Ride into Legend: Philip Sheridan at the Battle of Cedar Creek
On the morning of Wednesday, October 19, 1864, Union Major General Philip Sheridan was getting some much-needed rest when he was awoken by a concerned officer at around 7 a.m. The hard-fighting commander had just returned to Winchester, Virginia the previous evening after attending a strategy meeting in Washington D.C. He had hoped to sleep in, but in the midst of his campaign against Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, there was little time for respite. The officer reported that rumbles of artillery fire could be heard off to the south, where Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah was encamped near Cedar Creek. Since a reconnaissance-in-force had been ordered for that morning, Sheridan was initially unworried and waved off the officer. He tried to return to his dreamlike state, but the unabated roar of artillery demanded that his attention remain on the plain of reality. Knowing that he must return to his army and see what was happening, Sheridan rose. After saddling up and mounting his horse, Rienzi, the general and his faithful mount set out on what historian James M. McPherson describes as a “ride into legend.”
Rienzi galloped 12 miles to carry Sheridan to his army. Arriving on the scene at around 10:30 a.m. with his aides and a cavalry escort, the general found his men reeling and on the verge of defeat. After executing an all-night march, Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley had launched a surprise attack at dawn against Sheridan’s troops along Cedar Creek. Shrouded by a dense fog and catching the men in blue off guard, Early’s Confederates managed to drive the Federals back four miles and captured around 1,300 prisoners and 18 cannons. Sheridan had won three recent battles against Early, but now, the Confederate commander had struck back and achieved a triumph of his own … or so he thought.
With his troops in complete disarray, Sheridan immediately sprang to action. When some of his defeated men cheered his sudden appearance, the general fired back, “God damn you, don’t cheer me!” With his blood up, Sheridan continued to shout, urging his troops, “If you love your country, come up to the front! . . . There’s lots of fight in you men yet! Come up, God damn you! Come up!” They would indeed follow their commander to the front and battle back. As one veteran described Sheridan’s power as he rallied his troops during this crisis, “Such a scene as his presence and such emotion as it awoke cannot be realized but once in a century.”
Sheridan's Ride by Thomas B. Read. (Photo Credit: IronBrigader.com)
Instead of continuing his advance, Early decided to halt his lines and “hold what had been gained,” expecting that the Federals would conduct a full retreat. As the fighting quieted down that afternoon, however, Sheridan was making plans to erase those victorious gains that his opponent was keen to cling onto and reorganized his army for a counterattack. With his own lines put in order, Sheridan mounted Rienzi and rode the length of them, encouraging his men, who greeted him with “tremendous cheers from one end of the line to the other, many officers pressing forward to shake his hand.” With their commander on the field, a man that one Union officer declared was worth more than 10,000 reinforcements, Sheridan’s troops carried a renewed sense of power with them that would turn the tide of the battle.
At around 4:00 p.m., Sheridan launched his counterattack. Smashing into the enemy, the Federals initially faced stiff resistance, but through the fighting skill and battlefield leadership of men like Brigadier General George A. Custer, the Union ultimately overpowered the Confederates. Early’s Army of the Valley was driven from the field and as McPherson adds, “virtually disintegrated as it fled southward in the gathering darkness with blue cavalry picking off most of its wagon train.” The crushing Union counterattack also resulted in the capture of a thousand rebel prisoners, the recovery of the guns that had been lost that morning, and twenty-three other artillery pieces. In all, the two sides combined suffered an estimated 8,900 casualties at Cedar Creek, 3,100 for Early and 5,800 for Sheridan.
The Battle of Cedar Creek by Julian Scot. (Photo Credit: Vermont State Curator's Office/National Park Service)
As Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant believed, Sheridan had turned “what bid fair to be disaster into a glorious victory,” reaffirming “what I always thought him, one of the ablest of generals.” His victory at Cedar Creek was indeed a major triumph for the Union, putting an end to Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley. With its food and supplies, the Valley was the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” and its loss was a devastating blow to General Robert E. Lee and his desperately besieged army at Petersburg, Virginia. Perhaps most significant of all, Sheridan’s “ride into legend,” which followed Major General William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta earlier that September, helped President Abraham Lincoln secure reelection in November. With Lincoln back in the White House, both North and South could be certain that the Civil War would be vigorously pursued until a victorious conclusion was reached by the Union.
Following Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Creek, Thomas B. Read penned a poem titled, “Sheridan’s Ride,” an inspiring tribute to the triumphant commander and Rienzi. Telling the story of horse and man as they rode together to the sound of the guns and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, Read’s closing stanza offers a touching final salute:
Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high,
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldiers’ Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright,
“Here is the steed that saved the day,
By carrying Sheridan into the fight
From Winchester, twenty miles away!”
(As previously written in this story, Sheridan actually rode around 12 miles from Winchester to reach his army at Cedar Creek. Nonetheless, Read’s tale was eaten up by crowds at political rallies leading up to the pivotal election of 1864. The full poem can be viewed here: "Sheridan's Ride.")
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
National Park Service: Overview of the Battle of Cedar Creek.
National Park Service: Phases of the Battle of Cedar Creek.
National Park Service: Sheridan's Ride.
National Park Service: The Battle of Cedar Creek.