The Civil War was about slavery. That statement simplifies our nation’s most tumultuous era to its very basic structure. It’s easy to make that conclusion in the eyes of hindsight, but it is far from comprehensive. The Civil War resulted from a complex culmination of events and conflicting ideologies, most of which had direct ties to the issue of slavery:
Morality: Is it morally permissible for a man to not only own another man, but conscript him into forced labor?
Economy: Should slavery exist as a “necessary evil” to sustain large-scale agriculture? How would emancipation impact the US economy?
Popular Sovereignty: Is it the people’s decision whether or not slavery should exist in the territories?
States’ Rights: Is the regulation of slavery under federal or state jurisdiction? Is federal intervention an example of a strong national power infringing on the rights of the states?
Civil Rights: Should slaves be considered citizens? If so, should they be given voting rights?
Political Power: If slaves and freed blacks were taken into consideration as citizens, how would that affect congressional representation of the states? Who would gain and who would lose power?
These are just a few of the many issues that plagued the country leading up to the Civil War, not to mention the slew of legislative, economic, and regional disputes irrespective of slavery. The deeper the analysis, the longer the list gets.
Americans were divided in their loyalties, especially in Virginia. In areas of plantation culture, such as the Tidewater and Piedmont regions, secession garnered overwhelming support. In areas further west, like the Shenandoah Valley, the decision was more ambiguous. Slavery was not seen as a necessity in these areas—due to the fact that much of the agriculture was produced by Yeomen (non-slave-owning) farming families—and the consensus was to remain with the Union. However, much like today’s political climate, financial power influenced legislative action. The plantations had the power, which left the opinions of citizens in the western half of the state underrepresented. The Virginia State Legislature acted in the interests of their influencers and seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861.
A good majority of Virginians in the Shenandoah Valley opted to remain loyal to their state following the verdict of secession. It was not an easy choice by any stretch, as conflicting viewpoints pitted brother against brother, father against son, and eventually tore the state in two. Those who chose to support the Confederacy did so not because of slavery (they had little motive or interest to preserve it) but to defend their homes from what was considered an invading army of the North.
The Shenandoah Valley proved to be an invaluable asset to the South during the Civil War, nicknamed the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” on account of the vast amount of wheat produced in the region. Agriculture in the Valley sustained Confederate armies over the mounting months and years of war.
After over three years of fighting, the Civil War showed no signs of slowing in September 1864. A string of recent stalemates and discontent on Capitol Hill were weakening Abraham Lincoln’s chances for re-election that coming November. Lincoln knew that something drastic had to be done in order to bring victory (both on the battlefield and the ballots) within reach. After consulting with Union leadership, Lincoln signed off on a total war policy for the Union Valley Campaign of 1864 (also known as “The Burning”). Under this policy, civilian farms, livestock, and property were directly targeted in addition to Confederate infrastructure. The purpose behind the devastation was “break the will of the southern people [to fight]” and disable the Valley’s use as an avenue for northern invasion from the south.
General Philip Sheridan began his march with 32,000 men through the Valley on September 19 and tore an eighty-mile path of destruction from Staunton to Strasburg. According to Sheridan prior to the Battle of Cedar Creek, “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over 70 mills, filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep.” Sheridan’s army was not met without resistance. Confederate General Jubal Early and his 12,000-man army tried to force the Union out of the Valley at the Battles of Tom’s Brook and Fisher’s Hill, but were defeated in both attempts.
On October 13, Sheridan left for Washington D.C. to update Lincoln on his progress in the Shenandoah. He left his army under the command of Horatio Wright, commander of the Union 6th Corps. The Union Army camped along Valley Pike just south of Middletown with Belle Grove Plantation as its headquarters.
Confederate scouts had clear sight of the Union camps from Signal Knob on top of Massanutten Mountain. Upon a routine survey, General John Gordon and topographer Jedidiah Hotchkiss noticed a vulnerable area in the Union left flank. Gordon relayed this information to General Early and proposed an attack. Early agreed and spent the next few days formulating a plan.
On the night of October 18, Early ordered his troops to march in complete silence along Massanutten Mountain and across Bowman’s Ford. They reached the outer lines of the Union left flank the following morning just before 4 a.m. A dense fog aided the Confederate maneuvers and maintained their element of surprise. While still under cover of darkness, Early ordered his men to attack.
Members of Kershaw’s and Ramseur’s Divisions attacked General George Crook’s Union 8th Corps, Army of West Virginia to open the battle. Many of the Union troops were still sleeping in their tents when the attack happened. They were quickly overrun. Those who managed to retreat hastily organized battle lines with members of the 6th and 19th Union Corps in an attempt to halt the Confederate advance, but to no avail.
General George Getty’s Division of the 6th Corps arrived shortly after 8 a.m. and positioned artillery atop Cemetery Hill, which overlooked the battlefield. His division successfully repulsed two Confederate charges before relinquishing control of the hill at 10 a.m. after a half-hour bombardment from 30 Confederate cannons. This was the only major defensive put up by the Union in the morning of the battle.
