The Battle of McDowell, 1862

May 8, 1862

The Battle of McDowell was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America on May 8, 1862. The outcome of the battle was a Confederate victory.

Thomas Stonewall Jackson, Illustration

General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s victory at the Battle of McDowell was the first Confederate victory of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of McDowell Summary

The Battle of McDowell — also called the Battle of Sitlington’s Hill — took place on May 8, 1862, and was a significant engagement in Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. The Confederate General, aiming to flank the Union forces, ordered General Edward Johnson to hold the strategic location of Sitlington’s Hill while he searched for a way to attack the Union rear. The Union forces, led by General Robert H. Milroy, fearing the Confederate artillery on the hill, launched an assault around 3 p.m. After four hours of intense fighting, the Confederate line held, and the Federals withdrew under the cover of darkness, retreating into the mountains. The Confederate victory at the Battle of McDowell allowed Jackson to focus his attention on the Union forces led by General Nathaniel P. Banks, who had moved south through the Shenandoah Valley, leading to the Battle of Princeton Court House.

General Robert H. Milroy, Civil War, USA
General Robert H. Milroy. Image Source: Library of Congress.

First Battle of McDowell Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: The Battle of McDowell is also known as the Battle of Sitlington’s Hill.
  • Date Started: The Battle of McDowell started on May 8, 1862.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on May 8, 1862.
  • Location: The Battle of McDowell took place in Highland County near the village of McDowell in Western Virginia.
  • Campaign: The battle was part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
  • Who Won: The Confederate States of America won the Battle of McDowell.

Battle of McDowell History and Overview

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.

George McClellan, Portrait, Brady
General George B. McClellan (USA). Image Source: Wikipedia.

Confederate Opponents

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.

General Nathaniel P. Banks, Civil War, USA, NA
General Nathaniel P. Banks (USA). Image Source: National Archives.

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 Federals to victory, sending Jackson reeling back up the Valley (southward).

First Battle of Kernstown, 1862, Union Advance, Rocco
This painting by Keith Rocco depicts the Union breakthrough during the First Battle of Kernstown. Image Source: Dana J. Tharp Auctions.

Jackson Regroups

Following the defeat at Kernstown, which turned out to be the only loss of Jackson’s career as a commanding officer, the Confederate general retreated south to the central valley, and Banks chose not to pursue him. Jackson spent the next several weeks reinforcing and reorganizing his Army of the Valley. In mid-April, General Robert E. Lee, military adviser to President Jefferson Davis, and General Joseph Johnston agreed to send Major General Richard Ewell’s division into the Shenandoah Valley, increasing the size of Jackson’s command by 8,500 soldiers.

Jackson Threatened from Two Directions

Toward the end of the month, Jackson became concerned about potential threats to his supply base at the town of Staunton near the southern end of the valley. Banks had slowly moved up the valley (southward) as far as Harrisonburg, just thirty miles from Staunton. Simultaneously, General Robert H. Milroy’s brigade, from Major General John Frémont’s Army of the Mountain Department, was approaching Staunton from the west. Jackson resolved to defeat each army separately before they could unite against him and capture the vital transportation hub at Staunton.

General John C. Fremont, Civil War, USA
General John C. Frémont (USA). Image Source: National Archives.

Jackson’s Ruse

In early May, Jackson misled the Federals by marching his army east across the Blue Ridge Mountains to Charlottesville, as if headed for Richmond, then reversing his course and returning to Staunton by rail. West of there, he joined forces with 3,000 Confederate soldiers commanded by Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, who had been skirmishing with Frémont’s troops for months.

Jackson Surprises Milroy

On May 7, 1862, Jackson marched his force of nearly 9,000 men westward along the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike to confront Milroy. By that afternoon, Jackson’s vanguard encountered Union pickets, who hastily withdrew to the crest of Shenandoah Mountain. Jackson and Johnson then split their force into two columns to envelope the Federals on the mountain. Facing the possibility of being trapped between the two Confederate columns, Milroy withdrew that night and concentrated his men farther west toward the village of McDowell.

May 8, 1862 — Clash at McDowell

On the morning of May 8, Johnson advanced unopposed to the base of Sitlington’s Hill. At that point, his command left the road and drove away Union skirmishers to occupy the top of the hill. Jackson ordered Johnson to hold the hill, while his own men searched for a way to flank the Federals.

Federals Attack and Then Withdraw

Near 10 a.m., Brigadier General Robert Schenck reinforced Milroy with nearly 1,500 soldiers and took command of the combined Union force. Fearing that Jackson was bringing artillery to the top of Sitlington’s Hill, which would make the federal position at McDowell untenable, Schenck and Milroy struck first. At 3 p.m., Schenck led approximately 2,300 up the western face of the hill. For the next four hours, the battle raged with close-quarter fighting, but the Confederate line held. As darkness overtook the battlefield, the Federals withdrew and melted back into the western Virginia mountains overnight.

Outcome of the Battle of McDowell

Although the Confederates prevailed at the Battle of McDowell, they suffered more casualties than the Federals. The Confederacy lost 420 soldiers (116 killed, 300 wounded, and four missing), while the Union lost 259 men (thirty-four killed, 220 wounded, and five missing).

Frémont’s retreat from the Shenandoah Valley enabled Jackson to turn his undivided attention to Banks’ army, which had moved south through the valley to the vicinity of Strasburg.

General Robert Schenck, Civil War, USA
General Robert Schenck (USA). Image Source: National Archives.

Battle of McDowell Significance

  • The Battle of McDowell was the second engagement of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
  • It was the first Confederate victory of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.

Battle of McDowell Facts — Casualties, Military Leaders, and Statistics

Principal Union Commanders

Principal Confederate Commanders

Union Forces Engaged

  • Mountain Department

Confederate Forces Engaged

  • Valley District, Army of the Northwest

Number of Union Soldiers Engaged

  • Roughly 6,000

Number of Confederate Soldiers Engaged

  • Roughly 6,500

Estimated Union Casualties

  • 259 (34 killed, 220 wounded, and 5 missing)

Estimated Confederate Casualties

  • 420 (116 killed, 300 wounded, and 4 missing)

Result

  • Confederate victory

Battle of McDowell Timeline

These are the main battles and events of Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 in order.