Confederate Veteran March 1894.
BATTLE OF CEDAR CREEK TRIBUTE TO EARLY.
By Capt. S. D. Buck, THIRTEENTH VIRGINIA INFANTRY,
As you paid me the compliment to copy my letter to the Baltimore Sun, " Burning Bridge over Rappahanock," I send you, from my manuscript, an account of the battle of Cedar Creek. I have written 170 pages of manuscript of the war as I saw it, and this article is part of a chapter. The battle was fought October 19, 1864.
No one can appreciate the desperation of this grand move without closely examining a war map. Having been born and raised almost in gunshot of this field, I see every road and defile as I write. Gen. Early has been accused of recklessness in fighting this battle. Such was not the case. It was a necessity, as the only possible way to prevent troops from being sent to Grant from the Valley. Hazardous? Yes, so was every move we made. Gen. Early, one of the best and bravest Generals of the war, was sent to the Valley to fight, though a forlorn hope, and no man in the army could have done more. Why Gen. Sheridan did not crush him in two weeks has always been a mystery to me. Four to one were the odds we had to contend with. Sheridan had as many cavalry as we had in all.
Minute description of the surroundings is necessary for a correct understanding of the move in contemplation. Our army was in camp on the old line known as Fisher's Hill, over a mile south of Strasburg, while Sheridan was camped north of Cedar Creek, a small stream flowing southeast and emptying into the north branch of Shenandoah River. The Valley Pike crosses Cedar Creek two miles north of Strasburg, and Sheridan was strongly posted on its high embankments, rendering a direct attack simply hopeless. Our right rested on the Shenandoah above Strasburg, while our left was on the same river below. Upon our right was Maurerton Mountain, and the Shenandoah River, a swift stream, fordable every few miles, hugged the base of this mountain for several miles. There was no road between the river and the mountain, yet Early dared to separate his army and send half of it, under command of the gallant Gordon, in single file, through the bushes where it was often almost impossible for men to stand, a distance of over three miles. The march was made cheerfully in the dead of night when the only sound was the continued tread of the men and the oft repeated command, "Close up." On this memorable night our division, under the gallant Pegram (Gordon's old division) and Ramseur's division, broke camp (Starvation) and marched to the river, where wagons had been placed and a bridge made for us to cross upon. After crossing we rested some hours before starting in single file for Sheridan's rear. After a most terrible march we came out at Pitman Farm, where we struck the main road leading from Strasburg to Front Royal. We were then on Sheridan's left flank, but the river flowed between the two armies and had to be forded) so we continued our march upon the main road. Every tree was familiar to me. As a boy I walked and rode almost daily over this section. At Hill's Lane we filed to the left, and it was plain we had to cross at Bowman's Ford. [I used to hunt squirrels and partridges all over these grounds, but now I was bunting men, and found game plentiful.] In this lane we halted for the men to close up. As soon as this was accomplished we hurried to the river and waded through, without considering the disagreeable wetting to be endured.
The cavalry had crossed and captured the pickets. Gordon's men followed and soon struck the extreme left and rear of Sheridan's line. It was a complete surprise. Men were captured in bed, not knowing we were nearer than Fisher's Hill. Gordon's and Ramseur's divisions were in front, and ours in reserve. These two divisions drove every thing before them, and while this was being done Gen. Early had worked his way close up to the enemy in front, and at daylight he struck a terrible blow, driving them back upon us only to be pressed out of shape, a broken, routed army. On they rushed to Belle Grove, three miles, where they were in readiness with a fresh division to meet us. Upon these fresh troops many stragglers had rallied. Our division was ordered forward, and in a few minutes were hotly engaged. Driving the skirmish line in, we struck the line of battle, and as we got closer found a heavy battery on our left doing much damage. Our brigade, commanded by Col. Hoffman, bore to the left and charged, driving the artillerymen from their guns and the support back. Here, to my surprise, we were halted and ordered to reform. Col. Hoffman could not see well, or he would not have stopped at this point, so I called him as he was passing, on horse back, and pointed out our danger, but he still insisted upon reforming before making a second charge. Seeing the enemy advancing upon their battery, which would be turned on us again, I urged Col. H. to allow me to move with a few men and hold the battery. To this he consented, and with about fifty men we charged across the river, captured the five guns, turned them on the enemy, and held them until Col. H. came to our assistance. Gen. Pegram came up at this time and Col. H. told him of our charge, and the General said he would have those guns christened to my honor, but Sheridan objected, and in the afternoon the battery was recaptured.
