By William E. Welsh
Out of the mist on the rolling ground of the Shenandoah Valley the bulk of the Confederate Army bore down on the Union left flank on the morning of October 19, 1864. Although outnumbered against an army in a strong defensive position, the cantankerous Lt. Gen. Jubal Early threw his 21,000 veteran graybacks against Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s bluecoats at dawn. Like it had at Chancellorsville and the first day at Gettysburg, the Union army quickly unraveled.
Little Phil was not present that morning. He had spent the night in Winchester, Virginia, on his way back from a military conference in Washington. He heard cannons being fired to the South that morning, but dismissed it believing it was a Confederate probe rather than full-scale attack. Nevertheless, he swung into the saddle.
When Sheridan came to the top of a hill south of Winchester, he beheld a large portion of his 32,000-strong Army of the Shenandoah streaming north. He ordered his staff to halt the stragglers, and he spurred his horse toward the front. Little Phil was determined to personally check the rout as fast as humanly possible.
Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park in the lower Shenandoah Valley was established in 2002 and remains under development. The patchwork 1,542-acre park is located about 80 miles west of the nation’s capital. The park straddles Interstate 81 and U.S. Route 11, which is the historic Valley Pike.
The Visitor Contact Station is located in Middletown on Route 11. The National Park Service recommends those arriving from the south take exit 298 from I-81 to Route 11, and those arriving from the north take exit 302 from I-81 to Route 11.
An 18-mile, self-guided auto tour takes about two hours to complete. The auto tour covers the area of the Confederate attack in the morning south of Middletown, as well as the Union counterattack in the afternoon north of Middletown. The Civil War Trust offers a free Battle App for iPhone and Android smart phones. In addition, a free podcast tour of Cedar Creek is available on the battlefield website.
Situated in the middle of the park is Belle Grove Plantation, which is open for guided tours from April through December. The plantation is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Little Phil Sheridan to the Rescue
Sheridan flew like the wind on his horse toward the Union front. The 12-mile trip is forever remembered as “Sheridan’s Ride.” Early’s enthusiastic graybacks had driven the disheartened bluecoats north past Belle Grove.
When he reached the front about 11 AM, Little Phil was greeted with cheers by his men. He implored the stragglers around him to go back to the front. “Don’t cheer me!” said Sheridan. “If you love your country, come up to the front! There’s lots of fight in you men yet!”
At 4:30 PM the Union army was ready to go on the offensive. Supported by a cavalry division on each flank, the Union VI and XIX Corps counterattacked. It proved too much for Early’s exhausted graybacks. This time it was the Confederates turn to retreat.
The strength of Sheridan’s counterattack that afternoon proved too much for the poorly provisioned Confederate Army of the Valley, and it continued south to New Market pursued closely by Union cavalry.