In the summer of 1864, the Union was winning the battles but losing the war. In the presidential race of 1864, war weariness was working against Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln, and his Democratic challenger George B McClellan was significantly ahead because he promised to make peace with the South and end the war. That changed in September when Sherman seized Atlanta, which greatly increased Lincoln’s popularity. But by October, Lincoln was still only tied in the polls with McClellan because Ulysses S Grant was stuck in a bloody stalemate besieging Robert E. Lee around Richmond, and the morale crushing casualties were high.
In order to break the stalemate around Richmond, Grant needed troops. The only troops available were those defending Washington DC from attack. Washington DC was constantly threatened over the years because of its proximity to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the gateway to the North and Breadbasket of the South. Because the Valley runs southwest to northeast, i.e. away from Richmond, it previously didn’t made sense for Grant to clear it.
In September 1864, Grant needed those troops and dispatched Major General Phil Sheridan with 20,000 men to clear the valley of Rebels, thereby removing the threat to Washington. Sheridan pinned down Confederate Major General Jubal Early, but could not destroy him. So in a prelude to Sherman’s March to the Sea, Sheridan began a scorched earth policy in the Shenandoah Valley to deny supplies to the Confederates. Thinking everything was going well, and that Early would be forced to leave the valley or starve, Sheridan left his army to attend a conference in Washington DC in mid-October.
On 18 October, Sheridan was on his way back from the conference and stayed the night in Winchester, Va, twenty miles from his army. Also that day Jubal Early decided not to retreat but to attack. He marched his army all night and surprised the Union troops encamped on Cedar Creek, just as Sheridan woke to the distant sound of guns. Like all good commanders, Sheridan mounted up and rode toward the sound of battle. To his astonishment, he encountered the shattered and routed remnants of his army retreating from Cedar Creek to Winchester.
Sheridan spurred his horse on and raced down the road towards the sounds of fighting, inspiring his troops and admonishing his officers, but never slowed below a gallop. Sheridan arrived at the still raging Battle of Cedar Creek within minutes of it being lost. His presence on the battlefield electrified the remaining defenders, and more importantly, behind him a came a steady stream of recently rallied reinforcements. That evening, Sheridan counterattacked and swept Early’s exhausted troops from the field.
The news of Sheridan’s Ride was exactly what Lincoln needed. Sheridan was an immediate national hero and Lincoln’s popularity soared. McClellan’s antiwar campaign collapsed and Lincoln would handily defeat him in November. There would be no peace treaty with an independent Confederate States of America.