By THOMAS FLEMMING;
THOMAS FLEMING'S LATEST NOVEL, ''TIME AND TIDE,'' WILL BE REPRINTED IN PAPERBACK BY BANTAM BOOKS IN JANUARY.
Published: October 16, 1988
THE GUNS OF CEDAR CREEK By Thomas A. Lewis. Illustrated. 371 pp. New York: Harper & Row. $24.95.
One hot June night in 1938, I and a group of fellow 11-year-olds were shoved on stage in Jersey City one by one to recite heroic poems and speeches to an audience of perspiring parents. We were victims of the last gasp of the elocutionary era, when young men - and a few women - were taught inflection and dramatic gestures, guaranteed to improve one's chances of success in the game of life. My poem was ''Sheridan's Ride,'' by Thomas Buchanan Read, which described the Civil War hero's rush to the front on his great black horse, Rienzi, to rally an army under attack. A devotee of the pathetic fallacy, Read made Rienzi as much of a hero as the general, and gave the horse the best lines.
Only years later did I discover the name of the battle Sheridan fought. It is not even mentioned in the poem; I presume that most Americans of this century have remained in the same state of ignorance. In ''The Guns of Cedar Creek,'' the historian and journalist Thomas A. Lewis has rescued far more than the name of the battle. He has written a book that is rich in political and military relevance for our time.
In the fall of 1864, Lincoln was running for re-election after three years of an unpopular war with no sign of imminent victory. Throughout the spring and summer, Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac had been trying to batter its way to Richmond, Va., taking fearful casualties in battle after drawn battle. The men who had rebelled against the Federal Government to form the Confederate States of America sensed they only needed one major victory to send the elongated Republican rail-splitter home to Illinois and put in his place a Democrat who intended to negotiate peace.
On Oct. 19, 1864, at Cedar Creek in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates came within a whisker of winning this knockout triumph. In fact, for about five hours, they had won it. The Confederate commander Jubal Early's 17,000 ragged half-starved men executed a plan worthy of Stonewall Jackson in his prime, launching a surprise dawn attack that routed the Federal Army of the Shenandoah and sent it fleeing toward Washington whipped and humiliated.
What happened next? Why isn't Cedar Creek on the list of the Civil War's turning points in the popular mind, like Gettysburg and Antietam? There are two answers to that logical question. One is the rapidity with which Cedar Creek became one of history's might-have-beens. The other is the drama's hero, a man succeeding generations of Americans failed to find attractive, Philip Sheridan.
Unlike Grant or Sherman or Lee, whose personalities were more complex and interesting, this stumpy (5 feet 4 inches) bundle of pugnacity was the regular Army personified. All Sheridan understood was war; all he wanted to do was fight it as ferociously and effectively as possible. He was in Winchester, Va., on his way back from a conference in Washington, when the Confederates struck. Mounting Rienzi more or less as the poet described it, he thundered the 27 miles to Cedar Creek, meeting the debris of his army on the road.
By four o'clock that afternoon, Sheridan had reorganized and revitalized his panicked soldiers. With the cavalry led by another much maligned warrior, George Armstrong Custer, Sheridan's men hurled themselves on the weary Confederates and totally routed them. ''Sheridan's Ride,'' written within days of the event, was recited at Republican rallies throughout the North. Lincoln won a mandate to finish the war on his terms. The President remarked that he used to think a cavalryman should be 6 feet 4 but now he thought 5 feet 4 was about right.
Mr. Lewis, a former senior editor of Time-Life Books, has peopled this drama with a gallery of portraits of forgotten leaders on both sides, from Jubal Early, a brilliant soldier whose courage somehow never quite matched his intellect, to such beau ideals of North and South as Dodson Ramseur of South Carolina and Charles Russell Lowell of Massachusetts, both of whom fought magnificently and died of their wounds soon after the guns of Cedar Creek fell silent. But it is Sheridan, with the light of battle in his eyes, who dominates the story. Like him or dislike him, he is the kind of man a country needs to win a war. In this brutally realistic book, Little Phil, not Rienzi, has the best lines.