The next day's encounter, known to history as the Battle of Cedar Creek, was characterized by complex maneuvers and fighting over the same areas at several different times. Combatants on both sides experienced a high level of confusion. Although this lack of order within the battle can make it difficult to follow the sequence of events in an orderly manner, the fight may be viewed most simply in four phases: I. The Confederate approach and surprise attack in the early morning; II. A stiffening Federal defense; III. A lull during which each side reorganized; IV. The Federal counterattack in the late afternoon which routed the Confederate forces and returned the Federals to their morning positions.
The beautiful weather prevailed during the night, allowing Early's forces to get into position with the help of a bright moon just past full. The chances of surprise were enhanced further with a heavy ground fog which developed about 0400 after the units had gotten to their attack positions. Gordon's column, with the longest way to go, left as soon as it got dark, about 2000. The men left behind anything that rattled or clanked, such as their canteens, so as to assure silence on the march. The column halted and closed up a few times; the longest pause being at 0100 where the railroad crossed the Shenandoah east of Strasburg. At about that time, Wharton and Kershaw began moving. Early accompanied Kershaw to Cedar Creek, pointed out the campfires of the Federal positions, and explained how he wanted the attack made. Wharton continued down the Valley Pike to Hupp's Hill. All of the infantry units were in position by 0330. Rosser left about that hour to reach his position just before daybreak. Some of his men skirmished briefly with Custer's vedettes (sentinels) at about 0400, causing a few men in the VI Corps to wake up and roll over in their blankets, nothing more.
Kershaw's men waded across Cedar Creek unopposed at 0430, formed in a line of brigades, and eased so close to the Federals that they could hear the early risers talking to each other in their tents. Gordon's corps crossed at the same time, exchanging a few shots with some surprised pickets, but causing no alarm. The head of his column then began moving up a lane to its attack positions. The size of the force meant that Pegram's people, the last to get across, were still coming up at about 0510 when Gordon began to advance.
The attack opened at 0500 when Kershaw's Division rose up, delivered a thundering volley, and rushed the trenches of Colonel Joseph Thoburn's First Division, VIII Corps. One brigade dissolved in minutes as dazed, half-dressed men ran for safety. One Southerner said the scene gave a new meaning to the word panic. The First Brigade of the division, called under arms by its alert brigadier, Colonel Thomas Wildes, minutes before the assault, fought briefly in its position. Then two of its three regiments successfully delayed rearward, fighting for nearly half an hour until they reached the Pike. A few minutes after Kershaw's attack, Gordon's corps smashed into Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes' Second Division, VIII Corps which desperately resisted for a few minutes. Then, while a small group remained and delayed courageously, many of its men fled to the rear. As soon as Wharton heard Kershaw's attack, he closed up to the Cedar Creek bridge. However, he could go no farther until the XIX Corps units guarding it could be dislodged. Early joined him at about 0515, coming over from Kershaw's position. The Confederate artillery raced forward to Hupp's Hill, going into battery against the XIX Corps by about 0520. The final blows to the VIII Corps were delivered by seven of their own guns which were captured during Kershaw's first rush. Heroic efforts on the part of the Federal gunners saved the other nine.
By this time, about 0535, the XIX Corps Commander, General William H. Emory, and his subordinates were aware that they had been flanked by Gordon. VIII Corps fugitives began to come across the Pike and the sounds of combat could be heard drawing nearer rapidly. General Emory began to reorient his line to meet Gordon's threat. In doing this, he had to remove the covering units he had in the Cedar Creek bridge area, thus allowing Wharton to come over and support the battle. One brigade of the Second Division had been standing to arms preparatory to going on a reconnaissance. It and other elements of the Second Division attempted to shift to their left and north to form a line parallel to the Pike to meet Gordon. The First Division stayed in position but thinned its line to allow two brigades to move in the direction of the fight. When Wildes' battered First Brigade of the First Division, VIII Corps emerged from the maelstrom, he reported the situation to Emory and to General Wright, the acting army commander, who had rushed to the scene. General Emory ordered Wildes to attack into the fray again in order to buy time for the shifting corps units. The brave little unit turned back and fought stubbornly for a few more minutes before being pushed back again. General Wright had gone in with them and received a painful wound in the chin which matted his beard with gore for the rest of the action.
