“Stonewall” Jackson’s Winter Offensive

November 24, 1861 – Brigadier General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, commanding the Confederate Shenandoah Valley District, developed a plan to join forces with General William W. Loring’s Army of the Northwest and conduct a winter offensive in the region.

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain
Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Early this month, Jackson received orders to leave General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Potomac at Manassas Junction and take command in the Valley. Leaving behind his beloved 1st Virginia (“Stonewall”) Brigade, Jackson issued a farewell address to the men from horseback:

“… In the Army of the Shenandoah you were the First Brigade; in the Army of the Potomac you were the First Brigade; in the Second Corps of this army you are the First Brigade; you are the First Brigade in the affections of your general; and I hope by your future deeds and bearing you will be handed down to posterity as the First Brigade in our second War of Independence, and in the future, on the fields on which the Stonewall Brigade are engaged, I expect to hear of crowning deeds of valor and of victories gloriously achieved! May God bless you all! Farewell!”

Amid cheering and crying soldiers, Jackson rode off with his chief of staff, Colonel John T.L. Preston, and aide Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton five miles to Manassas Junction, where they boarded a westbound train to Strasburg. From there, they rode 18 miles north on the Valley Turnpike and reached Winchester before midnight, checking into Room 23 at the Taylor Hotel.

The next morning, Jackson established headquarters at Winchester and informed Richmond that he had assumed command of the Shenandoah Valley District within the Department of Northern Virginia. He had just 1,651 men in three undersized brigades and a token cavalry force under Colonel Turner Ashby. Although they were poorly trained and ill equipped, they were expected to cover 6,000 square miles and defend against three major threats:

  • Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s 18,000 Federals on the Potomac in western Maryland
  • Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’s 22,000 Federals over the Alleghenies in western Virginia
  • Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley’s 5,000 Federals on Jackson’s west flank at Romney

To Jackson’s advantage, the commands under Rosecrans and Kelley belonged to the Department of Western Virginia, which did not effectively cooperate with the Department of the Potomac overseeing Banks. Nevertheless, Jackson called on all area militia to concentrate at Winchester and sent Colonel Preston to Richmond to report that the Shenandoah Valley was “defenseless.” He asked to have his beloved Stonewall Brigade back.

In just over two weeks, the Stonewall Brigade arrived to boost Jackson’s strength to 4,000 men. This was still much less than nearby enemy forces, but the Federals were not only administratively divided, they were not as strong as Jackson anticipated. Jackson developed a plan of action in the Valley and submitted it to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin (through J.E. Johnston, Jackson’s immediate superior) on the 20th.

Jackson suggested that if his army would attack Romney, the Federals would conclude that Johnston had weakened himself by sending reinforcements to the Valley. This could induce Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac to move against Johnston. If so, Jackson could hurry east to reinforce him, just like at Bull Run.

Once McClellan was defeated, Jackson would return to the Valley and “move rapidly westward to the waters of the Monongahela and Little Kanawha… I deem it of very great importance that Northwestern Virginia be occupied by Confederate troops this winter.” To do this, Jackson requested that Loring’s 5,000 Confederates in the western Virginia mountains be assigned to his command at Winchester.

Jackson conceded that such an effort would be “an arduous undertaking,” requiring the sacrifice of “much personal comfort. Admitting that the season is too far advanced, or that from other causes all cannot be accomplished that has been named, yet through the blessing of God, who has thus far so wonderfully prospered our cause, much more may be expected from General Loring’s troops, according to this programme, than can be expected from them where they are.”

Johnston shared the plan with Benjamin four days later and stated that the plan expected “more than can well be accomplished in that high, mountainous country at this season.” Johnston also worried that Jackson could overextend his lines. He proposed instead that Jackson’s men raid the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad while Loring’s men attack Romney. Johnston advised, “The troops you prepare to employ farther west, might render better & more immediate service elsewhere, especially on the lower Potomac—or in this (Johnston’s) district.”

Despite Johnston’s reservations, Benjamin liked the plan and sent it to Loring for review. Benjamin stated that he had “for several weeks been impressed with the conviction that a sudden and well-concealed movement of your entire command up the valley towards Romney, combined with a movement of General Jackson from Winchester, would result in the entire destruction, and perhaps capture, of the enemy’s whole force at Romney.”

Benjamin envisioned “that a continuation of the movement westward, threatening the Cheat River Bridge and the depot at Grafton, would cause a general retreat of the whole forces of the enemy from the Greenbrier region to avoid being cut off from their supplies.” If that could not be done, then “a severe blow might be dealt by the seizure of Cumberland (Maryland).” Benjamin left the final decision to Loring, and if Loring agreed the plan was sound, he was to “execute it as promptly and secretly as possible.”

Loring replied five days later that the proposal was practical with the right preparations. However, he stated that the movement probably could not be done in secrecy because “the Union men have numerous relations throughout this region and will, not withstanding the utmost vigilance, obtain information.”

Loring ultimately agreed to join with Jackson, but only after adequate transportation arrived, which could take weeks. Loring concluded:

“If, upon consideration of affairs on this line, you should desire the proposed campaign to be prosecuted, be assured that I shall enter into it with a spirit to succeed, and will be seconded by a command as ardent in the cause as any in the country, and who will cheerfully endure all the hardships incident to a winter campaign.”



CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple locations); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18, 43-44; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 7961-73; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 93; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 78; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 391-92; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 135

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