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!”
Battles don’t always go that way. But sometimes they do. It depends on whether the individual soldier still has any fight in him.
It has been a source of delight for me these past few days to see nothing but evidence of this, all across our defeated lines. Nowhere have I heard a shred of defeatism or despair. On the contrary. In point of fact, the magnanimity and graciousness I have seen in defeat in so many places on the right tells me that this is an eager and seasoned army, one able to look defeat in the face and own up to the errors in tactics and strategy that got us there. And nowhere do I see a call to abandon our core principles and sue for terms, but rather that our loss was caused precisely by our abandonment of the issues which we hold dear and which have served us so well on battlefields past.
So consider this, my fellows in arms: On Tuesday, the Left — armed with the most attractive, eloquent, young, hip, and charismatic candidate I have seen with my adult eyes, a candidate shielded by a media so overtly that it can never be such a shield again, who appeared after eight years of a historically unpopular President, in the midst of two undefended wars and at the time of the worst financial crisis since the Depression and whose praises were sung by every movie, television, and musical icon without pause or challenge for 20 months . . . who ran against the oldest nominee in the country’s history, against a campaign rent with internal disarray and determined not to attack in the one area where attack could have succeeded, and who was out-spent no less than seven-to-one in a cycle where not a single debate question was unfavorable to his opponent — that historic victory, that perfect storm of opportunity . . .
Yielded a result of 53 percent.
Folks, we are going to lick these people out of their boots.
There is much to do. That a man with such overt Marxist ideas and such a history of association with virulent anti-Americans can be elected president should make it crystal clear to each of us just how far we have let fall the moral tone of this Republic. The great lesson from Ronald Reagan was simply that we can and must gently educate as well as campaign, and explain our ideas with smiles on our faces and real joy in our hearts. For unlike the far-left radical who gained the presidency on Tuesday, we start with 150 million of the most free and intelligent and hard-working people in the history of the Earth at our backs, with a philosophy that — unlike theirs, which has resulted in 100 million dead in unmarked graves — has liberated and enriched more people and created more joy than any nation or combination of nations in our history.
And then we will begin, with a confident and happy heart, to examine how we have failed the American people in regard to making clear the moral and philosophical underpinnings of our philosophy. For anyone that fully understands these philosophies, presented calmly and with wit and humility, will come to our side and never leave.
We have tried, and failed. Tomorrow we will try again.
How can we lose, my friends? How can we lose, unless we give up?