Fought on May 8, 1862, the Battle of McDowell was the second engagement and first 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).
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.
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 Yankees on the mountain. Facing the possibility of being trapped between the two Rebel 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.
Aftermath of the Battle
Although the Rebels 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).
Importance of the Battle
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.