April 27, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson launched an offensive in the Valley, while the Federals remained unaware of either his intention or location.
By this time, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks had led 19,000 men of his Federal Army of the Shenandoah to the area around New Market and Harrisonburg. Meanwhile, Major General John C. Fremont’s 20,000-man Federal army operated in western Virginia, with Fremont detaching 6,000 troops under Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy to confront Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s 3,000-man Confederate Army of the Northwest at Staunton.
Banks was confident that Jackson’s Confederates had left the Valley to reinforce their comrades on the Virginia Peninsula. As such, he began planning to join forces with Fremont. But President Abraham Lincoln, not as confident as Banks, expressed concern that having Banks join Fremont would put the Federals too far south, leaving Washington exposed to a potential attack by Jackson. He had Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton notify Banks:
“You are requested to consider whether you are not already making too wide a separation between the body of troops under your immediate command and your supporting force… It is possible that events may make it necessary to transfer the command of General Shields (commanding a division under Banks) to the Department of the Rappahannock.”
Banks replied that even though there had been trouble getting supplies so far south, “our supplies are in improving condition.” Regarding the plan to join forces with Fremont, Banks wrote, “The movement is right, the force could be rapidly concentrated.”
According to Banks, Fremont reported (via Milroy) that there were “no troops of the enemy in or about Staunton.” In another message the next day, Banks reassured his superiors that his men were “entirely secure” at Harrisonburg. Completely underestimating Jackson, Banks reported, “The enemy is in no condition for offensive movements.”
However, Johnson’s Confederates still held Staunton, and Jackson summoned Major General Richard Ewell’s Confederates to leave the Rappahannock River line and move west toward the Valley. Ewell was to move as close as possible to Swift Run Gap, where Jackson’s men were secretly camped, to reinforce him if needed.
The next day, Jackson submitted three possible plans of attack to General Robert E. Lee, top military advisor to President Jefferson Davis:
- Ewell would hold the Confederate positions at Swift Run Gap and prevent Banks from threatening Staunton while Jackson and Johnson joined forces to defeat Milroy and Fremont
- Johnson would keep Milroy and Fremont occupied while Jackson and Ewell joined forces to defeat Banks
- Jackson would move north toward Winchester to pull Banks farther from Fremont
Without waiting for Lee’s approval, Jackson arranged to execute the first plan. Dispatching Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry toward Harrisonburg, Jackson led his men out of Swift Run Gap in pouring rain on the 30th and headed toward Staunton. They took a muddy road along the east bank of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and covered only five miles by nightfall.
This began one of the hardest forced marches of the war, during which the men traveled 92 miles on foot and another 25 by railroad over the next four days, forever earning the nickname the “Foot Cavalry.” This rapid movement would deceive the Federals even more than they already were and scare the Lincoln administration into shifting its focus from the Peninsula to the Valley.
That night, Ewell’s 8,000 Confederates marched over the Blue Ridge and took up positions near Jackson’s old camp at Swift Run Gap. Ashby’s cavalry harassed Banks’s Federals until Ewell could come up. Johnson’s 3,000 Confederates were camped at West View, seven miles west of Staunton.
Banks erroneously reported that Jackson was “bound for Richmond. This is the fact, I have no doubt… There is nothing to be done in this Valley.” Banks sent another wire on the night of the 30th requesting that his troops join either the Federals on the Rappahannock or those on the Peninsula since it was “the most safe and effective disposition possible. I pray your favorable consideration. Such order will electrify our force.”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 76; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 87, 95, 99; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 165; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 427-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 144-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 205; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 460