150 Years Ago This Week: Cedar Creek and St. Albans

October 1864 

During the third week of October, fighting in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia continued in earnest between the Union forces, commanded by Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, and the Confederate forces, commanded by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early. The burning continued as Federal cavalry carried out their systematic destruction of civilian farm and industrial property throughout the valley, intending to leave the valley a vast wasteland and of little value to the Confederacy. No section of the valley was untouched, and a heavy smoke pall hung everywhere like a dense blanket. 

In Georgia, Gen. John Hood, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee, gave up trying to harass the Union supply line from Chattanooga to Atlanta on Oct. 17 and started his troops towards Gadsden, Ala., while the cavalry, under Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest, raided the Union supply wagons far and wide. In Virginia, Gen. Sheridan was summoned to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln and Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant to discuss military plans in the Shenandoah Valley. They met during the day on Oct. 18, and Gen. Sheridan then departed for Winchester, where he spent the night.

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, had received a serious throat wound during the Battle of the Wilderness in May, and now, after recovery, was back to resume his command. Out in the western theatre of the war, Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard assumed command of the Confederate Military Division of the West, comprising all of the military operations east of the Mississippi River in the western region.

Early in the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 19, in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Early began moving his forces from the north end of the Massanutten Mountain range towards Cedar Creek. Concealed by Three-Top Mountain, a spur off the Massanutten, and early morning fog, Gen. Early sent his three divisions forward in a surprise attack across Cedar Creek on the sleeping Union troops under Maj. Gen. George Crook. The Confederates tore through the Federal encampments, completely surprising the Federals, who raced north in a wild rout and made several fruitless attempts to stop and rally themselves.

Around 10 a.m., the attack unraveled as Gen. Early’s starved troops stopped and began to help themselves of the food bounty they found in the Union camps. Attempts to reorganize the Southerners and resume the attack failed; this was the first decent food the Confederates had enjoyed in more than a month. At around 10.30 a.m., Gen. Sheridan arrived on the north end of the Union lines after a furious ride from Winchester, where he had heard the sounds of the battle. On his arrival, Gen. Sheridan rallied his troops and counterattacked the Confederates. At about 4 p.m., the Federals drove the Southerners back to the south and off the field.

Cedar Creek was to be the last major battle of the war in the valley; Gen. Early’s battered forces continued to be a nuisance to the Federals, but the Union army clearly controlled the valley until the end. Union casualties numbered almost 5,700 killed, wounded or captured; Confederate losses included Maj. Gen. Stephen Ramseur, mortally wounded among the 2,900 casualties. 

In far northern Vermont on the same day, Oct. 19, Confederate Lt. Bennett Young and some 25 soldiers descended upon St. Albans, about 15 miles from the Canadian border. Operating from Canada, Lt. Young planned to loot and burn a number of towns. The Southerners robbed three banks in St. Albans of about $200,000 and were about to burn St. Albans to the ground when the local citizens began to resist. One raider was mortally wounded and several were hurt as they retreated into Canada. About $75,000 of the money was recovered when Lt. Young and 10 of his men were captured and arrested by Canadian authorities. The Canadian government released the Confederates soon thereafter when it was determined that the authorities there lacked jurisdiction in the case.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.