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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cedar Creek: A Valley Victory

October, 2014

“Don’t Run, Men, Till the Vermonters Do.”
Capt. Windsor B. French, 77th New York Regiment,
October 19, 1864 

 LOCAL MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT: Gen. Stephen Thomas of West Fairlee was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic leadership during the Battle of Cedar Creek. His command included the 8th Vermont Regiment which included a number of other local men. (West Fairlee Historical Society) 
SHERIDAN'S FAMOUS RIDE: Gen. Philip Sheridan was depicted on the cover of Harper's Illustrated Weekly riding to rally his routed army at Cedar Creek near Middletown, Virginia.  Returning from Washington, the general ad rested overnight at Winchester and awoke to the news of battle.
VERMONT AT CEDAR CREEK DISPLAYED:  The actions of the Vermont Brigade are commemorated in the wall-size painting of the battle by Vermont artist Julian Scott. It was purchased by the State in 1874 and now is displayed in the Cedar Creek Room in the Vermont State House.
This battle was chosen by Vermont Civil War veterans because more Vermonters were involved in this battle than in any other Civil War battle. The faces of many actual participants are depicted in Scott's masterpiece.  (Courtesy Vermont State House Curator's Office)

In this detail from The Battle of Cedar Creek, Capt. Thomas Kennedy is carried from the battlefield after being wounded.  (Courtesy Vermont State Curator's Office)

 VERMONT'S ROLE AT BATTLE RECOGNIZED ANEW:  Sen. Joe Benning (Caledonia-Orange) and Vermont Civil War Historian Howard Coffin are spearheading an effort to erect a highway sign at Cedar Creek Battlefield during the 150th anniversary observances this October. The sign, describing the role of Vermont soldiers, is show being unveiled in the Cedar Creek Room in the Vermont State House by House Speaker Shap Smith (left) and Howard Coffin. (Courtesy photo by Joe Benning)

Joe Benning, Howard Coffin and Vermont group with the new Vermont highway sign and display at the 150th Anniversary observances at Cedar Creek Battlefield, October 19, 2014. (courtesy Joe Benning)

