Before approving McClellan’s plans for the, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln insisted his general leave behind troops under Union general for the protection of Washington, D.C., as well as a possible strike against Richmond from the north. Stonewall Jackson’s soldiers in the Valley were charged with preventing McDowell from reinforcing McClellan, and toward that end, Jackson did his best to keep his army situated between McDowell and McClellan. In the meantime, Lincoln worried that it was dangerous for a Confederate force such as Jackson’s to roam free in the Shenandoah Valley, shaped as it is like a dart aimed at the U.S. capital. The president looked to General McDowell, and additional Union troops under and John C. Frémont, to prevent Jackson from either attacking Washington or defending Richmond.
In this way, the cat-and-mouse game of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign was established, and the two sides met first at Kernstown, in the lower, or northern, Valley on March 23. Jackson attacked a much larger force and was defeated. After recommending the court-martial of the‘s commander for retreating without orders, Jackson then retreated himself to the upper, or southern, Valley.
Counting on reinforcements from Edward “Allegheny” Johnson and using Ewell’s Confederates to pin down General McDowell to the east at Swift Run Gap, Jackson submitted three plans of attack toon April 29. He recommended attacking Frémont’s troops west of , “for if successful I would afterward only have Banks to contend with.” He created a distraction by pretending to move his army from Staunton toward Richmond, marching his men on May 3 over the Blue Ridge Mountains and then, on May 4, loading most of them onto Virginia Central Railroad trains and, while the rest followed on foot, shipping them back to Staunton. There, on May 5, he united with Johnson’s small, -sized army, which was being pursued by one of Frémont’s brigades under Robert H. Milroy. Milroy retreated west, toward the village of McDowell while another of Frémont’s brigades, this one under Robert C. Schenck, raced to Milroy’s support.
On May 6, Johnson, a crusty old Virginia native and West Pointer who had fought in the Mexican War (1847–1848), marched his men west from Staunton. He was followed the next morning by Jackson, who deployed cavalry to deflect the Union forces’ attention from his route along the Staunton–Parkersburg Turnpike. When Milroy learned of the advance, he concentrated his forces at McDowell in Highland County, with the exception of an artillery battery temporarily left at Shaw’s Ridge to shell the Confederate vanguard. Minor skirmishing occurred throughout the day.
The Confederates resumed their march on the frosty morning of May 8. Johnson’s forces halted atop Bull Pasture Mountain while he scouted the area and discovered a path to Sitlington’s Hill, a mile-long rocky spur overlooking the Union camp beside the Bull Pasture River. Jackson approved the location when he arrived later that morning, and sent his mapmaker,, on a mission to find another path in the hills on which to outflank Milroy. Jackson’s own men were still struggling up the mountain, and he did not want to risk a frontal assault. In the meantime, as the occasional bullet or artillery shell ricocheted off the mountain’s rocky face, he ordered infantry under William B. Taliaferro forward to Johnson’s aid.
Down in the valley below, Schenck, an Ohio politician, had arrived with Union reinforcements, and he later described the precarious situation: “I found Milroy, with his small force in the village at the foot of the mountain, defending himself against the enemy occupying the heights above, shut in, in fact, in a sort of amphitheater. The only easy escape from the position was down the narrow valley and small stream back by the road by which I had arrived.”
Upon receiving a report, which later proved to be false, that Jackson was wheeling his artillery to the crest of the hill, Milroy—an Indiana-born lawyer who referred to the Confederates as the “traitor army”—determined that his annihilation was certain if he didn’t move. Late in the afternoon, he ordered a frontal assault on Sitlington’s Hill, a move that was less desperate than it might seem. As the Union troops slowly climbed the western slope, they were protected by deep ravines and heavy woods. Johnson, meanwhile, braced for the attack by arranging his men in a U-shape, with his right flank anchored on the turnpike and his left along the edge of a ravine on the south slope. With the sun setting, and his old regiment the 12th Georgia out front, Johnson’s men slightly outnumbered their enemy 2,800 to 2,300, but, as the historian John S. Salmon has pointed out, “they were too inexperienced to realize they were silhouetted against the sky, making them easy targets.”
Milroy personally led his entire brigade and one of Schenck’s across the Bull Pasture River, through a treacherous ravine, and up the hill. Supported by artillery on Hull’s Hill to the west of the river, he and his men met the 12th Georgia in the center and supporting Confederate units along the turnpike. They cut through the Georgians and pushed steadily on the right for nearly two hours. The fighting was so close that at one point the Union soldiers recognized General Johnson in the fray. “There’s old Johnson; let’s flank him!” they yelled. In turn, Johnson shouted, “Yes, damn you! Flank me if you can.” Near the end of the battle, Johnson’s ankle was shattered by a bullet and he had to be moved behind the lines.
The battle surged slowly in the Confederates’ favor as night fell. As artillery and musket fire flashed off the darkened mountainsides, Milroy recalled his exhausted troops. Jackson personally led the Stonewall Brigade onto the battlefield, but by then the Union forces had gone. They stole west in the middle of the night, leaving the field for Jackson to claim at daybreak.
Even in attacking uphill, Milroy managed to inflict twice as many casualties as his own troops sustained, earning him praise from his superior, General Schenck. In the end, though, victory belonged to Stonewall Jackson, who prevented Frémont’s army in the western Shenandoah Valley from uniting with Banks’s men. Subsequent victories at Front Royal (May 23), Winchester (May 25),(June 8), and (June 9) crushed all major Union forces in the Valley and in the process left them confused even about where Jackson’s army was located. This allowed Jackson to steal east to help defend Richmond during the .
Allegheny Johnson, meanwhile, also earned praise from his superior. In his final report on the battle, Jackson wrote: “General Johnson, to whom I had intrusted the management of the troops engaged, proved himself eminently worthy of the confidence reposed in him by the skill, gallantry, and presence of mind which he displayed on the occasion.” In his absence, Johnson’s Army of the Northwest was swallowed up by Jackson’s Army of the Valley, but the next year a still-gimpy Johnson—commanding Jackson’s old division after Jackson’s death—faced Milroy again, helping destroy the Union garrison at Winchester in June 1863 during the. The defeat nearly ended Milroy’s military career.