Prelude to the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862
Despite their stunning victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Confederate prospects were dim less than one year later. In the West, Ulysses S. Grant was having his way with Rebel defenders of vital river systems. In the East, George B. McClellan was inching his way up the James River Peninsula, threatening the Confederate capital at Richmond with the largest army ever assembled in North America. In addition, the Union had three major forces in the Shenandoah area poised to move south through the valley to support McClellan’s invasion and hopefully bring the American Civil War to a quick conclusion.
The Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley included:
- 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) stationed north of the Potomac River at the lower (northern) end of the valley.
- Soldiers of the Mountain Department (approximately 25,000 men), commanded by Major General John C. Frémont, 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, encamped on the eastern side of the valley near Fredericksburg.
Opposing the federal armies was a small Confederate force commanded by General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson’s force composed the left-wing of the Confederate Army of the Potomac (soon to become the famed Army of Northern Virginia), under the command of General Joseph Johnston. The size of Jackson’s force varied during the campaign. In a field dispatch dated February 28, 1862, Jackson reported having 4,297 infantry, 369 artillery, and 601 cavalry troopers under his command headquartered at Winchester, Virginia. By June, that number had swelled to 17,000 soldiers, although the size of his army still paled compared to the forces amassed against him. As the Union offensive to capture Richmond began, Jackson’s instructions were to prevent the federal armies in the Shenandoah area from reinforcing McClellan.
The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 got underway on February 27, when Banks led much of the 5th Corps across the Potomac River and into the valley near Harpers Ferry. As Banks moved up the valley (southward) Jackson withdrew from Winchester on March 11. The next day, Banks occupied Winchester unopposed.
Battle of Kernstown
On March 21, Jackson received erroneous information that Banks had divided his force, leaving approximately 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 ensuing battle, but his subordinate, Colonel Nathan Kimball, led the Yankees to victory, sending Jackson reeling back up the Valley (southward). The Battle of Kernstown was Stonewall Jackson’s only defeat during the Civil War.
Change in Forces
After the setback at Kernstown, Jackson withdrew to Mount Jackson, about halfway up the Valley (southward) near New Market. Banks pursued initially and gradually gained control of the lower valley after several skirmishes with Jackson’s cavalry, commanded by Brigadier General Turner Ashby. In mid-April, two events occurred that changed the situation in the Valley significantly. First, President Lincoln, ever obsessed with protecting Washington, DC, detached Shield’s division from Banks’s army and sent it to reinforce McDowell at Fredericksburg. Lincoln also ordered Banks’s one remaining division to withdraw back down the Valley (northward). On the Confederate side, General Robert E. Lee (serving as military adviser to President Jefferson Davis) and General Joseph Johnston agreed to send a division under the command of Major General Richard Ewell into the Valley to increase the size of Jackson’s command.
Battle of McDowell
Reinforced with 8,500 new troops and feeling no imminent threat from Banks, Jackson turned his attention to Frémont’s army. Jackson marched 10,000 soldiers west to confront two brigades of Frémont’s command, led by Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy and Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck, which were approaching the valley from the west. On May 8, as Jackson neared the village of McDowell, Milroy launched an unexpected attack upon the Confederates. The Federals initially surprised Jackson’s men. Still, the Rebels held their ground and repulsed the Yankees. After four hours of heavy fighting, Milroy and Schenck melted back into the mountains west of the valley. The Confederate victory at the Battle of McDowell prevented Frémont from entering the valley and joining forces with Banks to destroy Jackson’s army.
Battle of Front Royal
After dispatching Frémont’s forces, Jackson returned his attention to Banks and headed back across the Shenandoah Valley toward the village of Luray. From there, his 16,000 troops moved against a Union garrison of approximately 1,000 men, commanded by Colonel John R. Kenley, at Front Royal. On May 23, Brigadier-General Richard Taylor’s brigade easily drove the Yankees out of town. The retreating Federals attempted to make two stands, but the Southerners overwhelmed them. Nearly 900 Union soldiers surrendered at the Battle of Front Royal. With Jackson now on his left flank, Banks withdraw even further down the Valley (northward) to Winchester the next day.
Although the Battle of Front Royal was a minor engagement, it is difficult to over-exaggerate the impact it may have had on the American Civil War’s outcome. Upon learning of Jackson’s victory and Banks’s subsequent retreat, President Lincoln telegraphed McClellan on May 24,
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 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 being turned away. What may have transpired if Lincoln had not interfered with McClellan’s original plan to have McDowell move against Richmond from the north will remain the subject of conjecture.
