March 18, 1862 (Tuesday)
One of the stipulations placed upon Union General George McClellan, when he was granted permission to move his Army of the Potomac from the entrenchments around Washington to the coastal Fortress Monroe, was that he had to leave an adequate number of troops to defend the capital. For the time being, that meant the Fifth Corps, commanded by General Nathaniel Banks.
Most of what comprised the Fifth Corps, however, was in the Shenandoah Valley. This McClellan remedied by ordering one division (half of the corps) to the old Confederate positions near Centreville and Manassas. A few days later, he ordered that only one brigade remain to watch over Stonewall Jackson’s retreating army. A day after that, however, he modified it again, back to the original order of one division in and one division out of the Valley.
While General Williams’ Division moved to Centreville to repair the railroad, General Shields’ Division was to dig in at Strasburg until the repairs were complete. Before moving either of his divisions out of the Valley, however, General Banks wanted to make sure Jackson was indeed retreating.1
After a quick sweep of the area around Winchester and Kernstown the previous day, Generals Shields and Williams decided (since Banks was still in Washington) that a much larger reconnaissance was required. Shields was to take 6,000 men south along the Valley Turnpike, while Col. John Mason, who completed the previous day’s sweep, took two regiments, some cavalry and artillery south using the Front Royal Road, which ran parallel to the route Shields was following.
Turner Ashby’s Rebel Cavalry was reportedly at Middletown, between Strasburg and Winchester. The plan was for Col. Mason’s smaller detachment to circle around them and hit them from the rear as Shields approached them from the front. Since Mason had to march upwards of thirty miles to make this happen, Shields stepped off later.
While the trek south could hardly be described as leisurely, there was no hurry in their pace. As Shields’ men tramped along the Valley Turnpike, Mason’s men hung a right on a secondary road before Front Royal, keeping the Shenandoah River on their left. As this small road neared the Valley Turnpike, the 700 men of Turner Ashby’s Rebels at Cedar Creek Bridge came into view.
Ashby’s men set the bridge to burning and fired several artillery rounds at Mason’s column. The Federals opened up their own artillery, but neither side was close enough to cause the other any harm. It being late in the day and since his men had marched twenty-seven miles, Mason decided to set up camp for the night near Middletown.
When Shields’ men caught up, they arrived at the bridge to the welcome of Ashby’s guns. Shields wanted to send cavalry across under cover of night, but it was decided that the still-burning bridge would light up their movement, giving the Rebels an easy target. The next morning, he planned to take Strasburg. Through the night, some of his men were detailed to fashion a temporary bridge across Cedar Creek so they could cross at dawn.2
(Note: It might be helpful to open up the map in another window and refer to it as we go along.)
In the west, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston, was still retreating south from Nashville. Their destination was Corinth, Mississippi, which the lead elements of the army were just reaching on this date.3
Two days prior, the Confederate rear guard was in Columbia, busy torching bridges over the Duck River, as the vanguard of General Buell’s Union Army of the Ohio galloped into town. Buell had wanted to get there before the Confederates had a chance to burn them, but he was too late. While leaving 18,000 men back in Nashville, and sending 8,000 through Murfreesboro to Shelbyville, Buell started his remaining 37,000 towards Columbia on the 15th. The plan was for Buell to reinforce Grant’s 27,000 at Pittsburg Landing and Savannah.
On this date, the first of Buell’s main body arrived at the burned out bridge that once spanned the flooded river. The engineers, as well as many of an Indiana regiment, began to work on repairing it. This mishap would delay things. Buell wired General Halleck, his new department commander, that it would take four or five days to rebuild the bridge. Buell, however, was still in Nashville, and received the word secondhand.4
Meanwhile, the Rebels were trying to figure out just what the Union command, now completely under General Halleck, was about. Observing the situation, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard must have felt threatened from all sides.
On his left, General Pope’s Union Army of the Mississippi, 18,000-strong, was in New Madrid and attacking Island No. 10. Towards the center, Grant’s 27,000 men of the Army of the Tennessee were gathering at Pittsburg Landing and Savannah. On this date, Beauregard concluded that Union gunboats were about to attack Florance, where he had a small force. Though the attack never materialized, it was clear that he was in a fog.
Coming in on his right were the 17,000 men of Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee to hold Corinth, though most were still on the road from Shelbyville. From the west, General Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West, 14,000-strong, recently whipped at Pea Ridge, were ordered to make their way to the Mississippi River. Beauregard tried to acquire transports from New Orleans to speed Van Dorn’s arrival, but due to a bizarre personal/political argument between Governor Moore of Louisiana and President Davis, Moore would not allow the transports to leave the city.
Now that the Rebels were concentrating their western armies, bringing their potential total to 58,000 (with Van Dorn), they actually stood a chance at almost evening the odds with the various Union armies, totaling upwards of 70,000. The question was, however, what were the Federals up to? At this point, with the bridge at Duck River out and Island No. 10 holding on for dear life, not even the Federals knew the answer.5
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. [↩]
- Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. [↩]
- Army of the Heartland; The Army of Tennessee 1861-1862by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]
- Days of Glory; The Army of the Cumberland, 1861-1862 by Larry J. Daniel. [↩]
- The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. [↩]