Fought on May 23, 1862, the Battle of Front Royal was the third engagement and second 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.
Jackson Approaches Front Royal
By May 22, Jackson had marched his soldiers to within ten miles of the village of Front Royal, where the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River join. Colonel J. R. Kenly commanded approximately 1,000 Union troops that Banks garrisoned there to protect his supply line along the Manassas Gap Railroad. Jackson determined to overwhelm Kenly’s small garrison and to isolate Banks from federal forces stationed to the east.
Early on the morning of May 23, Jackson deployed Brigadier General Richard Taylor’s brigade on Prospect Hill and along a ridge east of Front Royal. At the same time, Jackson sent his cavalry, commanded by Colonel Turner Ashby, west to disrupt communication between Kenly and Banks’s headquarters at Strasburg. Jackson then ordered Colonel Bradley T. Johnson’s 1st Maryland Infantry and Major Roberdeau Wheat’s Louisiana “Tigers” Battalion to advance on the Union garrison.
May 23, 1862 — Clash at Front Royal
1st Maryland Infantry Versus 1st Maryland Infantry
As the Rebels entered the village, they faced members of the 1st Maryland Infantry of the U.S. Army. The Battle of Front Royal was the only engagement of the Civil War that pitted regiments from the same state with identical numerical designations against each other. During the fight, Confederate Captain William Goldsborough took his brother Charles prisoner. The battle was also distinctive because it was one of the few engagements of the Civil War that featured urban combat.
Unable to offer much resistance to Jackson’s overwhelming numbers, the small Union garrison quickly retreated north toward the forks of the Shenandoah River. The Bluecoats unsuccessfully attempted to fire the bridges over the river as they fled. With Major Thomas Flournoy’s cavalry in hot pursuit, the Yankees made two futile stands before capitulating. When Kenly fell wounded, over 700 Federals surrendered.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Front Royal was an undisputed Confederate victory. Union casualties totaled nearly 900 men, most of whom were prisoners. In addition, the Confederates commandeered federal supplies worth over 300,000 dollars. By comparison, the Confederacy lost fewer than fifty men.
Although the Battle of Front Royal was a minor engagement, it is difficult to over-exaggerate the impact it may have had on the outcome of the Civil War.
Upon learning of Jackson’s victory and Banks’s subsequent retreat, President Lincoln telegraphed McClellan on May 24, 1862:
In consequence of General Banks’s critical position I have been compelled to suspend General McDowell’s movements to you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper’s Ferry, and we are trying to throw Frémont’s force and part of McDowell’s in their rear.
Lincoln’s decision to deploy 20,000 men from McDowell’s command to deal with Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley enabled Johnston to focus his attention on protecting Richmond from McClellan’s main assault up the James River Peninsula. As McClellan’s campaign unfolded, his soldiers reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital before the Southerners drove the Northerners back. The question of what may have transpired if Lincoln had not interfered with McClellan’s original plan to have McDowell move against Richmond from the north remains a matter for speculation.