First Battle of Winchester
As Banks’s army withdrew down the Shenandoah Valley (northward), 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 as “Commissary Banks.” As night approached, Banks stopped just south of Winchester to reorganize his army and to slow Jackson’s pursuit. Allowing his troops only a few hours of rest, Jackson approached Winchester from two directions early on May 25. Ewell’s division attacked Banks’s left from the southeast, up the Front Royal Pike. Jackson attacked the Union right from the south, up the Valley Pike. The Federals held briefly, but Confederates soon flanked them on both sides, prompting the Northerners to retreat north along the Valley Pike. Adding to the chaos, civilians fired on the Bluecoats from buildings as they passed through Winchester. Jackson’s cavalry was disorganized, and his infantry was too spent from the hard pursuit of the day before to keep up with the fleeing Yankees. Banks did not stop retreating until he crossed the Potomac River, evacuating the valley.
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 Shenandoah Valley, Lincoln devised his own complicated plan to stop Jackson’s escapades. The president ordered Frémont to re-enter the valley from the west near Harrisonburg and to disrupt Jackson’s supply lines. Lincoln also instructed Banks to re-cross the Potomac and to drive Jackson up the valley (southward). Finally, the president directed McDowell to have the detachment that Lincoln had ordered into action on May 24 poised to strike Jackson’s flank as it passed by.
Lincoln’s plan, which looked sound on paper, 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 he then refused to budge until a second division of McDowell’s corps, commanded by Major General Edward O. C. Ord reinforced him. Meanwhile, Banks was still rebuilding his shattered army and would not move until June 10. By the time each of the Federal armies prepared to complete their assigned tasks, Jackson escaped.
Turner Ashby’s Death
Having eluded the vise that Lincoln had designed, Jackson determined to defeat the armies on either side of him independently. Jackson’s cavalry skirmished with Frémont’s troops during the first week of June. During one of those clashes, Jackson and the Confederacy suffered a major loss when his cavalry commander, Brigadier General Turner Ashby, was killed near Harrisonburg, on June 6.
Battle of Cross Keys
On June 8, Jackson separated his army and sent Ewell’s division west across the South Fork of the Shenandoah River near Cross Keys. Ewell’s orders were to hold off Frémont, while Jackson moved against Shields’s division to the northeast. After Ewell crossed the river, Union Brigadier General Julius Stahel ordered his brigade to attack the Confederate right. In doing so, Stahel exposed his men to a withering fire from Brigadier General Isaac Trimble’s brigade, and the assault failed. Later in the day, Jackson sent Richard Taylor’s brigade to reinforce Ewell, and the Confederates drove Frémont back. Despite enjoying a two-to-one numerical advantage at the Battle of Cross Keys, Frémont settled for an artillery engagement while cautiously probing the center of the Confederate line before withdrawing.
Battle of Port Republic
On the next day, Ewell withdrew to rejoin Jackson for an assault against two brigades of Shields’s division, near Port Republic. As Ewell fell back, he burned the bridge over the rain-swollen river, eliminating any possibility for Frémont to aid Brigadier General Erastus Tyler who was commanding Jackson’s target. After concentrating his forces, Jackson ordered several unsuccessful assaults before turning the Union left flank. Frémont’s soldiers watched helplessly from across the river as the Rebels forced Tyler from the field at the Battle of Port Republic.
Aftermath of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862
One week before Jackson’s victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic, General Joseph Johnston was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond. On June 1, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis named Robert E. Lee to succeed Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. On June 16, Lee ordered Jackson’s army to join him in the defense of Richmond, thus ending the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
Jackson’s leadership during the campaign is legendary. After the initial setback at Kernstown, his men won five battles in four weeks. In doing so, they traveled over 650 miles, mostly on foot. Jackson’s infantry was so agile that they became known as “Jackson’s foot cavalry.” Despite being outnumbered nearly three-to-one, Jackson defeated three Union armies that had him virtually surrounded. The Confederate cost for these victories was roughly 2,500 casualties, compared with over 7,000 Union losses. Most importantly, Jackson’s successes in the Shenandoah Valley deterred McDowell’s corps from reinforcing McClellan on the Peninsula, probably preventing the fall of Richmond and, thereby extending the Civil War for nearly three more years.