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Battle of Cedar Creek

10/19/04 12:00AM By Howard Coffin
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(Host) It's October 19, and commentator Howard Coffin observes that today is an important date in Vermont history.

(Coffin) Enter the ornate reception room by the governor's office in the State House, and you encounter the Civil War. On one gilded wall of the Cedar Creek Room a moment of battle is frozen in time that native Vermont artist Julian Scott was four years in recreating. Scott's Battle of Cedar Creek is one of the great works of art the war produced, and, in the thousands of times I have been in its presence, it has always caused me to pause. It confronts us with war as it was: all smoke, fire, and wounded men being carried away on a Virginia autumn afternoon. The Battle of Cedar Creek happened 140 years ago today, October 19, and that fact is well worth remembering.

After a month of fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, Phil Sheridan was so confident that he had whipped Jubal Early's Rebels that he went off to Washington for a meeting. But in the chill pre-dawn of October 19, 1864, Old Jube's butternut shock troops rose out of Cedar Creek's foggy bottoms and overwhelmed the Union army's advance units. The Eighth Vermont Regiment lost more than 60 percent of its combatants in trying to slow the assault. The 10th Vermont Regiment heroically recaptured some cannons. Then around 8 a.m. the Vermont Brigade took position on a low hill and threw back three assaults, finally halting the Confederate advance.

By early afternoon, Sheridan was on the field to carefully realign his battered army. At 3 p.m. he sent a heavy battle line forward in a massive counterattack that Julian Scott caught at its beginning. The Vermont Brigade was in the midst of it, and, when Rebel resistance stiffened, Union cavalry, including the First Vermont, swept down from the north to put the Confederates in full retreat. The Union victory was huge, since a Rebel victory might well have put Abraham Lincoln's re-election in jeopardy, with the casting of votes just two weeks away.

Looking back fourteen decades, it seems that Cedar Creek might well have been a Confederate victory without the Vermont units. The Vermont veterans were so proud of it all that they wanted Cedar Creek depicted as their State House memorial.

The Civil War overall was a close contest, and the Rebels did manage a victory of their own that mighty day. At the very hour Sheridan launched his counterattack through the golden fields of the Shenandoah, 600 miles north a band of Confederate raiders robbed three St. Albans banks, then galloped up to Canada with $208,000 Vermont dollars. I'll pause at 3 p.m. today, maybe in front of that Julian Scott masterpiece in that most beautiful of all Vermont rooms, the Cedar Creek Room.

I'm Howard Coffin from Montpelier.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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