Above Image: Poster of the Civil War in the Shenandoah from Bronson Greater Shenandoah. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Shenandoah Valley 1864, Battle of Cedar Creek 150th Anniversary
1864 - For most, the year of 1864 in the Civil War was a year of dramatic differences. It was a difference in style, most brought on by the ravages of three prior years of war, as well as the change in style from the commander at the top of the Union army, Ulysses S. Grant. For many that meant the campaigns he made with Meade to fight Lee from the Wilderness to Petersburg and Richmond. For others it would be the campaign of Sherman toward Atlanta and the sea. And then, there's the Shenandoah Valley, where 1864 meant Jubal Early, the Confederate commander waging war and threatening Washington until Phil Sheridan would stop him in a series of battles that would culminate in the Battle of Cedar Creek. One hundred and fifty years later, it would be the anniversary of all three of those prongs of attack in the eastern theatre, with battle walks and remembrance of the sacrifice that those many men and women would make in a time of war. And the celebrations within the Shenandoah Valley from May to October would add a great measure to the understanding and history of that series of battles in 1864 up and down the mountain valley.
- Then and Now
- Great Moments from the 150th
October 18, 1864 - The 150th Anniversary celebrations at the Battle of Cedar Creek were a grand expression of all those events, particularly because of the legacy of the battle representing a final push by Jubal Early's diminished force for victory, or stall, or feint, and his early morning success before a Sheridan ride and Custer cavalry turned the tide in the afternoon to effectively end the Civil War in the valley. The 150th Anniversary events should also be noted at Cedar Creek for the remarkable culling together of a new national battlefield over the past five to ten years by the National Park Service and partners to tell that story with passion, skill, and aplomb. For four days in 2014, battle walks, a reenactment on the actual grounds of the battle fronting Belle Grove (photo above: reenactors tents on grounds), the plantation in its center, and a five a.m. surprise attack for those willing or devoted or tetched enough to catch a bus in the middle of the night and witness what the men of the Confederate and Union army endured at exactly that time and date 150 years prior.
The Battle of Cedar Creek occured after a year of war in the Shenandoah Valley that saw the Confederate Army threaten the outskirts of Washington. By the time the Battle of Cedar Creek raged around the limestone mansion of Belle Grove, the Confederates were outnumbered 2.5 to 1. But they attacked anyway, prompted by orders from Lee to relieve some pressure on himself in Petersburg and Richmond. And they almost won. Then they lost. The events from October 17 to 20 in Middletown (a town of 440 residents in 1864 swelled to 32,000 by the soldiers in their midst) took you on all those ups and downs, both literally and figuratively, in spectacular fashion, for all those those thrilled by reenactments, or chuffed by ceremony, or willing to walk in the dark.
How Many Participated
2014 - It's hard to put into numbers the amount of spectactors who visited the anniversary of any of these events. At Cedar Creek, the event program was divided between a ticketed event inside the Belle Grove Plantation grounds where living history and reenactments occured, and the Park Service program that traipsed shuttled visitors around the field. A cursory account saw thousands streaming across the Valley Pike to enter the reenactment grounds, and each battle walk (of which there were dozens) with one hundred or more participants.
Cedar Creek Then
Soldiers at the Battle of Cedar Creek - There were approximately 32,000 Union soldiers and 12,000 Confederate soldiers engaged in the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. Below photo is of a group of Union and Confederate soldiers fighting (Gordon vs. 19th Union Corps) on the morning in front of the Belle Grove mansion.
Cedar Creek Now
Belle Grove Mansion - Belle Grove was the headquarters of the Union Army in the Shenandoah Valley prior to the day's battle and for its first half, although in that phase, the commander of Union forces, General Phil Sheridan, had left the field to go to Washington, D.C. for meetings, leaving Horacio Wright in charge. By mid-morning of October 19, however, the Union was no longer in command of the house, having lost it in a hasty battle line which fronted its doors. The Union would be back inside by nightfall. It is now the centerpiece of the park, run by the Belle Grove Plantation Association, a partner in the battlefield park. Photo above of Confederate reenactors standing in front of the front porch.
Rienzi's Knoll and Sheridan's Ride - After a morning of utter and surprising defeat by the Confederate soldiers under Jubal Early, word was sent to General Phil Sheridan of the fight. He jumped on his horse Rienzi and rode twelve miles to the battlefield, eventually rallying his troops on the fields around the house and farm. The farm is now preserved by the Civil War Trust, and although outside current National Park Service boundaries, is open for interpretation at varoius times during the year.
Thorndale Farm - During the real time walks of October 19, rangers interpreted the Thorndale Farm, a recently purchased property by a Civil War fan. This farm saw action late in the day of October 19 when Merritt's cavalry defeated their Confederate counterparts, leading to the Union victory. Merritt's cavalry, along with the cavalry action of General George Armstrong Custer on the right side of the Union counterattack, won the day and effectively ended the Confederate fight in the Shenandoah Valley.
- 1. A skirmish in the dark on the southern part of the Cedar Creek Battlefield. Certainly not a skirmish, but a full on battle in 1864, but as the visitors who were willing to sleep very little and wait for a bus at 4 a.m. found out, it's really hard to see what's coming on you in the dark, even though the 2014 dark didn't include fog. Kudos go to Eric Campbell, the spectacular park ranger charged with putting together not only that program and skirmish, but the park itself. It was a thrilling surprise to the spectators, dazed and confused by the movement of the reenactors as well as sleep deprivation. Now that really woke you up. Imagine what it did to the Union soldiers sleeping in their tents in 1864. These are some of the thrills you can get at a National Park, folks. And for those there in 2014, veterans of these events, they'd certainly be willing to do it again and show you how if you go to your first.
2. The Reenactment. When you drove down the Valley Pike through Middletown upon arrival, the image that greeted you was spectacular. Thousands of tents spread on the west side of the road on the actual grounds of Belle Grove plantation awaited, and that's before the guns started to blaze. In camps divided by the Confederate and Union combatants, visitors could walk amongst the thousands of reenactors who painstakingly represent the men and women of the time. By the time the reenactments started on October 18-19, the fields were ringed with visitors who got to see a representation of three battles, culminating in the one that was fought right there, the Battle of Cedar Creek (pic above of painting by Thure de Thulstrup of Sheridan's ride). If you've never made it to one of these reenactments, do so. And if you've got kids who need a history lesson, and a fun one, from time to time, this might just be the place.
3. Battle Walks in Real Time. Begun with the one we spoke about at the top of this section, the Park Service rangers at the Battle of Cedar Creek (Eric, Kyle, Shannon, Jeff, loaned from Gettysburg Bill, and others) took you on a exact tour of what was happening each hour of the fight. Either shuttled by bus or in a caravan of cars that followed, you could go on the entire series of events from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. or pick and choose. There's not a better way to understand what, when, how, and where of what a battle is about than to do a series of Real Time programs.
4. Ceremony. Yes, it was cold, with a wind whipping across the stage fronting Belle Grove Plantation at 20-30 miles per hour, but this is where you start to understand the solemnity of the moment. Speakers from historians to students to famed director Ron Maxwell told of the sacrifice and the steps to make sure that sacrifice is never forgotten. Look into the Journey through Hallowed Ground campaign to plant one tree, with detailed soldier history attached, for every one of the 622,000 of those who died in the Civil War from Monticello to Gettysburg.
Watch What Happened
October 19, 2014 - Check out some videos from the National Park Service about the actions at the Battle of Cedar Creek.