No Battle Expected at the Battle of McDowell

May 8, 1862 (Thursday)

General Milroy

Union General Robert Milroy and his 4,000 men knew they were alone in the indefensible town of McDowell with the combined forces of Stonewall Jackson and Allegheny Johnson nearly upon them. Long before day, General Milroy called his troops together, bracing themselves to make a stiff, nearly hopeless defense. The only possibility of victory was General Robert Schenck’s Brigade, several hours away. Not expecting the extra 1,500 until well after the Confederates attacked, however, Milroy waited.

He sent out cavalry scouts, pickets and skirmishers to discover the enemy, but they found nothing at the dawn broke to the full light of spring morning.1

All the while, Confederate General Johnson was watching them from the heights above the town. While his force and Jackson’s had combined, he was several miles in advance, and within sight of McDowell. As his men marched forward, they were spotted by the Federals, who lobbed several shells in their direction as both skirmish lines warmed up the morning. 2

As the hours passed, the Rebels held back from making a general assault. Not wanting to attack with only his 3,000, Johnson was waiting for Jackson. He would not have long to wait. Jackson, along with his topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, were marching ahead of the troops, hoping to reconnoiter the enemy and meet up with Johnson. In short order, they did both.

Among the skirmishers, with balls whistling through the air, rode Jackson, Johnson and about thirty troopers. The large body of men drew Milroy’s attention and he sent a company of skirmishers to drive them back.3 Finding another position, Jackson looked down upon the little town, upon the Union lines, and decided that, though McDowell was indefensible, it was also unattackable from this position. The Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike funneled into the valley through a narrow ravine, making any frontal assault incredibly risky. He then decided upon a flank attack.4

The morning slipped away. As Johnson and Jackson were dodging bullets, Union General Schenck and his brigade of 1,500 marched into town. Being the senior commander, Schenck took a quick look at the terrain. Immediately, he determined the place to be indefensible, seated as it was on low ground surrounded by high. Knowing that he would have to withdraw, he also understood that they couldn’t possibly do it before nightfall. Though skirmishing had become steady, it was clear that no battle would happen this day.5

General Schenck

General Schenck was against any attack. Milroy, however, seemed a bit more open to it. Around 3pm, he received word that the Confederates were trying to place a battery on top of the mountain. If successful, they could shell the encampment and scatter his men without a fight. He requested permission to make a reconnaissance to see what was really going on. For this so-called reconnaissance, he brought with him five infantry regiments, over half the force now gathered.6

Jackson had not been placing a battery on top of the mountain. In fact, he, like Schenck, wasn’t expecting to fight at all on this day. He had dismissed most of his staff, who went to a local farmer’s house for dinner. Jackson had spent much of the day placing both his and Johnson’s troops around the mountain overlooking the town. Johnson commanded the troops doing the bulk of the skirmishing, and so when firing again broke out, Jackson thought little of it.7)

The Federals pushed forward, but this was no frontal assault across an open plain. The Confederates were hidden among the rocks atop the mountain and fired down upon the Union troops as they climbed their way up the bald slope. As the ground leveled off a bit, they were able to form some semblance of a line of battle, throwing out skirmishers in the growing dusk. 8

1862 sketch of the battle.

Though Johnson shuffled a couple of regiments to meet the increasingly heavy fire on his right, Jackson gave pause and ordered General Taliaferro’s Brigade forward. Taliaferro quickly gathered his senses, throwing his three regiments
into the thin center, held only by a Georgia regiment that had been taking the brunt of the assault, which had devolved into a nasty hand-to-hand brawl. As the Federals appeared to be about to flank them on the right, he moved two regiments to meet the threat. From their new position, they showered lead down upon their enemies, as the enemy artillery played hell upon their lines.9

It was clear, as night fell and the firing slackened but little, that the Federals could advance no farther. At first, Milroy wanted to hold the ground they had gained. The attacking force had been joined by another regiment and the fighting continued. Through the several hours of battle, the firing had been so sustained, so vicious, that many of the Federals were running out of ammunition. This, combined with the darkness, determined that falling back, rather than holding on, might be the better idea.10

Jackson, who had arrived on the scene with the Stonewall Brigade just as the fighting had ceased, ordered Jedediah Hotchkiss to find a road that could be used by the artillery, so they could be placed atop the hill to fire down onto the Federal camp the next morning.11

The not-so-great map of the battle.

But, after an impromptu council of war, Union Generals Schenck and Milroy decided to retreat towards Franklin, around thirty miles north. As the bulk of his troops marched away from the field after midnight, Milroy stayed behind with a detachment, gathering the wounded and dead, burning excess provisions and tossing unused (and at one point much-needed) ammunition into the river. By the first morning light, he, along with the rest of the Federals, was gone.

Though the result of the battle was hardly a surprise, the casualty counts are interesting. The Union lost 26 killed, 230 wounded and 5 missing, while the Confederates sustained 146 killed, 382 wounded and 4 missing. Typically, a force attacking up a hill receives the lion’s share of the casualties. The opposite was true here, and for several reasons. First, as the Rebels were firing downhill, they tended to overshoot their targets, while the Federals, aiming uphill, did not. Also, as it was dusk, the Federals became hidden in the shadows and burned out by the setting sun, while the Confederates were silhouetted against the sky and made for an easy mark. Lastly, the Union had far superior weapons, including longer-range rifles and artillery.12

  1. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina, 2008. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p482, 465. Johnson’s and Milroy’s Reports. []
  3. Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Southern Methodist University, 1973. []
  4. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p463. Schenck’s Report. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p466-466. Milroy’s Report. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p472. Jackson’s Report. Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Southern Methodist University, 1973. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p468-469. McCleans’s Report. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p480-481. Taliaferro’s Report. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p468-469. McCleans’s Report. []
  11. Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Southern Methodist University, 1973. []
  12. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina, 2008. []
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No Battle Expected at the Battle of McDowell by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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