A Bad Day in the Valley
Today, October 19, 2014, marks the 150th anniversary of the climactic battle in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. On that date long ago, many Confederates, if they had thought about it, might have paraphrased Charles Dickens in claiming that “[i]t was the best of days, it was the worst of days.” Those words provide the perfect description of the battle of Cedar Creek, at least from a southern perspective. And one Confederate, who certainly would have agreed with those sentiments, tried to make sense of what happened that day.
The fight began very well for Confederate general Jubal A. Early’s Army of the Valley. The morning assault by Early’s men overwhelmed two Union corps and pushed them to high ground north of the nearby village of Middletown. Things changed, however, when Early’s force halted its attack for several hours in the afternoon. That gave the federals the time they needed to establish a defensive position and launch a counterattack. The subsequent Union assault turned a near-certain southern victory into a complete northern one.
In the midst of the action, Confederate colonel Thomas Henry Carter’s artillery played an important role in the apparent southern victory, and two days later, when Carter sat down to write his wife Susan a letter, he was still stunned. “In the morning [the Confederates] were lions, in the evening lambs,” he informed her. “Such facts are incredible to one who has not witnessed them but they are unfortunately too true.” Carter, who was then serving as Early’s chief of artillery, described the events of the battle in great detail. He also offered his own candid assessment of the conduct of the southern soldiers and their officers. “Our Company officers & many field officers are utterly worthless exercising no authority whatever at any time & running as fast as the fastest in battle. Had we a system which could at once reduce these men to ranks something might be done. We are too democratic to have a good army.” Always a proponent of firm discipline and strong leadership, Carter turned his attention to the two most prominent Confederate commanders, John B. Gordon and Jubal Early. Gordon, according to Carter, “really has military genius. Whether he has general capacity enough is doubtful & his administrative ability is certainly not of a high order. He lacks discipline, but he is a giant on the field, not only by his personal courage but by that sort of instinct which teaches a leader to do the right thing at the right time & in the right manner.” The army’s commander, in Carter’s opinion, bore most of the responsibility for the defeat. “As soon as Early took immediate command after crossing the Cedar Creek,” Carter wrote, “the whole affair languished & subsided into a lackadaisical failure. Early is a staunch man with courage & fortitude in disaster & has sustained himself well in retreat, but on the field he is a blank, sees nothing with the eye of genius, is slow & do-nothing in policy & always trying to play a safe game which is generally an unsafe one. He has sense enough but no system & no discipline.” Clearly the artillerist was devastated by the events of the 19th, and he chose to spare nothing in his letter to his wife.
Tom Carter’s words bring to life the events of 150 years ago. His fascinating letter of October 21, 1864, however, is but one of many he wrote during the war. They reside at the VHS in the Thomas Henry Carter Papers, 1861–1896 (Mss1 C2466 a). I invite you to come to the society’s reading room and peruse this wonderful collection for yourself.
Graham Dozier is the managing editor of publications at the VHS and the editor of A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter. He will speak about this recent publication at a Banner Lecture at noon on Thursday, December 4, 2014 at the Virginia Historical Society.