by David Kelley
One hundred and fifty years ago this week hundreds of young Vermont boys bent history dramatically toward freedom and unity.
By October of 1864 the Civil War had dragged on for four years and the carnage and bloodshed had reached into almost every home in the country.
Gettysburg had supposedly broken the back of the Confederacy, but Lee’s troops soldiered on. In the summer of 1864, 65,000 union soldiers were killed and Confederate Gen. Jubal Early, operating in the Shenandoah Valley, had come within five miles of the White House.
In the North, Lincoln was facing enormous opposition in the upcoming (November 1864) presidential election from the Democratic nominee, George McClellan, the man he had put in charge of the Union army at the outset of the war. As a general, McClellan did little more than parade soldiers through Washington, D.C. But the country was tired of war and McClellan offered the prospect of a negotiated settlement with the South—in all probability a country forever divided with slave-holding held intact.
The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia continued to be the “bread basket” of the South, and from there Confederate troops continued to make inroads into the North. The commander of Union troops, Gen. Ulysses Grant ordered the creation of the Army of the Shenandoah. He wanted the 33-year-old Philip Sheridan put in command. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said Sheridan was too young. Lincoln sided with Grant and Sheridan took command.
The Shenandoah campaign was brutal. To this day there are people in the South who still refer to it as “The Burning.” Sheridan was following Grant’s order, “to eat out Virginia clean and clear … so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender.” Sheridan’s plan was that Confederate troops would have nothing to eat and his army went about burning every barn, mill and factory, slaughtering livestock and rendering 400 square miles uninhabitable.
The Virginians had one significant advantage over Union troops. They knew the terrain.
On the evening of October 18 Confederate General Jubal Early set out with an army of 21,000 men along a little known pass through the Shenandoah mountains with the intention of marching through the night and catching the Union soldiers by surprise at sunrise. Though the Union troops had greater numbers, Early’s night-time march was a success and he engaged the Yankees at 5 a.m. at Cedar Creek near Strasburg, Virginia, before they had even had any coffee.
While other Union forces began to retreat in disarray, 54-year-old Col. Stephen Thomas from Bethel, Vermont, ordered Vermont’s Eighth Infantry forward to engage Early’s troops in what would be bloody and brutal hand-to-hand combat. At the same time the Eighth Infantry gave the main forces of the Union army time to withdraw, regroup and fight on.
One Vermonter described what happened to the Vermont Eighth in these words:
“Suddenly a mass of rebels confronted the flags, and with hoarse shouts demanded their surrender. Defiant shouts went back. ‘Never!’ ‘Never!’ A rebel soldier then leveled his musket and shot Corporal Petre, who held the colors. 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 Petrie fell and crawled away to die, they were instantly seized and borne aloft by Corporal Perham, and were as quickly demanded again by a rebel who eagerly attempted to grasp them; but Sergeant 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 fell to the earth. Once more, amide terrific yells, the colors went up, this time held by Corporal Blanchard—and the carnage went on.” (George H. Carpenter, Eighth Vermont)
Despite the heroism of Vermont’s Eighth Infantry, the Union troops fell back. By noon it looked as if the Union forces were about to suffer an overwhelming defeat.
Sheridan had been 10 miles away in Winchester that morning meeting with his staff. When news of the battle reached him he left immediately and rode straight toward the sound of the guns—famously riding a Vermont Morgan named Rienzi. As he rode into the troops he rallied them to turn and fight. The Vermonters had fallen back slowly to join the 19th Corps at Belle Grove Plantation. As the day wore on they were at the front lines. By the end of the day the Eighth Vermont had lost 13 of its 16 officers and 110 of its 154 men.
At the same time, George Custer, the 25-year-old Union general who was commanding the Third Cavalry Division was also struggling to connect with the 19th Corps. The First Vermont Cavalry and the Fifth New York were under his command and together they opened the path for him to join the 19th. By the end of the day the First Vermont Cavalry had captured 45 pieces of artillery.
Here is what Custer wrote in his report to headquarters, Third Cavalry Division, Oct. 21, 1864, following the Battle of Cedar Creek:
“In closing my report I desire particularly to mention Colonel Wells, First Vermont Cavalry, commanding Second Brigade, and Col. A. C. M. Pennington, Third New Jersey Cavalry, commanding First Brigade. Both these officers distinguished themselves by their personal gallantry and by the successful and skillful manner in which they handled their commands. For their behavior during the engagement, as well as for their corresponding good conduct in the cavalry engagement of the 9th of October, I recommend them for promotion to the rank of brigadier-general U. S. Volunteers.”
By the end of the day Union troops had turned the tables on what had been a brilliant surprise attack on the part of the Confederates. The southern troops were exhausted from the all night march and faced superior numbers. Largely due to the efforts of Vermont’s Eighth Infantry and First Cavalry, certain disaster had been turned into a huge Union victory. Stephen Thomas, from Bethel, Vermont, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Cedar Creek.
Two weeks before the 1864 election the word of this victory went out in newspapers across the North. Poems were written about Sheridan’s ride toward the guns on Rienzi and Lincoln’s campaign got the boost that many agreed put him over the top. Six months later the South capitulated at Appomattox Court House. The Union was secured. Eight months later Congress and the states adopted the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery. Three years later Congress and the states adopted the 14th Amendment guaranteeing that no state would deny its citizens due process and equal protection of the laws.
This week Howard Coffin, Sen. Joe Benning, Pat McDonald and other Vermont dignitaries are placing a new marker at the site where Vermont’s Eighth Infantry fought. It will be in the traditional colors of Vermont—green and gold and underneath will be a replica of the Julian Scott painting of the battle that hangs in the Cedar Creek Room of the State House.
Stephen Thomas, the (Bethel, Vermont) colonel who ordered the Eighth Infantry into action at Cedar Creek, is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier. His daughter, Amanda, was Washington County clerk for many years.