Location: Middletown, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: During the summer of 1864, General Grant was actively attacking the Confederates under General Lee leading to the siege of Petersburg and Richmond the coming winter. To relieve the pressure General Lee sent Lt. General Jubal Early to sweep the Union forces from the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington D.C. from the west. With a force of 16,000 Confederate soldiers, Early advanced unopposed through Virginia, bypassing Harper’s Ferry and engaging the Union forces of about 6800 soldiers, mostly hundred day soldiers from around Washington D.C. at the Battle of Monocacy River. Although the Confederates won this battle on July 9, the delay was sufficient for Grant to send reinforcements from around Richmond and stopped the Confederates within sight of Washington D.C. at Fort Stewart on July 12. Early withdrew back to Virginia with the Union army in pursuit, now under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan. After a month of small battles in the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates grew complacent about the Union threat and General Lee ordered Kershaw’s Division to return to Richmond on September 16. Upon learning this, General Sheridan struck with his entire force near Winchester, Virginia known as the Battle of Opequon where Early sustained heavy casualties. Early retreated to a good defensive position on Fisher’s HIll, but lacked the manpower to hold and was routed again by Sheridan on September 22, after which the Confederates retreated to Waynesboro. Because of Linclon’s upcoming election, Sheridan did not want to suffer any major defeat prior to the election and choose to withdraw slowly back north burning crops and farms along the way, which became known by the locals as “the Burning”. Prior to this point the Shenandoah Valley was known as the breadbasket of the South, supplying the Confederate army with 20% of the grain and livestock to feed the army of Northern Virginia. This strategy denied the South of these important resources and predated Sherman’s March to the Sea in November with the same objective. Believing that Early was pinned down and could no longer muster an attack, Sheridan departed on October 16 for a war conference in the capital, leaving Major General Horatio Wright in command. The Union army had established their camp around Cedar Creek with Sheridan’s headquarters at Belle Grove. At this location is also the northern end of the Massanutten Mountains which splits the Shenandoah Valley for about 50 miles extending to the south. At the end of this chain is Signal Knob, which was used by both sides as a signaling post. By climbing to the top of the Knob, the Confederates were able to see the entire layout of the Union forces and learned that the left flank was unsecured near the confluence of Cedar Creek and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. With the only options of either withdrawing to locate supplies and seek reinforcements or to attack the Union forces in a daring surprise attack, General Early decided to take the bold approach based on this intelligence. During the night of October 18, Early divided his force into three columns to cross Cedar Creek at three locations on the Union left flank. The Confederates quiet approach in a heavy fog caught the Union trenches of Colonel Thoburn’s division completed by surprise when Kershaw’s Division struck at 5 am. Hearing the gunfire, Maj General Gordon’s column started their attack on the position of Colonel Rutherford Hayes’ division on the extreme left flank. Caught still in their bedrolls, the Union army fled back toward Belle Grove with the Confederates in hot pursuit. Brig General Emory XIX Corps reacted to the gunfire and swung around from their position on the right flank to meet the assault. Gallant stands by the XIX Corps delayed the Confederates sufficiently to allow the withdrawal of cannon and supplies from Belle Grove before begin overrun by 7:00. By this time the VI Corps was able to regroup and establish a defensive line north of Belle Grove with the XIX Corps just west of Meadow Brook. The two Union divisions were able to link up about a mile to the northeast, being joined by Getty’s division which had withheld a fierce battle at the Mt Carmel cemetery that included a 30 minute artillery barrage and three Confederate charges before withdrawing. The Union army now set up a defensive line north of Middletown, expecting further Confederate attacks. However, the Confederates paused at this point, partly due to the fact that about a third of the army was missing as they pillage the Union camps for badly needed food and clothing. At the beginning of the battle, General Sheridan was staying overnight at Winchester returning from his meeting in Washington. He dismissed earlier reports of the battle and did not leave Winchester until 9 in the morning after most of the fighting had occurred. As he approached the battle he realized his mistake and began riding aggressively to the sounds of fighting after ordering Captain William McKinley to set up a line to intercept fleeing soldiers and sending them back to the front. He reached his forces at 10:30 and began rallying his troops along the defensive line north of Middletown that General Wright had begun to organize. His presence electrified the troops as he rode up and back along the line and instead of retreating he ordered a counterattack, positioning cavalry units on both Confederate flanks. Beginning at 4 pm, the Union counterattack at first met fierce resistance, but as Early’s left flank began to crumble, General Custer’s cavalry went around the left flank to attack the rear of the Confederate position. Fearing their retreat across Cedar Creek would be cut off by the cavalry, many of the Confederates panicked and began fleeing to the rear. Although the artillery made a couple of delaying attacks, Early lost control of his army who were exhausted after marching all night and fighting all day. When a small bridge on the Valley Pike collapsed the Confederates had to abandon all of the captured cannons and much of their own artillery. What started out as a stunning Confederate victory over a superior Union force had turned into a devastating defeat leading to the capture of most of the Confederate army at Stanton a few days later.
