March-June 1862 Civil War campaign
in the Shenandoah Valley
, chiefly responsible for creating the legend of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson
as a superb commander.
First, some orientation and terminology. The Shenandoah Valley occupies the northwest corner of the modern (post-West Virginia secession) state of Virginia, situated between the Allegheny Mountains to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east, both ranges running northeast to southwest. The valley climbs as one proceeds southwest, so "up the valley" actually means going south.
And now, on to the battles.
In November 1861, General Thomas J. Jackson, CSA was ordered to take command of Confederate States forces in the Shenandoah Valley, headquartered at Winchester, 26 miles southwest of the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Most of the roads in the valley converged there, therefore Winchester controlled the mountain passes. Jackson's force totaled 3600 men, mostly native Virginians and many residents of the Valley itself; his opposition was 38,000 Union troops headed by political General Nathan Banks.
On the night of 11 March 1862, Jackson reluctantly abandoned Winchester; he had wanted to eventually mount a surprise attack, but a supply shipment went astray. He headed up the valley to Mount Jackson just north of New Market, while Union Major General Shields was detached from Banks's force to watch him from Strasburg about 10 miles south of Winchester. Banks himself made plans to head east and join the Peninsula Campaign.
When Jackson heard about this on 21 March 1862, he turned around, formulated a plan and marched his troops 41 miles down the valley on the morning of Sunday, 23 March 1862, stopping at Kernstown on the edge of Winchester to attack Banks. Due to bad information from his scout, General Turner Ashby, Jackson was eventually forced to retreat after taking 700 casualties to the Union's 568. This tactical failure turned into a strategic success, though, as the Union was forced to undertake an extensive campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, leaving troops between Jackson and Washington that might otherwise have joined McClellan on the Peninsula.
Instead of joining McClellan, Banks's army now proceeded to Harrisonburg, while Jackson limped to the village of Conrad's Store (now Elkton) east of Harrisonburg. After some time, Banks, having detached Gen. Shields's force to Fredericksburg, decided Jackson was gone and headed back down the valley 45 miles to Strasburg. The Union command was now divided, with Banks in the north, Shields in the east, and Gen. John C. Frémont in the western Allegheny District. Meanwhile, Jackson had submitted his plan to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who approved it, and sent Gen. Richard Ewell's 8,000-strong corps to add to Jackson's force, which had grown over the winter to 6,000. The Confederacy also had a small force of 2,000 commanded by Gen. Edward Johnson guarding western approaches to Staunton.
From Conrad's Store, Jackson's men marched southeast for 3 days, covering 18 miles in horrible mud, to reach Mechum's River Station along what is now Interstate 64 west of Charlottesville. There, to the surprise of everyone involved, Jackson ordered the troops to board trains going west to Staunton. Most importantly, Banks never heard of this; he assumed (like many others) that Jackson's troops were boarding eastbound trains to Richmond, to defend the capital against the upcoming Peninsula attack. After 2 days rest in Staunton, Jackson's force marched 35 miles west through the Alleghenies to the town of McDowell and fought Union Gen. Milroy on 8 May 1862. Although the Union won the battle, Milroy's forces retreated anyway, as this battle was only a prologue to the campaign to follow.
The key to the whole campaign was Jackson's extensive study of the terrain of the Shenandoah Valley, and his personal reliance on hard marching, deception and speed in all his maneuvers. The Valley Turnpike (now U.S. 11, running mostly alongside Interstate 81), an 80-mile macadamized road between Winchester and Staunton, was the only paved road in the South; whoever controlled this road would control the Valley, due to the speed of marching along a paved road as opposed to dirt, grass or mud. The Luray Valley Road (now U.S. 340 and Business 340), along Massanutten Mountain to the east of the valley, paralleled the Valley Turnpike between the towns of Front Royal and Conrad's Store, and an east-west road (now U.S. 211) between the towns of New Market on the V.T. and Luray on the L.V.R. connected the two.
Morale in Banks's army, now stationed in Strasburg, was way down at this point, as they didn't know where Jackson was. As far as they knew, he could have been in three different places at the same time -- Mechum's River Station, Richmond, and McDowell. Having returned to Staunton after the McDowell battle, Jackson now started driving his army hard down the Valley Turnpike, meeting up with first Johnson, then Ewell. The massed Confederate forces then broke from the Turnpike at New Market to head east, crossing Massanutten Mountain at Luray, then using the Blue Ridge to shield their movement north.
The Union troops didn't have a clue what was up at this point, but they were about to be rudely awakened. On Friday, 23 May 1862, Jackson's men approached Front Royal and destroyed the First Maryland stationed there. At this point, it was time to head for Strasburg. Jackson's plan was to get between Banks and Winchester, which would shut off his escape route back to the North. Banks ordered his troops to retreat north, and moved quickly along the Valley Turnpike while Jackson's men moved slowly northwest through the mud. This, though, exposed Banks's line of retreat to the Confederate forces, who cut it twice, at Middletown and 5 miles south of Middletown. Jackson couldn't stop his men from foraging among captured supplies, and Banks sensibly cut off his slower-moving wagons and ran back to Winchester.
In the end, it didn't help, though. On the night of 25 May, a night march put Jackson's troops on the southern outskirts of Winchester at Kernstown. The Union soldiers awoke, saw this and simply panicked. (One retreating soldier was asked by a disbelieving officer, "Don't you love your country?" His reply: "Yes, and I'm trying to get back to it just as fast as I can.") In 3 days of fighting, Confederate forces caused 3,000 Union casualties and captured 3,000 more Union soldiers, to only 400 C.S. casualties. Added to this was the capture of the supply wagons Banks left behind, leading to Confederate jokes about "Commissary Banks" supplying their army with food for weeks. Jackson subsequently advanced all the way north to Harpers Ferry, driving Banks back into Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Union Gen. Irving McDowell, with 40,000 men in Fredericksburg, was given specific orders to stay where he was by Abraham Lincoln, fearing a potential breakout and invasion of Washington by Jackson. This again denied McClellan the use of that 40K in the upcoming Peninsula campaign.
After the rout at Kernstown, the Union generals devised a new plan; Banks would push down from the north, while Frémont would come from the west and Shields from the east, in an effort to meet at Strasburg and trap Jackson's force in the mountains. Turner Ashby's scouts came through this time for Jackson, though, as they got word back to him of the Union plans, and he proceeded to head back southward, preserving his force as all the Union generals tried to find reasons to delay their pursuit. Frémont in particular could have come down from the west and pursued him, but instead just watched.
Frémont and Shields finally got on the move southbound, along the Valley Turnpike and Luray Valley Road respectively. Ashby again proved the savior, though, as Jackson ordered the scouts to burn every bridge between Harrisonburg and Luray, denying the Union force the opportunity to unite. Jackson finally selected the high ground south of Harrisonburg on which to make a stand. Although Ashby was tragically killed on 6 June in a rearguard action, the campaign was essentially over by this point; on 9 June, Jackson thrashed Shields at Port Republic, and by that night Frémont was done for as well. The Valley Campaign was over, with 17,000 Confederate solders defeating 64,000 Union soldiers in 48 days.