Cedar Creek: Surprise attack

On 19 Oct. 1864, Union forces encamped in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley near Cedar Creek — including the 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment of my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull — were surprised at dawn by a Confederate attack.

Aug. 2014: Union reenactors in battle stance, Governors Island, N.Y.
Aug. 2014: Union reenactors in battle stance on Governors Island, N.Y. Surprised on 19 Oct. 1864 by a Confederate attack near Cedar Creek, Union forces quickly regrouped to repel the assault. Photo by Molly Charboneau

One minute Union soldiers were cooking breakfast over their campfires, the next they were racing for their rifles to repel Confederate infantry and cavalry overrunning their camps — an inauspicious start to the Battle of Cedar Creek.

So unexpected was the Confederate advance that when it began Gen. Philip Sheridan — commander of the Union Army of the Shenandoah — was enroute back from Winchester, Va., on horseback following a meeting in Washington, D.C. with the high command.

My great, great grandfather’s unit was part of Col. J. Howard Kitching’s Provisional Division at Cedar Creek — which is  not always shown on battle maps.

They were on the Union left with two divisions of Maj. Gen. George Crook’s 8th Corps — commanded by Col. Joseph Thoburn and Col. Rutherford B. Hayes — when rebel yells and gunfire pierced the morning stillness.

The left flank bore the brunt of the initial assault, and the Union lost many artillery pieces. Sgt. William Thistleton of 6th NYHA Company I described the chaotic events in his diary:

Oct. 19th We were awakened just before day-light this morning by sharp picket firing in front of our camp and the first we knew the rebels cavalry were charging in among our tents we seised [sic] our muskets rushed out and each man on his own responsibility commenced firing a few shots drove the rebels back…we were ordered to fall in formed a line in the rear of our camp and two companys [sic] sent out on the skirmish line..

Then, wrote Sgt Thisleton, 8th Corps troops collapsed under the Confederate assault — leaving 6th NYHA soldiers to try and hold the battle line.

… the rebels advanced in two lines of battle and before they came within fair musket range the 8th corps jumped up and run to the rear without firing a single shot in a few moments the rebs were on us and we stood up and commenced firing but it was useless in an instant we were nearly surrounded and were receiving fire on our front, flanks and rear obliged to fall back contesting every foot of ground rallied in a piece of woods but the enemy was too strong for us and we fell back to Middletown.

Their commander, Col. Kitching, was severely wounded by a shot to the foot while trying to rally the division and had to be taken from the field. After that, the 6th NYHA was out of the action.

But the battle continued as other Union forces stepped up — most notably the soldiers of the 8th Vermont. They lost 70 percent of their unit during the half hour they held off the Confederates while the Union Army regrouped.

I wondered where my ancestor’s Company L was stationed — but Sgt. Thisleton indicated the 6th NYHA had been divided up.

…there were but Eight compy present four companys [sic] having gone to Martinsburg with the supply train…

Was Arthur in battle with the eight companies at the front? Or was he serving as a supply train guard at the rear as the historic confrontation unfolded. If so, what was his experience there?

More to come as the Battle of Cedar Creek continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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