January 4, 1862 (Saturday)
Stonewall Jackson’s plan to take the Potomac River town of Bath, held by a scant three companies of Union infantry, had crumbled before his eyes the previous day. While the plan was a simple and sound one (General Loring’s men were to hit the town head on, while the militia cut off the Union retreat), the weather, lack of coordination, and refusal to follow orders acted as giant monkey wrenches.
A slight brush with a Union company had gotten Jackson’s dander up and he wanted to launch a night attack upon the town. After some rather heated debate with Loring, his second in command, he relented and simmered till morning, while his army, ordered to start no campfires, shivered in the snowy cold of night.
Before morning, the small Union command was augmented by two regiments, which brought its strength to 1,400. While considerably larger than three companies of infantry, it was still little match for Jackson’s 11,000.
The Rebel militia, sent on the west side of the mountain south of Bath should have been poised to catch the hopefully-soon-to-be retreating Federals. Instead, soon after they began their march, a smattering of Union skirmish fire sent them running in terror.
Also resuming their march towards Bath, a few miles distant, were General Loring’s men. At first, they moved slowly, exchanging fire with Union pickets as they went, but Loring continually halted them, allowing the skirmishers to sneak back to the main Union body. The stops were usually long enough for the men to break ranks and build fires, warming themselves a bit before trudging through the thick snow again.
While the men enjoyed the breaks, burning off the freezing chill, Jackson grew more and more incensed. Finally, at 10am, Loring’s lead regiment discovered the Yankees dug in among the brush, rocks and trees along a ridge a mile and a half south of town. Still too far away for musket fire, artillery reports echoed through the valley. And again, Loring halted.
This was too much for Jackson, who rode at once to the front of the column and took command himself, sending a regiment forward at the double-quick. Just before he arrived, Loring threw forward a Tennessee regiment.
From their lofty position, the Union commanders could see over 10,000 Rebels before them and decided that it was time to make a break for it. They left their defenses in quiet, orderly haste, heading west on the same road that the militia was supposed to be guarding before they were scattered by a few Union skirmishers.
Seeing the Federals in retreat towards Sir John’s Run, Jackson ordered an advance on all three roads leading out of town. He sent a brigade on the road to Sir John’s run, three miles away. Another road led to a B&O Railroad bridge, which he ordered an Arkansas regiment to burn. With his remaining force, he moved on Hancock, Maryland, across the Potomac.
The Rebels en route to hit the Yankees at Sir John’s Run soon found them reinforced by another regiment. Instead of sending out skirmishers to feel out the enemy’s position, they halted for the night. Unknown to them, however, was that the Union troops were nearly out of ammunition and had decided to slink back across the Potomac under cover of the falling darkness.
Jackson’s command, except for the Stonewall Brigade, which was busy sacking the town, hurried through Bath to the banks of the Potomac. They were too late. Twilight had fallen and crossing the river was impossible. Instead, Jackson ordered his artillery to open upon the town, which it did sporadically through the night, causing little damage.
During the night, Union General Frederick Lander arrived from Baltimore. He was to take command at Romney, but, upon hearing of the fight at Bath, he changed his plans. Not only did he vow to defend the town, he informed General Nathaniel Banks in Martinsburg, commander of the closest Union division, that he wanted to attack the Rebels and expected Banks to help.
General Lander had been appointed the commander of the Department of Harpers Ferry and Cumberland in October, but due to a wound received at Edward’s Ferry on the 20th of that month, it wasn’t until January that he took over.
Arriving with Lander was the rest of his division, bringing the Union total to around 4,000. If Banks could reinforce him, even with a brigade, they could match Jackson man for man.
General Jackson’s plan to quickly take Bath and Hancock before turning on Romney was quickly unraveling.1
- I used four secondary sources for this story. Mostly, it came from Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. Also, Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, was also helpful. Lastly, Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie, is a wonderful study of the AoP and, though not chronological, the series has been found to be a wealth of information. All of the secondary sources (like all of the secondary sources I use) are heavily footnoted with references and are, in my opinion, very trustworthy. [↩]