May 23, 1862 (Friday)
The 1st Maryland Regiment, along with the rest of Stonewall Jackson’s Army, was marching northward by dawn. From their camp, it was ten miles to Front Royal and an unknown amount of Union soldiers. Many in Jackson’s 1st Maryland were on the verge of mutiny. Their terms of service had expired and, while some wished to join the cavalry, others just wanted to not march twenty miles every damn day. The loyal of the regiment had the disloyal disarmed and under guard.
Since he did not know what awaited his army, Jackson was leery on a frontal attack. He was sure of victory, however, and wanted to block any Union retreat. To do this, he decided to split his forces, sending Ewell’s Division (along with the 1st Maryland) out the more easterly Gooney Manor Road. This would keep the Federals from retreating east towards Manassas Junction.
It would also push them west, where cavalry under Turner Ashby would be waiting. Ashby would also be able to intercept any Federal reinforcements coming from General Nathaniel Banks’ main body at Strasburg, twelve miles away. Such blockading would drive the enemy north, across the South and North Branches of the Shenandoah River, towards Winchester. Jackson’s ultimate objective was to save the bridges, figuring that the retreating Federals would put them to the torch.
By 2pm, they reached Gooney Manor Road, four miles south of Front Royal, and Ewell’s Division, along with Jackson himself, began the detour, while Jackson’s Division, under General Charles Winder, remained behind. Winder was to press forward along the main Luray Road once the fighting started. The road ascended 400 feet in just over a mile, draining the men who had walked upwards of seventy miles in the past few days. From this height, however, Jackson could see Front Royal, the Union camp on a hill beyond it and the bridges he had to save.
From Confederate scouts, Henry Kyd Douglas, or the Rebel spy Belle Boyd (or perhaps all three), Jackson learned that only one full Federal regiment, the 1st Maryland (US), held the town. With that news, he sent the 1st Maryland (CS), only 350 strong, and half of them mutinous, to attack. Jackson had no idea the state of the regiment, but after their colonel gave a rousing, patriotic speech, that mattered no longer. With a chance to smite their fellow Marylanders, the Rebels threw themselves into the town, and came charging like demons.
The Unionist Marylanders suspected nothing. Their Colonel, John Kenly, like his superior, General Banks, figured Jackson to be fifty miles south. Along with the Rebel Marylanders came a brigade of Louisianans, steaming into town. Col. Kenly formed his 1,000 men for a stand, but soon realized it was hopeless, Front Royal was already lost.
Deciding to make his stand north of town, at Richardson’s Hill, he ordered his men to fall back. Unlimbering his guns, he began to play upon the coming Rebel infantry. Jackson called for Ewell’s artillery to come up, but the Federals, using rifled pieces, were out of range of the Confederate smoothbores. As a Confederate artillery officer went back to find the rifled guns, Jackson’s infantry went on without them.
Kenly saw what was coming. He was about the be surrounded, with Rebel cavalry coming down hard on his path of retreat. He quickly burned his camp, limbered the guns and marched across the bridges, which he ordered to be fired when all of his men were safely on the other side.
While some of his men packed the bridges with hay and tried to get a fire going, Kenly established another line on Guard Hill. Somehow, two hours had slipped by from the start of the Rebel attack. By 4pm, Kenly’s two rifled guns were in place and waiting the Rebels, should the burned bridges not hold them back.
Jackson’s Confederates raced towards the bridges, throwing burning bales of hay into the river, and were able to extinguish the fire before the bridges were completely unusable. One of the spans was so heavily damaged, however, that the men hesitated to cross.
Wantimg to not lose an opportunity to bag the Federals, Jackson ordered Major Thomas Flournoy of the 6th Virginia Cavalry to take his 250 men across the rickety bridge and hit the larger retreating force before they can prepare a defense.
For two and a half miles, the Rebels, led by Flournoy and Jackson gave chase, finally cornering Kenly’s Federals at Cedarville. On Jackson’s word, the cavaliers charged. Kenly’s men fired a volley, but the Rebel assault fell upon them. Screaming like banshees, and slashing with sabers, the Confederates tore apart the hastily-thrown up Union line.
Soon, the Federals were surrounded by Flournoy’s cavalry and the entire mass, nearly 700 men, surrendered.
Meanwhile, at Strasburg, General Banks received his first news of the battle. It was also the first news that he had concerning the whereabouts of Stonewall Jackson, whom he suspected was no closer than Harrisonburg, fifty miles south. Not able to discern Jackson’s full strength, Banks was only willing to commit a single infantry regiment as a reinforcement.
Throughout the evening, as more reports trickled in, Banks was able to draw a pretty clear conclusion. Front Royal had fallen. The garrison was either destroyed or captured. While this was more or less true, his information had Jackson’s army divided, with Ewell coming down the Luray Valley, as Jackson used the main valley. In reality, Jackson and Ewell had combined and were both at Cedarville.
Banks was faced with a few choices. He could either retreat towards General Fremont at Franklin, attack the Rebels at Front Royal, or fall back to Winchester. He chose to do the latter.
Jackson was also well aware of the choices left to Banks. However, he had no real idea of the Federal strength. He probably knew that he outnumbered the enemy, but couldn’t be sure by how much. He decided that Banks would either attack Front Royal in an attempt to break out of the Valley, or would head to Winchester. To cover both of these possibilities, he divided his army, sending Ewell’s Division (which he would accompany) towards Winchester, while his own division remained at Front Royal.
Whatever Banks was about to decide, Jackson was ready.1
- 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. [↩]