     Men from the area participated in both major battles and minor skirmishes of the American Civil War. Since the 150th anniversary observances began, this column has covered the significant engagements at Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. This article describes the role of Union forces, including local Vermont and New Hampshire men, at the Battle of Cedar Creek.
     Fought on October 19, 1864, it was the culminating battle for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. More Vermonters fought in this battle than in any other battle of the war and more than 500 were killed, wounded, or missing. 
     In addition to regimental histories and internet sources, Howard Coffin’s Full Duty, Vermonters in the Civil War and Jonathan A. Noyalias’ The Battle of Cedar Creek: Victory From the Jaws of Defeat provided complete details on the battle. State Senator Joe Benning and the West Fairlee Historical Society also provided valuable information. 
     The fertile Shenandoah Valley, running north and south in western Virginia, was one of the important theatres of the Civil War in 1864.  The Union strategy was to gain control of the valley and prevent its abundant harvest from being used by the Confederacy. It was also to prevent the valley from being used as an “avenue of invasion” against the North.
     For the previous three years, Northern forces had suffered a series of defeats in the Valley, leading one Vermont soldier to refer to it as the “valley of humiliation.” In the summer of 1864 the Union forces there were reorganized under the command of Gen. Philip Sheridan who was charged with the task of wrestling the valley from the Confederates’ grasp. The Union army of 31,000 was opposed by a Confederate force of 20,000 under the command of Gen. Jubal Early.  
     After a series of victories in September and early October, Union forces embarked on a campaign to destroy the valley’s resources. Known as “The Burning,” it involved the destruction of hundreds of barns and mills with their contents of grain and the seizing of 11,000 head of cattle.
     Northern morale, both in the army and at home, soared with these victories. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee knew, even with these setbacks, that this campaign tied up Union forces that would otherwise be used in the Union attempt to capture the southern capital at Richmond.
     By the second week of October, during a respite from hostilities, the Union force was encamped along Cedar Creek near Middletown, VA.  There was no feeling of impending action and the soldiers rested. One Vermonter wrote “absolute security prevailed.”  Sheridan travelled to Washington, leaving Gen. Horace Wright in command.    
     The Confederate’s Jubal Early was faced with the choice of retreating to replenish his forces or attacking, using surprise as a tactical advantage.  He chose the latter. His reconnaissance suggested that the Union left flank was vulnerable. 
Gen. Stephen Thomas of West Fairlee was officer-of-day and he was concerned. On the afternoon of Oct. 18, he had noticed a group of men in civilian clothes observing the Union lines. He reported his concerns to his superiors, but to no avail.  During the night he rode beyond his picket lines and found himself confronted by enemy soldiers.  He narrowly escaped capture. 
The soldiers he met were the beginning of the major advance against the Union left.  Thomas’s brigade was ordered to hold the line. That 800-man brigade included men from the Vermont 8th as well as regiments from several other states.
  Many men from the local area were in companies C and D of the 8 thInfantry. Capt. Alfred Getchell of Bradford was the commander of Co. D. He was joined by 2nd Lt. Horace Emerson of Corinth and a number of noncommissioned officers and privates.
      While many in the Union camp were caught asleep or only partially dressed, this brigade fought hand to hand until ordered to fall back. The 8th Vermont lost many of its members in fierce fighting against an overwhelming force. Their gallant stand delayed the enemy advance enough to allow others to withdraw to safety.
      Among the casualties of the 8th‘s battle that day were John Waldron and George Bean of Newbury, William Bliss of Bradford, Henry Richardson of Topsham, Joseph Rollins of Thetford and Samuel Scott of Ryegate, all wounded during that day.  Sgt. Benjamin Waldron of Newbury was taken prisoner and confined in Libby Prison.  He died three days after being exchanged in April 1865. Franklin Russell of West Fairlee was killed.
     In addition to those of the 8th Vermont, others casualties included James Greig of Newbury, 3rd VT who was killed. Alfred Clark of Topsham and Charles Porter of Thetford, both members of the 10th Vermont, were wounded during the action. In the 6th Vermont, Charles Stratton of Thetford and John Doyle of Bradford were both taken prisoner.
     Many Union soldiers retreated in unorganized alarm, leaving supplies behind. As the Confederates followed through the deserted Union encampment, the abandoned rations, boots and blankets were too much of a temptation and some stopped to plunder. Considering their deplorable state this was not unexpected.
     Driven back several miles, the Union forces made a stand on a ridge near Middletown.  The Vermont Brigade lay there awaiting the Confederate charge and then answered it with a “staggering volley.”
     Some units began to waiver in the face of the deadly rebel onslaught. It was then that Capt. French, in command of a brigade of New York troops, shouted his famous order to his men: “Don’t run, men, till the Vermonters do.”  Neither Vermonters nor New Yorkers ran away and did not withdraw until ordered to do so.
     All of this time, the Union army was without its commander.  Sheridan, returning from his Washington trip, had rested overnight twelve miles away in Winchester. Riding in haste toward Middletown, he came upon retreating soldiers.  .
