exceptions, behaved most admirably and were kept well in hand, but little plundering and only a few shirking duty." He adds: " Major Whitting, inspector, rendered signal service by preventing all straggling and plundering." *War Records, First Series, Vol XLIII, Part I p600. Ch 25. p. 365-366
"Colonel Thomas H. Carter, General Early's chief of artillery on the field, and now the honored proctor of the University of Virginia, writes me from the university: "I confirm with your emphasis your opinion that General Early made a fatal mistake in stopping the pursuit of the enemy, with the sixth corps retiring before artillery alone and the other two corps in full and disorganized flight at nine o'clock in the morning." Ch 25 page 359.
It should be noted that before the war, like many other southern generals, Early was a graduate of West Point. In 1837 he graduated the Academy 18th overall out of 50 cadets.Before the war he was a member of the Whig party and strongly opposed secession. Like Robert E. Lee, Early joined the Virginia Militia only after Lincolns call for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion.
"Captain(Jedediah) Hotchkiss, in his contribution to the recently published "Confederate Military History" (Vol. III, p. 509), after paying his old chief, General Early, the compliments which he richly deserved as an "able strategist, most skillful commander, and one of the bravest of the brave," nevertheless characterizes the fatal halt at Cedar Creek as "this inexcusable delay." Ch 25 pg 362-363
One hundred and fifty years have passed now. The valley is once again turning towards its fall climate. Once again the rattle of musketry and the roar of the cannon are heard. This time to the delight of spectators. The only thing that seems to remain are the ghosts.
(1) Reminiscences of the Civil War. John B. Gordon ch24 pg332.
(2) Chapter 24 pg 333.
(3) Chapter 24 pg 338
(4) Chapter 24 pg 341 and 342