I was a member of the 13th Virginia Infantry, organized by Gen. A. P. Hill, molded by the bravest of the brave, Gen. James a Walker, and made invincible by the courage and example of Col. James B. Terrell. No command could boast of three such officers, hence the reputation it gained. For an opinion of this gallant body of men I refer my reader to an oration by Gen. Walker at the unveiling of the A. P. Hill monument at Richmond. From this charge we gathered solidity and moved on, driving the enemy into and through Middleton. Here we were halted over night upon Valley Pike, north of the town and at the toll gate. We remained at this point all day waiting for orders to move forward. A great victory had been won only to be thrown away not lost, as many suppose, and as history claims, by the return of Sheridan not one bit of it. The fault lies at our own door. Our men, feeling victory was complete, gave way to the disposition to clothe themselves from the enemy's camp, deserted their comrades. Fully one third of our army could have been found away from their commands, and by so doing sacrificing their country. Comrade, was you of this number? If so, you caused the disaster, not Sheridan. Shame, shame! Had every man been at his post we would not have lost this battle, and none of the poetry of Sheridan's ride would ever have been written. We held our position until ordered back, and we (Pegram's brigade, commanded by Pegram in person, also Johnson's North Carolina brigade) marched in line of battle from Middleton to Cedar Creek, where we had to break to cross the bridge. At Stickley's, south of the bridge, Gen. Pegram rallied about 100 men) and we again checked the enemy's cavalry, but soon a brigade charged us, and we made the best retreat we could. Knowing the country thoroughly, I went to the mountain and got into camp at Fisher's Hill by 10 o'clock that night, taking a pretty good regiment of men with me who were lost in the stampede. Most. of our artillery was lost near Strasburg, occasioned by the breaking of a small bridge, and could have been saved had any one in authority known of it. In my retreat that night I met with an officer whom I piloted to the river, where we both jumped in, and where the Colonel disappeared, either killed, drowned or taken prisoner. If he is alive and sees this article I would like to hear from him. We retreated up the Valley next morning. My mother and sisters went over the battle field next day expecting to find my dead body, but I was very much alive, in a foot race for safety further South. Gen. Gordon did some beautiful fighting at Cedar Creek, but when he is accredited with planning the battle I feel it is an error. It was Gen. Early's plan, and it bore his ear marks daring in the extreme fully in keeping with the man and all of his movements in front of Sheridan. Suppose Early had had as many men as Sheridan, does any sane man for one moment believe the Valley of Virginia would have fallen into the hands of the enemy? Never! Many good soldiers criticise Gen. Early, but one moment's reflection should change their harsh judgment to praise and admiration. For weeks he confronted Sheridan's hosts with a mere handful of men, knowing all the time how he was outnumbered. His duty was to keep Sheridan from sending troops to Grant, and he did this, but not until 40,000 marched upon 10,000 could Early be shaken off. Gen. Lee's letter to him removing him is a deserved compliment. Early was the only man in the army who would have dared to have taken such chances. He sacrificed himself for his country, and in future years will be regarded as one of our ablest Generals.
Sheridan's loss, according to Maj. Pound's History of the Valley Campaign, in this battle, was 569 killed, 3,425 wounded, and 1,770 missing, total, 5,764. Our loss was 3,100 killed, wounded and missing.
J. T. Lyon, of Forty third Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, writes again : Farmwell, Va., Feb. 2. In my article published in the January VETERAN there is a mistake. It should have been Ramseur's division, not Ransom's. He too was killed at Cedar Creek, when General Gordon made that Jacksonian move, surprising Sheridan's army, routing and driving them in great confusion toward Winchester. Early's troops, instead of following up their victory, fell out of ranks to plunder the yankee camp. Sheridan promptly reformed his troops and returned the same day and defeated Early, and caused him to lose all he had gained and more too. But if ever soldiers were excusable for such conduct Early's poor half famished men surely were. They had been marching and fighting from the first of May, at the Wilderness, at Cold Harbor, at Lynchburg, at Salem, West Va., and then to Washington and return. It is estimated that from June to September Early had marched his little army over four hundred miles.