September also saw the turning of the tide on the still more conspicuous scene of action in Virginia. Grant had sent Sheridan to the Valley, and had just completed a tour of personal inspection there, when Sheridan, finding Early's Confederates divided, swooped down on the exposed main body at Opequan Creek and won a brilliant victory which raised the hopes of the loyal North a good deal higher still.
Exactly a month later, on the nineteenth of October, Early made a desperate attempt to turn the tables on the Federals in the Valley by attacking them suddenly, on their exposed left flank, while Sheridan was absent at Washington. (We must remember that Grant had to concert action personally with his sub-commanders, as his orders were so often "queered" when seen at Washington by autocratic Stanton and bureaucratic Halleck.) The troops attacked broke up and were driven in on their supports in wild confusion. Then the supports gave way; and a Confederate victory seemed to be assured.
But Sheridan was on his way. He had left the scene of his previous victory at Opequan Creek, near Winchester, and was now riding to the rescue of his army at Cedar Creek, twenty miles south. "Sheridan's Ride," so widely known in song and story, was enough to shake the nerves of any but a very fit commander. The flotsam and jetsam of defeat swirled round him as he rode. Yet, with unerring eye, he picked out the few that could influence the rest and set them at work to rally, reform, and return. Inspired by his example many a straggler who had run for miles presently "found himself" again and got back in time to redeem his reputation.
Arriving on the field Sheridan discovered those two splendid leaders, Custer and Getty, holding off the victorious Confederates from what otherwise seemed an easy prey. His presence encouraged the formed defense, restored confidence among the rest near by, and stiffened resistance so much that hasty entrenchments were successfully made and still more successfully held. The first rush having been stopped, Sheridan turned the lull that ensued into a triumphal progress by riding bareheaded along his whole line, so that all his men might feel themselves once more under his personal command. Cheer upon cheer greeted him as his gallant charger carried him past; and when the astonished enemy were themselves attacked they broke in irretrievable defeat.
This crowning victory of the long-drawn Valley campaigns, coming with cumulative force after those of Mobile, Atlanta, and Opequan Creek, did more to turn the critical election than all the speeches in the North. The fittest at the home front judged by deeds, not words, agreeing therein with Rutherford B. Hayes (a future President, now one of Sheridan's generals) who said: "Any officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress, ought to be scalped."
The devastation of everything in the Valley that might be useful to Lee's army completed the Union victory in arms; while Lincoln's own triumph in November completed it in politics and raised his party to the highest plane of statesmanship in war.
From this time till the early spring the battle of the giants in Virginia calmed down to the minor moves and clashes that mark a period of winter quarters; while the scene of more stirring action shifts once more to Georgia and Tennessee.
CHAPTER XI. SHERMAN DESTROYS THE BASE: 1864