March 22, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson began a campaign intended to keep Federals busy so they could not move east and join the Federal drive on Richmond.
As March began, Jackson’s Confederates remained stationed at Winchester, guarding Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley against a Federal invasion from the north. The force consisted of just 3,600 infantry, 600 cavalry, and 27 cannon in six batteries.
On March 3, Federal Major General Nathaniel P. Banks invaded the Valley as his 38,000-man army corps crossed the Potomac River at various points. The Federals quickly occupied such places as Harpers Ferry, Bolivar Heights, Charlestown, and Martinsburg, among others. Soon the Federals were just 20 miles up the Valley Turnpike from Jackson’s small force.
Jackson contacted his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac at Centreville, Virginia. Jackson hoped to keep Banks’s Federals in his front and prevent them from moving east of the Blue Ridge to reinforce their comrades preparing to confront Johnston. Johnston, in the process of withdrawing his army southward in the face of superior numbers, directed Jackson to act in concert by doing the same.
Unaware that he was outnumbered eight-to-one, Jackson initially planned to make a stand at Winchester. He asked Johnston to send him General A.P. Hill’s brigade from Leesburg so that “a kind Providence may enable us to inflict a terrible wound.” Johnston did not respond, leaving his orders to fall back still in force. Johnston’s withdrawal from Centreville left Jackson even more vulnerable.
As Banks prepared to advance on Winchester with a detachment of 18,000 men, Jackson planned to surprise him with a rare night attack. He held a council of war to discuss the assault, where he learned that his army’s supply wagons had already been withdrawn eight miles south of Winchester. This made the attack impossible. Frustrated, Jackson ended the meeting and told an aide, “That is the last council of war I will ever hold.”
The Confederates pulled out of Winchester on the morning of the 12th, saddened about relinquishing the town they had called home for several months. The troops withdrew on the Valley Turnpike to Strasburg, 18 miles south, with Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry forming the rear guard. Jackson gathered new supplies and recruits at Strasburg.
Meanwhile, the Federals entered Winchester, where few residents greeted them. Banks, hoping to catch Jackson, quickly learned that he had retreated. Some men grumbled about missing the chance to destroy Jackson’s army, but Colonel George H. Gordon of the 2nd Massachusetts assured them that “this chieftain (Jackson) would be apt, before the war closed, to give us an entertainment up to the utmost of our aspirations.”
At Strasburg, Jackson received word that Banks had sent a division of 9,500 Federals under Brigadier General James Shields southward to confront him. Unwilling to engage the Federals just yet, Jackson resumed his withdrawal on the 15th, passing scores of weeping civilians and arriving at Mount Jackson the next day. This placed Jackson’s men near a mountain pass so they could move east and reinforce Johnston if needed, or prevent Banks from going east himself.
When Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac began moving down the Virginia coast for its Peninsula campaign, Banks received orders to detach a portion of his corps to defend Washington. This prompted Banks to halt Shields’s advance toward Strasburg. Jackson responded to this halt by sending Colonel Turner Ashby’s 700 troopers to harass the Shields’s Federals now between Strasburg and Winchester.
Skirmishing occurred at multiple points, highlighted by an engagement on the 19th in which Ashby’s men fought a force 10 times their size with such ferocity that the Federals thought they were facing “Jackson’s whole force.” The troopers seemed to appear out of nowhere, attacking from various angles with support from just two or three cannon. Ashby soon gained a reputation as “the terror and the wizard of the Shenandoah.”
The next day, Ashby reported that Shields’s division was falling back to Winchester, while another of Banks’s divisions was moving east to protect Washington. Jackson, acting on orders from Johnston to prevent the Federals from reinforcing McClellan, organized his new recruits (including noted engineer and cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss) and planned to pursue Shields northward.
But first Jackson had to address a problem in which men who had been drafted into his ranks were refusing to fight. These were mainly area pacifists such as Quakers and Mennonites who objected to war of any kind. To attain “the highest degree of efficiency” and encourage “loyal feelings and co-operation,” Jackson employed these men in non-combatant roles such as teamsters and cooks. This would “not only enable many volunteers to return to the ranks, but will also save many valuable horses and other public property in addition to arms.”
On March 22, Jackson’s Confederates embarked on what became a legendary campaign, leaving Mount Jackson and marching 26 miles to Strasburg by evening. The speed in which they moved to Strasburg helped earn the men their nickname of the “Foot Cavalry.” Meanwhile, Ashby’s troopers clashed with Federals outside Kernstown, a few miles south of Winchester. The Confederates held off an entire brigade, wounding Shields in the process, before finally falling back to Strasburg.
That night, Ashby erroneously reported that most of Shields’s division had fallen back to Harpers Ferry, leaving just 4,000 in the Winchester area (Shields actually had closer to 8,000 men, or nearly double Jackson’s number). Jackson, determined to give battle before the Federals could leave the Valley, planned to attack the next day. Banks, who returned to Washington with his other division, refused to believe that Jackson would try it.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-66; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 136, 139-40, 144-45; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 270; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 117, 121-22, 124-25; Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 415; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 178-79, 183-84, 186-87