June 9, 1862 (Monday)
What Stonewall Jackson wanted most on this foggy morning was the element of surprise. Federal troops under General James Shields had raided Port Republic the previous day, and though they were beaten back, Jackson wanted to cross the Shenandoah River and bring the fight to them.
Nearly half of his army, under General Richard Ewell, had battled a different Federal force under General John Fremont the day before at Cross Keys. Though Fremont and Shields were unable to unite, Jackson had to deal with both. Leaving a brigade to keep Fremont in check, Ewell was in the process of marching his troops the handful of miles to the main force at Port Republic. Together, they would defeat Shields and then turn around, march back to Cross Keys, and defeat Fremont.
To make the attack, Jackson wanted five brigades, but as the early dawn slipped away, it was looking more and more like he would have, at first, only one. The bridge that was hastily thrown across South River lacked the essential ingredient of nails. When the first troops marched across, their trodding tore up the boards. Only the Stonewall Brigade, commanded by General Charles Winder, made it across in anything resembling good time. The remaining troops would have to cross single file, with their artillery and wagons holding everything up. Many elected to wade the flooded river.
Union General Shields had separated his command several days ago. Two brigades were near Port Republic, while two others were marching south with Shields from Luray. With an encouraging note from Shields, Generals Erastus B. Tyler and Samuel Carroll decided to defend their more southerly position, fully expecting to see their commander with the rest of his division. They had reconnoitered their line, but were certain that Jackson would make no attack.
Jackson rode at the front of the Stonewall Brigade, the only troops on the Union side of the river. With General Winder at his side, they advanced along a soggy road for well over a mile, when one of his advance pickets sent word that they had encountered Union troops. Jackson was surprised to find them so close. This narrow strip of land between the Shenandoah River and the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains was hardly an ideal place for a battle. To his front rose a “coaling,” a steep hill used for making charcoal. The Coaling afforded a commanding view of the surrounding fields, and most importantly, the Union artillery placed upon it opened fire upon Jackson’s lone brigade.
Though Jackson had lost the element of surprise, and though only one of his five brigades was up, he ordered an attack upon the 3,000 Federal troops and sixteen cannons.
Winder moved forward without any hope for support. General Richard Taylor’s brigade, the next in line, had crossed the river, but without specific orders, the men were enjoying their breakfast as the Stonewall Brigade began to feel the first lunges of Federal artillery. The brigade had been split, two regiments hacking their way through underbrush in search of the Union left flank, while the other two moved across a wheatfield to be slashed and battered by enemy artillery.
Soon, both fronts fell back as the long range Rebel artillery ran out of ammunition. Jackson was trapped with no way of knowing when the rest of his army would join him.
Upon hearing the firing, General Taylor called a halt to the breakfast and hurried his men forward. Jackson commandeered Taylor’s Louisiana Tigers, and ordered the rest of the brigade to the right in an attempt to silence the Union guns atop the Coaling.
With the additional regiment, Winder decided to charge, but was outnumbered and had to hunker down along a fence 200 yards from the Union position. They held for an hour, but were compelled to give way, breaking for the rear as Federals under General Carroll gave chase. Over the bodies of their dead and dying comrades, the Stonewall Brigade retreated, finally able to rally a half mile from their advance.
Seeing that things were looking grim, Jackson abandoned all hope of a quick defeat of Shields and then an attack on Fremont. He ordered the brigade holding Fremont at bay to make a quick sprint for Port Royal and to burn the bridge behind them. Jackson was taking a huge gamble, cutting off his line of retreat to his supply base at Staunton. He was on the verge of a crushing defeat. His men had retreated, they were low on ammunition, the artillery was useless and the Union guns unceasing.
When it seemed lost, Ewell arrived with a brigade, which he personally led into battle towards the Coaling. As he advanced, he could see Winder’s line breaking and the Federals closing in. As the Union line moved south, it exposed its flank to Ewell’s force. Seeing an opportunity, the General ordered half the brigade to charge into the Union flank.
It wasn’t enough to break the Federals, but it stopped the advance at a dear price. With another fresh brigade from Port Republic, Jackson pointed it at the Coaling, hoping to finally silence the Union guns. He had already sent Taylor’s breakfasting Louisianans, but the guns were still ringing. More men might do the trick.
Taylor’s men had wandered their way through the thick underbrush towards the Coaling and had finally arrived undetected. In a quick charge down a ravine and up onto the Coaling, the Rebels captured six Federal guns before they could fire a shot in protest. Nearby Union infantry pitched into Taylor’s troops and the fighting devolved into savagery, as the Rebels were slowly beaten back.
The Union advance against General Winder was stopped and the line moved to attack Taylor’s dispersed Rebels at the Coaling. Ewell had joined Taylor with a couple of regiments. Soon, a few more joined, and then more, until two hefty brigades worth of Rebels were at the Coaling.
The reprieve allowed Winder to regroup and to be joined by a fresh brigade. Confederate artillery, finally able to mass its fire, played hell upon the Federals, whose own artillery had been cut in half by Taylor’s attack. Unsure of what to do, the Federals paused. In this delay, Stonewall Jackson attacked with everything he had.
Winder retook the ground he lost. Taylor recaptured the guns and turned them on their former masters. Slowly, Jackson’s attack pushed the Federals back. There was no rout, no breaking for the rear. The Union troops under Generals Tyler and Carroll removed themselves in an orderly manner from the field of battle, marching to Conrad’s Store, eight miles north. Union General Shields arrived at Conrad’s Store to meet the defeated Tyler and Carroll with two fresh brigades, but it was too late. He took up a defensive position that Jackson would never venture to attack.
Though victorious, Jackson’s troops were exhausted and could not pursue. After the battle was decided, the brigade from Cross Keys narrowly escaped through Port Republic, burning the bridge behind them as Federal cavalry dashed in to stop them. Fremont’s Union army was cut off and Jackson was safe. Due to swollen rivers, Fremont’s only course was to position artillery on the bluffs overlooking the battlefield and hammer away.
This rain of iron hit ambulances filled with Rebels and Federals alike. It also threatened Jackson’s army in such an exposed position. To avoid the fury, Jackson moved his army to Brown’s Gap, overlooking the town of Port Republic.
To the fight, Jackson brought, perhaps, 6,000. He suffered 67 killed, 393 wounded, and 558 missing. Of the 3,000 Federals, around 1,000 were either killed, wounded or missing, with well over 400 captured.1
- I scribbled this report together from three books. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; and Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner. [↩]