Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sheridan at Cedar Creek


Coffey, in his short book Sheridan’s Lieutenants doesn’t provide the great detail that you will find in Cozzens and a few others, but in regard to Sheridan he addresses the controversial stuff. In regard to the battle of Cedar Creek he first describes Early’s plans and the extent of his initial victory over the forces Sheridan left behind when he went to visit Stanton (upon Stanton’s request).

Then by page 82 Coffey has described Early’s attack and then writes that while Early’s forces had conquered quite a lot, “Could this Yankee Army be destroyed?”

“Unfortunately for Early, his triumphant little army found its pursuit of that lofty goal challenged by the very bane of its existence – the Federal cavalry. The intimidating presence and considerable firepower of this mighty blue monster brought the Rebel advance to a halt at Middletown. Had Early possessed a mounted arm of any consequence (he had only 300 troopers of Payne’s brigade on his right flank), he likely could have sealed the victory before the Yankee horsemen came into play, but he had nothing of the sort. Torbert’s men held the pike north of the village and appeared poised to contest a continued advance by Early’s forces. Merritt’s and Custer’s divisions had been in the saddle since well before light. Much of their effort thus far had been dedicated to stemming the flow of panicked infantrymen – a distasteful duty for sure. Rugged Tom Devin’s brigade did most of this dirty work, ‘it being necessary in several instances to fire on the crowds retiring,’ the veteran wrote, ‘and to use the saber frequently.’ With his infantry falling back on Middletown, General Wright had ordered both cavalry divisions from the extreme right to the left in order to shore up the disintegrating army and to hold the Valley Turnpike. Torbert left three of Custer’s regiments to deal with Rosser out to the west and sent Merritt and Custer to support the main army north of Middletown, and here they rendered valuable service. When the gray lines pushed through the village, they ran into Merritt’s men, whose Spencer repeaters stopped the Rebels cold.”

“. . . Meritt reported, ‘Never did troops fight more elegantly than at this time; not a man shirked his duty.’ The men of the Cavalry Corps, under withering fire and almost completely exposed, ‘held their ground,’ in Torbert’s words, ‘like men of steel.’ Custer noted with perhaps more accuracy than many wished to admit: ‘But for the cavalry the enemy would have penetrated to the rear of our army, which at that time was in no condition to receive an attack from any direction. . . .”

“A great controversy arose over what happened next. Gordon, the architect of the day’s success, claimed that he encountered Early at Middletown during this lull and advocated vigorously for an all-out assault that would finish the Federals. But, maintained the handsome Georgian, Early declined to act, satisfied with his considerable gains, and therefore failed to capitalize on this rare chance to crush an entire Yankee army. . . .”

It was during this same lull that Sheridan returned to his army. “In one of the truly remarkable occurrences of the war, Sheridan’s mere presence on the field, which he made obvious by dashing from one sector to another, instantly revived the spirit of a demoralized army. Men who had stood and fought now cheered; many, if not most, of those who ran now returned to fight. Officers, some older than Sheridan, greeted him emotionally; Custer Raced up on horseback to hug him. Some Civil War commanders possessed great skill, others sheer determination, a few, it was said, had luck; Sheridan wielded magic. The confidence his soldiers placed in him at this stage no doubt owed much to his recent string of battlefield successes, but that fact only partially explained his uncanny influence over officers and men in battle. He inspired his troops as few army commanders could. As if shocked back to life by some inexplicable force, the Army of the Shenandoah resumed its swagger.

“Sheridan’s return did not save his army from destruction. Wright and Getty and the Cavalry Corps had pretty much achieved this feat before he arrived. . . No, Little Phil could not take credit for rescuing his army from the brink of annihilation, but almost as certainly the subsequent events of this most extraordinary day would not have transpired without him. Sheridan, then, came not as a savior but as a redeemer.”

Naysayers, and I have to believe from his reference to “Little Phil” that he has Wittenberg in mind here, have made light of Sheridan’s achievement on this day – as though the mere saving of his army from annihilation by Wright and others was all that was called for, but it was not. Had Sheridan not shown up Grant, Stanton, and all the newspapers would have termed it a shocking defeat – even if not all the army was destroyed. The great thing that Sheridan did was rally his troops, get them turned around, counterattack and defeat Early. “This counterattack completed the most stunning reversal of fortune to transpire on one field on one day during the war. Some 6,000 Federal officers and men and 3,000 Confederates were killed, wounded or missing. Captain Hotchkiss remarked bitterly: ‘Thus was one of the most brilliant victories of the war turned into one of the most disgraceful defeats, and all owing to the delay in pressing the enemy after we got to Middletown. . . .’”

Coffey sides with Wittenberg and a few others in disagreeing with Gordon about Early’s ability to destroy Sheridan’s army utterly if he hadn’t stopped at Middleton. I am not convinced that he could not have by what I’ve read. Sure Custer said the cavalry stopped Early, but if they had not Early’s army would have gone all the way through Sheridan’s army. And perhaps Early was impressed with the Federal cavalry as Coffey speculates, but Gordon wasn’t. He believed their army could have pushed through them. Are Gordon and others to be discounted? We recall that after each defeat Sheridan discounted Early’s ability to come back – and was surprised each time. Surely Sheridan’s division commanders were in agreement with him. So shall we give Merritt and Custer greater credence this time? Could Early’s army encouraged as Gordon was prepared to encourage them have completed the Federal army’s annihilation? Maybe not, but on the other hand maybe.

In any case everything changed when Sheridan returned. He wasn’t content to avoid annihilation, he wanted a victory, and that is what he achieved. “In a note to Secretary Stanton, the commanding general praised his hot commodity: ‘Turning what bid fair to be a disaster into a glorious victory stamps Sheridan, what I have always thought him, one of the ablest of generals.’ Two days later a handwritten message from President Lincoln arrived at Sheridan’s headquarters: ‘With great pleasure I tender to you and your brave army the thanks of the nation and my own personal admiration and gratitude for the month’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and especially for the splendid work of October 19, 1864.’ Lincoln had good reason, beyond the battlefield victories, to be grateful – Sheridan’s Valley Campaign had, along with Sherman’s triumph at Atlanta, guaranteed the president’s reelection . . . .”

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