Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864)

Updated: April 19, 2011

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed native Ohioan Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of America. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions.

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed native Ohioan Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of America. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get 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's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Ohioan 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.

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, Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley. On June 17 and 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 back 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. Outside of the political arena, Confederate operations in the valley had become a source of irritation to Grant. Consequently, on August 1, Grant sent Ohioan 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."

After a slow beginning, which concerned both Lincoln and Grant, Sheridan's soldiers defeated Early's greatly outnumbered army at the Battle of Opequon (September 19) and at 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 decided to launch a surprise attack on Sheridan's troops encamped at Cedar Creek. On the evening of October 18, 1864, Early's army embarked upon 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 Emory's 19th Corps. The Confederates then hit Major General Horatio G. Wright's 6th Corps, which 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.

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 3:00 p.m., Early tried to resume his advance, but the reorganized Federals repulsed him. A half-hour later, the Union 19th Corps, supported by Ohioan Major General George Custer's cavalry division, successfully assaulted Early's left flank. Sheridan then ordered a general counterattack at approximately 4:00 p.m. that routed the Rebel army. Early's army was shattered, and the surviving units limped back to Eastern Virginia to assist Lee in his struggle with Grant.

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 or captured) than the Confederates (2,910 killed, wounded, and missing or 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, Georgia, 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 to hasten the end of the Civil War by participating in the Appomattox Campaign.

Ohio unites that participated in the Battle of Cedar Creek included:

Infantry units:

23rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

34th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

36th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

91st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

116th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

123rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery Units:

Battery L of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery Regiment

Cavalry Units:

2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment

8th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Cedar Creek," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 19 Oct 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=419>

APA Style

"Battle of Cedar Creek." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved October 19, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=419

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