Symposium Spotlight: What If Rienzi Stumbled at the Battle of Cedar Creek?


Welcome back to our yearly spotlight series, highlighting speakers and topics for our upcoming symposium. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to feature previews of our speaker’s presentations for the 2022 Emerging Civil War Symposium. We’ll also be sharing suggested titles that you may want to read in preparation for these programs. This week we feature Sarah Kay Bierle.

Union General Sheridan’s ride from Winchester and arrive near Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864, is the stuff of legends and poetry. Literally. Sheridan’s arrival and rallying of the Union troops for the decisive counterattack which secured a major victory in the Shenandoah Valley helped to solidify his place as a successful general and gave another Union victory just before the presidential election.

In the new volume of What If essays, Jonathan Noyalas offers an insightful “What If” on the Battle of Cedar Creek and the political aspects of the Union victory. His essay paints a vivid scene of the national impact of the battlefield actions and what could have happened in the larger war effort if October 19 had ended different.

The 2022 Emerging Civil War Symposium presentation “What if Rienzi Stumbled?” takes the Cedar Creek scenario in a slightly different direction. More of a boots-on-the-ground approach. (Or hoofs on the ground?) Diving into the tactical moments on the battlefield including the Confederate’s surprise attack, the response of the Union troops and officers, the retreat, the Union regrouping and the Confederate’s pause, the program will unravel the historical facts as they happened up to the moment of General Sheridan’s arrival.

With the historical stage prepared, the “What If” question will make an entrance. What if Sheridan never arrived? What if his meetings had been prolonged or what if his famous horse Rienzi stumbled? Looking at the historical accounts up to that point, we’ll work through some scenarios and try to determine if Sheridan’s presence was truly crucial to the battle or if it was more of a great coincidence and noteworthy moment. Was his arrival really equal to 10,000 reinforcement soldiers as some claimed at the time?

We’ll also take a look at the Confederate situation and examine some of their options. Could they really have continued to press their attack at that time? What if they had? If they had kept the Union army on the run, would it have actually benefited the Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley or Virginia to have a battlefield victory at Cedar Creek?

Finally, we’ll take a few minutes and look at the memory of the battle formed by Civil War veterans and how both sides viewed Sheridan’s factual arrival. They may have crafted their own great “what if” in how they chose to remember the battle.

Find more information on our 2022 Symposium, and purchase tickets, by clicking here!

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