How would you respond? You’re a new brigade commander in the Civil War, inspecting your picket line in the middle of the night, with the uneasy feeling that a couple of “civilians” you saw looking over the Union army’s position the day before . . . weren’t civilians. You ride a little further out, into the empty area beyond your picket line. It is the night of October 18-19, 1864, but the weather’s a little milder than it has been. Perhaps the fog is already coming in.
Suddenly, as you listen and peer into the darkness, you hear a shout: “Surrender, you d–d Yankee!”
Does your heart stop? Do you surrender?
Col. Stephen Thomas’ heart may have skipped a beat, but his mind did not. He quipped, “No, sir! It’s too early in the morning!” and wheeled his horse. He spurred it up the steep ravine bank and escaped to safety, not knowing whether he had contacted an enemy picket or . . . the enemy army.
Within hours, he would find out, and would earn the Medal of Honor while leading his brigade in a desperate, bloody stalling action.
By 5 a.m., the Battle of Cedar Creek began in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, as Confederates materialized out of thick fog and hit the Union army’s VIII Corps with what a Confederate cavalryman described as, “a prolonged roll [of gunfire], without cessation, for apparently five minutes. After the volley was over the echo of it seemed to roll back and forth over the Valley a half dozen or more times.” The awakened Union soldiers scrambled, either to flee or to mount a hasty defense in pockets that could not withstand the Confederate onslaught for long.
Capt. S.E. Howard of the 8th Vermont, in Col. Thomas’ brigade, woke to a “terrific clap of thunder,” but instead of hearing the encouraging yell of his comrades in blue, he heard, “the Yi Yi Yi! of the Confederates—it seemed to me as if our whole left were enveloped, enfolded, by this cry.”
As the minutes passed and the Union army dissolved, someone needed to buy time. If the XIX Corps could retreat with enough organization, a stand might be made further north. Gen. William Emory looked to the brigade now commanded by Col. Thomas (due to restructuring after the arrest of a superior officer).
Gen. Emory ordered the brigade across the Valley Turnpike and into the face of the Confederates. All they could hope to do with their attack was to buy time – four regiments could not hope to stop the Confederates. Gen. Emory later recalled, “I never gave an order in my life that cost me so much pain.”
Across the pike the regiments went, and up a hill. The 8th Vermont had time for only one volley before the Confederates hit them from every direction. With Confederates swarming around the brigade, each regiment seemed to fight its own fight. Private Herbert Hill of the 8th Vermont vividly recalled such a vicious struggle for his regiment’s colors that men “seemed more like demons than human beings, as they struck fiercely at each other with clubbed muskets and bayonets.”
Three color bearers fell as the 8th Vermont fought and inched backward, falling back only as needed to avoid being completely surrounded. With some of the regiment on other duties that morning, 164 men of the 8th Vermont had gone into this fight. Of those, 110 were killed and wounded. Overall, half of Col. Thomas’ brigade fell, leading a news correspondent to call the area, “this horrible hill of sacrifice, where it offered itself up for the salvation of the army.”
Lewis, Thomas A., The Guns of Cedar Creek. Strasburg: Heritage Associates, 1997.