150 years ago today, the battle of Cedar Creek was fought. The previous month’s defeat had all but ended the campaign the month before, but Confederate general Jubal Early cast one last throw of the dice to try to destroy Sheridan’s army.
I have decided to include two versions of the regular cavalry’s piece of the battle. The first and most direct, is an excerpt from the official report of the Reserve Brigade commander, Lieutenant Colonel Casper Crowninshield, on the battle. It is very brief and to the point, as he assumed command of the brigade toward the end of the battle.
“October 17, remained in camp, picketing on right of First Brigade. October 18, remained in camp, picketing as before. October 19, broke camp at daylight and moved to the right of the infantry on a reconnaissance for the purpose of ascertaining the position of the enemy; found their cavalry in force; skirmished with them about an hour, when orders were received to fall back, as the whole army had been attacked; proceeded to the left of the infantry and formed skirmish line, connecting with infantry on the right and First Brigade on left; Second Massachusetts made two charges on the enemy’s infantry, checking their advance; held our position until 3 p.m., when the whole line advanced, and this brigade, together with Second Brigade, charged a battery of the enemy’s artillery; were repulsed, with considerable loss, Colonel Lowell being mortally wounded while leading his command in the charge. Lieutenant Colonel Crowninshield, Second Massachusetts Cavalry, assumed command of brigade. The enemy’s line commenced to fall back, when we again charged, pursuing them down the pike and across Cedar Creek. Here we were halted and ordered to fall back, recrossed the creek, and camped on left of infantry.” (Official Records, Series I, Volume 43, Part 1, page 492)
The official report of the division commander, Brigadier General Wesley Merritt, is typically much more animated and verbose.
“HEADQUARTERS FIRST CAVALRY DIVISION,
October 24, 1864.
MAJOR: I respectfully submit the following report of the part this division took in the battle of the 19th and subsequent operations:
About 4 a. m. on the 19th an attack was made on the pickets of the First Brigade near Cupp’s Ford, which attack, coupled with the firing on the extreme left of the infantry line, alarmed the camps, and everything was got ready for immediate action. The First Brigade was at once ordered to move to the support of its picket-line, while the Reserve Brigade, which had the night before received orders to make a reconnaissance on the Middle road, was ordered to halt and await further orders. This brigade had advanced in the execution of its reconnaissance to the picket-line, and subsequently acted for a short time with the First Brigade in repelling the attack of the enemy feebly made on that part of the field. Soon after moving from camp the heavy artillery firing, and immense number of infantry stragglers making across the country to the Back road from our left, showed that it was in that direction the heavy force of the enemy was advancing. The Fifth U. S. Cavalry, attached to division headquarters, was immediately deployed across the fields, and, together with the officers and orderlies of the division staff, did much toward preventing the infantry going to the rear, and forced everyone to stop and form line. About this time the Second Brigade (General Devin) was ordered to move to the left of the line, cover and hold the pike, and at the saline time deploy men in that part of the field to prevent fugitives from going to the rear; this General Devin quickly accomplished, and did good service, especially in preventing the infantry straggling. On moving to the left General Devin ordered his battery to report to division headquarters, where Lieutenant Taylor, commanding, received orders to advance to an eligible position on the infantry line of battle, and use his pieces on the enemy till such time as it was unsafe to remain there. Great credit is due Lieutenant Taylor for the prompt and efficient manner in which he carried out this order. He was well advanced to the front of battle, without supports from his own command, and none save what was offered by the thin and wavering line of infantry near his position. The artillery of the infantry had gone unaccountably to the rear, or had been captured by the enemy, and Taylor’s was the only battery for some time on that part of the field. It is thought that his rapid and destructive fire did much toward preventing a farther advance of the enemy on that flank in the early part of the day. About 10 o’clock, in compliance with orders from the chief of cavalry, the First Division was moved to the left of the infantry line and disposed so as to connect with the infantry and at the same time cover the Valley pike and the country to the left. This was soon done — the Second Brigade (Devin’s) occupying the right, the Reserve Brigade (Lowell’s) the center, and the First Brigade (Kidd’s) the left of the division line of battle. Orders were then sent to each brigade to press the enemy warmly, and Lowell was cautioned to watch his opportunity and charge a battery of the enemy which seemed exposed in the open country to the left of the pike. Never did troops fight more elegantly than at this time; not a man shirked his duty, not a soldier who did not conduct himself like a hero. All