ABOUT 20 MILES south of Winchester, Va., along the banks of Cedar Creek and in the open pastures and fields surrounding Belle Grove Plantation, the last great battle of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley was fought 126 years ago on Oct. 19.

To commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek, a Civil War living history weekend will be staged Saturday and Sunday on the battlefield near Middletown.

The Union victory at Cedar Creek was militarily and politically significant. During the summer of 1864, with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant bogged down at Richmond and Petersburg, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early made devastating raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania, and continued to pose a threat to the capital city. Grant, determined to destroy Early and end the Shenandoah Valley's significance as a "granary" and a "gun barrel aimed at the capital," consolidated Union troops in Maryland, West Virginia and Northern Virginia into the new Army of the Shenandoah.

On Aug. 7, 1864, Grant placed Major General Philip H. Sheridan, chief of cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, in command of the new 30,000-man army.

"It is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return," Grant instructed his general. "Take all provisions, forage and stock . . . such as can not be consumed, destroy . . . . If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste."

Early, outnumbered two-to-one, sparred with Sheridan for about a month until the "blustery, daring little Phil" dealt "Old Jube" a severe blow at the Third Battle of Winchester on Sept. 19. Finally broken by the hard-hitting Union cavalry at Fisher's Hill, Early retreated south to Harrisonburg, Va. After pursuing Early to Harrisonburg, Sheridan withdrew, systematically burning barns, cornfields, gristmills and smokehouses and destroying livestock in the valley as he headed northward.

Sheridan assumed that Early's army was too demoralized and weak to be a future threat. But Early refused to give up. He followed Sheridan back down the valley to Union field headquarters at Belle Grove Plantation.

With his provisions exhausted and the valley ravaged, Early had to fight or retreat. From a vantage point atop Massanutten Mountain, Early saw that Sheridan's eastern flank was weak. And that's where he hit.

The skillfully planned and executed surprise attack at dawn on Oct. 19 left dazed and half-dressed Union soldiers in its wake. Initially, it appeared that Early had won a major victory. During a pause in the battle, however, hungry Confederate soldiers began to plunder the Union camps. With a scarcity of Confederate officers to maintain discipline, a premature victory celebration began, allowing the Union troops an opportunity to regroup.

News of the Confederate attack reached Sheridan as he was leisurely returning to camp from a strategy meeting in Washington. Sheridan's speedy ride to Belle Grove on his horse Rienzi is legendary. Both the general and Rienzi have been immortalized -- in Thomas Buchanan Read's popular ballad, and in the Sheridan Circle statue of the major general waving his hat, appearing to urge his troops to charge down Massachusetts Avenue.

Cheered as he rode into battle, Sheridan rallied his troops for a counterattack, pressing them to give Early "the worst licking he ever had." Inspired by Sheridan's presence, the Union troops overwhelmed the Confederates. What had been a Confederate victory in the morning belonged to the Union by nightfall. Early's troops withdrew, ending the Confederate threat to the Union through the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan's victory -- along with the capture of Atlanta -- ended the war's stalemate and contributed to President Lincoln's reelection just a few weeks later.

Belle Grove's historical significance goes beyond being Sheridan's headquarters during the Battle of Cedar Creek. What many consider one of the finest houses in the Shenandoah Valley was built during the last decade of the 18th century by Maj. Isaac Hite Jr., a grandson of a German immigrant who was among the first permanent settlers in the area.

The Hite family, which had achieved prominence in the valley in Colonial times, was quick to emulate English Tidewater planters in speech, taste and way of life. Hite attended the College of William and Mary before joining the Continental Army in 1780. And in 1783 when he married Eleanor "Nelly" Conway Madison, daughter of James Madison Sr. of Montpelier, Va., and sister of the future president, Hite's transformation to Virginia gentleman was complete.

The mansion at Belle Grove was constructed as a material manifestation of its owner's prominence and wealth to be seen by all who passed on the Valley Pike -- today's U.S. Route 11. In 1821 Belle Grove was described as a "spacious mansion . . . {which} attracts the notice and admiration of the traveler soon after passing Middletown."

Although a solidly built limestone structure, Belle Grove is more Tidewater/Piedmont than Germanic Valley in style. The well-portioned one-story structure, the fanlight over the front door, the Doric portico, the basement kitchen, the T-shaped hall are definitely Jeffersonian. Upon the request of Hite's brother-in-law James Madison -- who had honeymooned on the property with Dolley in October of 1794 -- Thomas Jefferson advised the Hites' builder on the plan of the house.

The interior is distinguished by beautiful woodwork that is both Federal and Georgian in style. Two rooms off the entrance hall have had their pine paneling restored to the original vibrant hues -- one red, one blue.

After the second Mrs. Hite died in 1851, most of Belle Grove's furnishings were sold. Largely furnished today with period pieces, one of the loveliest objects at Belle Grove is a clock in the entry hall that was made in the valley and once belonged to Jubal Early.

Belle Grove, along with 100 surrounding acres of farmland, has been a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 1964. And Belle Grove, like autumn in the Shenandoah Valley -- crisp with golden and glorious color provided by sugar and red maples, sassafras, persimmon and black gum against the hazy blue sky -- has changed little since the Battle of Cedar Creek 126 years ago.

BELLE GROVE PLANTATION -- Living history interpretations and Civil War reenactment activities are scheduled for Saturday from 10 to 6 and Sunday from 9:30 to 5. Weekend events include Confederate and Union encampments, infantry drills and maneuvers, cavalry and artillery demonstrations, skirmish and battle reenactments and depictions of camp life and Shenandoah Valley civilian life during the war. Some 600 reenactors in period dress are expected. Admission -- which includes parking and guided tours of the plantation house -- is $5 for one day and $8 for the entire weekend, free for 12 and younger and 65 and older. Concessions will be available. Call 703/869-2064.

Cedar Creek Battlefield and Belle Grove Plantation are located about 70 miles west of Washington on U.S. Route 11, one mile south of Middletown, Va. Take I-66 west to I-81 north to Exit 77 (Route 627). Go west on Route 627, then south on U.S. 11 for a mile to Belle Grove.

Linda Leslie and Bill Choyke last wrote for Weekend about Herbert Hoover's Shenandoah Valley fishing retreat.