ECW Weekender: The Morning Attack Trails at Cedar Creek Battlefield

Autumn is just around the corner, and before we know it, it will be the perfect weather for a drive to (or just through) Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It’s reported that peak leaf colors will likely be around October 11 this year! The roads into Shenandoah National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway will be backed up for miles, but you’ll be able to see some pretty good autumn colors from historic sites and avoid the long lines. Ever seen a sunset at Cedar Creek Battlefield or gone “leaf peeping” at New Market or enjoyed some living history at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton?

If you’re looking for a short trail with historic meaning in the lower (northern) part of the Shenandoah Valley, don’t miss The Morning Attack Trails at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park! And it offers splendid views of Massanutten Mountain which should boast autumn colors in a few weeks…

Historically speaking, the trails wind through preserved land where the Union troops encamped and where they got surprised on the morning of October 19, 1864, as Confederates forded the creek and river to spring a surprise attack. Here, Hayes and Thomas’s Federal brigades made brief, desperate stands as the Gordon and Ramseur’s divisions swept toward and eventually through their positions. There is interpretive signage along the trail and a detailed trail guide packet available at the start of the hike.

Trailhead Signs (Photo by Jon Tracey)

The first loop of the trail—The Thomas Brigade Loop Trail—starts at the 8th Vermont monument which is a short, steep distance from the parking area. Along this ground, the 8th Vermont, 160th New York, 12th Connecticut, and 47th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments swung into position at the double-quick, trying to create a defensive line. While the regiments stood and returned fire, they were quickly overwhelmed and forced to retreat or die at their position. Thomas’s brigade lost about 50% of its strength in the battle along the ridgeline and into the ravines. The survivors of the famed Stonewall Brigade fought the 8th Vermonters and battled ferociously to capture the flags from the Green Mountain State.

The second loop of the trail—The Hayes-Ramseur Loop Trail—explores where these generals and their commands fought. Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes (later President of the United States) had encamped his men along the land which is now part of Interstate 81 running alongside this preserved land. Though his camps were overrun, Hayes’s Division, supported by J. Howard Kitching’s “Provisional Division” fought back for a short time. However, the Confederate surprise and forward movement could not be stopped this early in the morning along Cedar Creek and when the Union lines collapsed along this ridgeline, the VIII Corps was out of action, leaving the XIX Corps to try to face the attack on the rolling fields leading toward Belle Grove’s plantation house.

8th Vermont Monument at Cedar Creek is part of the trail experience.

Ultimately, the XIX Corps would also fall back, though more organized resistance formed. The legendary arrival of Union General Philip Sheridan rallied the Union soldiers and a sweeping counterattack sent the Confederates into a running retreat of their own, back across the original fighting fields. By the end of the day, the Federal survivors were back on their own camping ground as Sheridan had promised in his rallying speeches.

To access the trail parking, head south on Route 11 from Middletown or Belle Grove. You’ll see signs to the left for the National Park Service. Turn into the second driveway (it’s usually marked!) and park at the end of the drive way. The trail begins just beyond the orientation bulletin board which has maps and trail guides.

Trailhead Address: 8739 Valley Pike, Middletown, VA 22645

Hiking notes:

  • There’s not much shade after leaving the 8th Vermont Monument; plan accordingly if it is a warm day.
  • The combined trail loops total nearly 1.5 miles and it’s a relatively easy walk; it is not flat and there are some brief, steep inclines.
  • Park Rangers strongly suggest using bug spray and checking thoroughly after the hike to make sure you aren’t taking any ticks home with you.
  • The trails are marked and mowed; easy to follow; and aligned with the interpretive information in the trail guide.

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