Fought on June 8, 1862, the Battle of Cross Keys was the fifth engagement and fourth Confederate victory of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
Prelude to the Battle
In the spring of 1862, Major General George B. McClellan was preparing to launch his much-anticipated Peninsula Campaign against the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Besides McClellan’s primary command, three Union forces to the northwest prepared to move south through the Shenandoah Valley to support the invasion.
Opposing the three federal armies was a small Confederate force commanded by General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Comprising the left wing of General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac (soon to become the famed Army of Northern Virginia), Jackson reported the size of his command as 4,297 infantry, 369 artillery, and 601 cavalry. As the Peninsula Campaign began, Johnston ordered Jackson to prevent the federal armies in the Shenandoah area from reinforcing McClellan.
Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 Begins
The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 began on February 27, when Major General Nathaniel Banks, Union commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, led much of the 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac (over 20,000 soldiers) across the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry and into Virginia. Banks’ aim was to move south, up the Shenandoah Valley, toward Richmond, to support McClellan’s offensive.
First Battle of Kernstown
On March 21, Jackson received faulty information that Banks had divided his force, leaving roughly 3,000 men, commanded by Brigadier General James Shields, at Winchester. Supposedly, Banks was marching the rest of his men back across the Potomac River to reinforce McClellan. Mindful of General Johnston’s directive to keep Banks in the Valley and to get as “near as prudence will permit,” Jackson ordered two grueling forced marches toward Winchester beginning on March 22.
On March 23, his 3,400-man division engaged Shields at Kernstown, just south of Winchester. Jackson discovered that Shields’s 3,000 Federals were in fact 8,500 strong. Shields was wounded during the First Battle of Kernstown, but his subordinate, Colonel Nathan Kimball, led the Yankees to victory, sending Jackson reeling back up the Valley (southward).
Battle of McDowell
On May 8, Jackson defeated two brigades of Major General John C. Frémont’s Mountain Department at the Battle of McDowell in the upper portions of the valley. Jackson’s victory at McDowell enabled him to turn his undivided attention to Banks’s army, which had moved south through the Shenandoah Valley to the vicinity of Strasburg.
As Jackson headed down the Shenandoah Valley (northward), he reunited with Richard Ewell’s division, which had been keeping tabs on Banks while Jackson was disposing of Frémont. The addition of Ewell’s division swelled the size of Jackson’s army to 17,000 men.
Battle of Front Royal
By May 22, Jackson had marched his soldiers to within ten miles of a Union garrison of roughly 1,000 men protecting Banks’ supply line at the village of Front Royal. On the next day, Jackson’s soldiers overwhelmed Colonel J.R. Kenly’s small command at the Battle of Front Royal and threatened to isolate or to flank Banks’ main army at Strasburg, thus forcing the Union general to retreat north toward the town of Winchester.
First Battle of Winchester
As Banks’s army withdrew down the Valley (north) Jackson’s troops harassed them throughout the day of May 24. During the retreat, the Rebels captured so many Union supplies that they later referred to the Federal commander “Commissary Banks.” As night approached, Banks stopped just south of Winchester to reorganize his army and slow Jackson’s pursuit. Allowing his troops only a few hours of rest, Jackson approached Winchester from two directions early on May 25 and dealt Banks a sound defeat a the First Battle of Winchester. The loss sent the Yankees fleeing back across the Potomac River.
President Lincoln’s Plan to Defeat Jackson
Jackson’s victory at the First Battle of Winchester created a great deal of angst in Washington, especially with President Lincoln. Weary of federal defeats in the Valley, Lincoln devised his own plan to stop Jackson’s escapades. The president ordered Frémont to re-enter the Valley from the west near Strasburg and then drive south to disrupt Jackson’s supply lines near Harrisonburg. Lincoln also directed Banks to re-cross the Potomac and drive Jackson up the Valley (south). Finally, the president ordered Irvin McDowell to send a large detachment commanded by Major General James Shields into the Valley from the east, move south and merge with Frémont’s force to crush Jackson’s army.
Lincoln’s Plan Unravels
Lincoln’s plan unraveled almost immediately. Bad weather and poor roads delayed Frémont’s advance. McDowell, who still harbored designs of moving against Richmond, reluctantly sent Shields’s division back to the Valley. Shields managed to re-occupy Front Royal on May 30 but then refused to budge until the arrival of another division of McDowell’s corps, commanded by Major General Edward O. C. Ord. Meanwhile, Banks was still rebuilding his shattered army and officials could not persuade him to move until June 10. By the time each of the federal armies completed their preparations, Jackson escaped.
While the Federals were mobilizing, Jackson moved south and rested his weary army at Port Republic, near the headwaters of the South Branch of the Shenandoah River. As Frémont and Shields converged upon him from the northwest and northeast, Jackson determined to defeat each Union force in detail, before they could merge and overwhelm him.
Jackson Dispatches Ewell to Cross Creek Tavern
To deal with Frémont, Jackson stationed the 5,800 soldiers of General Richard Ewell’s division near Cross Creek Tavern, about five miles west of Jackson’s main army at Port Republic. Ewell positioned his men in a line above Mill Creek that afforded him an excellent view of Frémont’s advance route along the Port Republic Road. On the right (east) end of Ewell’s line, Brigadier General Isaac Ridgeway Trimble pushed forward and concealed his brigade behind a fencerow.
June 8, 1862 — Clash at Cross Keys
Stahel Walks into Trimble’s Ambush
Frémont believed that the right side of the Confederate line was the most vulnerable. Thus, he ordered Brigadier General Julius Stahel’s brigade on the Union left to advance first. Stahel shared Frémont’s belief that the Rebels had concentrated the bulk of their forces near the center of the Union line. Hence, he did not take proper precautions as he moved forward toward Trimble’s ambush. When the Federals came within fifty or sixty yards of the concealed Confederates, Trimble’s men poured a withering torrent of searing lead into the unsuspecting Yankees. Stahel’s men turned and fled with Trimble hot on their tail for nearly a mile. When Ewell refused Trimble’s request to continue his pursuit, Trimble went directly to Jackson who sided with Ewell.
As the Union left collapsed, the brigades of Robert H. Milroy and Robert C. Schenck made some progress against the Confederate center and right. Ewell, however, reinforced those positions with troops commanded by Brigadier General Richard Taylor and Colonel John Patton. Falsely believing that he was facing Jackson’s entire army, Frémont called off the assault and withdrew.
Aftermath of the Battle
The victory at the Battle of Cross Keys cost the Confederacy 287 soldiers, including forty-two killed, 230 wounded, and fifteen missing. Union losses totaled 664, including 114 killed, 443 wounded, and 127 missing. Besides inflicting much higher casualties on his opponent, Ewell accomplished his mission of preventing Frémont from uniting with Shields. The next day, Ewell left Trimble and Patton’s brigades behind to hold Frémont at bay, while he returned with the bulk of his force to Port Republic and helped Jackson dispose of the threat from Shields.