In the early morning of the 19th October 1864, Captain John G. Healy of the Ninth Connecticut Infantry had his men stand to arms at their breastworks on the east bank of Cedar Creek. ‘The Irish Regiment’ was part of the Union XIX Corps of Major-General Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah. Now reduced to battalion strength, Healy and his small band of men had been alerted by the sound of firing from their left flank, where the VIII Corps positions were. As the commotion intensified, it became apparent that Confederate troops of Lieutenant-General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley had flanked the Federal positions, routing the VIII Corps in the process. The situation of the XIX Corps and Healy’s Connecticut Irishmen was now extremely perilous.
As the XIX Corps began to feel the full force of the Confederate assault, the Ninth had no option but to retreat. Captain Garry T. Scott of the Regiment described how they were ‘driven out of our fortifications’ being forced to fall back ‘several miles’. Moving along their line of works, they withdrew from one position to the next as the Rebel wave came on. As they attempted to form with a portion of their Brigade, Healy could see that the retreat was fast becoming a rout, with ‘men of other regiments…running by us, going in all directions to the rear’. However, as the Confederate attack ran out of steam, it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man. The Ninth’s army commander Phil Sheridan was not about to let his army disintegrate.
Sheridan had actually been away at Winchester when Early’s troops struck. Hearing the firing, he rode hard for the front where he saw his men flooding to the rear. Private John McKenna of the Ninth recalled how he was ‘twice taken prisoner at Cedar Creek, but got away from them in time to be in line when Sheridan rode up’. Sheridan succeeded in rallying the XIX Corps for a counter-attack, in which the Ninth Connecticut participated. Captain Healy describes the scene: ‘we advanced through the woods, the enemy pouring shot and shell into us, but with very little effect. We now received orders to charge. My men went at it with a will, the colors of my battalion being always in the advance. The officers of the Ninth rallied their men, and they pressed forward after the retreating enemy. The chase was kept up until dark. The enemy being driven from the field we were now ordered to occupy our old camp.’
Captain Scott recalled that The Irish Regiment colors were ‘the first planted on the recaptured works and were the first to advance in the charge’. Captain Healy himself carried the state colors for the first part of the charge, until he found that it restricted his ability to issue orders. Captain James Graham of the Ninth would look back on the battle years later as one of the Regiment’s finest achievements, and as a place where the unit had ‘greatly distinguished itself’ with the ‘colors of the battalion in the van of all other flags on that field‘. He remembered the private who carried the national flag (John T. Morrow), as well as the corporal and two officers who were with him at the forefront of the attack, as the ‘four daring spirits who led the Federal army in the victorious charge that finally overthrew Early and ended the valley campaign’.
The Battle of Cedar Creek was indeed the decisive battle of the Valley Campaign of 1864; the threat to Washington D.C. dissipated and Early’s troops would eventually return to the Army of Northern Virginia. The Ninth Connecticut lost two men killed, fifteen men wounded, and eight men missing during the engagement. Today, the battlefield of Cedar Creek is on the Civil War Preservation Trust’s most endangered battlefields list and needs your help to preserve the site for future generations.
References & Further Reading
Murray, Thomas Hamilton 1903. History of the Ninth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, “The Irish Regiment”, in the War of Rebellion, 1861-65. The Record of a Gallant Command on the March, in Battle and in Bivouac
Official Records 43. Report of Captain John G. Healy, Ninth Connecticut Infantry, of Operations October 19.