June 1, 1862 (Sunday)
Stonewall Jackson was in a tight spot, sandwiched between two large Federal forces, both aiming to cut off his southerly march up the Shenandoah Valley. But June 1st was the Lord’s day, and perhaps he looked heavenward for guidance from a kind providence. Or perhaps Federal commanders Fremont, Shields and McDowell lacked the fortitude and military intelligence to make their moves.
Jackson and most of his force of 16,000 were at Strasburg, preparing for battle and waiting for the Stonewall Brigade, ten miles north, to join them before continuing south. This wait, however, could be their undoing.
Part of the Federals’ problem was the weather and how it turned to back roads to soup. General John C. Fremont’s command, dwindled down to about 12,000, was quite literally stuck between Wardensburg and Strasburg, with his forward pickets in sight of the latter town and Jackson’s men. To the east, General Irvin McDowell’s troops were stalled at Front Royal, ten miles away, not by the mud or even Rebel troops, but by themselves. General James Shields commanded the lead division, but was waiting for General Ord’s Division, 9,000-strong, (now commanded by General James Ricketts, due to Ord calling in sick) to relieve his pickets so he (Shields) could advance with his entire division of 11,000
Finally, after receiving Ord’s cavalry, Shields pressed on as the sounds of artillery floated in from the west. Federal scouts, who reported seeing Jackson’s wagons moving south of Strasburg, believed it came from the Middletown area. General McDowell, however, believed it was coming farther north, from Winchester, and sent one of Shields’ brigades on the road from Front Royal to the town. Both the advanced scouts and McDowell seemed to think that it was the reformed force of General Nathaniel Banks, falling upon Jackson’s rear guard from the direction of Williamsport and Harpers Ferry. They didn’t seem to be able to accept that it was General Fremont causing the ruckus.1
But that’s who it was. Jackson saw Fremont’s proximity in a more dangerous light than that of McDowell’s, and so General Richard Ewell’s Division formed line of battle west of Strasburg and waited for Fremont to attack. Though they did not come in a great force, Union skirmishers began to trickle towards their Rebel counterparts. Each side brought up artillery and spent much of the morning dueling. It seemed as if Fremont refused to attack.
Ewell himself rode out to his skirmish line and saw his skirmishers drive the Federals back to the main body. His impulse was to call forward his full division for an attack, but hesitated as Jackson, still back in Strasburg, had not ordered it and wasn’t there to direct it.2
Around noon, Fremont’s entire force was drawn up outside of Strasburg, outnumbering Ewell’s Division nearly two-to-one, but still Fremont made excuses not to attack. This was probably because, like General McDowell, Fremont believed he was outnumbered by Jackson, who had routed General Banks without so much as a skirmish. In a dispatch to Washington, Fremont put Jackson’s numbers at 23,000.3 While Ewell was wondering why Fremont wasn’t attacking, Fremont was wondering why Jackson made no move.
Also around noon, the Stonewall Brigade marched into town. Jackson had bought enough time to collect his entire command, and so ordered Ewell to break off the staring contest as the Confederates moved to Fisher’s Hill, two miles south of town, where Jackson posted his rear guard.
It seemed very strange to Jackson that McDowell had been at Front Royal for two days and had not joined with Fremont. Jackson concluded that he must be moving south down the parallel Luray Valley to cut off the retreat at New Market. To slow him down, Jackson sent cavalry to burn two bridges over which the Federals would have to travel.4
And that’s exactly what Shields was thinking. He dispatched a brigade to move south up the Luray Valley, hoping to burn the bridge at Conrad’s Store. He believed that Jackson needed the bridge to retreat towards Richmond, crossing the Blue Ridge to Standardsville. Shields wanted to hit Jackson before he could get that far.5
And so the race was on again.
Lee Takes Command
Back in front of Richmond, the Battle of Seven Pines had been renewed at dawn. With General Joe Johnston critically wounded, General Gustavus Woodson Smith took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. His new plan, which repositioned General Longstreet’s troops to attack north, rather than east, was anticipated by the Federals, who had threw in reinforcements throughout the night.
The fighting grew vicious and men began to die in surprising rapidity. The terrain and woods offered cover, but also impeded marches, maneuvering and seeing the enemy.
North of the fighting, on Nine Mile Road, General Smith sat waiting with a division. Once Longstreet’s assault was fully developed, he planned on throwing them in as a sort of counter punch. But as the sounds of battle grew closer and louder, Smith waited longer and longer, until the assault reached it crescendo and died away before noon, before Smith would act.
But it did not die away before claiming the lives of over 1,700 men. Union casualties across the two-day battle were 790 killed, 3,594 wounded, 647 captured or missing. The Confederates lost 980 killed, 4,749 wounded, 405 captured or missing. It was a pointless affair. The two Union Corps dangling on the south side of the Chickahominy River were still there. As the Federals were unmoved, the Rebels returned to their positions.6
Two hours after the fighting had faded, President Jefferson Davis rode to General Smith’s headquarters to tell him that General Robert E. Lee would be taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia. He arrived before Lee to save Smith the awkward embarrassment of being fired in front of his successor. By the time Lee arrived, Davis was gone. After some words and command were exchanged, Lee found Davis and together they rode towards Longstreet’s troops, still skirmishing with the enemy as the attack died away.7
As Lee took command over his army, General Smith fell ill and the next day excused himself from his duty to recuperate. He would not rejoin the army until August.
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p314-315. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina Press, 2008. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p650. [↩]
- Official Records Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p711. [↩]
- Official Records Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p316-317. [↩]
- At the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. [↩]
- The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 2 by Jefferson Davis, D. Appleton and Co., 1881. [↩]