The Unhinging of General James Shields, Stonewall Jackson’s Quixotic Antagonist

June 4, 1862 (Wednesday)

For nearly a week, Union General James Shields had met with little more than disappointment and reversal. When his division crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains to arrive at Front Royal, they quickly captured the Shenandoah Valley town. Along with the laconic General John C. Fremont, they managed to allow Stonewall Jackson’s troops to escape south.

General Shields is about to crack.

Of course, General Shields wasn’t solely to blame for the debacle. His superior, General Irvin McDowell, as well as General Fremont, believed Jackson’s strength to be much greater than it actually was. But it was Jackson’s bold audacity that supplied much of Shields’ grief.

Realizing that he could do little more than clog the main Valley Turnpike, already being used by Fremont’s men in pursuit of Jackson, Shields determined to utilize the parallel-running Luray Valley. Though the idea to cut Jackson off at New Market was sound, the weather, as well as Jackson’s attention to detail, made it a maddening trek.

Despite swamped roads and rain that inundated the Valley, by the night of June 2nd, Shields’ Division had marched 25 miles. It was also on that day that he discovered the two bridges leading to New Market had been burned by Jackson’s cavalry. After days of slogging, he was whipped without a fight.

At mid-morning on the 3rd, Shields began his unbalancing act. He explained the bridge situation to General McDowell, still back at Front Royal, and explained that he would continue southward to the river crossing at Conrad’s Store. “The bridge there I expect to find burned also,” Shields relented, “but by going higher up [to Harrisonburg] we may find a ford.” Even that idea was probably pointless, however, as the rising river would make any ford anywhere uncrossable. Still, he insisted, “we must cross today somehow.”

“My next move will be to push on to Stanardsville,” continued the confused General, “destroy the railroad and depot, and if possible to Staunton or Charlottesville.” Shields was writing on the 3rd from Luray. To Harrisonburg, it was a roundabout route of at least forty miles over swampy roads. In turning his command around for a push on to Standardsville, he would have to backtrack seventeen miles, cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and tramp another seventeen miles to destroy the railroad. A subsequent move to Charlottesville was another twenty miles, and if he found he couldn’t live without recrossing the Blue Ridge, it was thirty-five more miles to Staunton. In other words, he would have to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains three times to cut off Jackson’s force, which had not crossed the mountains even once.

You can take a look at Shields' strange idea of how to either keep Jackson in the Valley or stampede him to Richmond. Take your pick.

Aside from the destruction of the railroad at Standardsville, Shields gave not a clue as to what he hoped to accomplish at any of these places on his ridiculous 130 mile campaign. Shields did, however, promise to “destroy their means of escape somehow.”

General McDowell forwarded Sheilds’ letter to Washington, adding a bit of reality of his own. Shields had twice used the word “somehow,” but provided nothing in the way of practicality. “The ‘somehow’ in which the general is to cross the river to-day,” countered McDowell, “swollen as it is by the heavy rains, is not so clear, and the delay defeats the movement […] and as to his preventing the enemy’s escape ‘somehow,’ I fear it will be like his intention of crossing the ‘river somehow.'”

As a final blow to Shields’ credibility, McDowell added: “His command is not in a condition to go to the places he names.”1

James Shields

The dawn on this date was a rainy mix of clouds and insipidity. The rivers rose a bit over the night, yet General Shields, still floundering at Luray, was hopeful (or delirious) in a letter to McDowell. Knowing that the bridges had been burned and that the fords were flooded, he vowed to “ascend the river, cross it and take Jackson in the rear.” In the same message, he also claimed that his command was in bitter need of supplies and “destitute of everything in the way of shoes.”

To Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, he was much less optimistic, telling him an opposite story: “I cannot now take him [Jackson] in reverse, owing to the inundation.” As he did on the 2nd, he complained that he had too many men and not enough supplies. “I cannot fight against the elements,” said Shields of the abundant rains, “but give me bread to keep me alive and they [Jackson’s force] will never leave the valley.” While some Federal commanders overestimated Jackson’s numbers at 20,000 or more, Shields conjectured that they were merely 7,000, less than half the actual total.

A sentence after telling Stanton that he would never allow Jackson to leave the Shenandoah Valley, he promised to “stampede them down to Richmond if you give me plenty of bread.”

Col. Samuel Carroll

In another note to McDowell, Shields stated that “roads have become impassible beyond the Columbia Bridge, 8 miles from Luray.” But in a bizarre reversal, Shields ordered an entire brigade down those same roads.

Apparently drowning in the belief that Jackson was trying to escape from the Valley, Shields ordered a Col. Samuel Carrol to press on to Staunton while holding the bridge at Port Republic. The General was convinced that Jackson needed this important bridge to make his escape. 2

But escaping was the farthest thing from Jackson’s mind. With the bridge at Conrad’s Store taken out, he knew that General Shields would either need to return north or cross the river at Port Republic. If Shields turned around, there wasn’t much Jackson could do, but if he moved on Port Republic, Jackson would meet him. An additional benefit of a stand at Port Republic was that he would be on Fremont’s left flank and would be able to fall upon him if he made an attempt to take Staunton.3

Much of the afternoon was spent in line of battle just south of New Market. There had been a rumor that General Fremont was trying out get around the Rebels’ western flank and Jackson was ready to meet the threat. The rumor never materialized into a fact and, at 1am, Jackson’s army resumed its march.4

And now a full map of the approximate positions on June 4.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p325-326. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p334-335, 339. []
  3. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan Press, 1997. []
  4. Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Stackpole Books, 1996. []
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The Unhinging of General James Shields, Stonewall Jackson’s Quixotic Antagonist by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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