through the day each man fought with the instinct and judgment of an officer and with the courage for which this division has become so celebrated. Twice or thrice by movements in the infantry line on our right the enemy got in the flank of the division line and subjected it to a murderous fire; but there was no movement on the part of the men save that demanded by superior judgment for a fresh disposition to meet the contingency; no running, no confusion, where at one time among so many others there was the most intense demoralization. The line at this time, in compliance with orders given as above stated, advanced nearly to Middletown, driving the enemy before it through the open country, the gallant Lowell, as usual, with his noble command forcing from the enemy every available inch of ground. This advance was handsomely made by all the brigades; at the time it was intended more as an offensive-defensive movement than one looking to a final victory. The enemy withdrew from the open country, evidently fearing the attack of the cavalry, and the battery which was marked for attack and possible capture also withdrew to a safer position. Sheltered by the woods on each flank and the houses and fences of Middletown, the enemy (Kershaw’s and Pegram’s divisions) in our front, Kershaw on the extreme right, continued a sharp skirmish, varied by attacks on both sides, until the final advance by the whole army under the major-general commanding Shortly after taking position on the left of the line as above described, Colonel Moore’s brigade, Second Division, was ordered to report to the First Division for orders. This brigade, having skirmishers on the line to the left of the pike, was ordered to advance with the line of the First Division; it did so handsomely, fighting with spirit while it remained with1 the command; it was ordered to the left toward Front Royal later in the day by the chief of cavalry. During the entire day the enemy kept up an artillery fire on our position whit h was truly terrific; it has seldom been equaled for accuracy of aim and excellence of ammunition. The batteries attached to this division did nobly, but were overpowered at times by weight of metal and superior ammunition. So excellent was the practice of the enemy that it was utterly impossible to cover a cavalry command from the artillery fire; a number of horses and men were destroyed by this arm during the day. As the news spread through the command that the major-general commanding the army had arrived a cheer went up from each brigade in this division; every officer in the command felt there was victory at hand; they all had confidence in him who had formerly commanded them more directly in trying circumstances, and when the order was given for a general advance each veteran in the First Division bent his brow resolutely and rode fearlessly toward the goal. Words are but poor vehicles to convey a description of the scene; suffice it to say, the charge was successfully made, each brigade doing its duty nobly. The Reserve and Second Brigades charged into a living wall of the enemy which, receiving the shock, emitted a leaden sheet of fire upon their devoted ranks; but the enemy were broken and fled before the resistless force of the blow, coupled with the stern, steady, unrelenting, yet swift, advance of the infantry, who, under the new regime, excited the admiration of all beholders.
The First Brigade, in column of regiments in line, moved forward like an immense wave, slowly at first, but gathering strength and speed as it progressed, overwhelmed a battery and its supports amidst a desolating shower of canister and a deadly fire of musketry from part of Kershaw’s division, at short range, from a heavy wood to our left. Never has the mettle of the division been put to a severer test than at this time, and never .did it stand the test better. The charge was made on an enemy well formed, prepared to receive it with guns double-shotted with canister. Into that fearful charge rode many a noble spirit who met his death. One more prominent than the rest, if individual prominence among a band of heroes is possible, received his death wound — the fearless Lowell, at the head of as gallant a brigade as ever rode at a foe, fell in the thickest of the fray, meeting his death as he had always faced it — calmly, resolutely, heroically. His fall cast a gloom on the entire command. No one in the field appreciated his worth more than his division commander. He was wounded painfully in the early part of the day, soon after which I met him; he was suffering acutely from his wound, but to ask him to leave the field was to insult him almost; a more gallant soldier never buckled on a saber. His coolness and judgment on the held were unequaled. An educated and accomplished gentleman, his modest, amiable, yet independent, demeanor endeared him to all his superiors in rank; his inflexible justice, temperate, yet unflinching, conduct of discipline made him respected and loved by his subordinates. He was upright as a mall, pure as a patriot, and preeminently free from the finesse of the politician. His last breath was warm with commendations of his comrades in arms and devotion to his country’s cause. Young in years, he died too early for his country, leaving a brilliant record for future generations, ending a career which gave bright promise of yet greater usefulness and glory.