In the meantime, Colonel Stephen Thomas's brigade from the First Division, XIX Corps, made a singular sacrifice play several hundred yards farther up the Pike. There, about 200 yards east of the road it engaged in a brutal brawl for about half an hour before it, too, had to pull back. By this time, most of the XIX Corps, Second Division had withdrawn through the thin line formed by its sister unit. The Confederate onslaught pressed the Federals back to positions centered around Belle Grove, where mixed VIII and XIX Corps elements bought another half hour. Their stand allowed most of the headquarters units and trains to load up and withdraw. Even more importantly, their efforts gave the three-division VI Corps time to get organized for the attacking wave headed its way.
General James B. Ricketts' VI Corps units were able
to break camp and to get into line of battle before they became seriously engaged.
The Third Division, under General Joseph W. Keifer,
established a line oriented toward Cedar Creek. Its easternmost brigade
actually advanced farther southeastward to the right flank positions of the
XIX Corps. However, the flow of the XIX Corps troops withdrawing made it impossible
to hold a line and the brigade withdrew to its original position just west of
Meadow Brook. The XIX Corps elements, mostly First Division,
reorganized on Red Hill and extended the Third Division
lines westward in conjunction with Merritt's cavalry which
had come forward to help. It was well they did, as by about 0715 this whole
line was engaged in fierce fighting with Kershaw's Division. Contact
was lost with the rest of the corps but the Third Division
retained its integrity in a swirling struggle which gradually forced it back.
The Second Division had been in the northernmost bivouac site when the fighting in the VIII and XIX Corps areas was heard. The division commander, General George W. Getty, marched his units toward the sound of battle intending to link his right with the left of the First Division. He then planned to pivot on the First Division onto the plain between Meadow Brook and the Pike, north of Belle Grove. He was in the act of doing so when the First Division was forced to withdraw, leaving him unsupported on the plain. Undismayed, he delayed briefly on a rise on the southern edge of Middletown, and then about 0800 he pulled his force onto a hill west of Middletown where the town cemetery is located. There, for about an hour, the Second Division, VI Corps aggressively repelled successive assaults from each of four Confederate divisions. The defense was so ferocious that Early assumed he was fighting the whole VI Corps.
The fierce fighting had the effect of causing Early to lose focus on the overall engagement while he concentrated on one problem, and the Confederate attack thus lost momentum all along the line. Finally, in frustration, Early directed all of his artillery to concentrate on the Second Division, VI Corps in an attempt to blow it off its position. After about thirty minutes of this, Lewis Grant, by then the acting commander, felt it best to retire to the main Federal line being formed about a mile farther north. He pulled back to a line on the northern edge of Middletown, defined by CR 627, rested for about 20 minutes, and then, unopposed, moved back a mile to a more defensible position just south of CR 633. It should be noted that by the time of the Second Division's stand, most of the Federal cavalry had been moved to the east side of the Federal line. It had linked with the Second Division and was threatening Early's flank. Recalling what cavalry had done to him in two earlier fights may have influenced Early's decision to put most of his strength on this flank.
The Confederate forces now occupied the line just north of Middletown recently vacated by the Second Division, VI Corps, and Early called a halt to reorganize, much to the chagrin of many of his commanders. The armies were now facing each other front to front in lines perpendicular to the Pike a little over a mile apart.
At about 1030, General Sheridan, returning from his conference in Washington, arrived on the scene after a ride from Winchester which has become legend. His presence inspired his battered forces tremendously. One soldier said it was like an "electric shock." Sheridan completed the rebuilding of the line already begun by General Wright in time to repulse a halfhearted Confederate probe launched at 1300 which brought Gordon's, Kershaw's and Ramseur's units up to a line parallel with CR 634.
Sheridan placed a cavalry division on each flank with the VI Corps and XIX Corps on line. VIII Corps elements were in reserve. His plan for counterattack called for the cavalry to press both of Early's flanks while the XIX Corps pivoted southeastward on the VI Corps. By 1530 the Confederate skirmishers had been pushed in, and the main attack began around 1600. Confederate resistance north of Middletown was fierce for about an hour. Then Gordon's thinner lines to the west were broken, and Custer's Federal cavalry on that flank moved for Early's rear. This created panic along the whole Confederate line, which quickly turned into a rearward stampede. The Confederate artillery with a few infantry made brief delays at the old XIX Corps positions and at Stickley's and Hupp's Hill, but Early had lost control as his forces dissolved in an effort to escape the Federal pursuit.
The disaster was compounded when a small bridge near Spangler's Mill on US 11 south of Strasburg broke. This caused a jam which prevented any rolling stock from moving farther south. Thus, most of the guns and wagons captured in the morning, plus nearly all those belonging to Early's forces, had to be abandoned to the rampaging Federal cavalry. Early's shattered force gathered at Fisher's Hill and withdrew southward before dawn the next day. Confederate military power in the Valley was ended forever.