The Confederates struck before sunrise out of a chill Shenandoah Valley fog, the rebel yell proclaiming their fury. The Eighth Vermont Regiment made a desperate stand, losing two-thirds of its men, but the momentum of Jubal Early’s surprise attack was barely slowed.
By 9 a.m. that October 19, 1864 the Union Army of the Shenandoah was driven back three miles. Total disaster seemed imminent as George Getty’s Sixth Corps division, including the Vermont Brigade, formed a battle line atop a curving ridge. To the north Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan, unbeknownst to his army, was pounding south on his big black Morgan Rienzi.
The Vermonters stood at the center, with a New York unit on their left. General Early ordered an assault and the blue coated men beat it back.
Sheridan had been 12 miles to the north when the rebel attack hit, confident that Early’s army had been well beaten in two recent battles, confident that the Valley was all but Union territory. But now on he came, rallying men fleeing from the fight.
And on the Confederates came, once again, and Getty’s division turned them back in a smoky thunder of musketry.
Early decided on one more try and Confederate artillery slammed Getty’s line. Then came the heaviest assault, as the Vermonters wavered, and the New Yorkers gave way as their commander fell dead on their front. Taking his place was Lieutenant Colonel Windsor French, who well knew the sometimes contentious history between Vermont and New York. French stood where his line met the Vermont Brigade’s and shouted one of the Civil War’s most clever commands:
“MEN, DON’T RUN TIL THE VERMONTERS DO.”
The New York line stiffened, the Vermonters moved forward, and the final Confederate assault at Cedar Creek was repulsed.
Sheridan wheeled onto the field about 11. Seeing the Vermonters, he announced that his army would have its camps back by nightfall.
His assault came at 3 o’clock and drove Early’s army back. Then resistance stiffened, but only until the Rebels felt the ground quaking. Four thousand horsemen under George Custer, including the Vermont Cavalry, thundered out of the northwest.
By darkness, the great Confederate surprise attack at Cedar Creek was turned into a much greater Union victory.
Days later Vermont soldiers learned that as the counterattack rolled through the Shenandoah Valley’s autumn gold fields, 500 miles to the north Confederates had robbed St. Albans’ banks. Now it scarcely mattered.
Cedar Creek gave the Union control of the Shenandoah Valley, vital to the Confederate cause. And it erased any doubt that Abraham Lincoln would be reelected and lead the Union to total victory. A St. Johnsbury private, Terrell Harriman, from the battlefield proudly wrote his parents that he voted there for Lincoln while “nearby the pools of blood was scarcely dry.”