By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2021-2022, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2022 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
As mentioned in last month’s history brief, to whet the appetite of members for vice president Lily Korte’s September 2022 Cleveland Civil War Roundtable annual field trip to cover General Phil Sheridan’s 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, the next several history briefs will focus on General Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862. The accompanying map will be helpful in following this narrative.
In early March 1862, Union General George McClellan at the head of the Army of the Potomac began his well-planned campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond with an amphibious transfer of the army to Fortress Monroe at the James River and Chesapeake Bay. To defend Washington, D.C. against a possible offensive by the Confederates from the Shenandoah River Valley, McClellan left General Nathaniel P. Banks with about 23,000 troops in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry.
In the meantime, President Abraham Lincoln relieved McClellan of his duties as general in chief in order to enable McClellan to completely concentrate on the Richmond campaign, and Lincoln assumed the general in chief responsibilities himself. This was logical, but it turned out to be unfortunate for the North, because at this early stage of the war, Lincoln was not yet the proficient strategist that he would become, nor was Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.
The South wanted to relieve the pressure from McClellan’s offensive. This effort would be led by the South’s Stonewall Jackson in the form of a threat to Washington through the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson could muster about 4,300 men in the vicinity of Strasbourg in the Upper Valley. Aware of Jackson’s relatively weak force, Banks decided to leave about 9,000 men of his command under Brigadier General James Shields near Winchester in order to protect the Valley, while Banks, himself, began to move toward Manassas with the remainder of his men to support McClellan’s upcoming campaign.
Jackson, thinking Shields’ force weaker than it was, put his command in motion along the Valley Turnpike in the direction of Shields’ troops. Recall from last month’s history brief that this turnpike was probably the most modern road in Virginia in 1862. It had all-weather macadamized pavement and was constructed along a mostly straight alignment following the western side of Massanutten Mountain.
Late in the afternoon on March 22, Jackson’s cavalry under General Turner Ashby made contact with Union troops in the small village of Kernstown about a mile south of Winchester. Ashby was deceived by Banks into thinking that he only had three or four regiments of perhaps 3,000 soldiers. As night fell, Union troops, numbering in actuality about 9,000, settled in for the night upon ridges and hills west of the turnpike and in woods east of it, the most prominent rise being Pritchard’s Hill where Union artillery was positioned.
On the morning of March 23, Jackson arrived with his infantry and directed them toward Sandy Ridge west of the turnpike, thinking he would turn the left flank of Pritchard’s Hill. Jackson’s former command, the Stonewall Brigade, now commanded by General Richard Garnett, led the way. As the enemy forces came into contact, a stone wall in front of the ridge became highly contested. After back-and-forth fighting, the wall was eventually controlled by the Confederates. In the meantime, General Nathan Kimball had assumed command of Shields’ division, because Shields was still at Winchester. Kimball ordered General Erastus Tyler’s brigade to attack westward toward the Confederate flank.
When Tyler’s brigade struck the Stonewall Brigade, the Confederates were virtually out of ammunition. Without prior input from Jackson, Garnett was forced to retreat. This in turn exposed the next brigade’s right flank. Jackson sent additional troops to reinforce him, but confusion among the Confederate formations resulted in a complete retreat. Admitting tactical defeat, Jackson pulled back his modest force southward about four miles.
Even though Jackson shortly learned that he had been outnumbered three to one, he dismissed Garnett for insubordination for retreating without orders. This became a standard component of Jackson’s style as Shelby Foote points out in Volume 1 of his famous trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative: “It did not even matter that his brigade might have been cut to pieces if he had held it there, outnumbered, outflanked, and out of ammunition, while he went fumbling along the chain of command in search of permission to withdraw. What mattered was that the next officer who found himself in a tight spot would stay there, awaiting higher sanction, before ordering a retreat.”
Although a Union victory, Shields reported to Washington that from the vigor of Jackson’s attack, Stonewall’s small contingent must have been reinforced. Because of this supposition, President Lincoln mistook this to mean that the Valley was an immediate threat to Washington, D.C. Accordingly, McClellan would not receive additional troops as desired, but rather such troops would be routed to the Shenandoah Valley or otherwise in defense of the capital. This was especially critical with Irvin McDowell’s powerful I Corps, which had been thoroughly coveted by Little Mac. The I Corps would continue to be held back from McClellan and kept as an independent command in protection of the capital.
Additionally, Lincoln ordered 9,000 men to be sent to Major General John C. Frémont of prewar western pathfinding fame, who was now in charge of the Mountain Department in Wheeling, Virginia. Jackson, even in tactical defeat, was showing that his campaign would thusly be shaping Union strategy way out of proportion to the size of the actual threat. In R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy’s The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present, the authors state, “Few minor engagements have had as much significance as the Battle of Kernstown.”
Banks pursued Jackson for about 20 miles south of Kernstown, where, not knowing Jackson’s true strength, Banks halted for resupply. A lull ensued for about three weeks, and Jackson used this time to reorganize his cavalry, splitting it among two infantry brigades. Next, anticipating further lengthy and rapid marches against more numerous Union forces, he trained and drilled his troops for extended marches. Lastly, he ordered Captain Jedediah Hotchkiss to make a map of the Valley, including distances between towns and significant topographical features. This last item would be one of Jackson’s most useful tools and geographically advantaged his force. Such detailed and up-to-date maps also became a tenet of Jackson’s style of warfare.
Banks had learned that the South’s General Richard S. Ewell’s division at Brandy Station in central Virginia was being sent by General Joseph Johnston in Richmond to assist Stonewall. Banks went into motion, surprising some of Jackson’s cavalry and threatening Jackson’s lines of communication and supply.
Jackson responded by moving his troops eastward to Swift Run Gap. This was misinterpreted by Banks as Jackson departing the Valley. However, Jackson’s plan was to continue to keep pressure off of Richmond by uniting with the South’s Brigadier General Edward Johnson’s small 3,000-man division near Staunton. Jackson now had about 11,000 troops, still much smaller than the total Union force in the Valley of about 30,000, but the Union forces were spread out in packets. Jackson now skillfully employed what was to become his favorite tactic: rapidly marching his smaller but unified army to find and exploit the North’s weak point.
In early May, Jackson departed Swift Run Gap, leaving Ewell’s approach to pin Banks. Jackson then went through a three-day mud march slog covering about 20 miles to reach the Virginia Central Railroad near Charlottesville. Here, he boarded a two-engine train configured for speed and headed west toward Staunton on May 4. After resting his troops, on May 7 he left Staunton in the direction of the Allegheny Mountains, where the leading elements of Frémont had been located 13 miles from the Valley Turnpike’s Rodgers Tollgate at the town of McDowell.
About 4,000 men under Brigadier General Robert Milroy were there, soon to be joined by Brigadier General Robert Schenk with 1,500 on the morning of May 8. They chose to surprise Jackson with an attack. However, Jackson quickly and smartly positioned his artillery to repulse the effort, causing Milroy to retreat from the battlefield. The result of this small engagement was 300 Confederate losses and about 250 Union losses.
Jackson pursued Milroy for about three days until Milroy set the woods afire along the main road, which caused Jackson to halt. At this point, Jackson declared victory, having pushed Frémont far enough away from the important agricultural town of Staunton and inducing more alarm in Washington. Jackson then left Frémont behind and backtracked into the Shenandoah Valley.
We will pick up in May’s history brief with Jackson’s next moves, which, as we shall see, propelled the legend that Jackson initially established at Bull Run to even greater prominence!
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