May 24, 1862 – Following the Federal defeat at Front Royal, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks retreated and President Abraham Lincoln scrambled to send him reinforcements.
The loss of the outpost at Front Royal meant that the Confederates could now interpose themselves between Banks’s main Army of the Shenandoah and Washington. Hurrying to prevent this, Banks set out on the morning of the 24th to lead his Federals out of Strasburg to Winchester, 20 miles north. Banks, refusing to admit that this was a retreat, informed his superiors that he would “enter the lists with the enemy in a race or a battle (as he should choose) for the possession of Winchester.”
Banks estimated Confederate strength to have increased to “not less than 6,000 to 10,000. It is probably (Major General Richard) Ewell’s force, passing through the Shenandoah valley. (Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall”) Jackson is still in our front. We shall stand firm.” Banks’s assumption that Jackson was “still in our front” indicated that he was still unaware Jackson and Ewell had joined forces. Based on Federal intelligence, Banks believed that Ewell had fallen back to Front Royal, leaving the Valley turnpike to Winchester open.
Banks’s superiors replied, “Do not give up the ship before succor can arrive.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton asked Major General John C. Fremont, commanding a Federal army at Franklin in western (now West) Virginia, to send reinforcements to Banks if possible. Fremont replied that he could not spare any men because “the enemy seems everywhere reinforced and active.” Fremont also complained that heavy rains and dwindling supplies were demoralizing his men.
Jackson anticipated Banks’s retreat toward Winchester. After confirming that his hunch was correct, he sent Ewell’s Confederates northward down a road parallel to the Valley turnpike. Jackson then led his men toward Middletown, hoping to trap Banks between his troops and Ewell’s before the Federals could reach Winchester. Jackson would then push northward to Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River.
Jackson’s men marched seven miles to Newtown, where they placed artillery atop a hill to fire on the Federal rear guard marching below. With the Federals stuck between stone walls on either side, Jackson reported that “in a few moments the turnpike, which had just before teemed with life, presented a most appalling spectacle of carnage and destruction. The road was literally obstructed with the mingled and confused mass of struggling and dying horses and riders.”
Jackson finally ordered a halt, as Federal troops found “the bodies of men and horses so piled up that it was impossible to proceed.” Those not pinned between the stone walls or among the bodies fled toward Winchester. Jackson’s cavalry rounded up prisoners, along with large amounts of abandoned wagons and supplies. The Confederates spent time looting that could have been better spent chasing and destroying Banks’s army.
Allowing the Federals to escape mainly intact prompted Jackson to fear that they would entrench themselves on the heights southwest of Winchester, where Jackson had lost the Battle of Kernstown in March. Therefore, he drove his men on a forced march to hurry their pursuit.
At Washington, Lincoln telegraphed Fremont rejecting the general’s previous refusal to aid Banks:
“The exposed condition of General Banks makes his immediate relief a point of paramount importance. You are therefore directed by the President to move against Jackson at Harrisonberg [sic] and operate against the enemy in such way as to relieve Banks. This movement must be made immediately. You will acknowledge the receipt of this order and specify the hour it is received by you.”
Then, just after allowing Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula to be reinforced by Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals near Fredericksburg, Lincoln pulled McDowell back. He explained to McClellan:
“In consequence of Gen. Banks’ critical position I have been compelled to suspend Gen. McDowell’s movement to join you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper’s Ferry, and we are trying to throw Fremont’s force & part of McDowell’s in their rear.”
Lincoln then issued orders to McDowell:
“General Fremont has been ordered by telegraph to move to Franklin and Harrisonburg to relieve General Banks and capture or destroy Jackson’s and Ewell’s forces. You are instructed, laying aside for the present the movement on Richmond, to put 20,000 men in motion at once for the Shenandoah, moving on the line or in advance of the line of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson and Ewell, either in cooperation with General Fremont, or, in case want of supplies or transportation has interfered with his movement, it is believed that the force which you move will be sufficient to accomplish the object alone… Reports received this morning are that Banks is fighting with Ewell, eight miles from Harper’s Ferry.”
These orders came just after Brigadier General James Shields’s Federal division from Banks’s army had arrived to reinforce McDowell. Now he would have to turn right around and go back. At this time, McDowell was within six miles of joining with McClellan on the Peninsula.
McDowell obeyed but complained to Stanton, “This is a crushing blow to us.” He then telegraphed Lincoln, “I beg to say that co-operation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon.” Explaining that the Confederates could destroy Banks before he even arrived, McDowell wrote, “I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.”
McDowell also complained to General James Wadsworth, in charge of the Washington defenses: “If the enemy can succeed so readily in disconcerting all our plans by alarming us first at one point, then at another, he will paralyze a large force with a very small one.” Shields, having served under Banks, told McDowell that “the same cry was constantly heard (from Banks) … that large numbers of thousands of the enemy always coming upon them.” Except this time, it was true.
By the night of the 24th, the Federals began straggling into Winchester, having won the race and avoiding the trap set by Jackson and Ewell. Residents there, being mostly pro-Confederate, cheered for Jackson and heckled the Federals as they came into town.
Ewell arrived at Kernstown, a few miles south of Winchester, that evening and awaited Jackson’s men. Jackson continued advancing into night and early morning, finally reaching Kernstown before taking a two-hour rest at 2 a.m. on the 25th.
Despite losing the race to Winchester, “Old Jack” had the Federals on the run in the Valley and seemed to be singlehandedly turning the war’s tide in the Confederacy’s favor. However, McDowell would soon be coming to help Banks confront Jackson from the north, while Fremont started moving to cut Jackson off to the south.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (24 May 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 129-30, 135; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13815-22; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 174; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 431, 436; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 156; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 834; Klein, Frederic S, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 215-16; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 386-87; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677