On November 4, 1861, Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was elevated from brigade command to command of the army’s Valley District. The Shenandoah Valley was the strategic left flank of the defenses of Richmond, and a rich source of foodstuffs. The Valley also offered Confederate forces a shielded avenue into the rear of the Union capital at Washington, D.C.
From his headquarters at Winchester in January 1862, Jackson, with 9,000 men, launched an offensive called the Romney Campaign that cleared of Union troops the region immediately northwest of the Valley, but was otherwise of no importance.
The following month, Confederate fortunes were at their nadir. The Confederacy had lost most of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee as well as portions of the Eastern seaboard to advancing Union armies. The Union Army of the Potomac, 155,000 strong, sat opposite the 40,000-man Confederate Army of the Potomac (soon to be renamed the Army of Northern Virginia) under Joseph E. Johnston at Centreville, Virginia. There were no Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley, but Jackson had only 6,000 troops at Winchester. The Union forces positioned on the far side of the Potomac River outnumbered Jackson five to one. As Confederate president Jefferson Davis said of the dire situation, “The military paradox, that impossibilities must be rendered possible, had never better occasion for its application.”
Jackson’s Valley Campaign
Lincoln had conditioned his approval on McClellan leaving enough troops at Manassas Junction to “leave Washington entirely secure.” McClellan intended to fulfill that obligation with Banks’s corps. On March 13 he ordered Banks to transfer his headquarters and one of his two divisions to Manassas Junction; three days later he directed him to leave just one brigade in the Valley.
Before leaving, Banks directed the commander of his second division, Brigadier General James Shields, to conduct a reconnaissance in force to Strasburg. Finding nothing, Shields withdrew to Winchester on March 20. Confederate chief of cavalry Colonel Turner Ashby followed Shields. On March 22 he told Jackson that Banks had left the Valley and that only a handful of Union troops remained near Winchester, when in fact Shields’s entire division, just over 10,000 strong, was there.
Heeding the spirit if not the letter of Johnston’s orders that he keep Banks in the Valley and get as “near as prudence will permit,” Jackson threw his small command of 3,500 men against Shields at Kernstown on March 23. Jackson suffered a sharp reverse and fell back in disorder up the Valley (or south, in other words). The encounter is best known for Stonewall Brigade commander Richard B. Garnett’s unauthorized retreat; the action earned him an arrest and court-martial, which was convened in August and halted soon after.
Despite a tactical defeat at Kernstown, Jackson had gained a strategic victory. The battle compelled Banks to return to the Valley. On April 3, after he learned that McClellan had intended for Banks to be the covering force at Manassas Junction, Lincoln countermanded the embarkation of 40,000 troops under Union general Irvin McDowell for the Peninsula and instead held them near Fredericksburg. McDowell was named commander of the newly created Department of the Rappahannock. Lincoln reduced McClellan from general-in-chief to commander of the Army of the Potomac. He also created the Mountain Department for John C. Frémont. Unity of command was lost. There were now three independent departments between the Alleghenies and the Peninsula, all of which reported to President Lincoln and Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war.
Bad weather in the Valley prevented any movements until April 17, when Banks started south for Harrisonburg. The strategic situation by then had changed. Johnston had redeployed to the Peninsula with 55,000 men to oppose McClellan’s 110,000. Robert E. Lee had become military advisor to President Davis. Between Johnston and Jackson was Confederate general Richard S. Ewell‘s division.
Jackson was willing to concede the Valley as far south as North River to maintain contact with Ewell. When Banks occupied Harrisonburg on April 25, Jackson withdrew to Swift Run Gap, which placed him in position to outflank Banks should he push beyond Harrisonburg or to move his own command east to join Johnston.
Lee and Johnston left Jackson the option of launching a sudden and heavy attack in the Valley. Jackson chose as his objective the Union brigade of Robert H. Milroy, which had descended the Alleghenies, occupied the village of McDowell, and threatened Jackson’s supply depot at Staunton. On April 29 Jackson left Ewell at Swift Run Gap and moved to join Confederate general Edward “Allegheny” Johnson‘s 3,600-man command in an attack on Milroy, after which he intended to turn on Banks.
Jackson benefited from Banks’s erroneous conclusion that Jackson had left the Valley. On May 1 Lincoln withdrew Banks to Strasburg and ordered Shields’s division to join McDowell at Fredericksburg, leaving the road open to Jackson.
On May 8 Jackson and Johnson met the brigades of Milroy and Union general Robert C. Schenck at McDowell. Milroy attacked first. The battle was a Union tactical victory, as four Union regiments inflicted heavier casualties than they endured in attacking thirteen defending Confederate brigades. But Jackson drove the Union troops from McDowell to Franklin, ending any immediate threat from the Alleghenies.
After returning to the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson decided to move with Ewell against Banks at Strasburg. Fearing such a move to be in the offing, Banks asked but was refused permission to abandon Strasburg. To protect his left flank and rear, he dispatched the 900-man 1st Maryland Infantry (Union) to Front Royal on May 21.
