April 1, 1862 – Federal forces moved farther into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, while Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson began developing plans to drive them out.
By this month, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal corps in the Valley had been reinforced due to the unexpected engagement at Kernstown in late March. As the Federals resumed their advance from Strasburg, Jackson’s small Confederate army fell back southward up the Valley from Hawkinsville, screened by Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry.
Jackson took positions near Rude’s Hill, with the massive influx of new recruits prompting him to reorganize his force. Jackson also directed troops to round up locals who refused to answer the conscription call; these were mostly pacifists such as Mennonites or Quakers. Jackson acknowledged their refusal to fight by employing them as teamsters, laborers, and cooks. A detachment also hunted down and captured a group of deserters led by Captain William H. Gillespie, who had served on Jackson’s staff and was up for a promotion to lieutenant.
East of the Shenandoah, General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew his Confederate army beyond the Rapidan River and ordered Jackson to stop Banks from seizing Staunton, a key Valley town holding the main Confederate supply line to Richmond. Johnston also directed Major General Richard S. Ewell to lead his 8,500-man division from Brandy Station to Swift Run Gap to potentially reinforce Jackson.
The Confederates were aided by Banks’s slow, methodical pace. For over a week, Colonel Ashby’s small cavalry force blocked the Federals at Stony Creek. Banks reported on the 15th, “Ashby still here. We have a sleepless eye on him, and are straining every nerve to advance as quickly as possible.” Banks began planning to capture the crossroads at New Market.
Two days later, Federal infantry surprised Ashby by crossing Stony Creek before dawn. At the same time, Federal cavalry crossed the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on a bridge that Ashby had failed to burn before retreating. Skirmishing occurred until the Confederates fell back to Jackson’s main line at Rude’s Hill, and Jackson’s artillery slowed the Federal advance. The Confederates slowly withdrew, and Banks took both New Market and Mount Jackson to try cutting off their retreat. Jackson fell back about five miles south of Harrisonburg on the night of the 18th.
Banks’s sudden show of aggression indicated to Jackson that he must have been heavily reinforced. To counter, General Robert E. Lee, top advisor to President Jefferson Davis, directed Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s 3,000-man army in western Virginia to coordinate movements with Jackson. Also, Ewell was instructed to link with Jackson.
Jackson’s Confederates ended their 20-mile eastward march on the rainy night of the 19th. Having covered nearly 100 miles in the past month, the men camped near Conrad’s Store, at the foot of Swift Run Gap. This spot covered both the Luray Valley and Harrisonburg. If Banks moved south of this point, Jackson could attack him from the rear.
Meanwhile, a Federal expedition dispatched by Banks seized the Luray Valley bridges across the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. They scattered some Confederate cavalry but could not find Jackson’s army. Banks notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I believe Jackson left this valley yesterday.”
But Jackson had not left. He took up positions in the Blue Ridge Mountains, hidden by the Massanutten Ridge. He then dispatched his topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, to lead a cavalry expedition (not Ashby, who had failed him at Stony Creek) in destroying the bridges over the South Fork.
Hotchkiss found the Confederate troopers at the Shenandoah Iron Works, with “many of them under the influence of apple-jack.” This disorganized force could only burn one of the three bridges before being driven back to Jackson’s main body by Federal cavalry. Around the same time, Major General John C. Fremont’s new Federal Mountain Department army pushed “Allegheny” Johnson’s Confederates away from the Shenandoah Mountain.
Banks continued to wrongly assume that Jackson had retreated east, presumably to reinforce Johnston’s army on the Virginia Peninsula. Banks told his superiors that Jackson’s supposed retreat “from the Valley by the way of the mountains, from Harrisonburg toward Stanardsville and Orange Court-House, on Gordonsville is confirmed this morning by our scouts and prisoners.” However, Jackson remained at Swift Run Gap; the scouts did not reconnoiter the gap and Confederate prisoners lied about his true whereabouts.
As the Federals moved southward toward Harrisonburg and occupied Luray, Banks reported that “Jackson has abandoned the valley of Virginia permanently, en route for Gordonsville, by way of the mountains.” But Federal scouts continued missing Swift Run Gap, the most logical point to move east toward Gordonsville. Meanwhile, Jackson was well aware of Banks’s movements thanks to Jedediah Hotchkiss’s close reconnaissance.
Lee sent a message to Jackson informing him that Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federal Army of the Rappahannock (formerly I Corps of the Army of the Potomac) had established a base of operations against Richmond at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg in northern Virginia. Lee wrote:
“If you can use Genl. Ewell’s division in an attack on Genl. Banks, and to drive him back, it will prove a great relief to the pressure on Fredericksburg, but if you should find Genl. Banks too strong to be approached, and your object is to hold Genl. Ewell in supporting distance to your column, he may be of more importance at this time between Fredericksburg and Richmond… I have hoped in the present divided condition of the enemy’s forces that a successful blow may be dealt them by a rapid combination of our troops before they can be strengthened themselves either in position or by re-enforcements… The blow, wherever struck, must, to be successful, be sudden and heavy. The troops used must be efficient and light.”
Jackson chose to use Ewell to attack Banks, and began planning an operation that would divert Federal attention from both Fredericksburg and the Peninsula. Meanwhile, a portion of Banks’s army advanced into New Market while the main body reached Harrisonburg. Banks had moved an unimpressive 35 miles in 10 days while completely mistaking the location and intention of Jackson’s army.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 86-87, 94-95; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 147; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 421; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 129-30, 140-41, 143; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3359-70; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 460; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 191-92, 200-01; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 386