Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had submitted a proposal to conduct a campaign against Federal forces in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The objective would be Romney, a village of about 500 residents on the South Branch of the Potomac, about 40 miles from Jackson’s army at Winchester. Under Jackson’s plan, his men would subsist on the rich farmland between the two towns.
Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin informed him on December 6 that he would be reinforced by most of Brigadier General William W. Loring’s Army of the Northwest, stationed in western Virginia, as requested. Benjamin wrote that this “will place at your disposal quite an effective force for your proposed campaign, although I regret to observe that his movement cannot be made as promptly as I had hoped.” Benjamin also warned Jackson that Federals at Frederick, Maryland, and Romney might join forces to attack him at Winchester. If that happened, Benjamin stated that Loring’s arrival should allow Jackson to “turn the tables handsomely on the enemy by anticipating his purpose.”
As Jackson waited for Loring’s men to arrive, he attempted to carry out an operation suggested by President Jefferson Davis to destroy the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Specifically, Jackson targeted Dam Number 5 in the canal network, as it was one of the closest dams to Winchester, located about seven miles north of Williamsport, Maryland. Jackson dispatched a force of 400 infantry and two sections of artillery on the 7th. They took up positions on Potomac Heights and fired on the dam, but it held.
The next day, Sunday the 8th, the Confederates brought their guns up to within point-blank range of the dam, but Federal troops guarding the dam drove them off. Margaret J. Preston, the wife of one of Jackson’s staff officers, said, “The expedition proved a failure, and he (Jackson) attributed it in some measure to the fact that Sunday had been needlessly trespassed upon.” An effort on the 9th to divert water from the Potomac to wash away the dam failed as well. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding Federals in the Valley, reported, “No damage done; no danger of attack.”
A week later, Jackson himself led a force on another mission to destroy Dam Number 5. He told his superiors, “If this plan succeeds, as through the blessing of Providence it will–Washington will hardly get any further supply of coal during the war from Cumberland.” Before leaving, Jackson had scouts spread rumors that he was going to confront the Federals at Romney. This diversion worked, and Jackson headed for the dam undetected.
The Confederates marched 15 miles from Winchester to Martinsburg, then another 13 miles to the bluffs overlooking the C & O Canal, which ran parallel to the Potomac. The men had been directed to leave their baggage at Big Springs, and despite the freezing weather, they waited all day before 30 troops moved out under cover of darkness to begin the destruction.
Federals noticed the Confederates at daylight on the 18th and began firing on them. Jackson brought up artillery, but so did the Federals, and Jackson suspended operations. After waiting another day, Jackson moved some of his troops to trick the Federals into thinking they were going to destroy Dam Number 4, farther up the Potomac. When the Federals pursued, the Confederates hurried back and resumed their destruction of Dam Number 5.
As the skirmishing continued, Banks requested permission to seize Martinsburg, asserting, “With sufficient artillery, the bridge and the rolling stock of the railway, and our men well entrenched in front of Martinsburg, I think we could hold and defend the line of the railway with our present force against any assaults of the enemy permanently posted at Winchester, Leesburg, or vicinity.” General-in-Chief George B. McClellan denied Banks’s request. This allowed Jackson to retain the initiative in the Valley.
Jackson’s Confederates managed to crack Dam Number 5, and with that done, they headed back to their Winchester camps. They arrived on the 23rd after a torturously freezing two-day march. The troops were hopeful that they were done campaigning for the winter. Jackson reported, “There is reason to believe that the recent break in Dam No. 5 will destroy any vestige of hope that might have been entertained of supplying Washington with Cumberland coal by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.” But by the time the Confederates were back at Winchester, Federal engineers had repaired the damage. Jackson’s campaign ended in failure.
On the 24th, Jackson received word that there were now 10,000 Federals at Romney. He wrote to his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston: “As yet General Loring has not arrived, and as he has not reported to me the strength of his command I am unable to give it, except by estimate based upon the number of his regiments. I would respectfully urge upon the commanding general of the department the importance of sending me at once 5,000 good infantry and the First Virginia Cavalry, or its equivalent, and also a battery of four guns.” Jackson would return the men “after the Federal forces shall have been captured or driven out of Hampshire County.”
Loring arrived at Winchester later that day and informed Jackson that Benjamin had allowed Loring to decide “whether to bring his troops from the Monterey line or not, and he has decided not to bring any more of these troops here.” Jackson resolved to attack the Federals at Romney “at the earliest practicable moment” before their force grew any larger. This decision did not change even after Johnston told Jackson that he could send him no reinforcements, as it was “of greater consequence to hold this point (Manassas Junction).”
By New Year’s Eve, Jackson had 11,000 men under his command, including three of Loring’s four brigades. Loring was Jackson’s second-in-command while retaining direct command over his army. Only Jackson and his superiors knew that he would be advancing on Romney. Johnston had approved Jackson’s written plan to capture Romney and prevent Federal forces at that village and Martinsburg from linking. But Jackson did not write that he intended to first destroy the Federal outposts at Bath and Hancock, on the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac respectively. This would prevent the Federals from sending reinforcements from Martinsburg while Jackson turned on Romney.
Jackson issued orders for the troops to move out on New Year’s Day. The men were to receive five days’ rations, wake at 3 a.m., eat their breakfast and begin marching at 6 a.m. All men were to carry three-inch-wide white bands to wrap around their hats so they could be identified in combat. The new year would begin a new campaign, and for most of the troops, it would be the most grueling one of their lives.
- Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Cozzens, Peter, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.