The Battle of Cedar Creek through Lucy’s Eyes

Because the details of the Battle of Cedar Creek are thoroughly documented in both print and online sources, we’ll be brief in explaining how the battle unfolded. Lucy describes how soldiers from both sides – north and south – stole and destroyed things, taking and destroying whatever they wanted, in the fields and in the homes. However, this pilfering eased up when General Philip Sheridan arrived during the Valley Campaign of 1864. His Federal soldiers slept in the upstairs loft of the cabin where Lucy presumably lived with her father and stepbrothers, while General Sheridan set up his headquarters in Belle Grove’s Manor House, along with his nearly 33,000 Federal troops, who were camped all around the property.

When Sheridan’s army come to Cedar Crick it looked right frightful, there was so many men. The soldiers troubled us a good deal ‘fore the head men got here. General Sheridan made Belle Grove his headquarters. He was a small man. I used to see him. There were tents all over the yard, and some of the scouts slept upstairs in our cabin. Oh, my goodness! the soldiers were in and out all the time. I did washing and baked bread for ’em, and everything like that, and they paid me.

Lucy Walker, 1913 (Johnson, 1915, pp. 393-394)

In October 1864, Lucy found herself front and center in what turned out to be a critical battle that secured the Shenandoah Valley for the Union and bolstered President Lincoln’s chances of reelection.

A great many of the slaves run off North, and a great many others were taken up the country by their masters out of the way of the army. Often there ‘d be only a few old ones left to help on a place. None of us went away from Belle Grove. We had to stay to keep everything together what we could. There was nobody hardly that could be hired to help tend the crops, and we jus’ raised enough wheat and corn to keep us goin’. Sometimes we’d get right smart, and other times the soldiers would get everything.  

Lucy Walker, 1913 (Johnson, 1915, p. 393)

October 17, 1864

On October 17, 1864, Lieutenant General Jubal Early noticed a weakness in the Federal lines and devised a surprise attack in the early morning of October 19, 1864. This surprise attack worked, and within just 90 minutes of fighting, the Confederate troops had pushed the Federal troops away from Belle Grove. Thinking that they had secured victory, the Confederate troops took a break, which came to be known as the“fatal halt” because they declared victory at 10 o’clock in the morning.

On the morning of the battle, Lucy had Federal scouts sleeping in her cabin, so she remembers the start of the fighting as follows:

The first I knowed on the morning of the battle some soldiers come into our house gettin’ up the scouts who slept there. Everybody bounced up as soon as they could, and the scouts rolled out of the house in a hurry. I run and looked out, and then I shut the door. It was already daylight and the fightin’ had begun. The Confederates were drivin’ the Union men across the field down below the house.

We kep’ as far back in our cabin as we could, and we set there not knowin’ when we’d be killed. It was too late to get to the big house. We was lazy in bed that morning, and we had to stay lazy there in the cabin. Some of the Yankees got back of a wall side of the Belle Grove house, but Lor! they did n’t stop there long. In a little while the guns was n’t firin’ right around us no mo’. So I went to the door and looked out. The tents that had been in the yard were all gone, and I could see men layin’ about over the fields every which way. The fields looked jus’ like new ground with the stumps on it.

Lucy Walker, 1913 (Johnson, 1915, p. 394)
Battle of Cedar Creek Sketch by James E. Taylor (1864)

The “big house” to which Lucy is referring is Belle Grove’s Manor House. After the first round of fighting stopped, she helped tend to the wounded and said that she was as panicked as the men shot in battle.

After the armies got away men began to cl’ar up the wounded. They brought ’em to the big house and laid ’em in the yard. I was as crazy as them that was shot, I reckon. I ‘d run to the door and then run back. Soldiers were goin’ all the time and the ambulances were comin’ to get the wounded and take ’em off.

Mr. Cooley’s sister’s daughter and I went down the hill right smart with our wooden buckets to fetch water. If any of the wounded or the other soldiers asked us for a drink as we passed by we gave it to ’em.

Lucy Walker, 1913 (Johnson, 1915, p. 394)

This is the part of her story where we meet Rebecca (Becky) Cooley Gordon, who was John and Benjamin Cooley’s sister. The daughter to whom Lucy refers was likely Rebecca’s oldest daughter, Mary, who would have been around age 14 during the battle; however, she also had a younger daughter, Eliza, who would have been around age 12, so either one of these young women could have worked alongside Lucy to give the wounded soldiers water.

Meanwhile, General Sheridan, who was not at Belle Grove that morning, heard the sounds of battle and rallied his troops to launch a counterattack around 2 o’clock that same afternoon, where Federal troops outnumbered Confederate troops by two to one. At this point, Lucy and everyone else on the property heard that the Federal troops were returning to fight, so they were able to take shelter in the basement of the manor house.

Some of the wounded was still layin’ in the yard and out in the lot when the troops come back that evening. We’d got news that they were comin’, and we had all gone to the cellar of the big house. The cellar was where the cookin’ was done, and the rooms down there were nice and large and had rock walls. I did n’t feel much like keepin’ quiet when I could hear those wounded men groanin’ in the yard, even if the battle was goin’ on. So I jus’ spent my time walkin’ from one door to another and peepin’ out. But the others was settin’ down and squattin’ in the corners, anywheres they thought it was safest.

We stayed in the cellar till we heard no mo’ shootin’ or nothin’, and then we come out. There was Southern infantry in back of the house then makin’ for the pike. The Union men returned to the yard that night. We went to our cabin to sleep, but, good land! we did n’t feel much like sleepin’ — we did n’t know what mought break up. We sat up long as we could hear any one stirring around. The next morning the wounded was all gone, and we gradually got things straightened out. But we was always mo’ or less uneasy and fearful.

Lucy Walker, 1913 (Johnson, 1915, pp. 394-395)

Ultimately, General Sheridan’s counterattack allowed the Federal troops to regain and secure control of the Shenandoah Valley, which changed the trajectory of the Civil War and cemented President Lincoln’s reelection just 3 weeks later.

Want to learn more about the Battle of cedar creek?

The American Battlefield Trust has a short video that breaks down the Battle of Cedar Creek.

Cedar Creek: Animated Battle Map (American Battlefield Trust, 2019)

Go to previous section, Rebecca Cooley Gordon

Go to next section, Life after the Civil War

American Battlefield Trust. (2019). Cedar Creek: Animated Battle Map [Video]. YouTube.

Johnson, Clifton. (1915). Battleground Adventures, the Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict in Some of the Most Notable Battles of the Civil War. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Taylor, J. E. (1864). [Intense fighting swirled around the manor house at Belle Grove]. National Park Service.