Horatio G. Wright

The Unsung Hero of the Battle of Cedar Creek:

By COL Timothy H. Donovan, USA (Ret.) ’62.

ON THE MORNING of October 19, 1864, more than 21,000 Confederate troops descended upon the Union Army of the Shenandoah a few miles south of Winchester, Virginia. It was an early-morning surprise attack meant to catch Major General Philip Sheridan’s Union Forces off guard.

In 1870, the Vermont legislature commissioned a mural, The Battle of Cedar Creek, by painter Julian Scott. Originally from Johnson, Vt., Scott served in the 3rd Vermont Regiment during the Civil War and later received a Medal of Honor. (Image courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office.)

In 1870, the Vermont legislature commissioned a mural, The Battle of Cedar Creek, by painter Julian Scott. Originally from Johnson, Vt., Scott served in the 3rd Vermont Regiment during the Civil War and later received a Medal of Honor. (Image courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office.)

The day before, Sheridan had left for Washington, D.C., entrusting his army of 32,000 to NU alumnus Major General Horatio G. Wright. Under Wright’s command, the Confederate plan would backfire, and the Battle of Cedar Creek would end in a decisive victory for the Union, marking the pivotal death blow to the Confederate push.

An Ambitious Plan

Cedar Creek was not the first meeting of Union and Confederate troops in this particular patch of Virginia. A month earlier, Sheridan of the Northern Army had defeated the forces of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early at the Third Battle of Winchester, just north of the city. Driven from the battlefield, Early had withdrawn with his remaining troops to high ground in the vicinity of Strasburg, about 20 miles south of Winchester. The Confederates had suffered heavy casualties.

In contrast to Sheridan’s morale-lifting, charismatic nature, Early was short-tempered. Respected by his superiors—including General Robert E. Lee—for his aggressive fighting and ability to command troops autonomously, Early was less admired by those under his command, who found him critical, and unwilling to recognize his own shortcomings.

Still, Early had capable and experienced subordinate generals that included Major General John Gordon, arguably the best field commander in Early’s Army of the Valley. Gordon had approached Early a few days earlier with a bold plan to launch a surprise attack on Sheridan’s superior force at Belle Grove. It involved a dangerous night maneuver across the Shenandoah River and along the side of Massanutten Mountain, into the flank of the Union troops. Gordon and the other commanders convinced Early that this action would sweep the Yanks from the valley. Gordon persistently emphasized the importance of a pre-dawn surprise attack, as the Northern troops outnumbered their Confederate ranks by half.

On October 18, Sheridan left for Washington, D.C., for a meeting with General Ulysses S. Grant, leaving command of the Army in the capable hands of VI Corps Commander Horatio Wright. These two men’s natures could not have been more different: Sheridan had earned a reputation for boldness and success in combat with Grant in the western theater along the Mississippi River. Flamboyant and colorful, he understood the power of good publicity. While Wright cut a prominent figure in the Civil War era, by comparison to Sheridan, he was understated and shy, and known for being solid, steadfast, and workmanlike. He was also highly effective on the battlefield—a lethal adversary to Early, who was legendary for his ineptness at navigating through engagements. Wright’s efficiency in the early hours of the battle would prove to be a key factor in thwarting the Confederates.

This map of the Battle of Cedar Creek depicts the situation at the most critical point in time under Wright’s command. (Map by Hal Jespersen, cwmaps.com.)

This map of the Battle of Cedar Creek depicts the situation at the most critical point in time under Wright’s command. (Map by Hal Jespersen, cwmaps.com.)

Pre-Dawn Maneuvers

Gordon began his flanking maneuver of the Union force with his three divisions at about eight o’clock on the evening of October 18. Once across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, the Confederates proceeded single file along a trail on the side of Massanutten. They had taken care to extinguish all lights and remove any objects that might make noise, items such as canteen cups and extra rations, a lack of which would later contribute to their downfall. Progress was slow but stealthy.

In the meantime, two infantry divisions and the artillery made their way north on the Valley Pike through Strasburg, and took up a position south of Cedar Creek and to the west of the Valley Pike. One cavalry division was sent to the west to secure that flank, while another had headed east toward Front Royal, with the mission of flanking and attacking the Union forces at the rear. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley was almost in place by four o’clock on the morning of October 19. The battle that Gordon would later describe as “the most unique day in the annals of war” was about to begin.

Gordon’s men attacked at precisely five o’clock. Brigadier General George Crook’s Union soldiers in the VIII Corps were wrenched from sleep by the sound of musket fire and Rebel yells. They had not prepared fortified positions along the left flank because they had considered the terrain easy to defend, with slim chance of a Confederate attack. Crook’s Corps found themselves in immediate hand-to-hand fighting, and they crumbled under the assault. Shocked and routed, Crook’s troops began streaming back to the west of the line. Gordon had been right—the total surprise of the attack had succeeded beyond even his expectations. Crook’s VIII Corps retreated from the field in utter chaos, among them future U.S. presidents Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley.

