May 25, 1862 (Sunday)
Early dawn slipped shrouded and cold from the Shenandoah night. Union General Nathaniel Banks, his army of 6,500, clung for life to hasty breastworks south of Winchester. He had bore the cost of underestimating Stonewall Jackson. Surprised at Front Royal and ravenously pursued the following day, Banks believed there were 25,000 before him.
With stragglers, the fatigued and sick, Jackson’s numbers had dwindled from 17,000 to probably 10,000. His army stalked the Federals through the night, and before faint light, were ready to attack at dawn.
General Banks, who was not on the field when the attack began, placed only 1,000 men on his left, believing the thrust of Jackson’s attack would come from the hills he probably should have defended south of town. Upon his main line, he placed 4,000 troops and twelve pieces of artillery.
Jackson had ordered General Richard Ewell to attack the Union left at dawn. Ewell, however, had no true idea where Jackson was. Through fog, he moved a brigade northward, probing to discover either friend or foe. Jackson’s men did the same. Both halted as the artillery dueled sightless through the darkened murk. The muzzle flashes gave hint to the range needed to find their marks, sometimes only 500 yards distant. The more accurate Federal weapons played on Jackson’s gunners, but the kindness was returned for an hour, when the Union artillery fell back closer to town.
Jackson’s men were up and advancing on the blue line as the first streaks of sunlight burned through the fog. As the Rebels filed out, the Federals extended their lines on his left. Jackson found the Louisiana brigade of Dick Taylor and ordered him to carry the Union right flank.
As the Louisianans began their attack on the Confederate left, Ewell pressed forward with his own on the right. The two Rebel flanks moved as if sides of a trap, and the Union army melted away. Had they not, they may have been surrounded.
With a throaty yell, the first “Rebel yell” heard in the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson’s men followed, carrying first the abandoned Union works and then the town, to prevent General Banks from burning it, and the valuable supplies within, to the ground.
The Union brigades and regiments lost all designation, becoming a terrified mass of fugitives. The people of the town, rid of their occupation, were ecstatic, and welcomed Jackson and his men home. But it was this joyous welcome that was their undoing.
Jackson knew that if he pressed Banks to the Potomac, the Federal force could be annihilated. But his troops, and more specifically, the cavalry under Turner Ashby, again failed him. To hunt down the wounded Union army, cavalry was essential. Nobody had any idea where Ashby and his command were. Disgusted, Jackson sent for Ewell’s cavalry, but it took until two o’clock to collect even them.
With his infantry, Jackson gave chase, but the debris, the knapsacks, wagons and accouterments left behind by hotfooted Federals slowed their progress. Another day’s march was too much for his men. They had made it six miles to Bunker Hill, but could go no farther.
Ewell’s cavalry, as well as a very small contingent of Ashby’s, finally arrived, but were now of little use. Jackson personally blamed Ashby for allowing Banks to get away.
Though the Federals were able to escape, there was little doubt that Jackson was victorious. He had driven a Federal army from the Valley, and captured the Federal supply depot, the bounty of which took days to tabulate.
When the spoils were finally counted, it was found that Jackson’s little army had captured nearly 10,000 small arms, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, two rifled cannons, $250,000 in medial supplies, 103 head of cattle and upwards of 25,000 pounds of sustenance.
Casualties from the running fight between Front Royal and Winchester were heavy, especially for the Federals, who lost 71 killed, 243 wounded and 1,714 missing (probably about 800 were captured). Jackson’s men lost 68 killed, 329 wounded and 3 missing.
To Washington, the news of the battle traveled slowly. All assumed that Banks avoided a battle and was retreated towards Harpers Ferry (he was actually retreating towards Williamsport). There was some good news to be had when they learned that General Shields had already left Fredericksburg with his division, and that General McDowell’s troops would follow shortly. As other reports of another army of Rebels storming east through the passes to attack Washington came in, both Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton were whipped into an intense worry.
While Stanton called upon the Northern governors to send troops to protect Washington, Lincoln turned his frustration towards McClellan. “I think the time is near” wrote Lincoln, “when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington.”1
Beauregard to Retreat from Corinth
Out west in Mississippi, the Confederate situation was much worse. Union General Henry Halleck had taken a month to creep his 120,000 men twenty-nine miles from the battlefield at Shiloh to the Rebel fortifications around Corinth. General P.G.T. Beauregard and his 75,000 encircled the town, protecting its valuable rail lines.
From the first week of May, Beauregard had a suspicion that he would not be able to hold Corinth. By this date, he was sure of it.
He called together his corps commanders, and explained why he believed the present to be the best time for a retreat. Corinth provided a fine defensive position, and holding it meant control of two major railways and thus easy communication with the rest of the South. The General believed it was his duty to hold this important town for as long as possible, but holding it much longer would result in the complete destruction of his army.
General Halleck, it seemed, had no plans on making a frontal assault. His strategy from the start had been that of a siege. The only result of such an affair would be a Confederate surrender. Within the confines of the Rebel lines, bad water and disease were growing, and the numbers of sick were growing along with it. Now was the time to leave.
It was true, they would lose a strategic position, but by holding it longer, they would lose their army. All agreed, and Beauregard told them to ready themselves as if the order had already been given. The plan to withdraw, however, was to be kept secret, even from their own troops, who were to be told that they were advancing. All the while, they were to send their sick and supplies south towards Baldwin and Tupelo.
There would be a retreat, but it would be orderly and well-guarded from the Federals.2
- This report culled from three sources. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens; and Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner. For some great fun, I suggest reading the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3 Union entries for this date. Tons of telegraph messages and confusion. You could spend an afternoon. [↩]
- The Military Operations of General Beauregard, Vol. 1 by Alfred Roman, Harper & brothers, 1884. [↩]