April 22, 1862 (Tuesday)
Union General Nathaniel Banks was in a fog. Following the brief scrap with Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry at the Columbia bridge on the 19th, he became convinced that Jackson’s entire army had left the valley, slipping through the passes to Rappahannock Station, on his way to reinforce General Joe Johnston on the Peninsula.
If true, this made Banks’ job quite simple. He was tasked with holding the Department of the Shenandoah, encompassing the namesake valley. His belief that Jackson slipped out of the Department of the Shenandoah to the Department of the Rappahannock, unburdened him of having to deal with the illusive Stonewall Jackson. The only troops remaining, he believed, were perhaps some cavalry, home guards and maybe a few regiments near Staunton, but even those fell under General John C. Fremont’s Mountain Department.
On the 19th, Banks wrote to Washington that he believed “Jackson left the Valley yesterday.” In reality, Jackson’s men had just arrived at Swift Run Gap, behind Massanutten Mountain. The next day, Banks wrote that Jackson’s flight “from the Valley by the way of the mountains, from Harrisonburg toward Stanardsville and Orange Court-House, on Gordonsville is confirmed this morning by our scouts and prisoners.”
The scouts, no doubt, “confirmed” Jackson’s flight simply by not finding him where they were looking. Of course, the inability to find something doesn’t mean that it’s taken flight, which was why Banks also relied upon prisoners, who apparently told a few tall tales, satisfying the mind of the General. Meanwhile, Jackson’s force was still at Swift Run Gap.
By this day, with Jackson still at Swift Run Gap, the Fifth Corp, along with General Banks, slogged steadily southward from New Market towards Harrisonburg. In order to secure the northern portion of Luray Valley, adjacent to the main Shenandoah Valley, he sent detachments to Alma and Luray. Not even scouts ventured farther south. If they had, they might have stumbled upon Jackson’s camp.
“Jackson has abandoned the valley of Virginia permanently,” wrote Banks in his almost daily letters to Washington, “en route for Gordonsville, by the way of the mountains.” Traveling from the Shenandoah Valley to Gordonsville, one would have to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains at Swift Run Gap. If Banks had bothered to send a scout to actually ensure that Jackson’s troops had exited in that direction, he would have learned a great deal about his foe. But, he did not, and was all the more ignorant in his certainty.1
All the while, Jackson was watching the Federals. The previous day, he had sent Jedediah Hotchkiss to reconnoiter the Federals near the Columbia Bridge and in Milham’s Gap, which led from New Market to Gordonsville. Through sleet and blinding rain, Hotchkiss rode thirty-five miles (due to a miscommunication with Jackson), while exploring Milham’s Gap and the road leading to the Columbia Bridge.
Finding no Federals in the gap, he rode towards the bridge. Discovering their camp nearby, he made his own, not three miles away. On the morning of this day, he climbed a high knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains and peered over their camp again. Noting their position, he rode back to Swift Run Gap and General Jackson.2
Within a march of a day or so from Jackson were two additional Confederate forces. The 8,000 troops under General Richard Ewell were just on the other side of the Blue Ridge, while 3,000 under General “Allegheny” Johnson were just west of Staunton. While Jackson had Ewell in a holding pattern, he was waiting to see what was coming from Western Virginia to meet Johnson.3
Through the horrendous weather of the past couple days, Jackson was beginning to get a true handle on the situation in the Valley. This was greatly aided by General Robert E. Lee, President Davis’ military advisor and de facto Secretary of War. In a letter to Jackson, Lee quickly explained the Virginia theater of war. He had no doubt that the Federals had designs upon Fredericksburg. They had already moved about 5,000 troops to Falmouth, across the river, and it was clear to Lee that they wished to use it as a base of operations, effectively linking up with General McClellan on the Peninsula.
The Confederate force defending Fredericksburg was small and couldn’t be reinforced without weakening the Peninsula line. While Lee thought it best, under the circumstances, to reinforce Fredericksburg with Ewell’s 8,000, he was leery about the small size of Jackson’s force when put up against the 19,000 Federals under General Banks.
And so, Lee left the entire decision to Jackson. After all, it was Jackson and not Lee who was in the Shenandoah Valley. “If you can use General Ewell’s division in an attack on General Banks, and to drive him back, it will prove a great relief to the pressure on Fredericksburg,” wrote Lee to Jackson, “but if you should find General Banks too strong to be approached, and your object is to hold General Ewell in supporting distance to your column, he may be of more importance at this time between Fredericksburg and Richmond.”
Holding Fredericksburg was the key. Lee hoped that Jackson could do this, with or without Ewell, by keeping Banks in check. Most importantly, it was up to Jackson. In closing, Lee wanted Jackson’s input on the matter.4
With the information gained from Jeb Hotchkiss’ scouting, along with Lee’s letter (which would arrive the following day), Jackson was about to formulate a plan of operation against Banks, who had no idea that Jackson was still in the Valley.
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p445-446. [↩]
- Make Me a Map of the Valley; The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer by Jedediah Hotchkiss, edited by Archie P. McDonald, Southern Methodist University, 1973. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina Press, 2008. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p859-860. [↩]