The Guns of Cedar Creek – Thomas A. Lewis

This book retells the story of the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864 in a slightly different way than a normal battle study.  It is framed around the contrasting experiences of pairs of men on either side:

  • Jubal Early and Phil Sheridan, the generals in command.
  • Thomas Rosser and George Custer, classmate Cavalry generals.
  • George Gordon and George Crook, infantry generals.
  • Steven Ramseur and Charles Lowell, generals who fell at the battle.

The battle itself has generated more than its share of controversy because it is the last ‘coulda woulda shoulda’ moment of the war, where someone could argue that the ultimate result of the war could have been changed.  Leaving aside the entire west, which is typical in these kind of hypotheticals, this is the last battle in the East that the South even made a good showing.  And it was the last one before the election of 1864.

The battle took p;ace after a series of shattering defeats inflicted on Early’s army in the Shenandoah after the Union finally got serious about ending this distraction for good.  With the stalemate outside of Richmond, Lee was able to launch some troops on a distracting campaign that led to action just outside the capital.  Grant finally countered by deploying superior forces, under a good leader and with a lot of the now dominant Union cavalry to put an end to it.

After a halting start due partly to Sheridan having to get the collected forces in hand and partly to interference by Halleck and the administration, Sheridan finally launched his army and crushed Early at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill.  After burning the crops to deprive the South of them, he awaited the closing down of the theatre.  He was then called away to Washington to discuss operations with Halleck.

Lee decided to reinforce Early again and Sheridan’s absence gave the South an opening.  A flank operation allowed them to scatter and drive back the Union army, but parts of it remained unbroken and the superior horse soldiers had rejoined them. At this moment, Sheridan returned to the army and confidence returned.  After a little reorganization he counterattacked and it didn’t take long before the southern force was flanked and routed again, never to be reconstituted.  Lee recalled most of it to Richmond leaving a shadow force under Early mostly to avoid having to give him another command.

This isn’t an uncommon pattern in the Civil War – initial success, then ultimate failure. Shiloh, Corinth, Cedar Mountain, First Bull Run.  But because this was the last, there was just that much more justifying to be done.  Gordon and Early both wrote a lot after the war, and much of it was Gordon shining up the success of his flank attack and Early throwing the success away.  If only!

If only nothing.  Even without Sheridan returning that day, the army would be back and without surprise on its side, the South was due for a thrashing.  Sheridan had developed the cavalry into a solid mobile force that could both move far faster than infantry but also stand up in a fight with it.  In conjunction with an infantry force which also outnumbered the South’s, these forces could flank any position and drive the enemy out with severe loss.  Early might not have been ‘all that’ as a General, but Lee himself would find out at Five Forks, Saylor’s Creek and Appomattox that he could do nothing to beat them.

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