Sunday, February 15, 2015

'Hidden' Cedar Creek: 8th Vermont's suicidal mission

                                       The 8th Vermont made its stand on this ground.
                             (Click at upper right for full-screen interactive panorama.)
The 8th Vermont monument , funded by a former private in the regiment, was dedicated in 1885.
The monument marks the area where three 8th Vermont color-bearers were killed.

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On a foggy morning at the Battle of Cedar Creek (Va.), U.S. Army brass ordered Colonel Stephen Thomas' brigade to do the impossible: delay an overwhelming, surprise Rebel attack on the left of the Union line until a defensive line could be deployed. Thomas' 1,500-man brigade included the 12th Connecticut, 160th New York, 47th Pennsylvania and 8th Vermont.

The result of the opening phase of the battle on Oct. 19, 1864, was predictable -- Thomas' brigade was crushed, suffering 70 percent casualties (1,050 men). But its effort indeed slowed the Rebel advance for nearly 30 minutes. In brutal, often hand-to-hand, fighting, the 8th Vermont defended a deep ravine and stretch of woods, suffering 110 casualties out of 164 men engaged. Three of its color-bearers were killed.

According to the 8th Vermont regimental history:

Men seemed more like demons than human beings, as they struck fiercely at each other with clubbed muskets and bayonets. A rebel of powerful build, but short in stature, attempted to bayonet Corporal [Alfred] Worden of the color-guard. Worden, a tall, sinewy man, who had no bayonet on his musket, parried his enemy's thrusts until some one, I think Sergt. [Henry] Brown, shot the rebel dead. A rebel soldier then levelled his musket and shot Corporal [John] Petre, who held the colors, in the thigh, -- a terrible wound, from which he died that night. He cried out: " Boys, leave me ; take care of yourselves and the flag ! "
But in that vortex of hell men did not forget the colors ; and as Petre fell and crawled away to die, they were instantly seized and borne aloft by Corporal [Lyman] Perham, and were as quickly demanded again, by a rebel who eagerly attempted to grasp them; but Sergt. [Ethan] Shores of the guard placed his musket at the man's breast and fired, instantly killing him. But now another flash, and a cruel bullet from the dead rebel's companion killed Corporal Perham, and the colors fall to the earth. Once more, amid terrific yells, the colors went up, this time held by Corporal [George] Blanchard ; — and the carnage went on. (Click on links for bios of 8th Vermont soldiers.)

Until the property was transferred to the National Park Service in 2012, the site where the 8th Vermont made its heroic stand was on private land and rarely seen by the public. I had no idea it was possible to visit there until a caretaker at the Belle Grove plantation house, General Philip Sheridan's headquarters during the Battle of Cedar Creek, suggested I check with a ranger at park headquarters along the Valley Pike to arrange to see the ground. And so last Wednesday afternoon, I put on my hiking shoes and slogged along the muddy path for a self-guided walk through history.

After crossing the Valley Pike, the 8th Vermont rushed into this ravine. The pond is post-war.
The 8th Vermont moved through this ravine on the morning of Oct. 19, 1864. 
"It was useless to stand against such fearful odds," an 8th Vermont soldier wrote of the fighting here. 

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. My wife and I went to the reenactment at Cedar Creek last October and were very impressed by how well the battlefield has been kept, as well as the spirit of respect and dedication of all involved. Thanks for your efforts with the Blog.

  2. Once again, thank you, Mr. Banks, for bringing history to life with your words and outstanding illustrative photographs. I don't think I'll ever get to most of these places, but your posts are the next best thing!

  3. Horrific hand to hand combat, can't even imagine - thanks John

  4. A very heartfelt thank you to Mr. Don Ratcliff, former owner of the property who found the monument on his property when he purchased it, then cleaned up all around it and maintained it until he sold it to the NPS. He truly loves this place!

  5. Ah, I'd love to meet Mr. Ratcliff. Is he still in the area?