This Day In History: The Union Defeat the Confederates At Cedar Creek (1864)

On this date in history, a Union army was nearly destroyed at the Battle fo Cedar Creek in the American Civil War.  The Confederates under the able General Jubal Early launched a surprise attack on a Union army in the Shenandoah Valley, a key battleground in the war.  The Union General Sheridan was able to retrieve the situation and he turned what looked like a certain defeat into a victory for the Northern army.

During the summer of 1864, Early marched his army into the Shenandoah Valley and its surrounding area. This was threatening Union supply lines and its hold on the territory. The Union General in Chief Ulysses S Grant ordered on of his most able Generals to deal with the situation. He did not give him a large force as all available forces were needed to maintain the pressure on Lee at Petersburg in Virginia. Sheridan was an aggressive commander and launched a series of attacks on the Confederates and this resulted in several minor victories. As the Union army advanced they destroyed the harvest in the fields to deny the Confederates food and soon the Southern army was running low on supplies.

When Sheridan was called back for a conference with President Lincoln and General grant, Early, whose army was in a desperate state decided to order a surprise attack. The Yankees were camped at Cedar Creek. Early in the early hours of the morning ordered his army to attack the Union forces. They achieved a complete surprise and they drove the Yankees back some three miles and it looked as if the Rebels would achieve a great victory.  However, Early, did not press home his advantage, despite the urging of his second-in-command.  Even when Union troops began to disobey orders and retreat and the entire army seemed about to disintegrate, the Confederate general did not order a general attack.  This possibly saved the Union from a serious military set-back.

Battle of Cedar Creek from a contemporary Lithograph

Sheridan was informed of the battle and he rode furiously to the battlefield and as he did he met retreating Union soldiers. He managed to rally the men and organized a counter-attack. This became known as ‘Sheridan’s Ride’ and it entered into legend.

Because Early stopped his attack, this allowed Sheridan to re-organize his army. In the afternoon he had restored order in the Yankee regiments and then ordered them to attack the Confederate lines. It was a disaster for the South and some 3000 men were killed and nearly all of their cannon were taken. After this the army of Early was effectively out of the war and the battle of Cedar Creek was the last great battle in the Shenandoah Valley. The defeat of the Confederates in this theatre of the war allowed the Union to concentrate its forces on the siege at Petersburg were Lee was virtually surrounded by the Union army under General Grant.