Historic America Reviews

From Winchester to Cedar Creek by Jeffry D. Wert


In From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864, Jeffry D. Wert charts Union General Philip Sheridan’s victory over Confederate General Jubal Early in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley during the closing months of the American Civil War. Sheridan’s campaign ensured Confederate defeat in Virginia and ultimately contributed to President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. Drawing on manuscript collections and many published sources, Wert offers vivid descriptions of the battles of Third Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook, and Cedar Creek.

First published in 1987, From Winchester to Cedar Creek explores how interplay of the strengths and weaknesses of the Union and Confederate commanders, Sheridan and Early, resulted in victories for Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. It not only documents and dynamically recounts these events, but it also details the political, strategic, and tactical forces that made the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign so important to the outcome of the Civil War.

As Philip Sheridan’s star rose, Jubal Early’s fell. In June 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Early and approximately 15,000 men up the Shenandoah Valley to clear Union troops from the area and menace Washington, D.C., in an effort to repeat Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s successes in 1862. Early, however, was no Jackson. Despite early success, by August he was on the defensive. General Ulysses S. Grant sent his cavalry commander, Philip Sheridan, to command all Union troops in the Valley and destroy Early. This is where From Winchester to Cedar Creek picks up the story.

Philip Sheridan was one of the few cavalry commanders who successfully transitioned to overall command of an army. His unique experience allowed him to better integrate infantry and cavalry. During the Civil War, it was considered suicidal for mounted cavalry to directly engage infantry, but at the Battle of Third Winchester, September 19, 1864, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s cavalry division broke Early’s defensive line with a classic Napoleonic cavalry charge.

Down but not out, Early’s beleaguered units surprised Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah in fog at the Battle of Cedar Creek. While the Confederates paused to regroup, Sheridan dramatically rode down from Winchester just in time to rally his men and turn the tide. After the war, Early blamed soldiers who stopped and looted Union camps for the critical delay. Wert argues the dense fog, and Early himself, was largely to blame. Neither Early nor his subordinates recognized the importance of the Valley Turnpike north of Middletown, where they could have turned the Union flank and prevented Sheridan’s reinforcements from arriving in time.

Because General Early permanently lost the Shenandoah for the Confederacy, history has not been kind. Sheridan’s Valley Campaign, on the other hand, made Sheridan a legend and a national hero. But Wert argues Early did the best he could with what he had. He had taken the war to the outskirts of Washington, D.C., diverted men and material away from Grant’s army around Richmond and Petersburg, and inflicted higher casualties against forces that outnumbered him 3-to-1. “Burdened with his disadvantages, Jubal Early displayed superior generalship when compared to his Union counterpart,” he argued.

Beyond a firm grasp of strategy and tactics, Wert offers compelling accounts of how the average soldier fought and died during the Civil War. He pauses to explain how it was a common experience that once under fire, a soldier’s nerves steadied and fear seemed to vanish. One account of a visitor on the Third Winchester battlefield described the expressions on the faces of the men who died–surprise, pain, and even peacefulness. Men died instantly with looks of surprise frozen on their faces. Others had time to make peace with their fate. It’s an intimate, chilling side of battle you rarely read.

Jeffry D. Wert (born May 8, 1946) has a B.A. in History from Lock Haven University and M.A. in History from Pennsylvania University. He taught history at Penns Valley Area High School in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, and has written extensively on the American Civil War, particularly the Eastern Theater. He received the William Woods Hassier Award in 2002. His other books include General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier (1994), Gettysburg, Day Three (2002), and A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863 (2011).

From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 by Jeffry D. Wert was published in hardcover by Stackpole Books in 1997 but that edition is out of print. Southern Illinois University Press published a 344-page paperback edition in 2010. It retails for $19.93. A Kindle version sells for $2.99.

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