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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Guard duty in the Valley

When my great, great grandfather Union Pvt. Arthur Bull arrived in the Shenandoah Valley with his unit in October 1864, the Union command considered the Valley Campaign to be essentially over.

Union cavalry had burned crops, removed livestock and leveled barns and buildings to deprive Confederate forces of food, shelter and supplies — and the Confederates had not advanced.

Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y.
Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y. When not on guard or picket duty in the Shenandoah Valley, my ancestor Arthur Bull and his 6th NY Heavy Artillery unit passed time in camp in early October 1864.  Photo by Molly Charboneau

So in early October, Arthur and his regiment — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — primarily played a supportive role.

They escorted Union supply trains and encamped between stints of guard or picket duty — forming part of the federal lines that ranged across the Valley to prevent the Confederates from again menacing Washington, D.C.

My ancestor’s comrade-in-arms Sgt. William Thistleton described their activities in his diary and noted the return of their 6th NYHA commander:

Oct. 10th We started at sun-rise this morning with the supply train for Winchester arrived and halted at 8 P.M. one mile south of town. Oct. 11th Started at 7 a.m. and arrived at Middletown at 3 P.M. and camped this is a little town with a fine country around it remained here on the 12th inst.

Oct. 13th Off again at 7 a.m. for front royal about 12 miles distant arrived at 2 p.m. and found the rest of the division here pitched our tents and supposed we were going to stay here for a few days. Compy”I” on Picket about 1 1/2 miles from the camp in the afternoon the cavalry brought in a large drove of cattle, horses, mules, sheep and swine which they had confiscated, our boys had plenty of mutton.

Oct. 14th…Col. J. Howard Kitching joined us today he was home on leave of absence when we left Washington he brought with him 600 men for different regiments of Sheridans Army recruits and convalesents [sic].

While in camp, Union combatants — my ancestor among them — were also busy casting their absentee ballots in advance of the 8 Nov. 1864 presidential election and urging family and friends back home to get to the polls.

Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s re-election was in doubt after the high loss of life during the Overland Campaign with no clear Union victory. But the fall of Atlanta to Union forces in September bolstered the civilian electorate in the North — and Union soldiers’ votes and support would be crucial in the first wartime election since 1812.

On 15 October, wrote Sgt. Thistleton, the 6th NYHA encamped near Cedar Creek about one mile closer to the front and settled in.

We had good time in the camp foraging every day and plenty of chickens and vegetables the men would draw rations and threw them away except coffee and sugar.

All seemed relatively quiet, until one morning when my ancestor’s regiment woke to sharp gunfire from their pickets.

Then suddenly — out of a nebulous fog — Confederate cavalry came charging through their camp.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 


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Freedom and safe haven

The Union Army in which my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull served was much more than a fighting force. It was a symbol of freedom and a tangible safe haven for emancipated African Americans and anti-slavery non-combatants who were fleeing the Confederates.

May 2014: 23rd Infantry Regiment USCT re-enactors at Spotsylvania Court House. More than just a fighting force, the Union Army was a symbol of freedom and a safe haven for African Americans and anti-slavery non-combatants who were fleeing the Confederates. Photo: Libary of Congress
May 2014: 23rd Infantry Regiment USCT re-enactors, Spotsylvania Court House, Va. The Union Army was a symbol of freedom and a safe haven for emancipated African Americans and anti-slavery non-combatants who were fleeing the Confederates. Photo by Molly Charboneau

During the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, many civilians were evacuated north to safety by Union troops. My great, great grandfather — part of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — likely experienced the social impact of the federal army while he was on duty in the Valley.

On 2 Oct. 1864 when his unit was stationed in Harrisonburg, Va., one of Arthur’s fellow soldiers — Sgt. William Thistleton — wrote in his diary about the arrival of a train from the front “laden” with religious pacifists and freed African Americans.

[T]he majority of the former were of a set called “Dunkers” a species of the Quaker persuasion some of them had been living in the hills and woods for a month past hiding from the relentless conscription of the Davis government.

The German Baptist Brethren — known as Dunkers for their full-immersion baptisms — opposed slavery and refused military service. Now that Civil War combat had come to the Valley, they were moving out of harm’s way.

Sgt. Thistleton also wrote about the determination of the emancipated African Americans to go north.

[T]heir soul [sic] aim and object seemed to be to escaped [sic] from the rebels dominion…and considered the Potomac river their “Jordan’s” [sic] and the country north of it their Promised land.

As the Civil War progressed, hundreds of thousands of African American workers left the slaveholders’ plantations, workshops, kitchens and nurseries in what W.E.B. Du Bois characterized as a “general strike” — many joining the Union Army if they were able to (more than 100,000 altogether by the end of the war) or seeking its protection if they were not.

These particular migrants had passed through the Shenandoah Valley where the Union Army was destroying the Confederate breadbasket, wrote Sgt. Thistleton.

[T]he Cavalry were engaged to day in burning all of the barns, granaries and stacks they could find the men were allowed to forage and we fared very well every day.

The Burning took a heavy toll on the Valley in October 1864. But in the process of clearing slavery’s defenders from the land, the Union Army’s purifying fire — much like a naturally-occurring conflagration — left fertile space in its wake, opening the way for new post-war social, political and economic growth.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Growing family trees one leaf at a time