Following their stunning victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Confederate fortunes in Virginia declined. As winter approached, the Union had three forces in the Shenandoah area poised to move south through the Valley to support Major General George McClellan’s impending Peninsula Campaign (and possibly bring the Civil War to a quick conclusion).
- The 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac (roughly 38,000 soldiers) led by Major General Nathaniel Banks (commander of the Department of the Shenandoah) was stationed north of the Potomac River at the lower (northern) end of the valley.
- Soldiers of the Mountain Department (about 25,000 men), commanded by Major General John C. Frémont, were positioned along the western edge of the valley.
- The 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac (roughly 35,000 soldiers), commanded by Major General Irvin McDowell, were encamped on the eastern side of the valley near Fredericksburg.
Fearful of losing the vital “breadbasket of the South,” Confederate officials moved to shore up their defenses in the Shenandoah Valley. On October 22, 1861, the Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, issued General Orders, No. 15 placing Major General Thomas J. Jackson in command of the Valley District of the newly created Department of Northern Virginia.
Jackson arrived at district headquarters in Winchester, Virginia, and took command on November 4. Shortly before Jackson’s arrival at Winchester, Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley’s Federal forces occupied the town of Romney, Virginia (now West Virginia), roughly thirty-five miles northwest of Jackson’s headquarters, on October 26. Jackson quickly devised plans for a winter campaign to capture Romney and drive Union forces out of the lower Shenandoah Valley.
Jackson in Command
At the time of his arrival, Jackson’s command comprised roughly 5,000 soldiers–2,000 from his famed “Stonewall Brigade” who had distinguished themselves at Manassas, Colonel Ashby Tucker’s 500 cavalry troopers, and about 2,500 other recruits. Jackson believed that he needed more men to carry out his plans.
Roughly 100 miles to the southwest, Brigadier General William W. Loring’s Army of the Northwest was guarding passes through the Allegheny Mountains. On November 20, 1861, Jackson wrote to Secretary Benjamin “requesting that at once all the troops under General Loring be ordered to this point.”
The next day, General Joseph E. Johnston, Jackson’s and Loring’s superior, approved the request. On November 24, 1861, Benjamin counseled Loring
If upon full consideration, you think the proposed movement objectionable and too hazardous, you will decline to make it and so inform the Department. If, on the contrary you approve it, then proceed to execute it as promptly and secretly as possible . . .
Loring joined Jackson, but their subsequent relationship was strained. Loring chafed at the prospect of losing his independent command and having his army reduced to divisional status under Jackson’s command. He got off on the wrong foot with Jackson by taking a month to move the Army of the Northwest to Jackson’s headquarters at Winchester.
The addition of Loring’s army boosted the size of Jackson’s forces to 11,000 soldiers. Although still short of the 15,000 he desired, Jackson proceeded with the expedition. Jackson planned to march roughly thirty-five miles north and quickly capture Bath, Virginia, (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. He then planned to head northeast six miles to engage the Union garrison at Hancock, Maryland. From there he would head southwest sixty-five miles and occupy Romney.
Confederates on the Move
When Jackson’s expedition got underway on January 1, 1862, the weather was unseasonably warm. Conditions quickly worsened, however. Heavy snowfall made it difficult for supply trains to keep up with the army, leaving the soldiers without proper winter gear to withstand plummeting temperatures. Unaccustomed to harsh mountain elements, many of the southerners suffered frostbite.
It took Jackson three days to traverse the thirty-five miles between Winchester and Bath. When he arrived, he discovered that Brigadier General Frederick W. Lander’s garrison had abandoned the town. Despite the brutal weather and the diminishing morale of his beleaguered troops, Jackson pressed on toward Hancock, Maryland.
On January 5, 1862, Jackson’s forces approached Hancock on the far side of the Potomac River and discovered that Lander’s troops who had evacuated Bath reinforced the Union garrison. When Lander refused Jackson’s demands to surrender, the Confederates shelled the town for two days as they searched for a way to cross the river. Unable to find a good river crossing, Jackson settled for destroying a section of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and pressing on toward Romney.
Jackson Occupies Romney
Adding to the Confederate army’s misery, poor weather slowed their progress as plummeting temperatures turned the roads to ice. The sixty-five-mile trek took nearly a week and some men reportedly froze to death along the way. Much to their relief, when Jackson’s exhausted troops approached the outskirts of Romney on January 13, they learned that Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley’s 7,000 Union soldiers had abandoned the town on January 10. On January 14, 1862, Jackson’s army occupied Romney without a fight.
Jackson remained at Romney for ten days before deciding that the severity of the January weather ruled out any further advances. Instead, he ordered Loring and the Army of the Northwest to remain in Romney while he returned to Winchester with the bulk of his forces.
Jefferson Davis Intercedes and Jackson Resigns
As the weather continued to worsen, disgruntled officers in Loring’s under-provisioned army petitioned the Secretary of War on January 25 to have their exposed forces recalled. Loring endorsed the petition the next day and sent it up the chain-of-command to Jackson’s headquarters. Secretly, however, he also forwarded a copy to one of his brigade commanders, General William B. Taliaferro, who was on furlough at Richmond.
Taliaferro met with Jefferson Davis and delivered the petition to the sympathetic Confederate President. Davis ignored military protocol and instructed Secretary Benjamin to break the chain-of-command and countermand Jackson’s directives. On January 30, 1862, Benjamin wired Jackson that “our news indicates that a move is being made to cut off General Loring’s command. Order him back to Winchester immediately.”
Jackson promptly complied with the order. He then submitted his resignation on January 31, stating, “With such interference in my command I cannot expect to be of much service in the field.”
Following the intervention of Virginia Governor John Letcher, Jackson reconsidered and withdrew his resignation on February 6, 1862. Jackson’s enmity toward Loring, however, did not diminish. The next day he filed charges against Loring for “neglect of duty” and for “conduct subversive of good order and military discipline.”
Confederate officials never brought Loring before a court martial. Instead, President Davis and his war department acted quickly to diffuse the situation. On February 9, 1862, Secretary Benjamin ordered General Johnston to “make such disposal of General Loring’s forces as will render them more immediately effective than if retained in the Valley District.” He detailed how he would reassign the soldiers of the Army of the Northwest to other departments. Finally, he instructed Johnston to “order General Loring to report to the Adjutant-General here for orders. He is assigned to duty with General Lee, in Georgia.”
Aside from bringing about the end of the Army of the Northwest, the Romney Expedition removed any imminent threat to Jackson’s headquarters at Winchester. It also cleared the Upper Shenandoah Valley of Union troops, opening the door for Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.