Sheridan Famously Rides Twenty Miles to Save the Day at Cedar Creek, VA, Giving Union Important Victory
October 19, 1864. Nearly a month after Union General Phil Sheridan defeated Confederate General Jubal Early at Winchester, Virginia, Early returned and attacked Sheridan’s unsuspecting troops at Cedar Creek, driving them back. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, the predecessor of other illustrated weeklies in the United States, reported at the time:
“General Sheridan was in Winchester [twenty miles away], when the attack began, and hearing the sound of guns, sprang upon his black charger and dashed toward Cedar Creek. Meeting on the way portions of his army in confused retreat, he galloped up to them, and waving his hat shouted: ‘Face the other way, boys — face the other way! We are going back to our camp to lick them out of their boots!’ Instantly the tide was turned, and following their commander, the troops hurriedly retraced their steps toward the lost battle ground.”
Early’s force was almost annihilated, and that put an end to hostilities in the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederacy’s breadbasket.
Lincoln’s chances for reelection had looked doubtful, but with the presidential election only a few weeks away, word of this important victory buoyed the Union cause and helped sway public opinion away from the peace candidate, former General George McClellan, and toward Lincoln and continuing the war to its eventual conclusion. (1)
Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem “Sheridan’s Ride,” which tells the dramatic story, became immensely popular in the North. It celebrates its hero, General Phil Sheridan, and his Morgan horse named Rienzi, which was changed to Winchester. Winchester became so famous that, when it died in 1878, Sheridan had him preserved and displayed at a military museum in New York City. In 1922, it was transferred to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. (2)
Up from the South at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste, to the chieftain’s door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away
And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon’s bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled.
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.
But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good broad highway leading down;
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight,
As if he knew the terrible need;
He stretched away with his utmost speed;
Hills rose and fell; but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.
1.) Witness to the Civil War, First-Hand Accounts from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Stuart A. Murray, ed., p. 179.
2.) Smithsonian Civil War, Inside the National Collection (2013), pp. 282-83.
St. Albans Raid, Northern-Most Land Action of the War
On October 19, the same day that Sheridan launched a counterattack that turned the Battle of Cedar Creek into a decisive and important Union victory, approximately nineteen Confederate soldiers rode twelve miles south from Canada, and robbed three banks in St. Albans, Vermont. The raid was done with the full knowledge and support of the highest levels of the Confederate government.They shot one man who died two days later, tried to set the town on fire, and then raced north again pursued by a posse. The raiders all made it across the border, most were arrested, but none was extradited to the United States. Most of the stolen money was returned by the Canadian government. The Confederates hoped that the raid might, at long last, spur Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy. It was also hoped to acquire some desperately needed money for the Confederacy’s coffers, and to cause Union strategists to move federal troops from the theater of war to guard New England’s northern border. Measured against these goals, the dramatic raid cannot be considered a success.