June 8, 1862 (Sunday)
The army of Stonewall Jackson was divided, his own troops outside Port Republic, the troops of General Ewell near Cross Keys, five miles north. Just as they were separated, Jackson was separated from his own command. His headquarters at the Kemper house, was at the south end of town, which sat at the confluence of the North and South Rivers. His troops occupied ground across the North River. Between Jackson and his men were two fords on the South River and a bridge across the North River.
This set up welcomed, even beckoned, disaster. This great risk was the only choice left to Jackson. Here, he would make his stand.
Two separate Union forces were converging on Port Republic. To the northwest, at Harrisonburg, General John C. Fremont commanded 12,000. Confined to the eastern shore of the Shenandoah River, thanks to some adept bridge burners in Jackson’s cavalry, Union General James Shields’ 11,000 were slowly pressing in from the northeast. Due to the swollen rivers and burned bridges, neither Federal army could reinforce the other.
In Jackson’s spread out and precarious position, this afforded him an opportunity. If he could hold off Fremont, he could fall upon Shields. But holding off Fremont was essential. Jackson could not battle both enemy forces at once, but Fremont must also be stopped from attacking Jackson’s line of supplies coming from Staunton, twenty miles south.
And so General Richard Ewell, Jackson’s second, commanded 5,000 troops at Cross Keys, while Jackson himself held Port Republic with 8,000. Jackson was basically dangling Ewell’s smaller force as bait to trap Fremont. Fremont, believing Jackson’s entire command was at Cross Keys, would take some convincing.
Then, at dawn on this date, everything went wrong. Not only had Jackson placed his own men out of his immediate reach, he had placed the army’s supply wagons on the other side of South River, on the road to Staunton, leaving them vulnerable to an attack. Jackson, bathed in the belief that nothing would transpire at Port Republic until he initiated it, was greeted in the morning by 150 Federal cavalrymen gathering near the bridge over the North River.
Union artillery, and a few of his scouts, alerted Jackson to their presence. He made a narrow escape, making his egress only a few minutes before they came flooding into town (via the flooded, northern ford over the South River).
Missing the opportunity to cut Jackson off from his men, the Federals now had the chance to cut Jackson and his men off from their supply wagons, clearly visible on a rise south of town. All that was needed was to burn the North Bridge, but their commander, General Carroll, inexplicably forbade it.
As the Federals rode south through town, their artillery crashed through houses, scattering the residents of the village. To meet them, and to save the wagons, were perhaps twenty Rebels and a piece of artillery behind a wooden fence. Well hidden, their volley took the Federals by surprise. A second volley, along with a blast from the cannon, sent the riders retreating through the streets.
Across the North River, Jackson had scrambled his men, throwing the 37th Virginia towards the North Bridge, figuring that Carroll, who was readying a brigade of infantry for battle, had a mind to fire it. The appearance of Rebel infantry hastened the Union flight, which, as Jackson lined the ridges along the Shenandoah with artillery, hurled Carroll’s entire brigade back the way they came.
As the Federals fled the scene, Jackson could hear the start of an artillery duel in the direction of Cross Keys. Ewell’s late morning was about to heat up.
Ewell’s advance guard, a lone Alabama regiment posted at the Union Church a mile north of his main body, held up Fremont’s entire advance, buying time for the Rebels to get into position. Nearly all of Fremont’s 12,000 – 14,000 troops were filing down the muddy road from Harrisonburg. Some turned right, down the Keezletown Road, while others fell into line on the left.
The Confederates took up defensive positions just south of Mill Creek. As Fremont deployed, Ewell’s right brigade, commanded by General Isaac Trimble, pushed out half a mile, having his men crawl on the ground to avoid detection.
Fremont believed two things. First, he thought that the Confederate force before him was Jackson’s entire army. He also had the mistaken notion that they were all nuzzled behind Mill Creek. He ordered his line to descend upon what he believed to be Ewell’s right by wheeling his left in an arch, hoping to flank and envelope his foes. Fremont then made for the rear, leaving the complicated maneuver to his subordinates.
As Fremont’s wheel rolled closer to General Trimble’s hidden position, the Rebels waited until the range was fifty yards. Trimble unleashed a deadly volley, and then another, doubling up the Federal line, hurling the survivors back. Spotting a Union battery, Trimble advanced with his brigade to take it, widening the gap from Ewell’s main line to a mile.
Meanwhile, the Union center and left and remained stagnant. After hours of artillery bombardments and with the left wheel shattered by Trimble’s Rebels, Union General Milroy decided on his own to attack Ewell’s Mill Creek line. Trying to find the Confederate left flank, he instead stumbled upon some well-hidden Rebel skirmishers. Catching Milroy’s troops off guard, the Virginians mowed down the head of his column.
Groping desperately for the Confederate flank, Milroy managed to deploy his shaken brigade, but was met with the massed artillery of Ewell’s center, dropping many of his men before they could even fire. He tried to move his brigade to the right, hoping to yet salvage a victory, but was then ordered by one of Fremont’s messengers to fall back.
Milroy was floored. If only Fremont would have ordered his other brigades forward, they may have overpowered Ewell’s line. As he retreated, Milroy saw the five fresh regiments of General Schenk’s Brigade just standing on his right, watching the battle. Their addition would have more than doubled Milroy’s attack, but there they stood like silent statues.
But back they went, falling into positions well on the other side of the Keezletown Road. Fremont received a bizarre message from General Shields, whose troops had skirmished in Port Republic. It was the first he had heard from him in days. It was written before the Port Republic action had been decided and assured Fremont that he would be in the town and ready to unite by sundown. Fremont took him at his word and decided to renew the attack the following day.
The dual victories of the day enlivened Stonewall Jackson. Believing that Fremont would not renew the attack, he hoped to quickly best Shields in the morning and then defeat Fremont in the afternoon. To do this, he ordered Trimble, who was rabid for more fight, to hold Cross Keys, while the rest of Ewell’s troops moved towards Port Republic.
It was a daring, even reckless plan, requiring Jackson to cross both the North and South Rivers to hit Shields. Any defeat would spell utter disaster, as Fremont could fall upon Ewell, crushing the entire Confederate force. But going on the defensive meant Shields and Fremont would unite and almost certainly annihilate him. Jackson would move at dawn.1
This was all completely unknown to President Lincoln and General Irvin McDowell (Shields’ commander) in Washington. McDowell had petitioned Lincoln to order his entire Corps back to Fredericksburg, so that he may aid General McClellan before Richmond. On this date, though they wouldn’t be aware of it for a day or so, General Fremont was given command of the entire Shenandoah Valley, and General Shields was recalled to join McDowell en route to Fredericksburg. General Nathaniel Banks, at Winchester, was to relieve McDowell at Front Royal.2
If the order had been issued a day or so earlier, Lincoln would have done Jackson (and Shields) a great favor.