1) The Visitor Center for the National Historical Park is a small office in a strip mall at the north end of Middletown and can be easily missed (as we did initially). This is a relatively new Historical Park, being established in 2002, and they do not yet have a permanent building. Although there are over 3700 acres in protected area within the authorized boundary, only 900 acres are owned by the federal government. The rest is privately owned by a number of organizations and non-profits for which the NPS serves as a coordinating unit. While they do not have a movie about the battle (or a theater to show one if they had it), they do have an excellent battlefield display with lights and pictures on a TV screen that give an excellent description of the battle.
2) Since we had all day to tour the battlefield we obtained information about the driving tour, which came with the loan of a CD providing very useful information about the 10 stops on the tour.
3) The first stop on the tour is at the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation Headquarters along US Route 11, which was the Valley Pike at the time of the battle. Valley Pike was a vital line of supply and communications for both armies and saw a lot of action during the Civil War. The Foundation Headquarters also overlooks the fields of Belle Grove where Sheridan has established his headquarters.
4) The driving tour then proceeds south to the beginning points of the battle. The first of these stops is at the 8th Corps Camps marking the left end of the Union line. The Union soldiers sleeping here behind their trenches were the first to be attacked by the Confederates at 5 am on the morning of October 19.
5) The next two stops of the tour are at Bowman’s Mill Ford over Cedar Creek where Kershaw’s division crossed before attacking 8th Corps and along the Long Meadow Road used by 7500 Confederates to move into attack positions.
6) The next stop is at the 128th New York monument from where you can take a self-guided hiking trail along the remains of the Union trenches, some of the best preserved from the Civil War. At this point the Confederates struck the 19th Corps left and rear forcing a general retreat north towards Belle Grove.
7) The next stop is Belle Grove, where Sheridan had his headquarters. Belle Grove was built in 1797 by Isaac Hite, Jr and has been rennovated and is now open to the public by the Belle Grove Foundation. This was the sight of mass confusion as the Union army quickly pulled their supply wagons and cannon from the advancing Confederates who overran the headquarters by 7:00 that morning.
8) The next stop is the Mt. Carmel Cemetery where fighting was among the headstones as Union Brig General Getty’s 2400 man division held this prominent hill for 1.5 hours slowing the Confederate attack. Believing he was facing the entire Union army, General Early ordered an artillery bombardment of the cemetery for 30 minutes before ordering the third attack of the position upon which Getty withdrew to the north.
9) The next stop is Miller’s Mill which marks the furthest point of advance by the Confederate army. General Early formed his line along Miller Lane, which at that time was lined with a stone wall. As the Confederates halted to regroup and rest, as many as a third of the soldiers deserted the line to pillage the Unions camps for badly needed food and clothing.
10) The next to last stop is along the Union battle lines north of Middletown from which Sheridan encouraged his army to counterattack the Confederates at 4 pm.
11) The final stop of the driving tour is in the parking lot of Lord Fairfax Community College which marks the Confederate line that was hit during the counterattack by the Union army. After fierce resistance, the Confederate line broke from west to east, setting up a full-scale retreat turning a stunning Confederate victory into a devastating defeat.