Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cedar Creek (and Ypres I)

I've been terrible in keeping up with my Civil War posts lately - but need to put something up today, the anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek. When last we left U.S. Grant, at the Battle of the Crater, he had failed, yet again, to break through Lee's lines outside Petersburg - and he was about to stop trying. He settled down to hold Lee in place, and look for ways to win the war elsewhere - the trenches let him do that - though they also let Lee send some of his men off to try to win the war elsewhere. Specifically, he sent Jubal Early to the Shenandoah Valley, to see what mischief they could make. They made their share - marching up to Washington, firing on the city itself, causing panic and fear in all but Lincoln and Grant (Lincoln went to see the fighting, and terrified the Union Generals by peering out at the rebels over the parapets.) Grant sent an army corps (the VI corps - which by this time was probably the best unit in the army); later he sent Phil Sheridan and most of their cavalry, and sent them to do their worst to Early. They did quite a bit - thrashing the Rebels at the battle of Winchester in September - then a couple days later at Fisher's Hill - this left Early's army in ruins, and Sheridan set out to make the Shenandoah Valley waste. Anticipating Sherman's march to the sea, Sheridan marched through the valley, burning crops, destroying barns and mills, turning what had been a major source of supply for the Confederacy into ruins. At the bend of this, thinking that Early was done, Sheridan went to Washington, and started planning to bring the Army of the Potomac men back to Grant.

But Early had other ideas. He had been reinforced - and he knew he had to do something, since he was running out of supplies - so he attacked. In the event, the attack went splendidly - he found that the Union army was not keeping close watch on their left flank: the ground was rough, they though it would discourage the Rebels - but Early was an old Jackson underling, and took that kind of situation for an opportunity. So they attacked, and caved in the Union left, and forced the whole army into retreat. There was heavy fighting, especially when the Rebels ran into the VI corps - but the Federals were drive steadily back.

Meanwhile, Sheridan was in Winchester, a dozen or so miles away. By 9 in the morning (after 3 hours or so to it), he heard enough of the noise to decide to get moving - he rode south, and as he did, realized there was a battle going on. So off he went, at full speed, arriving somewhere around 10:30. He found the lines fairly stable - the VI corps was holding their lines; the rebels had called a halt to their attack, to regroup - to recollect their men, who had been looting the Union camps. Sheridan set about organizing a counterattack - it was ready later that afternoon, and when it came, it was overwhelming. He attacked on the flanks with cavalry, then straight ahead with infantry - there was a period of heavy fighting, then the Rebels collapsed, the cavalry got into their rear, and the rout was on.

And that was that. This was the end of Confederate efforts in the Valley - it was always a strategy doomed by long odds: the Union had very large advantages in numbers, everywhere - so when the Confederates sent away men to fight elsewhere, Grant could send away more men. The very trenches that allowed Lee to dispatch parts of his army to try to find other opportunities allowed the Yankees to dispatch more men to beat the Rebels in detail. Which is what they did - here and elsewhere. Whenever the Confederates came out of their trenches in 1864, they were thrashed mightily. They were outnumbered, and increasingly outgunned - the union cavalry was starting to carry repeaters, and starting to operate as a powerful offensive force on their own. The cavalry itself was becoming a decided Union advantage - especially here, in a fairly mobile warfare, where cavalry was deployed as an offensive force. Their mobility, their firepower told.

It might be enough to make you think that cavalry was still a viable arm of the military! A delusion we might want to visit again in the next couple days - 50 years after the battle of Cedar Creek, the First Battle of Ypres started, October 19, 1914. That would mark the end, really, of mobile warfare on the Western Front - or more precisely, the end of warfare in the open. But we can come back to that - the Battle of Ypres lasted for a month. But I will end with this - no one in Europe paid much attention to what happened in the Civil War; if they had - they probably would have looked at battles like Winchester and Cedar Creek, with their decisive cavalry actions, and saw vindication for their ideas about offense. What they would not have noticed, since they never noticed it, is that what really started to separate union cavalry at the end of the Civil war, was their firepower - Sharps, Spencer and Henry rifles, breechloaders and repeaters - which would change everything, more than anyone could conceive in 1864, and, tragically, even in 1914.

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