Jackson Destroys the Rails While the Union Contemplates an Advance

Thursday, June 20, 1861

Colonel Thomas J. Jackson gave his men a scant few hours of sleep on the road to Martinsburg, Virginia. He had been ordered by General Joe Johnston to destroy the large B&O Railroad shops so they might not fall into Union hands. Confederate Cavalry, 300 strong, under Jeb Stuart were already occupying the town. Jackson was also to support them and be on the alert for Union General Patterson’s troops possibly advancing from Williamsport, Maryland, 15 miles northeast.

Jackson’s Brigade entered the town before noon to a cold reception. Though Martinsburg was in Virginia, its residents were largely pro-Union. Of the entire county, a Virginia soldier described it as “the meanest Abolition hole on the face of the earth,” adding, “Martinsburg especially.”

Though Jackson would follow Johnston’s orders without question, he disliked the idea of destroying what could be just as easily been saved for the Southern war effort. In Martinsburg, there were fifty-six locomotives and 305 coal cars, along with miles of rails, buildings and machinery ready for the flame.

As Jackson’s men began to lay waste to all railroad equipment, Union troops across the Potomac seemed to barely notice him. The destruction would take him the better part of two days.1

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Union Commanders to Plan Attack

Jackson wasn’t the only one to notice the inactivity of the Union troops. Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott noticed that General Patterson in Hagerstown and Williamsport had balked at nearing the Potomac, especially around Harpers Ferry. Though Patterson had asked Scott several times if he could occupy the abandoned town, the day before, he hinted that it might take quite a while to do it.

Feeling that Patterson had no real plan of action, Scott requested that he come up with one. This plan should involve an examination of Maryland Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry from across the Potomac. Scott also wished for him to look towards sweeping the Rebels from Leesburg. Patterson was to absorb Col. Stone’s men of the Rockville Expedition, allowing enough troops to cover the front from Maryland Heights, south, down the Potomac, especially the fords and ferries, to Leesburg.

Scott also sent a copy to General Irving McDowell, commanding the troops near Washington. The general idea was that a column from Patterson and a column from McDowell would act as a two-pronged advance.

Meanwhile, Patterson was moving his Fifth Brigade south towards Sharpsburg with orders to halt four miles north of town, at Bakersville. The pickets were to be thrown out towards Sharpsburg and Mercerville, along the Potomac. There were rumors that some Rebels had reoccupied Harpers Ferry and might make a crossing near that point. The rumors turned out to be only rumors.2

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General Lee Scolds the Troops

Probably due to the defeats at Philippi and Romney, General Robert E. Lee issued General Orders No. 28. This publicly admonished the troops, especially the outposts and vedettes, watching for signs of an approaching enemy.

“It is impossible that a surprise can take place if a due vigilance is exercised,” schooled General Lee, “and outposts and sentries are well established on the approaches to any given point and strictly perform their duty,”

Lee also noted that troops in camp had “wasted their ammunition in the most reckless and shameful manner.” This “abominable practice” had resulted in one man being killed and a number being wounded. The General hoped for his troops to “pay regard to the importance of carefully handling their arms and economizing their ammunition.”3

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Confederate Problems in Western Virginia, Plus a New Governor

Cut off from all instant communication with Richmond, General Robert Garnett had written the day before to his capital requesting two additional companies of cavalry. Once again, he reiterated his request. The Union troops in Grafton and Philippi, though encamped over ten miles away, were growing bolder. Over the past couple of days, their scouts were seen within three miles of Garnett’s headquarters at Laurel Hill (just south of Belington).

The two companies of Garnett’s cavalry had been worn down by chasing Union troops. Though they had captured a Yankee, killed another, and wounded a few more in a couple surprise encounters, more troopers were needed. Garnett also requested two additional pieces of artillery, preferably rifled. He believed the Union troops to number no more than 7,000, but even with two regiments coming his way as reinforcements over the next couple of days, his numbers would never exceed 4,500.4

Elsewhere in western Virginia, the Wheeling Convention began the day be declaring all public offices of the Commonwealth (Virginia) to be vacant. They then began to fill them, electing Francis Pierpont, of Marion County, as Governor and Daniel Polsley as the Lieutenant Governor.

In his acceptance speech, Governor Pierpont called out the Southern aristocracy.

A new doctrine has been introduced by those who are at the head of the revolution in our Southern States – that the people are not the source of all power. Those promulgating this doctrine have tried to divide the people into two classes; one they call the laboring class, the other the capital class. They have for several years been industriously propagating the idea that the capital of the country ought to represent the legislation of the country, and guide it and direct it; maintaining that it is dangerous for the labor of the country to enter into the legislation of the country. This, gentlemen, is the principle that has characterized the revolution that has been inaugurated in the South; they maintaining that those who are to have the privilege of voting ought to be of the educated class, and that the legislation ought not to be represented by the laboring classes.

Though only the counties from the western portion of the state were present at the Convention, he made it clear that this wasn’t the beginning of a new state of Western Virginia, but of a new government for all of Virginia. ((Proceedings of the Second Wheeling Convention, June 20, 1861



  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p709. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p943. []
  4. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. Request from Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p942. []
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Jackson Destroys the Rails While the Union Contemplates an Advance by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “Jackson Destroys the Rails While the Union Contemplates an Advance

  1. Wow, I had never read Pierpont’s address. How would that sound, even in a different context, in the mouth of a politician today? It’d get run on the news as proof of his insane socialist ramblings. Amazing that it was ever said in this country. By an elected politician in WV, no less

  2. Not sure how you see “socialist” in that. He seems merely to be observing that “somebody” has suggested that ‘owners of capital’ should be represented in the formulation of laws, not the ‘laboring class’…

    Unless there is context to suggest otherwise, he might even be endorsing this position. Quite anti-socialist if that is so. Not at all radical at the time, either. They had previously had a “poll tax” where only land owners could vote based on their payment of taxes to the government. A similar application of that principal (ownership of business capital) isn’t that much of a stretch. Wrongheaded to us nowadays, but not so far fetched for that era.

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