This is Jonathan Noyalas’ book in The History Press’ Civil War Sesquicentennial series.
This short book can be read in a single setting and gives us the basics of this battle, which was a significant event in the American Civil War for a number of reasons. “Militarily, the battle finally wrested the Shenandoah Valley–the Confederacy’s breadbasket–from Confederate grip and prevented the Valley’s harvests from being utilized by Confederate forces operating in the Old Dominion. Politically, the Union victory at Cedar Creek tremendously aided President Abraham Lincoln’s bid for reelection in November 1864. Additionally, Cedar Creek also defined the military legacy of General Philip H. Sheridan and elevated him to the great pantheon of American generals.” [p. 11]
The Shenandoah Valley played an important role in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. “The Shenandoah Valley owed its wartime strategic significance to a number of factors. First, the Valley supplied numerous resources to the Confederacy, particularly forces operating in Virginia–the heart of the Confederacy. The materials that Valley farmers supplied to Confederate troops earned the Valley its nickname, the ‘Breadbasket of the Confederacy.’ Additionally, the Shenandoah Valley served as an avenue of invasion for Confederate armies into the North and also served as a point from which Confederate forces could threaten Washington, D.C. Due to its geographic location, Confederate war planners also utilized the Valley as a place from which to create a strategic diversion and alleviate pressure against Richmond. Union forces likewise looked to the Valley as a point from which they could protect Washington, D.C., disrupt invasion and diminish the Valley’s capacity to supply food and material to the Confederate war effort.” [p. 13] After three years of confederate dominance in the Valley, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant finally decided to put an end to confederate mischief in the Valley. He consolidated the Federal commands and placed Maj. General Philip H. Sheridan in charge of a 40,000-man force to overthrow confederate dominance in the Valley.
Beginning his campaign on September 19, 1864, Sherman defeated confederate forces under Maj. General Jubal A. Early at the Battle of Third Winchester and followed it up with a victory at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill, after which he proceeded to eliminate the Valley as a source of food for the confederate army. On October 19, Early tried to reverse the tide with a surprise attack out of a dense fog on the Union position at Cedar Creek. Sheridan, at the time, was in Winchester and Horatio G. Wright was in temporary command of the Army of the Shenandoah.
Professor Noyalas gives us an excellent description of the confederate planning and their attack and how the Union forces attempted to hold and delay the advance of the confederates. He tells us how Sheridan heard firing in Winchester and eventually decided to return to the front, and on his arrival was able to turn defeat into victory. He also talks about the legacy of the battle and the veterans’ memorialization and commemoration of the battle.
It was a challenge for the Union veterans at first. “Not only had postwar Reconstruction emerged as an obstacle to Sheridan’s veterans–or for that matter other Union veterans who desired to visit other parts of the South to commemorate their service–but many former Confederates in the Valley also harbored intense animosity toward Sheridan and the Army of the Shenandoah. Little Phil’s army became the focus of hatred, as it was during his army’s tenure in the Valley that the most widespread destruction of private property occurred in such a short period of time–‘The Burning.’ Many Valley residents placed all of the blame for problems confronted by the region’s inhabitants in the war’s aftermath squarely on the Army of the Shenandoah’s shoulders.” [pp. 90-91] Time, though, helped. Congressional Reconstruction ended in 1877 and the Shenandoah Valley’s crops recovered to their prewar production levels. “In addition to recovery, Union veterans and Northerners in general began to not just view the South as an old battleground, but rather as a place for vacation and relaxation.” [p. 91] The Union veterans approached their commemorations not so much as a celebration of victory but rather as an honoring of the sacrifice of both sides. They used commemoration as an instrument of reconciliation. This attitude, along with the passage of time and the recovery of the Valley’s economy, helped ensure a warm welcome in the Valley for the Union veterans.
The book could use some more maps, and it needs an index. The narrative, however, is tight and very well done. I highly recommend it for anyone who would like a basic understanding of what happened at this battle and how it was remembered by the veterans.