After the charge our ranks were soon formed and the command moved forward resistlessly to Cedar Creek. Part of the enemy’s forces which had bed by the fords below were followed by detachments of the First and Reserve Brigades, which captured quite a number of prisoners, the First Brigade adding another to its trophies in the shape of a battle-flag. The Second and Reserve Brigades moved to Cedar Creek (the Second Brigade in advance), charged across the fords and bridge, pursuing the enemy with unparalleled vigor to his stronghold — Fisher’s Hill — leaving, like the whirlwind, nothing but the wreck in their track to be gathered up.” In this pursuit the Second Brigade lost heavily. I respectfully call attention to the report of General Devin, commanding Second Brigade, who ably conducted this movement. Great credit is due him for his untiring energy and determination in following up the victory, toward which he and his gallant command had done as much during the entire day as men could do. The Reserve Brigade was also ” in at the death,” but, in compliance with orders, halted and formed as a reserve, while the First and Second Brigades pursued the enemy on their different roads. Night alone saved Early’s demoralized army from total annihilation. As it was, he carried off with him but five pieces of artillery and but few other wheels.
The following morning (October 20) the division moved to Fisher’s Hill, where a small force of the enemy’s cavalry was found. This disappeared from our front and the command was pushed on to Woodstock. At that point it was ascertained from citizens and prisoners that the enemy was some distance in advice. The First and Second Brigades were halted and the Reserve Brigade ordered on toward Edenburg, beyond which point it went, without, however, coming up With the dying enemy. During this pursuit a number of wagons, ambulances, caissons, arms, &c., abandoned by the enemy, were found on the road and destroyed.
During the battle and subsequent pursuit the following captures were made and property destroyed by the division: 3 battle flags, 22 pieces of artillery, 8 caissons, 37 ambulances, 29 wagons, 95 horses and harness, 141 mules and harness, 389 prisoners of war, including 6 commissioned officers; two of the above wagons were loaded with muskets. Property destroyed; 12 army wagons, 28 ambulances, 81 muskets, 2 caissons
In concluding this report I must again return my acknowledgments to my staff and subordinate commanders for their untiring energy and zeal ill the performance of their duties and implicit and unquestioning obedience to orders; they are commended to the notice of superior headquarters.
The men and officers of the command have endured all the hardships of the arduous campaign without the comforts afforded by a regular system of transportation, oftentimes without regular issues of rations uncomplainingly and cheerfully. If there have been any instances of unsoldierly conduct they are exceptions to the rule. The command as a whole is gallant and well disciplined, confident in its own strength and justly proud of its prowess.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Brevet Major-General, Commanding Division.” (Official Records, Series I, Volume 43, Part 1, pages 448-452)
Despite the effusive description of their role in the battle, casualties in the Reserve Brigade were relatively light. The total was only 37 killed, wounded and missing, broken down as follows:
2d MA Cav: 1 officer killed, 6 men killed; 3 officers and 13 men wounded; 1 man captured or missing. (24)
1st US Cav: 2 men killed; 5 men wounded. (7)
2nd US Cav: 2 officers and 4 men wounded. (6)
(Ibid., page 137)