Gen. Jubal Early saw his chance for a surprise attack on Sheridan and took it. He had moved his army north again to the vicinity of their late September defeat at Fisher’s Hill, where the terrain nevertheless gave them some advantage.
Near midnight on Oct. 18, he assembled his exhausted troops (now also hungry due to the Union destruction of foodstuffs in the Valley) and led them on a night march up the Valley pike.
It was, according to historian Joseph T. Glatthaar “…the most impressive [Confederate] night movement of the war.”
They trod the narrow, dirt track to where it became macadamized and, finally, after about eight miles they forded the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, just northwest of Strasburg.
In a dense fog, Kershaw’s Division and the 13th Regiment, waded Cedar Creek at Bowman’s Mill Ford, crossed a field and climbed up a low hill to where Sheridan’s army was camped. They opened fire on some New York pickets, capturing a few of them.
It was near dawn on Oct. 19 when they deployed in line of battle and struck the Union camps, including some of the same Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania troops who had beaten them off so decisively at Berryville back in early September.
The fog concealed the Rebel numbers and so the surprise sight of ragged men with rifles flitting through the trees induced a panic in the Union soldiers. Many of them fled in their nightshirts, across the fields of Belle Grove plantation, past the big house where the Union generals had their headquarters.
The rout might have meant decimation or worse for Sheridan’s army, but Early’s troops were spent after their hard march and some had been starving for several days. So, confronted by boiling breakfast coffee and roasting meat in the abandoned Union camps, they broke ranks and commenced to take what they needed.
“…we expected to do some hand to hand fighting,” Third Lieutenant Hannibal H. Stevens of the Pettus Guards later told Confederate Veteran magazine, “but to our surprise and delight we found not a Yankee there. All had gone. Some of the boys said they could see something like ghosts running through the woods…A volley fired from our line drove them out of sight…
“Then our line passed over the breastworks. Good gracious, what a feast we had. Edibles of every kind and in great abundance… We got some of the good things, filled our tin cups with the coffee and moved on after the Yankees eating, drinking and feeling brave…Our boys were in great need of shoes and clothing and could not resist the temptation, so many broke ranks and supplied themselves. This weakened our lines considerably. Tents had been left standing with blankets and pants in them. They had skipped in nothing but their shirts.”
Seven Union divisions fell back several miles, losing prisoners and artillery and abandoning dead and wounded on the field.
Stevens recalled that the 13th Regiment and other Rebel units reformed and moved on past the Belle Grove mansion, following the Yankee skedaddlers at least a mile “when we found artillery and infantry waiting for us and…we went at them.”
But the pillaging had disorganized things and slowed them all down. It had given time for word to get to Sheridan and he rode to the scene to rally his troops for a counterattack.
“I hastened from Winchester,” Sheridan later reported to Grant, “and joined the army between Middletown and Newtown, [their] having been driven back about four miles. I here took the affair in hand and quickly united the corps, formed a compact line of battle just in time to repulse an attack of the enemy’s, which was handsomely done at about 1 p.m. At 3 p.m. after some changes of the cavalry from the left to the right flank, I attacked with great vigor, driving and routing the enemy…”
Indeed, Stevens recalled, “the Yankees ran us that evening. You bet they did and I will never forget it….We were striking the ground only in the high places.”
They waded back through Cedar Creek and kept on going. “The Yankees halted at their breastworks,” Stevens wrote. “We halted at Fishers Hill” well south of Strasburg.
The Union forces had lost almost 6,000 casualties, the Rebels about 3,000. The 13th sustained 4 killed, 15 wounded and 26 captured, about 29 percent of their estimated strength of 157.
Early’s army didn’t stop long at Fisher’s Hill. Sheridan’s “victory won from disaster” turned up there the next day where his cavalry found only a token rear guard. The rest of Early’s army was long gone “without an organized regiment.”
“For ten miles on the line of retreat,” Sheridan reported, “the road and country was covered with small-arms, thrown away by the flying rebels…”
Private James David Thomas became separated from the rest of the Kemper Legion, according to independent historian Jess McLean. In the dark night of Oct. 19, Thomas stumbled onto a Union camp and was captured.
Historians have concluded that Early’s defeat at Cedar Creek thoroughly broke Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley. There would be no more Confederate offensives there.