Meanwhile, a little south and west of Gordon’s position, two more Confederate divisions attacked. Again, the Union force was taken completely by surprise. Brigadier General William H. Emory’s XIX Corps, at the brunt of the attack, fared somewhat better than Crook’s had earlier. The sun began to rise at about six thirty. The Union soldiers would later remember that it was “blood-red that morning.” Some could still not see the Rebel infantry because of the combination of the sun and a fog rising from Cedar Creek and the Shenandoah River.

Horatio G. Wright entered the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at age 14 in 1834, the same year that Vermont granted Captain Alden Partridge a University charter. Wright studied engineering there for two years before enrolling at West Point, from which he graduated in 1841. This portrait of Major General Horatio G. Wright, by artist Marek Sarba, is a skillful adaptation of a daguerreotype of Wright in the same pose, with an added background. Sarba bought Wright’s Connecticut home in 2000 and restored it. The property is now up for sale. (Courtesy of M. Sarba Fine Art.)

Horatio G. Wright entered the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at age 14 in 1834, the same year that Vermont granted Captain Alden Partridge a University charter. Wright studied engineering there for two years before enrolling at West Point, from which he graduated in 1841. This portrait, by artist Marek Sarba, is a skillful adaptation of a daguerreotype of Wright in the same pose, with an added background. Sarba bought Wright’s Connecticut home in 2000 and restored it. The property is now up for sale. (Courtesy of M. Sarba Fine Art.)

Hearts of Granite

“Don’t run, men, until the Vermonters do!” – Attributed to Colonel Windsor B. French, commander of the 77th New York Volunteer Infantry, during the Battle of Cedar Creek.

But not all units left the field in confusion. In the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division was the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment. Like the granite from their home state, the Vermonters stood their ground. The fighting was at close range, at times hand-to-hand. The courageous Green Mountain boys inspired the units around them, and by nine o’clock the Confederate advance had begun to ebb. But the Vermonters paid a heavy price for their valor: by noon, the 8th Vermont would lose all but 3 of its 16 officers, and 110 out of 154 soldiers.

Despite their losses, the soldiers of the Army of the Shenandoah took note of the waning enthusiasm of the Confederates. As the battle wore on, more and more Rebel soldiers stopped at the abandoned campsites, where they found remnants of breakfast left behind by fleeing Union soldiers. For a battle-weary Confederate soldier, the lure of food, coffee, and water was too tempting to pass up. Exhausted by the rugged march of the night before, the Rebels were parched and famished, and by midmorning the Confederate advance had all but ground to a halt.

In Sheridan’s absence, Horatio Wright made great efforts to rally the troops, reorganize his forces, establish new positions, employ his cavalry to protect his flanks, and strategize a counterattack. A topographic engineer, Wright had a trained eye for identifying key terrain, and he quickly ascertained areas where his confused and panicked troops could regroup. Deliberately and without fanfare, Wright guided the Army into recovery and assessed his able troops. Crook’s VIII Corps would not fight again that day, but would consolidate near Middletown. Emory’s XIX Corps was in better shape and prepared to fight.

For five long hours, the battle raged under Wright’s command.

Sheridan Swoops In

During those first five critical hours of the Battle at Cedar Creek, the Union Army of the Shenandoah commander, Major General Philip Henry Sheridan, was en route from Winchester. By ten o’clock in the morning, in true Sheridan form, he “rides to the sounds of the guns” along the line of troops near Middletown on his warhorse, Rienzi, waving his plumed hat to build troop confidence.

“Sheridan’s Ride” has been immortalized in painting and in verse as the moment when the tide turned at Cedar Creek, but it was Horatio Wright who carefully selected terrain for the Union forces to reorganize and consolidate. And it was Wright’s VI Corps that finally stopped the Confederate onslaught that morning.

“Sheridan’s Ride," by Thure de Thulstrup, 1886. (Library of Congress)

“Sheridan’s Ride,” by Thure de Thulstrup, 1886. (Library of Congress.)

By midafternoon, Sheridan had resumed his command, and the Army of the Shenandoah had begun a counterattack led by Wright’s VI Corps and remnants of Emory’s XIX Corps. The key to this counterattack was the Cavalry Corps division led by Brigadier Generals George Armstrong Custer and Wesley Merritt.

