June 18, 1862 (Wednesday)
Stonewall Jackson had been called by General Robert E. Lee to bring his 18,500 men to Richmond. After what had already become an legendary campaign of fighting, deception and hard marching, his force was needed to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia, protecting the capital from Union General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
Jackson received his orders on the 16th. The next day was spent readying his troops for a move. Nobody – not even the top officers in his army – knew what was about to happen. Secrecy was always a top priority for the General, but now he was taking it farther than he ever had before.
Through the past week, Jackson’s numbers had been bolstered by the addition of two divisions. Whether they had been sent as a diversion to the Federals or whether Lee, who gave the orders, entertained a desire for Jackson to renew his campaign is open to debate. But their arrival convinced Jackson’s men that soon they would be storming back down the Valley. Soon, Strasburg, Front Royal, Winchester and perhaps even Harpers Ferry would fall.
The first inkling anyone had of Jackson’s true intent came at dawn. The previous day showed that there would certainly be a movement. Even the fresh troops could see that. Two brigades under General William Whiting, had arrived at Staunton two days previous with plans for a march to Jackson’s camp near Port Republic, twenty miles north. But before they could get on the road, Jackson ordered Whiting to load his men on trains bound for Gordonsville, east across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Whiting, who had just come through Gordonsville, was furious and questioned Jackson’s sanity.
Jackson, of course quite sane, was simply keeping his own council.
As Whiting’s men headed east on the rails, Jackson’s main body was marching south towards Waynesboro, where they would, themselves, entrain for the ride towards Richmond.
The road towards Rockfish Gap wound itself up and over a pass in the Blue Ridge. As the troops ascended, they could look behind them, spying lines of their comrades zig-zagging through the switchbacks towards the summit. By evening, the side of the entire mountain was dotted with campfires built by men who had little idea what Jackson was up to. 1
Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s faithful topographer, caught up with the General around 5pm. Together, they rode to the top as the dark drew itself over them. Worried that they would lose their way in the night, Hotchkiss told Jackson, “General, I fear we will not find our wagons tonight.” Jackson soberly replied, “Never take counsel of your fears.” Hotchkiss held onto that advice for the rest of his life.
That night, the small party found their way to the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge. Before bed, General Jackson devoted a much longer than usual amount of time to prayers. Perhaps due to his communion, he slept better than he had in a long, long time.2
Meanwhile, to the north, Union General Irvin McDowell’s troops under Generals Shields and Ord were preparing to leave the Valley to reinforce McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. To take their place, and hold the Valley against what they believed was a well-reinforced Stonewall Jackson, were Generals John C. Fremont, Franz Sigel, and Nathaniel Banks.
A “Frenchman” had reported seeing 10,000 to 15,000 troops heading towards Jackson’s camp on Sunday. These were probably Whiting’s troops. Word filtered up the line of command, and it was quickly assumed that Jackson was gathering his strength for another move down the Valley.
Additional reports, mostly coming from General Shields’ notoriously discrepant scouts, related that General Ewell, Jackson’s second-in-command, was heading towards Front Royal with 40,000 men. Shields was convinced that the force seen by the “Frenchman” was that of General James Longstreet. Though his scouts cautioned that the Rebels were heading north, Shields had heard from Rebel deserters that Jackson was moving to Richmond.
At least, that’s what he told General McDowell’s Chief of Staff. To General Sigel, he warned that 8,500 Confederates were five miles south of Luray and the rest of Jackson’s force was not far behind. Sigel, it seems, saw through the General’s fog. “General Shields has no correct knowledge of the enemy’s movements,” wrote Sigel to Fremont that evening.3