May 7, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates moved west to join forces with the Army of the Northwest and confront a detachment of Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal army.
On May 1, the Lincoln administration directed Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Department of the Shenandoah, to send Brigadier General James Shields’s division east to reinforce Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg. This left Banks with just one division in the Valley.
With Banks effectively neutralized, Jackson’s small Confederate army moved west to join forces with Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, had originally urged Jackson to attack Banks, but Jackson opted to confront the other Federal army in the Valley under Fremont. Lee approved on the 1st, after Jackson had already gone into motion.
Banks believed that Jackson had gone east, out of the Valley. Jackson tried to confirm that belief by planning to first head east and then suddenly turn west to meet up with Johnson near Staunton. This was rendered unnecessary by Banks detaching Shields, but Jackson pushed his men nonetheless and divulged his plan to nobody.
They slogged through pouring rain on the 1st, covering just five miles in the move from Conrad’s Store to Staunton. A new recruit, Private Joe Kaufman, wrote in his diary, “I begin to think Old Jack is a hard master from the way he is putting us through. Oh, how I wish peace would be declared!”
When the troops reached Port Republic late on the 2nd, they turned east toward the Blue Ridge and bivouacked at the western foot of Brown’s Gap that night. The men had marched just 15 miles in two and a half days. The march resumed the next day through Brown’s Gap, with their secret destination being the Virginia Central Railroad at the Mechums River. “Old Jack” drove subordinates crazy by refusing to share his plans, but he fooled both friend and foe into thinking he was leaving the Valley, which set the stage for his upcoming offensive.
Jackson’s Confederates arrived at the Mechums River Station, about 10 miles west of Charlottesville, on Sunday the 4th. As the men arrived, they were loaded onto westbound trains heading back into the Valley, having tricked the Federals into thinking they were leaving. Jackson himself rode to Staunton and met with his cavalry commander, Colonel Turner Ashby, who had been observing Banks’s Federals around Harrisonburg.
As Jackson set up headquarters at the Virginia Hotel, his troops began arriving via railroad around 5 p.m., wondering why they had marched east only to be shipped back west. The brilliance of the move was not immediately apparent.
By the following evening, Jackson’s entire force assembled around Staunton. “Allegheny” Johnson’s Confederates were six miles west and moving closer as they retreated from Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy’s division detached from Fremont’s army. While in Staunton, Jackson finally replaced his old blue major’s uniform from his teaching days at the Virginia Military Institute with a new major general’s uniform.
The next day, Jackson pushed his men west to link with Johnson. In four days, Jackson’s men had marched 92 miles and traveled another 25 by rail in a remarkable feat of logistics. Meanwhile, a Confederate detachment skirmished with Banks’s Federals and pushed them back from Harrisonburg to New Market. Banks was completely fooled as to Jackson’s location and intention. With Milroy at Monterey, Jackson and Johnson headed for McDowell, a hamlet 10 miles east of Milroy.
The two Confederate commands were still separated by about a five-hour march as they reached the eastern edge of the Alleghenies and closed in on McDowell, with Johnson’s 3,000 men in the lead. When the forces combined, they would number about 10,000. The Federals spotted the Confederates approaching along the Staunton & Parkersburg turnpike. After a quick artillery barrage, the Federals withdrew across the Bull Pasture River toward McDowell, leaving their baggage and tents.
That night, Fremont responded to Milroy’s call for reinforcements by sending Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck’s 1,500-man brigade. This would increase Milroy’s total to 6,000. If Milroy chose to attack quickly the next morning, he could have destroyed Johnson’s small force before Jackson could move up to reinforce him. But Milroy opted to stay on the defensive.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 87-89, 99-101; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 166-67; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 145, 148; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3370; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 208; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 460, 677