Contradictory orders from Johnston based on a poor understanding of the situation in the Valley almost derailed plans. But in the end, Johnston, partly on the advice of Lee, permitted Jackson to conduct a rapid attack on Banks. Jackson was to push Banks through Winchester and demonstrate toward the Potomac River in order to draw Shields back to the Valley.
Jackson had intended to assault Banks head-on at Strasburg, but when he learned of the garrison at Front Royal he and Ewell crossed into Page Valley. On May 23 they captured Front Royal, along with most of the Union defenders. That placed Jackson on Banks’s left flank, closer to Winchester than were the Union troops and with the potential for cutting their line of retreat down the Valley Pike.
On May 24 Banks retreated to Winchester. He escaped with minimal loss because of poor coordination between Jackson and Ewell; a lackluster performance by Confederate general George H. Steuart, whose two cavalry regiments missed a chance to cut Banks’s column in two at Middletown; and superior use of his own rear guard.
On the night of May 24 Banks deployed his 3,500-man command south of Winchester. Although he knew that defeat was certain against Jackson’s 16,000 troops, he elected to fight in order to give his trains of 550 wagons a head start toward Williamsport, 35 miles distant on the Potomac. Jackson attacked at dawn on May 25, and after two hours of sharp fighting drove Banks from Winchester. Once again Stuart failed to obey orders to strike at Banks. That, along with the absence of Ashby’s cavalry—Ashby never accounted for his whereabouts—and the exhaustion of the Confederate infantry, prevented Jackson from pursuing Banks.
After Winchester, Jackson advanced to Harpers Ferry. His presence there created no fear for the safety of Washington, D.C., but it did cause Lincoln to divert McDowell’s 40,000-man command from Fredericksburg to the Valley. This occurred just as McDowell was about to move down the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad to attack the Confederate capital from the north while McClellan launched a belated push westward. Lincoln intended to crush Jackson before he was able to withdraw down the Valley Pike from Harpers Ferry. To that end, he ordered Frémont to move to Harrisonburg. When bad roads, blocked mountain passes, and the starved state of Frémont’s army made that plan impractical, Lincoln authorized Frémont to march through the Allegheny toward Strasburg. At the same time, he directed McDowell to move against Strasburg from Front Royal. Lincoln hoped to catch Jackson in a vise, but he also considered either column capable of defeating him independently of the other. It was all “a question of legs,” Lincoln told McDowell.
On June 1 Frémont skirmished inconclusively with a blocking force under Ewell. McDowell failed to move at all, and the Confederates slipped through Strasburg and up the Shenandoah Valley. Assuming that Jackson intended to leave the Valley at Swift Run Gap and rejoin the army at Richmond, Shields obtained McDowell’s half-hearted concurrence to take his division down Page Valley and cut off Jackson’s escape route while Frémont pressed him from behind up the Valley Pike.
The movement failed miserably. Torrential rains and indecision on Shields’s part eliminated him as a serious threat. Frémont skirmished with Jackson during a six-day pursuit. A clash outside Harrisonburg on June 6 took the life of Turner Ashby. On June 8 Ewell’s division bested Frémont at Cross Keys. The next day Jackson defeated two brigades from Shields’s division at Port Republic. Frémont fell back on Harrisonburg, and Shields’s shuffled back up Page Valley.
The battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic were unnecessary, as Lincoln already had ordered an end to the campaign. Neither Frémont nor Shields had received the recall orders in time to avoid the needless carnage.
After Port Republic, Jackson ensconced his army at Brown’s Gap for three days and, on June 12, moved back into the Valley, by which time Frémont and Shields were gone. Four days later, Robert E. Lee—who had replaced Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia after Johnston was seriously injured during the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks—summoned Jackson’s command to Richmond, where it participated in the Seven Days’ Battles against McClellan.
The perceived brilliance of Jackson’s accomplishments in the Valley—particularly the twin victories of Cross Keys and Port Republic—lifted him to the status of a national idol. After a spring of setbacks, the South was starved for such victories, and Jackson had gained for the Confederacy something more precious than merely a morale boost; he provided time to improve on the defenses of Richmond, and with that came a new lease on life for the Confederacy.
But Jackson’s success was, in part, a consequence of Lincoln’s strategic errors. Had he allowed McDowell to march south on Richmond, Johnston would have been compelled to strike McClellan before the two Union forces joined up, an action that undoubtedly would have gone against the Confederates. With the weight of McDowell’s added numbers, not even one as cautious as McClellan or as apt to overestimate the enemy’s strength could have failed to take Richmond and destroy Johnston’s army.
Jackson also benefited from a dysfunctional Union command structure, as Lincoln and Stanton bungled management of the campaign from afar. Unable to communicate with one another, Banks and Frémont, and then Frémont and McDowell—often less than fifty miles apart—too often worked at cross purposes. As one Union subordinate observed, “We have too many district commands and too many independent commanders.”
Jackson took his success in stride. Uncomfortable with the fame that had been thrust upon him, he told his pastor the night before leaving the Valley for Richmond, “I am afraid that our people are looking to the wrong source for help, and ascribing our success to those to whom they are not due. If we fail to Trust in God and give Him all the glory, our cause is ruined.”