Of Ice and Blood, of Wind and a Town Forsaken

January 7, 1862 (Tuesday)

Listen to the mocking bird
Listen to the mocking bird

This dawn brought no light to the skies over Stonewall Jackson’s men, trudging south from the Potomac River towards Romney. The temperatures, well below freezing, seemed ever colder, with ceaseless winds, and ice underfoot. The weather could be seen only in the periphery as eyes guided feet for every step along frozen Virginia roads, packed solid to ice by the thousands of suffering Rebels.

The band played “Listen to the Mocking Bird” in a vein attempt to lighten the hearts of the men. But no voices lifted in song through chattering teeth and ice-matted beards. The painful grunts and cries of soldiers falling hard, breaking legs and arms, was all that echoed through the snow.

There was no singing where the weeping willows waved. This was no mild September, and the charms of Spring were far from waking. The men in Jackson’s small army must have felt forsaken.

Wagons of the supply train were broken down and overturned. Horses, unprepared for such weather, dripped icicles of blood from their noses. General Loring’s horse fell, pinning him to the ground. General Jackson dismounted several times to help push a wagon up a hill.

Descending a rise was no easier. The wheel locks on cannons were useless on ice and the 1,700 lbs. artillery pieces would slide forward into the horses, whipping them into a writhing, slipping mass upon the slope, leaving behind them trails of slushy blood.

The skin on the hands and feet of the men peeled off in black and bloody strips as frostbite ate away at their extremities. They were without rations and survived as they could by eating horse feed.

Though their hardships were severe, the town of Winchester, where Jackson established his headquarters, was in undeniable danger.

After he established his camp for the night at Unger’s Store, Jackson learned some very sobering news. To protect Winchester from an unlikely Union attack from Romney, Jackson had placed 700 militia and cavalry at Hanging Rock along the Romney Turnpike [modern day US Route 50].

The Union troops at Romney were commanded by General Benjamin Kelley. When he heard of Jackson’s attack on Hancock, he devised a plan to raid the outpost at Hanging Rock to divert Jackson from the Potomac. At dawn, the Federals hit the Rebel militia, surprising them out of their tents. They fled so quickly that they left behind two artillery pieces. The road to Winchester was now open.

As Jackson read the report of the affair, what must have rattled him most was that the Union troops had traveled fifteen miles through the same weather and conditions that his men slipped and fumbled a mere seven miles through. With such agility, the Federals could make Winchester in two days.

The Union troops at Hanging Rock spent the day burning a local tavern and generally destroying barns and homes on their return march to Romney. Though the Federals did not move on Winchester, Jackson was certain that they could. After all, there was nothing standing in their way. He resolved to attack Kelley in Romney before Kelley attacked Winchester, cutting off Jackson from his supply line.

Not only would Jackson be cut off, he would be nearly surrounded with Kelley to the south, General Lander to the north at Hancock, and General Banks to the east at Martinsburg. Jackson knew he had to move and move quickly, but before he could brave another such march, he had to see to the horses. Prior to leaving Winchester, they had not been “roughshod.” Over the next few days, iron spikes would be added to the horse’s hooves to prevent against such slippage as ruled this infamous day.1


Halleck Prepares a Diversion

Despite his obvious and outward misgivings, Union General Henry Halleck was preparing to act in concert with General Don Carlos Buell. Halleck, who commanded the troops in Missouri, was to keep the Rebels on his front busy, while in Kentucky, Buell advanced into Eastern Tennessee.

Though he had told President Lincoln that he had not a regiment to spare, he ordered General Grant in Cairo, Illinois, to make a demonstration upon Murray, Tennessee. This was, however, only a diversion. Grant was told not to bring on a battle or expose his flank to the Rebels in Columbus, along the Mississippi River.

“Make a great fuss about moving all your forces towards Nashville, and let it be so reported by the newspapers,” instructed Halleck. He cautioned Grant to not even let his own staff know the true objective: to keep the Confederates in Western Tennessee from reinforcing the Rebels in Eastern Tennessee.2

While the dispatch to Grant was en route, Halleck wired General Buell, asking him to “designate a day for a demonstration.” He also ordered six additional regiments from other parts of Missouri to Grant’s command.3

General Halleck wasn’t the only one asking Buell to set the date. Both Secretary of War Simon Cameron and President Lincoln wired him on this date. While Cameron merely expressed that he was “exceedingly anxious to have some result in Kentucky, especially towards East Tennessee,” Lincoln, who had gone round several times with the General, was more direct.

“Delay is ruining us, and it is indispensable for me to have something definite,” wired Lincoln, after asking Buell for a specific date. He also sent a similar note to Halleck, who replied to the President, telling him that he had “asked General Buell to designate a day for a demonstration to assist him,” but that he could do no more until he had more arms.4

As for Buell, it appears he did nothing. He favored an attack on Nashville and considered Eastern Tennessee to be of little importance. Concerning Halleck’s assistance via diversion, he was silent, figuring that Halleck wouldn’t move until he (Buell) gave word of a date. General Grant, however, was preparing for war.

  1. Following Jackson’s Romney campaign, I’m relying upon three books, primarily. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, Stonewall Jackson by James I Robertson and Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p533-534. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p540. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p535. []


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