As Civil War battles went, it was a small and insignificant affair. But in terms of story — and especially, in terms of lessons — it’s one of my favorites.
The war had not yet fully turned in October of 1864. And even though Stonewall Jackson had been dead for well over a year — mistakenly killed by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville — the Shenandoah Valley still belonged if not to Jackson then to Jackson’s ghost, for it was there that he and his “foot cavalry” had won their eternal place in Valhalla. Jackson’s tactical brilliance and the endless series of Union routs still hung like clouds of gunpowder in the valleys and hollows of the Shenandoah.
And so it came as no surprise to either the Union or the Confederate soldiers on the banks of Cedar Creek to see, once again, a blue rout — men throwing down rifles and knapsacks and running for their lives, dodging perhaps the few hissing musket balls fired at their backs but completely unable to escape the jeering and the insults and that high, horrible Rebel yell, as that pack of feral wolves descended on their camps, drank their coffee, ate their rations and sat going through their personal effects, admiring photos and reading letters from their sweethearts. Not a loss, but a rout. Another
rout. The latest in an ongoing series of routs without end, or so it must have seemed.
The Union general was a young man, new to his command, and who in point of fact had been back in Washington during the defeat. But as he rode toward the sound of the guns that morning, curiosity turned to apprehension, and apprehension to something worse, as he crossed Mill Creek and came upon a low hill, to see before him “the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken Army.”
Phillip Sheridan was his name, described by Shelby Foote as a man with the face of a Mongol warlord and hair so short and dense it made his head look like a bullet with a coat of black paint.
Sheridan’s first instinct was to form a straggler line and prepare for the final Rebel assault. But the Rebels were too busy celebrating. And after he caught his breath, Little Phil noticed something surprising: not a broken and routed army, fleeing for their lives, but small groups of men boiling fresh coffee, speaking to one another calmly and cheering him as he rode by.
One of his aides described him at that moment: “As he galloped on, his features grew gradually set, as those carved in stone, and the same dull red glint I had seen in his piercing eyes when, on other occasions, the battle was going against us, was there now.”
You bet it was.
The closer Sheridan came to the battle, the more cheerful and animated his defeated men became. Encountering a small group of them, Little Phil would stand in the saddle, and give a jaunty salute — as if to congratulate them on a great victory, rather than another humiliating defeat.
The result was electric, if not universal. Amid the cheering, one infantry colonel — whose descendants perhaps would go on to become campaign advisors — stood in Sheridan’s path and begged him not to go on.
“The army’s whipped!” he cried.
“You are, but the army isn’t,” growled Sheridan, who then put the spurs to a horse who’s back was taller than he was and rode to the scene of the disaster, shouting, “About face, boys! We are going back to our camps! We are going to lick them out of their boots!”
His men were not beaten. They just needed leadership.
“We are going to get a twist on those fellows, men!” he shouted, pounding down the pike. “We are going to lick them out of their boots!”
And that’s what he did, too. He and his routed army went back to that field and licked those Rebels right out of their boots.
“Run!” he shouted, standing in the stirrups. “Go after them! We’ve got the God-damnedest twist on them you ever saw!”