June 7, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate army continued moving south up the Shenandoah Valley and prepared to face two Federal forces approaching from both the east and west.
Federal Brigadier General James Shields, whose pursuit of Jackson had been thwarted due to burned bridges and swelling rivers, continued heading south to block the Confederates’ retreat. Shields wrote his superior, Major General Irvin McDowell, that despite the obstacles, he intended to “ascend the river, cross it and take Jackson in the rear.”
How Shields would do this was a mystery since he also reported that his men were dangerously low on supplies and “destitute of everything in the way of shoes.” But Shields felt this was the only way to destroy Jackson, as he explained to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I cannot now take him (Jackson) in reverse, owing to the inundation. I cannot fight against the elements, but give me bread to keep me alive and they (Jackson’s men) will never leave the valley.”
Although the other Federal commanders in the Valley had consistently guessed Jackson had about 20,000 men, Shields more accurately estimated all along that Jackson had no more than 7,000. As such, Shields told Stanton that he could “stampede them down to Richmond if you give me plenty of bread.”
Shields based his strategy on the false assumption that Jackson was trying to leave the Valley to join the Confederates on the Virginia Peninsula. Shields dispatched part of his force to Staunton, while his remaining Federals guarded the bridge to Port Republic, which Shields thought Jackson needed to escape.
But Jackson was not planning to escape. His men were in line of battle at New Market, expecting Shields to attack from the east and Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal army to advance from the west. When neither Shields nor Fremont showed, Jackson resumed his eastward march at 1 a.m. on the 5th. Jackson knew Shields would have to either return north or try crossing the Shenandoah River at Port Republic. If Shields chose the latter, Jackson would oppose him.
Jackson’s Confederates reached Harrisonburg on the morning of June 5, having marched over 100 miles in a week. The troops passed through town and then turned toward Port Republic, 11 miles southeast, with Fremont pursuing on the Valley turnpike.
The Confederate vanguard reached Port Republic near nightfall, as Jackson learned that Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s Confederate cavalry had destroyed all the bridges between Front Royal and Port Republic. This would prevent Shields from crossing the river and joining forces with Fremont. Confederate signalmen atop Massanutten Mountain reported that Shields was still in the Luray Valley, 14 miles away, and Fremont remained near New Market.
Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee, now commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the Peninsula, envisioned Jackson taking the offensive in the Valley while Lee prepared to counterattack Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis:
“After much reflection, I think if it was possible to reinforce Jackson strongly, it would change the character of the war. This can only be done by the troops in Georgia, S.C. and N.C. Jackson could in that event cross Maryland into Penn. It would call all the enemy from our Southern Coast and liberate those states. If these states will give up their troops I think it can be done… McClellan will make this a battle of posts. He will take position from position, under cover of his heavy guns. I am preparing a line that I can hold with part of our forces in front, while with the rest I will endeavour to make a diversion to bring McClellan out.”
Lee began working with Secretary of War George W. Randolph to gather the reinforcements Jackson had requested. Lee was aided by continuous rain on the Peninsula, which virtually assured that McClellan would not attack. McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness prompted Lee to push for Jackson to take the offensive in a message to Randolph: “His plan is to march to Front Royal and crush Shields. It is his only course, and as he is a good soldier, I expect him to do it.”
By the 6th, Jackson had beaten Shields in the race to Port Republic, while Ashby set up defenses near Harrisonburg to fend off Fremont coming from the west. As Ashby’s men pulled out to join the rest of the army, his troopers scattered a half hearted attempt by Federal cavalry to pursue. The Confederates captured Colonel Percy Wyndham, a British soldier-of-fortune, and 63 of his men.
Ashby then turned to confront Federal infantry marching through Harrisonburg, with support from Major General Richard Ewell’s Confederates. The Federals came on stronger than Ashby expected and nearly routed the Confederates; Ashby was killed leading a countercharge. Ewell took command, and the Confederates eventually drove the Federals back. Ewell then withdrew to join Jackson’s main force.
Ashby’s troopers mourned the loss of their popular commander. Jackson was informed of Ashby’s death that night, and he wrote in his report several months later:
“As a partisan officer I never knew his superior. His daring was proverbial; his power of endurance almost incredible; his tone of character heroic; and his sagacity almost intuitive in divining the purposes and movements of the enemy.”
As the day ended, Fremont moved south along one branch of the Shenandoah River, and Shields advanced along the other. Ewell’s Confederates resumed their withdrawal the next day before stopping at Cross Keys, a hamlet six miles from Harrisonburg, to make a stand against Fremont’s approaching Federals. Ewell commanded positions on a ridge overlooking several miles of open ground that the Federals would have to cross. Ewell posted four artillery batteries in the center of his line, and woods afforded him natural protection on both his flanks.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s Confederates marched another three miles and positioned themselves on high ground overlooking the confluence of rivers at Port Republic. From this point, they could see Shields’s Federals advancing. Confederate Congressman Alexander R. Boteler delivered a message to Jackson from President Davis, which congratulated the general on his success and responded to his request for more men:
“Were it practicable to send you reinforcements it should be done, and your past success shows how surely you would, with an adequate force, destroy the wicked designs of the invader of our homes and assailer of our political rights… (but) it is on your skill and daring that reliance is to be placed. The army under your command encourages us to hope for all which men can achieve.”
Jackson, knowing his command could be called to the Virginia Peninsula at any time, wrote to General Joseph E. Johnston (still unaware that Lee had replaced Johnston as army commander):
“Should my command be required at Richmond I can be at Mechum’s River Depot, on the Central Railroad, the second day’s march, and part of the command can reach there the first day, as the distance is 25 miles. At present, I do not see that I can do much more than rest my command and devote its time to drilling.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 157-58; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13849-67; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 181; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 457-59; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 162-63; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3591-3603; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 194; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 222-23; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24-25