(Host) Vermonters were right in the thick of things during many Civil War battles, one of which is the subject of a large painting in the State House. Commentator Tom Slayton observes the October anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek.
(Slayton) Civil War battles often bear the stamp of individual character – that’s one of the things that make them so interesting. And no battle hinged more pivotally on personal character and individual leadership than the Battle of Cedar Creek. It was also a battle that had enormous political significance – and one in which Vermont troops played a valiant and vital role – which is the reason that the largest painting in the Vermont State House is a huge, wall-sized depiction of that very battle.
In the late summer of 1864, Gen. Philip Sheridan was ordered to invade and lay waste the Shenandoah Valley, long the sanctuary and breadbasket of the Confederacy. Sheridan carried out his orders with thorough ferocity. In much the same fashion that Sherman marched through Geogia, Sheridan savaged the Shenandoah, burning crops and barns, destroying
utterly the valley’s ability to support a Rebel army.
But in the early morning of October 19, with Sheridan on his way back from meetings in Washington, Gen. Jubal Early’s rebels clambered up out of the creek bottoms and surprised the union troops. The Confederates smashed through the Union flank, pushing the Federals back several miles and inflicting heavy casualties, despite heroic resistance from Vermont troops, and others.
And then the rebel general hesitated. Believing the Union troops defeated, he waited for them to retreat northward. But at that very moment, Gen. Phil Sheridan, stubborn and charismatic, was riding hard and fast toward Cedar Creek. He’d heard the rumble of cannon fire from Winchester, and as he rode toward the battle, the charismatic Sheridan rallied his retreating soldiers: “Turn around boys,” he declared. “We’re going back!”
Sheridan shaped up his troops and sent them into battle, Vermonters at the point of the attack. The Rebel line broke and Union cavalry slashed through the Confederate rear, speading panic. Sudenly the Rebel triumph was turned into a rout. The Shenandoah Valley was out of the war.
This not only denied the Confederate Army food they desperately needed, it also shored up the sagging re-election campaign of Abraham Lincoln. The victory at Cedar Creek showed the war could – and would – be won. Lincoln was re-elected and Sheridan’s ride went into legend.
What makes one man hesitate in the face of certain victory, another fight on heroically despite what looks like utter defeat? It’s hard to say, but on such imponderable issues of human personality turn the course of battles, wars, elections – and ultimately, history.
The broad rolling fields of the Cedar Creek battleground still look much as they did on the eve oif the battle and are worth a visit now, or anytime. And if you can’t go to northern Virginia, take the time to visit the Vermont State House and Julian Scott’s wall-sized painting of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Its something that should be seen by every Vermonter.
Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.