The Battle of Cross Keys

June 8, 1862 – In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a portion of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate army met a Federal advance from the northwest while Jackson faced a separate Federal threat from the northeast.

By the morning of the 8th, Major General Richard Ewell’s Confederates were at Cross Keys, while Jackson was with the rest of his force outside Port Republic, three miles south, where the North and South rivers merged to form the Shenandoah River. Two Federal forces were converging on the Confederates: Major General John C. Fremont’s from the northwest, and Brigadier General James Shields’s from the northeast. Neither force could support the other due to swollen rivers and burned bridges.

Jackson was outnumbered and pinned between two enemy forces, but he held the only bridge. He therefore planned to hold Fremont off first, and then turn to confront Shields. Jackson assigned Ewell’s 6,000 Confederates to oppose Fremont’s 11,000 Federals at Cross Keys.

Jackson’s plan was foiled when Federal cavalry unexpectedly rode into Port Republic, nearly separating Jackson from his men and capturing several of his staff members. The Federals could have taken the entire enemy force, or at least cut it off from its supply wagons across the South River by burning the North Bridge. But for some reason, Federal Brigadier General Samuel Carroll prohibited the bridge from being destroyed.

Federal artillery scattered the town’s residents and destroyed several buildings and homes. Confederate gunners began returning fire, and the rear guard made a stand that eventually pushed the Federals back out of town the way they came. Meanwhile, action had begun at Cross Keys to the north.

As Fremont’s troops advanced, Ewell’s front line held them up long enough for the rest of the Confederates to assemble in their strong defenses. Fremont, believing he was facing Jackson’s entire army, held back and instead opened an artillery barrage. Both sides traded cannon fire for about two hours before Fremont directed Brigadier General Julius Stahel’s brigade to move around and attack the Confederate right flank.

Battle of Cross Keys | Image Credit:
Battle of Cross Keys | Image Credit:

As Stahel’s men moved, they were unaware that Brigadier General Isaac Trimble’s Confederate brigade had moved forward a half-mile on the right, crawling to avoid detection. When the Federals came within 50 yards, Trimble’s men rose and fired into them. After two more volleys, the surviving Federals fell back.

The fight reverted to an artillery duel, but it had to be cut short due to ammunition running low on both sides. Trimble advanced another half-mile down the Keezletown road to attack a Federal battery, forming a mile-wide gap between Ewell’s right and center. The Federals pulled their guns back before Trimble’s men could reach them.

Ewell brought up Brigadier General Richard Taylor’s brigade to fill the gap caused by Trimble and shore up the left. A portion of Fremont’s army led by Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy advanced to attack the Confederate left at Mill Creek, but the Federals were met unexpectedly by enemy skirmishers firing into them. Milroy tried regrouping, but his men were then hit by Ewell’s artillery in the center.

As Milroy prepared to shift right, an order came from Fremont to fall back. This shocked Milroy because had Fremont committed his entire force, he could have taken the Confederate positions. But Fremont seemed confused by the unexpected Confederate strength and ended the fight. Five regiments under Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck stood idle to Milroy’s right, having never received orders to get into the fight.

Despite his objections, Milroy complied with Fremont’s directive, and the Federals withdrew under cover of their artillery. As the Confederates took the Federals’ positions, Trimble pleaded with Ewell to counterattack. But Ewell, following Jackson’s orders to stay on the defensive, refused.

Fremont sustained 684 casualties (114 killed, 443 wounded, and 127 missing), with half the losses suffered by the 8th New York. Ewell lost just 288 (41 killed, 232 wounded, and 15 missing), but two of his brigade commanders (Arnold Elzey and George Steuart) were badly wounded.

Meanwhile, Fremont received a message that Shields had arrived at Port Republic and would be ready to link with him. Unbeknownst to Fremont, Shields had written the message before Jackson’s Confederates drove him back out of town. Thus, Fremont planned to renew the attack the next day.

President Abraham Lincoln, unaware that all this was taking place, realized that Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals, further northward down the Shenandoah Valley, would not catch Jackson. Therefore, he granted McDowell’s request to leave the Valley and head back east to reinforce the Federals on the Virginia Peninsula.

Lincoln gave Fremont command of all troops in the Valley, with Shields to rejoin McDowell on the return trip. The other Federal army in the Valley under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks would then move from Winchester to McDowell’s positions at Front Royal.

Jackson, emboldened by his successes today, planned to attack Shields in the morning, and then turn to finish Fremont off in the afternoon. In a bold move, Jackson ordered Trimble’s reinforced brigade to hold Fremont off at Cross Keys while the rest of Ewell’s men crossed the North River and joined Jackson at Port Republic. Jackson risked his army’s destruction if either Fremont or Shields attacked, but Jackson was convinced they would not.


References; Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 165, 169; 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. 461; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 164-65; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 194, 597; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 77-78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 224; 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. 459; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 387-89; 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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