Conflicting Orders in the Shenandoah Valley

May 20, 1862 – Confederate Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard Ewell struggled with conflicting orders while trying to join forces to attack Federals under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain
Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

By this time, Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Shenandoah, had sent one of his divisions under Brigadier General James Shields eastward out of the Valley. Shields’s Federals were near Warrenton, on their way to reinforce Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. With Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal army at Franklin to the west, Banks was all alone at Strasburg with just 9,000 men against a larger Confederate force heading his way.

The Confederate force actually consisted of two commands separated by 30 miles, with Jackson’s men at Mount Solon and Ewell’s at Swift Run Gap. They were in the process of joining forces to move north and threaten Banks. They also hoped to threaten Washington, which would prompt Shields to return to the Valley and force McDowell to suspend his movement to the Virginia Peninsula.

On the 17th, Ewell received a message from General Joseph E. Johnston (dated May 13) stating that if Banks moved east, Ewell and Jackson must come reinforce the Confederate army on the Peninsula. This posed a dilemma because only part of Banks’s army had moved east. Johnston’s directive also conflicted with orders from General Robert E. Lee, dated May 16, authorizing Jackson and Ewell to move north toward the Potomac River.

Ewell forwarded the message to Jackson at Mount Solon. Jackson asked Johnston to rescind the order, explaining, “I have been moving down the valley for the purpose of attacking Banks, but the withdrawal of General Ewell’s command will prevent my purpose being executed.”

While Jackson’s message was in transit, he directed Ewell to “suspend the execution of the order for returning to the east until I receive an answer to my telegram.” Since neither Jackson nor Ewell knew whether to follow the orders of Johnston or Lee, Ewell obeyed Jackson, his immediate superior. He kept his troops at Swift Run Gap and then rode to Mount Solon to discuss the situation with Jackson personally.

Ewell and Jackson met on the 18th and agreed that whatever they would do needed to be done immediately. Ewell suggested that since his troops were in the Valley, they were actually under Jackson’s command, not Johnston’s, meaning that Jackson’s authority over Ewell superseded Johnston’s. Jackson asked Ewell to put the problem of obeying conflicting orders in writing, and Jackson would respond in a way that would clear Ewell of any blame for disobeying Johnston. Jackson wrote:

“Your letter of this date, in which you have received letters from Generals Lee, Johnston and myself requiring somewhat different movements, and desiring my views respecting your position, has been received. In reply I would state that as you are in the Valley District you constitute part of my command. Should you receive orders different from those sent from these headquarters, please advise me of the same as early a period as practicable. You will please move your command as to encamp between New Market and Mount Jackson on next Wednesday night, unless you receive orders from a superior officer and that of a date subsequent to the 16th instant.”

Thus, Jackson and Ewell would move according to Lee’s orders, not Johnston’s. Ewell hurried back to Swift Run Gap to put his men in motion. Jackson had his men up at 2 a.m. on the 19th, and they were on the march within an hour. They moved northwest down the Valley toward New Market, using wagons to bridge the North River. Jackson dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General Turner Ashby to obstruct any roads that Fremont could use to join forces with Banks.

Jackson’s Confederates marched through Harrisonburg on the morning of May 20. They crossed the Massanutten Mountain and entered the Luray, or eastern Shenandoah, Valley. The Confederates then resumed their northward advance along the South Fork of the Shenandoah Valley.

As Ewell’s Confederates also moved northward, Ewell received a message from Johnston dated May 17 reiterating his orders to come to the Peninsula. Johnston wrote, “If Banks is fortifying near Strasburg, the attack would be too hazardous.” Jackson was to “observe him” while Ewell’s men left the Valley.

Ewell rode up to confer with Jackson between Harrisonburg and New Market. Jackson rushed a messenger to Staunton to telegraph Lee: “I am of opinion that an attempt should be made to defeat Banks, but under instructions just received from General Johnston I do not feel at liberty to make an attack. Please answer by telegraph at once.”

That night, Johnston responded to Jackson’s May 18 orders keeping Ewell in the Valley: “The whole question is, whether or not General Jackson & yourself are too late to attack Banks. If so the march eastward should be made. If not (supposing your strength be sufficient) then attack.” Late that night, Lee overrode Johnston’s orders and permitted Jackson to go ahead against Banks as planned.

Once united, Jackson and Ewell would have 16,000 men and 48 guns to confront Banks’s 9,000 Federals at Strasburg.


References (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 114-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 172-73; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 428-29; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 154; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 213-14; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677

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