Fought on June 9, 1862, the Battle of Port Republic was the sixth engagement and fifth 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.
Battle of Cross Keys
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.
On June 8, General Richard Ewell’s division defeated Frémont’s army at the Battle of Cross Keys, about five miles west of Port Republic. Following the Confederate victory, Ewell headed east to join Jackson’s expedition to defeat Shields. Ewell left behind two brigades, commanded by Brigadier General Isaac Ridgeway Trimble and Colonel John Patton, to forestall any attempts by Frémont to assist Shields.
Jackson’s plan was audacious. He intended to cross the South fork of the Shenandoah River on the morning of June 9, to overwhelm Shields’s command, and then to re-cross the river and dispose of the remnants of Frémont’s army on the same day. As events turned out, the dual goals were overly ambitious.
June 9, 1862 — Clash at Port Republic
Jackson Crosses the South River
Jackson’s plan hinged on getting many of his troops and his artillery across the South River and into the field to confront Shields’s force, which Brigadier General Erastus B. Tyler commanded. To accomplish the task, Jackson ordered his engineers to construct a bridge made from wagons during the pre-dawn hours. The engineers successfully spanned the river, but the bridge accommodated only a single file of traffic, forcing Jackson to deploy his troops piecemeal throughout the day. First across the river was Brigadier General Charles S. Winder, commanding the famous Stonewall Brigade, which General Jackson accompanied.
Federals Fire on Winder’s Brigade
On the Union side, Tyler deployed the two brigades under his command in a north-south line running from Lewis’s Mill, on the east bank of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, to a hill known as the Coaling. Tyler’s artillery on top of the Coaling fired on Winder’s brigade as soon as they came into view. Winder split his brigade and attacked the Union line on two fronts without success. The Federals began pushing the Rebels back toward the river.
Winder Pinned Down
By that time, Confederate General Richard Taylor’s brigade had crossed the river. Upon hearing the firing, Taylor rushed his men forward and attempted to silence the guns atop the Coaling. When the Yankees shifted their attention to Taylor, Winder attempted an unsuccessful counterattack. The Federals pinned the Rebels down and forced them to retreat.
Jackson Abandons His Plan to Defeat Frémont
At that point, Jackson abandoned his goal of defeating Shields and Frémont on the same day. Needing all the reinforcements he could muster, Jackson sent word for the two brigades left at Cross Keys to march to Port Republic, cross the North River using the North Bridge, and then burn the bridge behind them.
Rebel Counterattack Forces Federal Retreat
As the Yankees were pushing Winder’s men back toward the river, Richard Ewell advanced with another brigade. Ewell flanked the Federals and halted the Rebel retreat. The counterattack forced Tyler to move men from the Coaling to deal with Ewell’s brigade. Taylor then launched a successful attack on the Coaling and took control of five Union guns. Tyler responded by rushing his reserves forward and retaking the hill following a fierce hand-to-hand engagement. Taylor then ordered a counterattack, taking the hill a second time, and then turned the captured guns against Tyler’s troops. With the Rebels in possession of the hill and the Union artillery, Tyler withdrew at 10:30 a.m. By that time, Jackson had his entire army across both rivers. The Confederates pursued the beaten Yankees for about five miles, taking several hundred prisoners.
By the time Jackson called off the Confederate pursuit, Frémont’s army arrived at the west bank of the rain-swollen river but could not cross. Frémont harassed Jackson with some artillery fire from across the river, forcing Jackson to move out of range and ending the engagement.
Aftermath of the Battle
Jackson’s victory at the Battle of Port Republic cost him roughly 816 of the 6,000 men he brought into combat. Of those, eighty-eight were killed, 535 were wounded, and thirty-four were missing or taken prisoner. The Union lost 1,002 of the 3,000 soldiers engaged, including sixty-seven killed, 361 wounded, and 574 missing or captured.
After the battle, Jackson prepared for Frémont to cross the river and to attack him the next day, but the Union commander instead withdrew toward Harrisonburg. Shields also withdrew to the north, leaving Jackson in control of the upper Shenandoah Valley. A few days later, Jackson received orders to move his troops to Richmond by rail and join Robert E. Lee for the Confederate counteroffensive on the Peninsula. Jackson’s departure ended the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
Importance of the Battle
The Battle of Port Royal was the final conflict in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. The Union withdrawal left the Valley under Confederate control.