The Battle of McDowell

May 8, 1862 – A fight for possession of a key hill resulted in a Federal withdrawal and Confederates seizing the initiative in the Shenandoah Valley.

Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy’s Federal division from Major General John C. Fremont’s army was isolated at the hamlet of McDowell. The town was virtually impossible to defend because it was surrounded by hills that attackers could use to fire down on defenders. The most formidable ridge was Sitlington’s Hill.

Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s Confederates spied Milroy’s Federals from the heights outside McDowell. This 3,000-man force was several miles ahead of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 7,000 Confederates marching along the Staunton & Parkersburg turnpike to join them. Milroy deployed artillery and skirmishers to contest Johnson’s approach. Johnson held back, opting to wait for Jackson’s arrival.

When Jackson came up, he surveyed the situation and determined that a frontal attack would prove too costly because the Confederates would have to funnel through a narrow ravine that the Federals could cover with cannon and rifles. Thus, Jackson planned to occupy Sitlington’s Hill and launch a flank attack from there.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck’s 1,500-man Federal brigade arrived to reinforce Milroy, giving the Federals about 6,500 men. Schenck, outranking Milroy, guessed that Jackson would not attack that day and began arranging to evacuate McDowell that night. However, Milroy received word that Jackson was placing a battery on Sitlington’s Hill that could fire down on McDowell and decimate his force. Schenck allowed Milroy to reconnoiter the hill with five regiments totaling about 2,300 men.

Although Jackson was not placing artillery on Sitlington’s Hill due to the difficulty of getting guns on the heights, he was positioning infantry there. The Confederates held the crest while Jackson, not suspecting Federal opposition, scouted for a potential flanking movement to the north.

The Federals began scaling the slope around 3 p.m. They were met by Johnson’s Confederates firing on them from above, hidden by boulders and dense woods. The Federals continued ascending, and as the ground leveled, they launched a heavy attack on Johnson’s right. Jackson deployed troops to shore up the line’s weak center, where vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued.

Map of the fight at McDowell | Image Credit:
Map of the fight at McDowell | Image Credit:

Another two Confederate regiments took up positions on the right to prevent the Federals from flanking their line. The Confederates held firm, withstanding hours of infantry lunges and artillery barrages. As the sun began setting, the Federals ran low on ammunition. They gathered their wounded and fell back to McDowell.

Around 2 a.m. on the 9th, Schenck and Milroy agreed to withdraw across the Bull Pasture River toward Franklin, 30 miles north. The retreat began that evening, as Milroy stayed behind with a detachment to tend to the dead and wounded, and to burn any supplies they could not take with them. The Federals were gone by morning.

Plaque on the battlefield | Image Credit:
Plaque on the battlefield | Image Credit:

The Federals lost 261 men (26 killed, 230 wounded, and five missing), while the Confederates lost 532 (146 killed, 382 wounded, and four missing). Surprisingly, the defenders holding the high ground sustained more losses than the attackers, partly because the Federal weapons were more advanced and accurate, and shadows on the mountain made the Federal troops harder targets. “Allegheny” Johnson was put out of action with a serious ankle wound; Jackson absorbed Johnson’s Army of the Northwest into his new Army of the Valley. He telegraphed Richmond on the 9th: “God blessed our arms with victory at McDowell yesterday.”

Despite the heavier losses, this was Jackson’s first battle victory in the Shenandoah Valley, as it prevented the elements of Fremont’s army (i.e., Schenck and Milroy) from joining forces with Banks’s Federals at Staunton. It also ended Fremont’s pipe dream of invading eastern Tennessee and taking Knoxville. Most importantly, it enabled Jackson to seize the initiative in the Valley, and from this point forward he would not let go.


References (8 May 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 101-02; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 834; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 208-09; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 455; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 385; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 460, 677

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