Jackson’s Secrecy Stokes the Flames of Ewell’s Fury

May 12, 1862 (Monday)

Stonewall Jackson’s oft-remembered Shenandoah Valley campaign rightly brings to the General much fame and admiration. But for those under this strange man, vexation and limitation were often counter-pieces to victory. Following Jackson’s victory at McDowell, the Union forces under Generals Schenck and Milroy retreated towards Franklin [in modern West Virginia], setting fire to the woods as they retired.

General Jackson

Jackson was afraid that the 5,000 Federals he bested with his 10,000 would link up with General John C. Fremont’s gathering force of roughly 11,000 in Western Virginia, which, in turn, would link up with General Banks’ Corps of 19,000. If Jackson was not careful, he could soon be tangling with Federals many times his number.1

To stop Fremont from joining with Banks, Jackson sent his trusted topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, to obstruct all the roads that the latter could take to the former. Hotchkiss left Jackson on the 10th and spent the next day and a half with a detachment of cavalry by felling trees, rolling rocks and otherwise destroying good linking roads between the towns of Franklin and Harrisonburg.2

As Jackson edged closer to the Federals at Franklin, General Richard Ewell held Swift Run Gap, Jackson’s former camp, with 8,000. Ewell arrived at the camp on May 7th, just after Jackson’s men departed. Since that time, Jackson had kept Ewell more or less in the dark, writing to him only once prior to the battle at McDowell. Ewell was indeed vexed and limited.

Union General Schenck

Previous to falling under Jackson’s command, Ewell was on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, keeping an eye on the Federals gathering near Fredericksburg. After moving his entire force across the mountains to Swift Run Gap, General Robert E. Lee in Richmond gave Ewell two additional brigades with orders that they should remain on the eastern side.3

As much as Ewell wanted to attack towards Fredericksburg, he was under orders from Jackson to remain in the Shenandoah Valley. If Ewell left for the east, Union General Banks could easily descend upon Jackson’s rear somewhere near Staunton or McDowell or Franklin – Ewell had no real idea where Jackson was.

Finally, on the 10th, Col. Turner Ashby of Jackson’s cavalry rode into Ewell’s camp to bring news of the victory. Ewell was elated. This meant, thought the General, that Jackson would be returning to the Shenandoah Valley and Ewell, with his two new brigades, could move against the Federals near Fredericksburg.4

But things were not what they seemed. “I desire to follow the enemy as far as practicable to-day,” wrote Jackson to Ewell in a confusing letter probably delivered by Ashby on the 11th. “My troops are in advance. Should circumstances justify it, I will try, through God’s blessing, to get in Banks’ rear; and if I succeed in this I desire you to press him as far as may be consistent with your own safety should he fall back.”5

General Richard Ewell

This dispatch did nothing to dispel Ewell’s bewilderment. While it more or less confirmed that his commander was near Franklin, nearly sixty miles west of Swift Run Gap, it gave no real clue as to what either General should do next. From a Union deserter once of Banks’ Corps, he learned even more.

One of General Banks’ two divisions, under General James Shields, was leaving the Shenandoah Valley with three days rations. It seemed to Ewell that they were moving towards Fredericksburg, now that Banks’ other division was digging in at Strausburg.

Ewell wanted nothing more than to attack Shields, but by order of Jackson and General Lee, he was to stay at Swift Run Gap until either Banks’ entire command left the Valley or Jackson returned. It didn’t appear that either would be happening any time soon.6

On this date7, Jackson had drawn up his forces before the Federals dug in around Franklin. Jackson could get no closer without actually attacking, which he had no plans to do. And so Jackson’s entire force took the day off for a call to worship. This was, surprisingly, not called for by Jackson, who only wished “to render thanks to Almighty God for having crowned our arms with success and to implore His continued favor.”

Major Robert Dabney

Jackson’s adjutant general, Major Robert Dabney, a Presbyterian minister, wrote the order, amplifying Jackson’s thanksgiving to a full blown, day long spiritual revival. Not that Jackson didn’t approve, of course. The General attended at least two impromptu divine worship services.8

While Jackson prayed in front of his enemies, Ewell seemed to be seething with fury. To the Colonel of the 13th Virginia, the General blindly asked, “did it ever occur to you that General Jackson is crazy?” When the Colonel thought discretion the better part of valor, Ewell continued: “I tell you sir, he is as crazy as a March Hare! He has gone away, I don’t know where, and left me here with instructions to stay until he returns. But Banks’s whole army is advancing on me, and I have not the most remote idea where to communicate with General Jackson. I tell you, sir, he is crazy, and I will just march my division away from here. I do not mean to have it cut to pieces at the behest of a crazy man.”9

Believing that Union General Shields was leaving the Valley for Fredericksburg, Ewell detached Captain Thomas Munford’s cavalry in pursuit. After receiving orders to burn bridges, blockade roads, feign attacks and basically to do anything he could to slow Shield’s progress, Munford dropped by the General’s headquarters around midnight. The Captain found Ewell in only a long white night shirt and remembered that “his bald head and long beard made him look more like a witch than a Major-General.”

The as-accurate-as-I-could-get map for today. Hopefully you like it better than Ewell liked his.

They rolled out a map on the floor, each on their hands and knees. As Ewell studied the map, he became more and more irate at Jackson, who had just sent him another message, informing him that he had captured some Union wagons. “This great wagon hunter is after a Dutchmen, an old fool!” exploded General Ewell. “General Lee at Richmond will have little use for wagons if all these people close in around him! We are left out here in the cold! Why, I could crush Shields before night if I could move from here!”

In closing, and probably as Munford was backing slowly away, Ewell added, “This man Jackson is certainly a crazy fool, an idiot!”10

Naturally unknown to Ewell, as Jackson told almost nobody of his plans, Jackson’s main body was about to leave the Federals and move back into the Shenandoah Valley.

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. Fremont’s figures are from his returns for May 10, 1862 – Official Records, Seires 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p169. He had over 33,000 under his command, but most were spread thinly across the state of what is now West Virginia. []
  2. Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Southern Methodist University, 1973. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p880-881, 883. []
  4. Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life by Donald Pfanz, University of North Carolina Press, 1998. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p886. []
  6. Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life by Donald Pfanz, University of North Carolina Press, 1998. []
  7. You were probably wondering when I was going to get around to talking about today, hm? []
  8. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  9. Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 9, Published in 1881, p364. There is more to this story, which takes a weird and crazy turn of its own. You really should read it here. []
  10. Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 7, Published in 1879, p526-527. As quoted in both Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, and Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life by Donald Pfanz as I couldn’t find Vol. 7 online. []
Creative Commons License
Jackson’s Secrecy Stokes the Flames of Ewell’s Fury by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by