Sheridan rode out about nine o’clock, a few aides riding with him. It was a sunny morning, bare fields rolling away to the hills and mountains which blazed with autumn colors, a warm Indian summer haze thickening the air. Off to the south there was that continued sound of firing, perhaps a bit louder than it had been earlier. Sheridan seemed to be puzzled. As he picked up his cavalry escort he halted, dismounted, and bent over with his ear to the ground, listening intently. When he got back on his horse his swarthy face was clouded.
Down the road went general, aides, and cavalry, horses moving at a walk. After a mile or so they came upon a wagon train all in a tangle, wagons turned every which way, nobody moving. Sheridan sent his Major Forsyth trotting on ahead to see what was wrong, and presently Forsyth came back at a mad gallop. The train had been bound for the front, he reported, and at this spot had met an officer heading for Winchester bearing news that the army had been routed and was coming back in full retreat – on hearing which the teamsters had begun to swing their wagons around without waiting for orders.
Sheridan told Major Spera, the cavalry commander, to give his fifty of his best mounted men and to spread the rest across the road as traffic police: untangle the wagon train, round up fugitives, and in general see that everybody who thought he was going to Winchester turned and headed back for the place where the fighting was going on. Then with his chosen fifty Sheridan set off down the road, the horses moving at a walk no longer.
First they met wagon trains, coming back to escape capture, and these were told to park in the fields and await orders. Then they met the outriders of defeat – sutlers, camp followers of high and low degree, artillerymen without the guns, headquarter trains, battery wagons, caissons, and little knots of stragglers and walking wounded. A little farther on, they saw groups of men in the fields, clustering about campfires, boiling coffee, and they met increasing numbers of men walking along the highway. And always the sound of the firing grew louder.
Here and there Sheridan would rein up and call: “Turn back, men! Turn back! Face the other way!” Once he told a group of stragglers: “Face the other way, boys – If I had been there this morning this wouldn’t have happened! You’ll have your own camps back before night!”
Most of the time, however, he did not come to a halt but kept on at a gallop, swinging his hat in a great arc, now and then pointing toward the south, always calling: “Turn back, men! Turn back!”
The effect was electric. One group of coffee boilers, who had been stretched at ease around a fire, jumped up with a yell as he went past, kicked their coffeepots over, seized their muskets, and started back toward the battlefield. All along the way men sprang up and cheered. Those who were near the road turned and shouted, waving their arms in frantic signal, to attract the attention of men who were sauntering across fields quarter of a mile away. They pointed to the speeding cavalcade in the road and at the top of their lungs they cried: “Sheridan! Sheridan!”
Major Forsyth wrote that every time a group of stragglers saw Sheridan the result was the same – “a wild cheer of recognition, an answering wave of the cap.” In no case, he said, did the men fail to shoulder their arms and follow the general, and for miles behind him the turnpike was crowded with men pressing forward to the front which they had run away from a few hours earlier. And all along the highway, for mile on mile, and in the fields beside the road, there went up the great jubilant chant: “Sheridan! Sheridan!”
As they got closer to the front Sheridan became grimmer. Major Forsyth wrote: “As he galloped on his features gradually grew set, as though carved in stone, and the same dull red glint I had seen in his piercing black eyes when, on other occasions, the battle was going against us, was there now.”
They came at last to a ridge where there were batteries in action, dueling at long range; and up ahead, on the right of the road, they could see the ranks of the VI Corps, men standing in line waiting to be used. Sheridan came plowing up through the fainthearts and skulkers, and his face was black as midnight, and now he was shouting: “Turn about, you damned cowardly curs, or I’ll cut you down! I don’t expect you to fight, but come and see men who like to!” And he swung his arm in a great inclusive gesture toward the VI Corps up ahead.
These men had been waiting in line for an hour or more. As veterans, they knew that the army had been beaten in detail and not by head-on assault, and they were grumbling about it, making profane remarks about men who ran away – and then, far behind them, they heard cheering.
“We were astounded,” wrote a man in the Vermont Brigade. “There we stood, driven four miles already, quietly waiting for what might be further and immediate disaster, and far in the rear we heard the stragglers and hospital bummers and gunless artillerymen actually cheering as though a victory had been won. We could hardly believe our ears.”
And then, while the men were still looking their questions at one another, out in front of the line came Sheridan himself, still riding at a swinging gallop – and the whole army corps blew up in the wildest cheer it had ever given in all of its career, and the roar went rocketing along the line as Sheridan rode on past brigade after brigade of the toughest veterans in the Army of the Potomac. The Vermont Brigade’s historian wrote fondly:
“Such a scene as his presence produced and such emotion as it awoke cannot be realized once in a century. All outward manifestations were as enthusiastic as men are capable of exhibiting; cheers seemed to come from throats of brass, and caps were thrown to the tops of the scattering oaks; but beneath and yet superior to these noisy demonstrations there was in every heart a revulsion of feeling, and a pressure of emotion, beyond description. No more doubt or chance for doubt existed; we were safe, perfectly and unconditionally safe, and every man knew it.”