May 28, 1862 (Wednesday)
For two days, the troops of Stonewall Jackson had rested in and around Winchester, Virginia in the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley. They had whipped General Nathaniel Banks’ Federals, forcing them to retreat across the Potomac River to Williamsport, Maryland. Late the previous evening (or possibly in the morning of this date), Jackson received orders from his superior, General Joe Johnston, who was busy with a plan of his own just outside Richmond.
“You cannot, in your present position, employ such an army as yours upon any enterprise not bearing directly upon the state of things here, either by preventing the reinforcements to McClellan’s army, or by drawing troops from it by divisions,” wrote Johnston, having a genuinely firm grasp on Jackson’s situation.
Johnston was aware that Union General Irvin McDowell was headed towards the Shenandoah from Fredericksburg. If Jackson could throw his force upon it, there was a possibility that even more troops would be detached from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, arrayed against Richmond. However, there were also rumors that McDowell was, instead, headed towards Richmond. Being unsure of exactly what McDowell was up to, Johnston told Jackson to “strike the most important body of the enemy you can reach.”1
Jackson was faced with a decision. The “most important body of the enemy” was probably at Harpers Ferry, thirty or so mile northeast. He had already started the Stonewall Brigade, under General Charles Winder, towards the Ferry, via Charlestown, with orders from the previous evening. Come morning, Jackson ordered Ewell’s Division to follow. Leaving behind enough troops at Winchester to oversee the prisoners, recaptured slaves, and procured bounty, Jackson had around 14,000 troops tramping towards the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.2
The strategic town of Harpers Ferry had been little-contested since the opening of the war. With Jackson so far north, however, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton decided that he better send someone he trusted to command the post. On May 24, he ordered General Rufus Saxton with two regiments of infantry, a few companies of cavalry and a battery of heavy artillery. With the defeated General Banks at Williamsport, and Jackson, no doubt, headed for his command, Saxton called for reinforcements. By this date, he had 7,000 men under him. He posted 1,500 or so at Charlestown, to slow the Rebel tide.3
As General Winder and the Stonewall Brigade marched towards Charleston, they ran into Saxton’s guard. Winder believed them to number as many as 5,000, but after a bit of skirmishing with their pickets and reconnaissance performed by a dozen or so Rebel cavaliers Winder picked up along the way, their true numbers were soon determined.
With the odds evenly met, Winder decided to attack. He deployed his artillery, which hammered away at the Federals for twenty minutes. Before he could deploy his infantry, however, the enemy, used to relatively safe garrison duty around Washington, fled towards Harpers Ferry.
Winder followed, unlimbering his guns any chance he got, to shower iron into the backs of the Federals until they reached Bolivar Heights, just west of Harpers Ferry. There, Saxton’s entire force was drawn up to greet him. Caring little to join such a party, Winder retired back to Charleston. Ewell arrived with his division and General Jackson, after dark.4
Meanwhile, with Jackson hitting a stonewall at Harpers Ferry, Union forces were slowly converging upon his rear. General John C. Fremont’s decision to ignore President Lincoln’s orders to move from Franklin to Harrisonburg were paying little to no dividends. He had moved and was resting his 15,000 troops at Moorefield, twenty-five miles south of Romney. Lincoln had ordered Fremont to Harrisonburg to cut off Jackson’s southern supply line and route of retreat. Deciding on his own that staying on the western side of the Shenandoah Mountains was better, he gave Jackson more freedom of movement. At this time, Jackson was still completely unaware that Fremont was driving northward.
Lincoln, however, was very aware of Fremont’s location and was furious, demanding to know what it meant. Fremont explained that his troops needed rest and resupply (which didn’t really explain why he was in Moorefield). He argued that the point of Lincoln’s order was for him to come to the aid of General Banks and that’s what he was doing. Lincoln, unsure of what to do with Fremont, ordered him to stay where he was.
When Lincoln learned that Jackson was moving towards Harpers Ferry, he ordered Fremont to move, but gave him the allowance to move over whichever roads he pleased.5
East of the Shenandoah Valley, Union General Irvin McDowell was at Manassas readying his 21,000 to cross over the Blue Ridge Mountains to attack Jackson. Some of his troops, commanded by General James Shields, were already on their way, crossing Thoroughfare Gap to Rectortown along the railroad leading into the Valley. Realizing that Fremont was going to be of little help, Lincoln urged on McDowell with several chatty and personable telegrams.
“I beg to assure you,” replied McDowell, “that I am doing everything with legs and steam to hurry forward matters in this corner.” With Shields’ Division only twenty miles shy of Front Royal, and General Ord’s Division following swiftly, McDowell seemed poised to completely sever Jackson’s force from the rest of Virginia.6
As he moved half his troops north out of Fredericksburg, General McDowell made a slight demonstration with his remaining force towards Richmond. General Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, noticed the movement and wanted to prevent McDowell from joining with the main Army of the Potomac under General McClellan. He devised a plan to attack McDowell and called a counsel of war to discuss the matter. As the counsel was meeting, word arrived from Confederate cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart that McDowell was en route to the Shenandoah Valley.7
This was old news to an extent. Johnston didn’t realize that McDowell had split his force. Half of it had left for the Valley several days prior, but an addition division of 10,000, that of General Rufus King, was ordered out of Fredericksburg. And so, Johnston turned his gaze to McClellan’s left flank at Seven Pines.8
- Dispatch from Johnston to Jackson, dated May 27, 1862. It doesn’t seem to appear in the Official Records, however, it was printed in the New York Times on June 22, 1862, after being “found in a partially destroyed railroad car at Winchester.” Interesting stuff! I’ve seen this quoted a few times, but never knew its origin. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina, 2008. Order appears in Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p903. [↩]
- Six Years of Hell; Harpers Ferry During the Civil War by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana State University, 1996. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p738. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p644-646. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p266-272. [↩]
- To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p273. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. [↩]