     Sheridan rode among the Union forces, his presence instilling confidence among the soldiers. The Burlington Free Press reporter described his appearance: “It was at this crisis that General Sheridan arrived upon the field. He rode rapidly down the pike…and reined up in front of the Brigade and inquired ‘What troops are these?’  ‘The Sixth Corps, the Vermont Brigade’ was shouted almost simultaneously from the ranks. ‘Then we are all right!’ exclaimed the general, and swinging his hat over his head, he rapidly rode to the right amid the exultant shouts of the men.” 
     The Confederates heard these cheers and assumed Union reinforcements had arrived. As the Confederates ranks thinned, the charge lost it momentous. In consideration of the danger of the Union cavalry, Gen. Early ordered the advance halted. It had been successful to this point with his forces capturing numerous prisoners and armaments. 
     This “fatal halt” was considered one of the war’s greatest blunders.  Sheridan forged a plan to reorganize his army north of Middletown and counterattack. Sheridan strengthened the Union line with the Vermont Brigade and the 14th New Hampshire in the middle and what remained of the Vermont 8th on the right along with Gen. George Custer’s cavalry. This cavalry included both the 1st Vermont and 1st New Hampshire Cavalry regiments.
     About 4 pm the Union line moved forward and immediately came under a “furious fire of musketry.”    At this point Stephen Thomas’ horse Pete was shot. The West Fairlee officer,  temporarily on foot, advanced with his men.  For his heroic actions throughout the battle, Thomas was awarded the Medal of Honor.
     The 8th Vermont became the first Union regiment to break the enemy line.  The 14th New Hampshire lost more men killed during this charge than any other unit in the 19th Corps.
     Significant in the Union advance was the charge of 3,000 cavalrymen. Even as the Union infantry lost thrust, the cavalry continued to advance,  driving  the enemy before it “with great slaughter,” and taking many prisoners.
     Lt. Col. John W. Bennett of Newbury, in command of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, wrote: “My men rushed upon them as though they were the appointed avengers of their comrades slain.”
     By 5:30 pm the Confederate line had been penetrated.  At this point the Confederate commander realized he had more to lose than gain by continuing the fighting. What had been a Union “skedaddle” in the morning became a Confederate rout in the afternoon.
      Their retreat was complicated by the collapse of a narrow bridge on the Valley Pike.  It had to abandon the captured guns and wagons as well as most of their own. 
     Despite more than twice the number of casualties as the enemy, the Union army seized “victory from the jaws of defeat.”  The South was never again able to mount an invasion of the North through the valley.  The destruction to the valley denied valuable resources to the Confederate cause. 
     The victory had a positive impact on the reelection of President Lincoln and his plan to only end the war with the reunification of the Union.  For Philip Sheridan, the victory at Cedar Creek helped to insure his place among America’s greatest war heroes.
     The Vermont Brigade’s actions in the Battle of Cedar Creek are commemorated in a wall-size painting in what became known as the Cedar Creek Room in the Vermont State House.  It is by Vermont painter and Civil War veteran Julian Scott, himself a Medal of Honor recipient. 
     Scott included in this, his most famous Civil War painting, many of the faces of those who actually participated in the battle.  For example, the painting includes among its many features, Capt. Thomas Kennedy  of the 6th Vermont being carried from the field  after suffering wounds. 
     It may only be coincidental that Kennedy is portrayed.  Or itt may be that at the time Scott was being commissioned to paint the picture, Kennedy was a member of the Legislature and in a position to influence both this and future commissions by the artist.
     Next week will be the 150th anniversary of this battle in which many local men participated.  The Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation plans to commemorate and re-enact the battle. It is one of the few re-enactments that take place on an actual battlefield.  The Foundation expects more than 5,000 re-enactors to attend.  
     During a recent visit to the Cedar Creek Battlefield, Caledonia-Orange Senator Joe Benning) noticed the lack of recognition of Vermont’s role.  In collaboration  with Howard Coffin, Benning obtained the approval of the Senate Institutions Committee, of which he is a member, to create a Vermont roadside historical marker to be placed on the battlefield during the 150th anniversary ceremony. 
     The monument will be unveiled in the middle of the battle re-enactment.  Bennings indicated in a recent news release that “the commander of the Union forces is assembling a formal march-by and battalion salute when the monument is unveiled.”  Benning and Coffin will present the monument and the accompanying display.  That display will include a reproduction of the Julian Scott painting.    
     Among those who cared for the wounded at Cedar Creek were Heman Gillett of Corinth, Samuel Currier of West Fairlee, Cyrus Allen of Thetford and William H. Haskins of Bradford.  Haskins wote a letter to his wife the day on the day before the battle. He wrote of earlier skirmishes, the two encamped armies and the need to be paid.  His family home was in a house that still stands across the street from mine. 
     He also wrote: “You say that you can hardly realize in the quiet of Bradford that there is a war raging in the land. I am aware that people in Vermont know nothing of war comparatively, but if they were in the army an hour or two some days they would have a realizing sense of war that they would never forget.”
     Those who did experience that sense of war, gained through battles such as those mentioned in this and previous articles, never forgot.  My plan is to write one additional article in this Civil War commemoration series.  That will deal with the lives these veterans led after the war’s end in April, 1865. 
     For many their battle experiences shaped the remainder of their lives. We know all too well that this is true of combatants of every war before and after this one.  

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