By late afternoon, Early’s Army of the Valley was in full retreat down the Valley Pike toward Strasburg. What had been a brilliant and well-executed pre-dawn plan had resulted in utter defeat a mere 12 hours later. The Confederate forces were routed and all of their artillery confiscated. Rebel casualties were high, with almost 1,900 dead and nearly twice as many missing.

The Forgotten Commander

The night of the Cedar Creek victory, around a campfire near Belle Grove, Sheridan said to Crook, “I am going to get much more credit for this than I deserve, for, had I been here in the morning, the same thing would have taken place.” Would Sheridan have made the same decisions as Horatio Wright, efficiently consolidating a retreating army and organizing a brilliant counterattack? Would he have turned a harrowing defeat into a monumental victory? We will never know for certain. What we do know is that any thoughts Sheridan may have expressed over credit due to Wright likely remained at the campfire.

Word of the victory reached newspapers via telegraph almost immediately, and several days later, Custer led a parade into Washington displaying captured Confederate colors and artillery. “Sheridan’s victory” at Cedar Creek gave President Abraham Lincoln a critical boost just weeks before the November election—just what he needed to defeat George McClellan.

The name Horatio Wright faded into the background of the annals of Cedar Creek, but that may have better suited his self-effacing nature. He is said to have shied away from publicity and preferred not to see his likeness in a newspaper. His true aim was to serve, and he proved one of the most solid corps commanders of the Civil War. “There was a great deal of turnover in corps command during the Civil War. However, once [Wright] took command of VI Corps following [General John] Sedgwick’s death, he held that command continuously for the duration of the war,” said Steven Sodergren, NU associate professor of history. “Every other corps in both Sheridan’s army and the Army of the Potomac experienced command turnover during that period, but Wright held onto command consistently. That’s pretty impressive.”

Wright went on to a distinguished military career as the chief of engineers for the Army Corps of Engineers, leading Corps efforts in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington Monument.

The 8th Vermont Memorial, near Strasburg, Va., was dedicated in September 1883. It stands there today. (Photo courtesy of Jim Ford.)

The 8th Vermont Memorial, near Strasburg, Va., was dedicated in September 1883. It stands there today. (Photo courtesy of Jim Ford.)

Afterword: The Mite and the Mighty

On the same day as the Battle of Cedar Creek, 600 miles to the north, a small band of Confederate troops raided St. Albans, Vermont. The faculty and cadets of Norwich University, the only official military presence still left in Vermont, set out to intercept the Confederates before they could escape back to Canada. (See The St. Albans Raid.)

It would take many years to document the Norwich connection linking these two Civil War events—one storied and celebrated, the other a mere whisper in history. One story’s players were decorated, high-ranking alumni—the other’s very young men, with boyhoods not long behind them. Were they afraid? Likely. But both groups embodied the Norwich spirit, faced ahead, and prepared to step between danger and the country they loved. From the oldest Norwich graduate, Brigadier General Alonzo Jackman, to Horatio Wright and the brave men of the 8th Vermont (see Samuel W. Shattuck: A Captain’s Captain), to the fresh-faced Corps of Cadets—all answered the call and stood solid in the defense of our great nation with the same sense of patriotism, bravery, and devotion to duty. For that reason, we celebrate their efforts together.

COL Tim Donovan, USA (Ret.) ’62 taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy from 1973 to 1976. From 1988 through 1993 he was a professor of military science at Norwich University, where from 1988 to 1991 he also served as Commandant of Cadets. A co-author of The American Civil War (West Point Military History Series), he hosts informal discussions on the history of the Shenandoah Valley for local community members.


Kreitzberg Library Panel Discussion
150 Years Ago

This fall, the state of Vermont, the state of Virginia, and Norwich University will observe the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Cedar Creek. At the same time, the Vermont Sesquicentennial Commission will commemorate the St. Albans Raid. These two Civil War conflicts occurred on the same day in history, and Norwich men played roles in each.

Friday, September 19 at 2 p.m. *
Norwich University will commemorate the events of October 19, 1864, with a panel discussion at the Kreitzberg Library Multipurpose Room.

Panelists:

  • COL Timothy H. Donovan, USA (Ret.) ’62, author and historian.
  • Steven Sodergren, PhD, associate professor of history and the director of the Studies in War & Peace program at Norwich University.
  • Howard J. Coffin, Vermont historian and a seventh-generation Vermonter with six ancestors who served in Vermont Civil War regiments. An author of five books, he has given more than 300 Civil War-related talks in Vermont alone.

(Panelists subject to change.)

Guests are also encouraged to visit the Sullivan Museum and History Center, where “1864: Some Suffer So Much,” the museum’s award-winning Civil War exhibit, is on display through December 16.


* Note: The Kreitzberg Library Cedar Creek event was originally scheduled for 1:30; this is a revised start time.

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