[Text excerpted from Confederate States Rangers: Company K, 10th Louisiana Infantry (CreateSpace.com, 2014)]
|Lt. Gen. J.B. Gordon|
General [John B.] Gordon and Captain Jedediah Hotchkiss, [Gen. Jubal] Early’s topographical engineer, scouted the Federal army’s position and found the left flank was exposed. Gordon proposed a battle plan to Early, who adopted it. The plan called for Gordon to take his own division, and those of Pegram and Ramsuer across the Shenandoah, go around Massanutten Mountain, cross the river again and come up on the Federals from the east. Gordon would be in command of that wing of the army until reunited with Early. Kershaw’s division would go straight at the Federals to the left of Gordon, and Wharton’s infantry and Rosser’s cavalry would be the left flank. Early accompanied Kershaw and when the two wings of the army reunited in front of the enemy, he would command the whole army again. The Federals were encamped along Cedar Creek and unaware of the coming attack. Sheridan was absent at a conference in Washington. The 8th Corps was on the Federal left and the first target, then the 19th Corps, 6th Corps and Merritt’'s and Custer’s cavalry camps on the right flank at the furthest point from the attack. Averell had been relieved by Sheridan for failing to pursue Early after Third Winchester.
Gordon began moving his command the night of October 18 and was in position to commence the attack by 5 o’clock on the morning of the October 19. A thick fog gave them cover and the attack was a complete surprise on the Federal encampment. The firing started when Federal pickets detected Gordon’s advancing battle line and opened fire. Rosser’s men began exchanging fire with Federal pickets and Kershaw hit Thoburn’s division of the 8th Corps. Gordon said later of the attack, “His [Evans’] splendid division, with Ramseur's farther to the right and Pegram's in support, rushed upon the unprepared and unsuspecting Federals, great numbers of whom were still asleep in their tents. Even those who had been aroused by Payne's sudden irruption in the rear, and had sprung to the defence of the breastworks, were thrown into the wildest confusion and terror by Kershaw's simultaneous assault in front.”
|Click map for larger view.|
At sunrise, Wharton’s division engaged the 19th Corps on the Confederate left and the onslaught was quickly rolling up the Federal left. Evan’s was commanding Gordon’s division on the left of Gordon’s formation, and Ramseur on the right with Pegram in reserve. First engulfing the extreme left of Thoburn, they then slammed into Hayes’ division of the 8th Corps, which was a mile behind Thoburn. As Gordon explained, “Two entire corps, the Eighth and Nineteenth, constituting more than two thirds of Sheridan's army, broke and fled, leaving the ground covered with arms, accoutrements, knapsacks, and the dead bodies of their comrades. Across the open fields they swarmed in utter disorganization, heedless of their officers' commands — heedless of all things save getting to the rear. There was nothing else for them to do; for Sheridan's magnificent cavalry was in full retreat before Rosser's bold troopers, who were in position to sweep down upon the other Union flank and rear.”
The 6th Corps had time to get into line and put up a stronger defense. Gordon ordered Pegram to come up to help with the assault on the 6th Corps, then notified Early of his situation on his front. Gordon’s division – Evans’s, Peck’s and Terry’s brigades – finished off Hayes’ brigade while Ramseur and Pegram ran into a division of the 6th Corps on the pike and met strong resistance. Ramseur and Pegram called for help and Early moved Wharton to the right and told him to go in where Ramseur and Pegram directed. The 6th Corps managed to hold off the Confederates for two hours. It then fell back in some disorder to the west of Middletown.
It was then about noon and Gordon ordered his three divisions to move on the 6th Corps and was assembling 39 artillery pieces under Colonel Thomas Carter, who told him he wouldn’t even need the infantry, when he had his artillery in position. "With enfilade fire from my batteries I will destroy that corps in twenty minutes," Carter said. Early shocked Gordon when he called off the final assault he planned. It was Early’s belief that the ranks of the Confederates were now weakened by the men who had stayed behind to plunder the Federal camps. Early felt the Confederate attack had played itself out and decided to hold on to what he had taken and get his scattered men back in the battle line.
Gordon believed Early’s decision a mistake and noted in his memoir, “My heart went into my boots. Visions of the fatal halt on the first day at Gettysburg, and of the whole day's hesitation to permit an assault on Grant's exposed flank on the 6th of May in the Wilderness, rose before me. And so it came to pass that the fatal halting, the hesitation, the spasmodic firing, and the isolated movements in the face of the sullen, slow, and orderly retreat of this superb Federal corps, lost us the great opportunity, and converted the brilliant victory of the morning into disastrous defeat in the evening.” Early later claimed he had given orders to Gordon to attack, but no evidence of that order has been found. Gordon firmly believed it was Early’s order, and not the men plundering the camps, that caused the halt.
The Confederates had gained a great victory that morning by routing two-thirds of the Federal army, capturing 24 artillery pieces and 1,300 prisoners. But that great victory began disappearing before their eyes as the Confederates continued to hold the line and wait for the enemy to retreat that afternoon. Gordon became increasingly concerned about the massing of the Federals in his front. He repeatedly expressed his concern to Early, who kept replying the enemy troops were just the rear guard and the Federals would soon be retreating. As the blue tide became more threatening, Early sent more artillery to Gordon. The Georgian’s division ended up on the left of the line. Evans’ brigade on the left, was temporarily under the command of Colonel John H. Lowe of the 31st Georgia. Peck’s Louisianians were in the center, and Terry’s Virginians on the right. Gordon said there was a troubling gap in the line between his division’s right, and the rest of army. Gordon made a quick ride back to Early to ask for reinforcements for his left and to fill the gap. Early gave him the same assurances – the Federals would retreat. Gordon returned, he found Federals pouring through the gap and Evans almost surrounded. It was too late. “One minute more and I should have had a Yankee carbine at my head, inviting my surrender,” Gordon wrote.
Sheridan, who had returned from his trip to Washington, dramatically rallied his shattered army and at 4 o’clock launched a massive and devastating counterattack attack. The two sides were about a mile apart at the beginning of the counterattack. The Confederate artillery and infantry held the blue tide back for about an hour with a slow fighting retreat. Custer, on the Federal right, at first went off after some of Rosser’s cavalry and for a while the Confederate left overlapped the Yankee infantry. The Georgia brigade on the left was able to enfilade the Federals doing some damage. Custer however, seeing the Confederate line already wavering, brought the bulk of his division back to the Federal right and gained the rear of the Gordon/Evans position. The bluecoat cavalry captured a bridge over Cedar Creek that the Confederates line of retreat. This threw some of the Southerners into a panic and the Confederate left began dissolving. Much the same thing was happening on the Confederate right. Merritt’s cavalry outpaced the infantry and took some enfilading fire as they passed the Confederate line and pushed Wharton’s division back. Ramseur, the center right, was holding on with much grit. Just 27-years-old, recently celebrating the birth of a daughter, who he had not yet seen, Ramseur was wearing a flower in his lapel and riding up and down his line to keep his men in place. But two of his horses were shot and he was mounting a third when a bullet pierced both of his lungs. He was carried to the rear as his division also fell apart. Ramseur was captured and died in enemy hands the next day. The Confederates retreated back to New Market.