Beginning in March 1862, Jackson had marched his 17,000-man “foot cavalry” up and down, even in and out of, the Shenandoah Valley, covering large distances with unexpected speed and managing to elude a Union force double his size. Cross Keys was the fifth battle in this campaign. After a defeat at Kernstown on March 23—in which faulty intelligence had lured Jackson into the teeth of a much larger force—there had been only victories: at McDowell to the southwest on May 8, then at Front Royal to the northeast on May 23, and at Winchester north of that on May 25.
As Union forces under the Irish-born Shields and the famous California Republican Frémont descended on the Confederates—Shields from the northeast, Frémont from the northwest—Jackson and Ewell rendezvoused in Harrisonburg. Anticipating that the Union commands would dangerously converge at Port Republic, they determined to attack them individually before that. Jackson sent Ewell to intercept Frémont at Cross Keys, a tiny Rockingham County village that consisted of little more than a tavern. In the meantime, Jackson moved to Port Republic to await Shields. He also presciently took control of North Bridge, the last bridge that spanned the Shenandoah River.
Early on Sunday morning, June 8, Frémont’s men marched down Port Republic Road by the Cross Keys tavern and there made contact with the Confederates’ advance guard. Ewell had three brigades—headed by the generals Isaac R. Trimble, George Steuart, and Arnold Elzey—along with four artillery batteries, or about six thousand men total. They readied for a hard fight. What they received, however, was a very cautious approach by Frémont. The Union general commanded 11,000 soldiers, but he mistakenly understood the force in his front to be Jackson’s entire army and not just half of it. Rather than attack, he allowed his long-range artillery to duel with the Confederates. Ewell, meanwhile, took advantage of the delay to fortify his position.
Eventually, Frémont concluded that his enemy’s right flank was vulnerable and ordered forward a brigade of German emigrants from Louis Blenker’s division. They were abruptly halted by the men of Trimble’s brigade, who hid along a fence line, waiting until the Germans were close before unleashing a series of deadly volleys. Sensing that the Union troops had been caught off guard, Trimble counterattacked and had Blenker’s men scurrying northwest to Keezletown Road. As night fell, he petitioned Ewell to continue the attack, but Ewell refused. Night attacks were notoriously risky, and Ewell, well aware that he was outnumbered, worried about extending his line too far from Jackson’s support. With Ewell’s permission, Trimble—a Marylander born in Virginia who has been described by the historian Douglas Southall Freeman as “perhaps disposed to be contentious and certainly a dandy in dress, but of the most conspicuous courage and a furious, insatiable fighter”—rode to Port Republic and made his case to Jackson personally. The general was noncommittal. “Consult General Ewell and be guided by him,” he told Trimble. When Ewell repeated his first refusal, the battle ended.
Confederate casualties were light: 288 men, forty-one of whom were dead. In Frémont’s command, as many as half of the 684 casualties were dead or mortally wounded. The Confederate cavalry general Turner Ashby—a dark-complected, myth-encumbered figure who, at the age of thirty-three was known as the “Black Knight of the Confederacy”—had been killed as Ewell’s forces moved from Harrisonburg on June 6. Jackson, meanwhile, was busy becoming a myth himself, both before and after the battle. Newspapers throughout the South were hailing him as a hero, with the Charleston Mercury predicting he would lead “his unconquerable battalions through Maryland and Pennsylvania.”
Jackson did not go north, however, but summoned Ewell and his three brigades south to Port Republic. There, they helped chase Shields’s soldiers from the field, resulting in another, even more important victory. Frémont was noticeably absent from the fighting on June 9; when Ewell’s men set North Bridge afire, he was unable to cross the Shenandoah and join Shields.