At 11 am, against the advice of his staff, Early halted the Confederate advance, confident that victory had been attained. At the same time, General Sheridan arrived back from Winchester to find his army in tatters after the devastating attack. Undeterred, Sheridan rallied his broken army, who were already energized by his triumphant return, and reorganized battle lines for a counterattack later that afternoon.
Sheridan ordered Captain William McKinley (a future US president) to direct retreating units back to the field while cavalry divisions were deployed on either flanks of the Confederate line. Sheridan organized a two mile-long battle line of Union infantry and advanced south at 4 p.m. to engage the Confederates. The two armies clashed and fierce combat ensued. The cavalry units under Wesley Merritt and George Custer flanked the Confederate right and broke through. This caused great panic and confusion on the Confederate side and resistance soon disintegrated into retreat.
What seemed like a certain, prevailing Confederate victory quickly turned into a demoralizing defeat. “Sheridan’s Ride” (as it’s been famously named) from Winchester to Middletown completely reversed the tide of battle, as his presence and vivacity revitalized the Union fighting spirit. On the Confederate side, Early’s decision not to pursue the retreating Union army proved to be a costly mistake, forever remembered as the “Fatal Halt.” The Battle of Cedar Creek ended with 8,600 total casualties (5,700 Union and 2,900 Confederate) and a stunning Union victory that ended strong military resistance in the Shenandoah Valley for the rest of the war.
The Cedar Creek Battlefield area covers over 3,700 acres; however, if you want to visit the battlefield, only 1,500 are under National Park control (the other 2,200 is on private land). Since the area is being developed into a more sophisticated park, there isn’t much to do besides taking the Cedar Creek Auto Tour. This self-guided driving tour (which also comes with a CD-audio option) takes visitors to ten locations around the battlefield that were pivotal to the sequence of battle. You can download the mobile app for Cedar Creek and follow the route there as well!
Stop 1 is the Visitor Center where there are some nice exhibits about life in Antebellum Shenandoah and how the Battle of Cedar Creek impacted the area. Stop 2 is the location of the Union 8th Corps camps and retreat routes of the 6th and 19th Corps. It’s also the area where the first shots of battle were fired. There are remnants of redoubts and picket posts on the property that belonged to the 5th NY Light Artillery. You can access them by walking the Morning Attack trails off of US 11. A little ways down the road are Stops 3 and 4—Bowman’s Mill Ford and Long Meadow Farm—areas of Confederate advance during the initial attack.
Stop 5 is the 128th NY monument, which was dedicated in 1907 by some of the surviving members of the regiment. The 128th NY listed over half their men as casualties after the battle was over. This is also the site where Generals Horatio Wright (6th Corps) and William Emory (19th Corps) set up their command centers.
Stop 6 is Belle Grove Plantation, one of the few plantation sites in the Shenandoah Valley. The land originally belonged to Isaac Hite and Nelly Conway Madison. Hite was Major in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and a graduate of the College of William and Mary (shout-out to my alma mater). Nelly was the sister of James Madison, the 4th President of the United States. Isaac and Nelly constructed the Belle Grove Manor House between 1794 and 1797. Nelly died in 1802 and Hite married Ann Tunstall Maury some years later. Between the two marriages, Hite would father 13 children.
Belle Grove became a thriving livestock and grain plantation, sprawling over 7500 acres of land. In addition to running the plantation, Hite owned a local gristmill, sawmill, general store, and distillery. He also owned over 100 slaves who assisted him with his daily business operations. Family records indicate that 276 slaves worked at Belle Grove between 1783 and 1851. The Cooley family owned the property at during the Civil War, but at the time of battle, it was being used as Union Headquarters.
Belle Grove Plantation is open to the public, however the admission is not free like the battlefield. The general ticket price is $12, which is a little hefty for what you’re getting in my opinion. However, Belle Grove holds numerous events over the course of the year, such as cider and distillery tastings, antique appraisals, and folk festivals. Check out the link at the bottom of the page to learn more!
Going back to the tour, the next stop from Belle Grove is Cemetery Hill. This is where Getty’s Division made their stand against the relentless Confederate forces. Stop 8 is the location of Miller’s Mill, the furthest point of Confederate advance during the battle. Stops 9 and 10 are the location of Sheridan’s Ride and the point of the Union counterattack.
To be honest, Cedar Creek left a lot to be desired in terms of the historical experience. The tour route follows dilapidated backroads and passes through residential neighborhoods to get to some of these historic sites. In fact, the tour ends in a parking lot for Lord Fairfax Community College. The open concept of the battlefield (being integrated with the community as opposed to the entire battlefield under jurisdiction of the National Park Service) makes preservation harder to maintain. It felt like I was aimlessly driving around country roads instead of a battlefield, which is disappointing considering the battle’s significance. Perhaps once the park becomes more consolidated, the quality of experience will improve. But until that happens, I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit.
Click HERE to check out the Cedar Creek NPS Website!
Click HERE to visit the Belle Grove Plantation web page!
For more information about the Battle of Cedar Creek, visit the American Battlefield Trust website!