American Civil War: Battle of Cedar Creek

Major General Philip Sheridan at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Battle of Cedar Creek was fought October 19, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Seeking to regain the initiative in the Shenandoah Valley after a string of defeats in 1864, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early planned a surprise attack on the Union Army of the Shenandoah's camp. Striking on the morning of October 18, the Confederates enjoyed early success and pushed the Union troops back. Later in the day, following the return of Major General Philip H. Sheridan from a meeting in Washington, Union forces counterattacked and crushed Early's men. The victory effectively eliminated Early's command as an effective fighting force.


After a succession of defeats at the hands of Major General Philip H. Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah in early fall 1864, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early retreated "up" the Shenandoah Valley to regroup. Believing that Early was beaten, Sheridan began making plans to return Major General Horatio Wright's VI Corps to Petersburg to aid in Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's efforts to take the city. Understanding the valley's importance as a source of food and supplies for his army, General Robert E. Lee dispatched reinforcements to Early.

Portrait of Major General Philip H. Sheridan in Union Army uniform.
Major General Philip H. Sheridan. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

With his army augmented, Early pushed north to Fisher's Hill on October 13, 1864. Learning of this, Sheridan recalled VI Corps to his army's camp along Cedar Creek. Though alarmed by Early's move, Sheridan still elected to attend a conference in Washington and left Wright in command of the army. Returning, Sheridan spent the night of October 18/19 at Winchester, approximately fourteen miles north of Cedar Creek. While Sheridan was away, Major General John Gordon and topographical engineer Jedediah Hotchkiss ascended Massanutten Mountain and surveyed the Union position.

Battle of Cedar Crek

Moving to Contact

From their vantage point, they determined that the Union left flank was vulnerable. Wright believed that it was protected by the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and had arrayed the army to repel an attack on its right. Developing a daring attack plan, the two presented it to Early who immediately approved it. At Cedar Creek, the Union army was in camp with Major General George Crook's VII Corps near the river, Major General William Emory's XIX Corps in the center, and Wright's VI Corps on right.

On the far right was Major General Alfred Torbert's Cavalry Corps with divisions led by Brigadier Generals Wesley Merritt and George Custer. On the night of October 18/19, Early's command moved out in three columns. Marching by moonlight, Gordon led a three-division column along the base of Massanutten to McInturff's and Colonel Bowman's fords. Capturing the Union pickets, they crossed the river and formed on Crook's left flank around 4:00 AM. To the west, Early moved north up the Valley Turnpike with the divisions of Major General Joseph Kershaw and Brigadier General Gabriel Wharton.

Headshot Jubal A. Early
Lieutenant General Jubal Early, CSA. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Fighting Begins

Moving through Strasburg, Early remained with Kershaw as the division moved right and formed just past Bowman's Mill Ford. Wharton continued up the turnpike and deployed on Hupp's Hill. Though a heavy fog descended on the field around dawn, the battle commenced at 5:00 AM when Kershaw's men opened fire and advanced on Crook's front. A few minutes later, Gordon's assault began again Brigadier General Rutherford B. Hayes' division on Crook's left. Catching the Union troops by surprise in their camps, the Confederates succeeded in quickly routing Crook's men.

Believing that Sheridan was at nearby Belle Grove plantation, Gordon drove his men on in the hopes of capturing the Union general. Alerted to the danger, Wright and Emory began working to form a defensive line along the Valley Turnpike. As this resistance began to take shape, Wharton attacked across Cedar Creek at Stickley's Mill. Taking the Union lines to his front, he men captured seven guns. Under heavy pressure and fire from Confederate artillery across the creek, Union forces were steadily pushed back past Belle Grove.

With Crook and Emory's corps badly beaten, VI Corps formed a strong defensive line anchored on Cedar Creek and covering the higher ground north of Belle Grove. Repulsing attacks from Kershaw and Gordon's men, they provided time for their comrades to retreat to the north of nearby Middletown. Having halted Early's attacks, VI Corps withdrew as well. While the infantry regrouped, Torbert's cavalry, having defeated a weak thrust by Brigadier General Thomas Rosser's Confederate horse, moved to the left of the new Union line above Middletown.

This movement caused Early to shift troops to meet the potential threat. Advancing north of Middletown, Early formed a new line opposite the Union position, but failed to press his advantage believing he had already won a victory and due to many of his men having halted to pillage the Union camps. Having learned of the fighting, Sheridan departed Winchester and, riding at high speed, arrived on the field around 10:30 AM. Quickly assessing the situation, he placed VI Corps on the left, along the Valley Pike and XIX Corps on the right. Crook's shattered corps was put in reserve.

Portrait of George A. Custer
Major General George A. Custer. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

The Tide Turns

Shifting Custer's division to his right flank, Sheridan rode across the front of his new line to rally the men before preparing a counterattack. Around 3:00 PM, Early launched a minor attack which was easily defeated. Thirty minutes later XIX Corps and Custer advanced against the Confederate left which was in the air. Extending his line west, Custer thinned Gordon's division which was holding Early's flank. Then launching a massive assault, Custer overran Gordon's men causing the Confederate line to start breaking from west to east.

At 4:00 PM, with Custer and XIX Corps having success, Sheridan ordered a general advance. With Gordon and Kershaw's men breaking on the left, Major General Stephen Ramseur's division mounted a stiff defense in the center until their commander fell mortally wounded. His army disintegrating, Early began retreating south, pursued by Union cavalry. Harried until after dark, Early lost most of his artillery when the bridge at Spangler's Ford collapsed.


In the fighting at Cedar Creek, Union forces suffered 644 dead, 3,430 wounded, and 1,591 missing/captured, while the Confederates lost 320 dead, 1,540 wounded, 1050 missing/captured. In addition, Early lost 43 guns and the bulk of his supplies. Having failed to retain the momentum of the morning's successes, Early was overwhelmed by Sheridan's charismatic leadership and ability to rally his men. The defeat effectively gave control of the valley to the Union and eliminated Early's army as an effective force. In addition, coupled with Union successes at Mobile Bay and Atlanta, the victory virtually ensured the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Cedar Creek." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Battle of Cedar Creek. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Cedar Creek." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).