The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia proved to be one of the most vital regions to the Confederacy. With fertile soil, it produced a massive surplus of food and even came to be termed “The Breadbasket of the Confederacy”. It is no surprise then that early in the war the Union moved to seize the region. Early in 1862, the Union moved on the Virginia using a three-pronged approach. On the Virginia Peninsula sat George Mclellan and the Army of the Potomac which would meet up with Irvin Mcdowell’s army near Richmond, opting for a quick and decisive blow to the South. In the Shenandoah Valley there was Nathaniel Banks with 35,000 soldiers, with orders to march South and take it. However, early in Banks’ campaign, Lincoln recalled all but 9,000 of his troops to protect Washington. In defense of the valley was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson with around 3,500 men. On March 22, reports from civilians and Confederate Cavalry seemed to indicate the the Federals were withdrawing from the Valley, perhaps to be sent elsewhere. But, this was not the case and Jackson misguidingly opted to strike as his mission was to keep the Union inside the valley so that it would not join the assault on Richmond. He left Mt. Jackson on the 22nd, marching 25 miles and another 15 on the 23rd just before the 1st Battle of Kernstown.
After a 25 and 15 mile march on March 22nd and 23rd, Jackson’s small army with less than 4,000 men struck at Nathan Kimball’s 5th Corps which consisted of 8,500 men. Though Jackson thought battles should be avoided on Sunday, he attacked anyway, thinking he could win a major victory thanks to incorrect intelligence reports. On the Confederate right sat Ashby’s Cavalry, protecting against Union Cavalry and later reinforced with a brigade. The rest of Jackson’s army attacked the Union right at Pritchard’s hill with three brigades but was unable to make any significant progress and fled after running low on ammunition. The Confederate casualties amounted to 718 killed, wounded, or captured to the Union’s 590. Though the battle was a tactical loss for the Confederates it made enough noise to make Lincoln pull even more forces into the Valley, which was Jackson’s objective all along. What came next was a brilliant campaign that dizzied the Union army, defended the Valley, and was completed in time for Jackson to participate in the Seven Days Battles.
Following the Battle of Kernstown, Jackson retreated to Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the East of the Valley as he was unable to engage the entirety of Bank’s forces who occupied New Market. There he faked a retreat east, toward Richmond, but soon returned by rail from Staunton to counter John C. Fremont’s forces which had been threatened to advance on the Valley by way of the Alleghany Mountains. Mcdowell’s force that was to advance on Richmond was subsequently halted while a division was sent to reinforce him from Banks’ command, weakening Banks. Jackson then received Richard Ewell’s 8,500 large Division and use it to block Banks from advancing past the Blue Ridge Mountains. He then reinforced Edward “Alleghany” Johnson’s 2,000 man force which had been opposing Fremont. Jackson then initiated the Battle of Mcdowell, baiting the vanguard of Fremont’s army to attack him atop Sitlington’s Hill. After four hours of fighting, the Federals withdrew from the field and retreated further into West Virginia. Jackson was now free to focus on Banks having eliminated Fremont as a threat.
–The Battle of Mcdowell
After defeating Fremont and eliminating him from the equation, Jackson moved to rejoin Ewell. Once Jackson united with Ewell, his forces amounted to about 17,000 soldiers, heavily outnumbering Banks’ 8,000. Banks then pulled back to Strasburg and began to fortify it and left a token force of about 1,000 soldiers to hold Front Royal. Instead of attacking the fortified Federals at Strasburg, Jackson marched east of the Massanutten Mountains through the Page Valley and attacked Front Royal on May 23rd, taking 800 prisoners, and forcing Banks to retreat with Jackson in hot pursuit. The Confederates managed to cut into the rear column and caused it to flee westward. The remainder of Banks’ force made a stand at Winchester but were swept from the field and forced to retreat again due to overwhelming Confederate numbers. The Confederates finally felt the fatigue that the wild forced marches had brought; their cavalry was horribly disorganized and so neither the infantry or cavalry could pursue the frightened Federals. Banks escaped across the Potomac after a march that covered 35 miles a day. Jackson then crept toward Harpers Ferry to give the impression of a push on Washington. This utter defeat for the Union sure got their attention and Mcdowell was forced to march 2 divisions to push Jackson back. Simultaneously, Fremont reappeared in Jackson’s rear with 15,000 men to cut off his retreat. 50,000 or so Federals enclosed on the Valley and Jackson was about to be surrounded.
With Fremont and Mcdowell closing in on him, Jackson was forced to march South where he slipped through the tightening grip of the Federals by passing through Strasburg. Jackson then found himself pursued by two different forces that had failed to unite. Mcdowell had taken the Page Valley to the east of Massnutten Mountain while Fremont took the West. Jackson then set in motion a defeat in detail. He marched south to where the Massanutten Mountains ended. There, Fremont and Shields(Commander of Mcdowell’s lead column) confronted him, still split from eachother.
Fremont struck first, attacking Ewell’s division at the Battle of Cross Keys on June 8. Fremont intended to flank Ewell and sent Julius Stahel’s brigade to do so but after being ambushed by Trimble’s brigade and losing almost 200 men, they were routed. The Union right then attacked along Mill Creek but was unsuccessful and pulled back. Fremont, having no success, withdrew to Keezletown Road and remained there. Ewell then left Trimble’s and Patton’s brigades to hold Fremont while he left to support Jackson.
While the Battle of Cross Keys raged, Federal cavalry had taken the town of Port Republic and nearly captured Jackson who had his headquarters there. After retaking the town, the Confederates found that two brigades had appeared north of the town, Erastus Tyler’s brigades. Tyler soon perched himself on top of a ridge overlooking a field with 6 cannons to defend it. After a failed advance by Charles S. Winder, Confederate cannons attempted to silence the Federal guns but were unsuccessful. From Ewell’s division, Richard Taylor’s Louisianians then flanked the Federals while Confederate reinforcements attacked their front.
The Federals were quickly wiped from the field and another victory was placed in Jackson’s lap. Shields and Fremont subsequently retreated northwards and a week later Jackson was recalled back to Richmond to participate in the Seven Days Battles. The Campaign was a stunning success, accomplishing the goal of a distraction with hundreds of prisoners captured, minimal losses, a blow to Union morale, and all with the Shenandoah Valley being kept in Confederate hands. Equally important was a morale boost for the South which had previously seen losses at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, 1st Corinth, New Orleans, and on the Virginia Peninsula. To this day it is revered as one of the brilliant campaigns ever conducted.
-By Southern Revivalist