Jackson Delivers a Crushing Blow to the Peninsula Campaign

May 24, 1862 (Saturday)

The news from the Shenandoah Valley was not good. Union General Nathaniel Banks was in a precarious position. At Front Royal, the previous day, an outpost tangled with 6,000 or so Confederates, believed to be under General Richard Ewell. They were soundly whipped and by the morning of this date, Banks was preparing to give up his works at Strasburg, and retreat his 7,000 men to Winchester.

Until being attacked, he figured that Stonewall Jackson and Ewell, having not yet combined their forces, were still fifty miles south of his position. Even after the running fight from Front Royal to Cedarville, he could only pinpoint Ewell. “Jackson is still in our front,” Banks wrote to Washington, indicating that, in his mind, Jackson and Ewell had not yet joined. After his victory, according to reports coming into Banks’ headquarters, Ewell fell back to Front Royal. With the exception of some enemy cavalry said to be on the road north to Winchester, Banks trusted his escape route was open.1

General Banks

In reality, though it was only Ewell’s force that attacked at Front Royal, Jackson and Ewell had combined to an army of 17,000. However, the plan Jackson wrote up over night called for their forces to again split. Figuring that Banks would retreat north to Winchester, he would accompany Ewell’s Division on their way north, using a road parallel to the main Valley Pike, and cut them off. If, on the slim chance that Banks would try to attack Front Royal, Jackson left his own division to guard the pass leading east to Manassas Junction. After dispatching cavalry to probe the Federal movement, he stepped off with Ewell and his troops.

Jackson, though usually certain and steadfast, grew increasingly doubtful that he was doing the right thing. He had clearly believed that Banks would move north when he constructed his plan, but now, not even 8am and only three miles from Cedarville, he halted. He had no real idea how many men Banks had in his command or where they were, and he wasn’t moving an inch until he found out.

General Ewell

After three hours of waiting, finally a courier reported that he saw Federals moving north on the Pike around Newtown. Rebel cavalry had charged through the column, causing as much chaos as possible. Cavalry couldn’t hold them, of course, but Jackson now knew what to do. He ordered Ewell to continue towards Winchester, while he led his own division towards Middletown. If they were fortunate, they could trap Banks between the two wings and crush him.2

Banks was not the only Federal commander near the Valley, however. Nearest, and with the most troops, was General John C. Fremont, at Franklin, 100 miles south and on the other side of the Shenandoah Mountains. Nevertheless, Both General Banks and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton informed Fremont that Banks was in trouble and urged him to do what he could.3

General "thanks, but no thanks" Fremont

Fremont had troubles of his own, which he detailed in a long telegram to Stanton, even asking if Washington had any plans to support General Banks. On his front, in the hills of Western Virginia, “the enemy seems everywhere reinforced and active.” Under these circumstances, Fremont couldn’t possibly divide his force. It was raining, they had scant supplies, and if he left Franklin, the rest of his force (which was actually spread across the countryside to the Ohio River), would surely be crushed.4

Meanwhile, Stonewall Jackson’s men had reached a hill overlooking Middletown, after a seven-mile, treacherous, back country stumble. Seeing that Federal wagons and cavalry were moving along the Valley Pike, Jackson ordered his artillery to play hell upon them. In his report, Jackson recalled that “in a few moments the turnpike, which had just before teemed with life, presented a most appalling spectacle of carnage and destruction. The road was literally obstructed with the mingled and confused mass of struggling and dying horses and riders.”

This is a local map, for local people. There's nothing for you here.

Jackson and his staff could see that the Federals, nearly defenseless, and pinned between stonewalls on either side of the road, were trapped. Soon, he ordered his artillery to stop. The Union retreat had been cut, but Jackson couldn’t tell how many had escaped towards Winchester.5

For the Federals, they found “the bodies of men and horses so piled up that it was impossible to proceed.” Those that could, took to the fields, racing for their lives to Winchester.6

Jackson captured the abandoned wagons and supplies, ignored the fleeing enemy cavalry and turned north on the Valley Pike. But his own cavalry abandoned their colors, pillaging the wagons like pirates, much to the abhorrent disgust of Jackson.7

As the Rebel cavalry was letting Banks slip away, President Lincoln manned the helm at the telegraph office. Rumors were extraordinary, some placing Jackson at the head of 20,000 troops en route towards Washington.8 After trying to coax reinforcements from Harpers Ferry, Lincoln personally turned to General Fremont’s refusal to send help, giving him no choice in the matter.

“The exposed condition of General Banks makes his immediate relief a point of paramount importance. You are therefore directed by the President to move against Jackson at Harrisonberg [sic] and operate against the enemy in such way as to relieve Banks. This movement must be made immediately. You will acknowledge the receipt of this order and specify the hour it is received by you.”9

Another incredibly huge map of what's going on in Virginia on this date.

Realizing that it would take Fremont days to reach Winchester, he turned towards General McClellan and the Virginia Peninsula to protect Banks, and thus Washington. There had been quite a bit of drama concerning McClellan’s calls for reinforcements. Lincoln had finally agreed to release General Irvin McDowell’s First Corps from Fredericksburg. At first, McClellan was denied control over the troops, but, by this date, Lincoln even turned that over to the Little Napoleon.10

Just as McClellan was thrilled to be getting his way, Lincoln ripped it from him. After demanding that Fremont follow orders, Lincoln telegraphed McClellan.

In consequence of Gen. Banks’ critical position I have been compelled to suspend Gen. McDowell’s movement to join you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper’s Ferry, and we are trying to throw Fremont’s force & part of McDowell’s in their rear.11


Lincoln then instructed General McDowell to lay aside the move to Richmond and take 20,000 of his 41,000 troops from Fredericksburg to the Valley to cooperate with Fremont. At first, McDowell’s only reply was that he would follow orders. “This is a crushing blow to us,” disclosed McDowell to Stanton. Though he would obey, McDowell thought the move unwise and soon told Lincoln as much.

General "shoulder to cry upon" Wadsworth

“I beg to say that co-operation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon,” wrote McDowell. Jackson could crush Banks and retreat south before McDowell’s troops could even arrive. “I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.”12

Into evening and through the dark, Jackson’s men marched north, halting to clear debris left by the retreating enemy and uncleared by his apparently worthless cavalry. Ambushes and small skirmishes permeated the night march. But, by 2am, Jackson had arrived on the old battlefield at Kernstown, where he gave them two hours of rest. General Ewell’s men, marching along a parallel road, had arrived several hours before Jackson. At the same time, the last of the Federals were filing into Winchester, several miles to the north.13

In Fredericksburg, General McDowell vented his frustration and predictions to General James Wadsworth, his district commander, to whom he perfectly described Jackson’s philosophy on warfare. “If the enemy can succeed so readily in disconcerting all our plans by alarming us first at one point, then at another, he will paralyze a large force with a very small one.”

McDowell thought General Banks was overreacting. General Shields, whose command had just come from the Valley, told McDowell that “the same cry was constantly heard … that large numbers of thousands of the enemy always coming upon them.”14

But these were no mere cries. Jackson and Ewell were poised in the early dawn to crush the greatly outnumbered Nathaniel Banks.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p526. []
  2. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p525; 642. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p642-43. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p704. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p576. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p704. []
  8. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p234. Lincoln to Rufus Saxton. []
  9. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p230. Lincoln to Fremont. []
  10. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p231-232. Lincoln to McClellan. []
  11. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p232. Lincoln to McClellan. []
  12. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p220-221. []
  13. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina, 2008. []
  14. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p221. []
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Jackson Delivers a Crushing Blow to the Peninsula Campaign by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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