Rutherford B. Hayes Recalls an Incident at the Battle of Cedar Creek
Rutherford B. Hayes commanded the 2nd Division of the Union Army of West Virginia at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley fought on October 19th, 1864. The future 19th President of the United States (1877-1881) filed an official report detailing his command’s action in that battle. At a meeting of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), Ohio Commandery on March 6th, 1889, Hayes spoke to his fellow Civil War veterans in an after dinner speech about how he was mistakenly reported as killed in action at Cedar Creek. This was an impromptu after dinner speech as opposed to the more formal presentations delivered at meetings from prepared texts that were published by the various MOLLUS state commanderies; however, a stenographer did record Hayes’ and other speaker’s remarks that day. Four years later, the Ohio Commandery posthumously published Hayes’ speech:
At the battle of Cedar Creek, we were astonished in the morning, and left the place where we were astonished, and advanced away from it, until finally we formed a tolerable line, facing, as I supposed, toward an enemy, and, looking up to the left of the line, found that I was in front, but the circumstances of the morning were such that it was difficult to find out where I should place myself, and I made a mistake and got in front of the line of battle. I went up to the extreme left, which rested on a little grove or hillock, where there was a prety strong force–a brigade that I was not acquainted with. It had lately joined us. I went to the commander, and said to him: “Can you hold on here?” “Oh, yes,” said he, “I shall have no trouble. This is a good position, and I can hold on here if you can hold down there.” His was a new command, and I felt that sort of assurance in the presence of a new recruit that I would naturally feel, and I said to him: “You need not feel afraid of my line. I will guarantee that my line will stand there.” But, happening to turn around, I saw my line breaking. Naturally I was somewhat surprised, and I galloped down to see what was going on. I saw nothing that would indicate what had taken place, until I got some distance–to a point where the line bent off first in this way and then in that way. I galloped on, and as I rode down the descent I saw what the trouble was. There was a rebel line coming just this way. My men were old soldiers, and knew what had to be done without orders, and, in advance of orders, they were leaving. The situation evidently demanded that sort of strategy. Although I was galloping rapidly, I could not get away as rapidly as they did, and, therefore, got the full benefit of the firing from the rebel line. My horse rolled over and was dead. I fell, and for a moment I supposes I was bewildered, and was also somewhat disabled in one ankle. I lay there some little time, how long I do not know precisely, but the men of the retreating line saw me there, and they carried the report to the rear that I was killed. When I awoke out of a sort of fainting spell, I saw that the rebel line was too near for me to escape, unless I used a good deal of strategy and a good deal of speed. I put out one leg, and then the other, and found there was some trouble with my right ankle, but I got myself together, and started up the hill for the little grove. Just then there came a tremendous yelling from those graybacks; I can not repeat their language even in the privacy of the family. The names they called me reflected disrespect upon my parentage. I was in the kindest possible way advised to stop, but I succeeded in getting away, and finally I was on a horse again, but, as I have said, the report that I had been killed went to the rear…
At night, the reporters, who had got together at the telegraph headquarters, were sending off accounts of the battle. The colonel commanding the First Division of Crook’s corps had been killed; the colonel commanding the Second Division, which was myself, had been killed, and so on, making out a large list. These reporters liked a good butcher’s bill, you know. A gentleman, a captain of my command, who knew something about what had transpired, and who had seen me on horseback all of the latter part of the battle, said to him: “Why, you are not sending off word that Colonel Hayes is dead?” “Oh, yes, it has gone off long ago; he was killed in the morning. We have seen men who saw him killed.” “Well,” said he, “that is not so; I saw him until dark…”
Well, that captain was a man of sense, a good man to have about when any thing was going on. He sat right down at the instrument and telegraphed to my wife, at Chillicothe, Ohio: “The report that your husband was killed this morning is untrue. He was wounded, not dangerously, and is safe.”
The next morning, or the next but one after the battle, the carrier took the daily paper to my wife as usual. It was carried into the room in which she was lying in bed and was laid upon the bed, as she was in the habit of reading it. Her uncle saw the paper coming, and hurried into the room, and before she could take it up, he grabbed it and quietly put it to one side, a little disturbed. He had heard what was in it, that a list of the dead was there, and a little complimentary obituary notice, which it is pleasant to have. It might be pleasant under some circumstances, but he concluded it would not be regarded so at the time, so he drew the paper away, and just at that moment it so happened that the telegraph boy came with the dispatch from the captain of my command, giving the message I have recited. When that was read, the relief came.
Rutherford B. Hayes in Sketches of War History 1861-1865: Papers Read Before the Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume 4.