Prophesizing Disastrous Failure

Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah at Winchester, Virginia, was awakened at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day as planned. The army, consisting of 7,500 volunteers, 2,200 militia, and 650 cavalry troopers, was in motion by 6 a.m. Very few, if any, of the officers or men knew where they were going except Jackson. Many guessed that they were going to attack the Federals at Romney, 40 miles northwest of Winchester. This was technically correct, but before they did, Jackson had a detour in mind.

The march began in unseasonably warm weather, and many soldiers lightened their loads by shedding their coats and blankets. They started out toward Romney, but then they turned onto an unexpected road. Jackson would first knock out the Federal outpost at the mineral-water resort of Bath, about 35 miles northeast of Romney. He would then take out the Federals across the Potomac at Hancock, Maryland, before turning on his ultimate objective.

The pleasant weather disappeared that afternoon when a bitter northern wind came up, and temperatures quickly plummeted to single digits. The suffering Confederates covered just eight miles on the 1st. After a brutally cold night, the troops were awakened at 5 a.m. Wind, sleet, and snow hindered their movement, and they stopped at Unger’s Store, about 16 miles south of Bath. Jackson planned to cut communications between the main Federal bases at Romney and Martinsburg. But he shared this plan with no one, not even Brigadier General William W. Loring, his second-in-command.

The Confederates left Unger’s Store on the 3rd, bypassing the road through Bloomery Gap to Romney to instead attack Bath. Jackson planned to attack that day, but his troops were just not seasoned enough to meet his expectations under such harsh conditions. It took the entire day for the Confederates to finally arrive outside Bath. By that time, a slave had informed the Federals of Jackson’s approach, thereby ruining the element of surprise.

The Confederates pushed back Federal pickets and prepared to attack the small garrison at dusk, but Loring refused to conduct a nighttime operation. After a heated exchange, Jackson relented and the men camped in the two to four inches of snow outside the town. The troops were prohibited from starting fires. It was reported that Loring’s officers “did not hesitate to denounce Jackson openly and in unmeasured terms, as a madman for having marched them into the mountains at that season of the year, and for keeping them there in such tempestuous weather. They pronounced the expedition rash… and prophesized disastrous failure.”

General William W. Loring | Image Credit:

By morning, the small Federal garrison at Bath had been strengthened to 1,400 men, but it was still too small to oppose Jackson. The Confederates advanced, and even though Loring’s men moved too slow for Jackson’s liking, they easily seized Bath and pursued the Federals to the banks of the Potomac. However, nightfall arrived before the Confederates could stop them from escaping across the river.

Jackson ordered his artillery to fire on Hancock, even though the town had a large number of civilian residents, many of whom were Confederate sympathizers. Jackson noted that the Federals had fired on Shepherdstown several times, even “while there were no troops in the place and it was not used as a means of defense.” The Confederates fired into the town intermittently for about five hours that night, damaging many homes on the riverbank but causing no casualties.

By Sunday the 5th, there were about 4,000 Federals at Hancock, thus putting Jackson’s plan to take both Bath and Hancock in serious jeopardy. That morning, he sent his cavalry commander, Colonel Turner Ashby, across the Potomac under a flag of truce to demand surrender from the Federal commander, Brigadier General Frederick Lander. Lander had gained fame before the war as an explorer who oversaw construction of the Lander Road, a wagon route from the Wyoming Territory through Oregon to the Pacific.

Federals blindfolded Ashby and brought him to Lander’s headquarters, where he informed Lander that he had two hours to evacuate Hancock before the Confederates shelled the town. Lander replied, “Colonel Ashby, give my regards to General Jackson and tell him to bombard and be damned! If he opens his batteries on this town he will injure more of his friends than he will of the enemy, for this is a damned secesh place anyhow!” Lander then wrote out a formal reply to Jackson’s ultimatum: “I decline to accede to your request. If you feel justified in destroying the property and lives of peaceable citizens under the plea of crossing the Potomac at a particular point… which I dispute, you must do so on your own responsibility.”

As Ashby prepared to leave, Lander told him, “General Jackson and yourself, Colonel Ashby, are gentlemen and brave men, without a question, but you have started out in a Goddamn bad cause!” The Confederates finally opened fire around 2 p.m., nearly two hours after the evacuation deadline had expired. Federal artillery responded, but neither side was particularly effective. Meanwhile, a Confederate detachment destroyed the railroad bridge over the Big Cacapon River.

Heavy snow fell through the night and into the 6th, making the Confederates even more miserable while the Federals kept warm in the looted homes of Hancock residents. Lander asked permission from his superior, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, to cross the Potomac and attack Jackson. Banks sent him a division from Martinsburg but denied Lander’s request, telling him it would be best to not conduct offensive operations until spring. This infuriated Lander, who now began preparations to continue his original plan of concentrating his forces at Romney.

Meanwhile, Jackson decided not to attack. He reported that the Federals had been reinforced “to such an extent as to induce me to believe that my object could not be accomplished without a sacrifice of life, which I felt unwilling to make.” Although he did not accomplish his goal of capturing both Bath and Hancock, his men had destroyed a railroad bridge and cut Federal communication lines between the Alleghenies and the Potomac. This isolated the Federals at Romney, which increased his chances of taking that village.

The Confederates disengaged from Hancock the next day and began falling back to Unger’s Store. They struggled through a frigid snow and ice storm, in which temperatures dropped to nearly 20 degrees below zero. For many, this was the hardest campaign they would ever undertake that did not involve combat.

When Lander learned of Jackson’s withdrawal, he again asked Banks for permission to cross the Potomac. Banks again refused, arguing that such a move in the winter was too risky. Lander wrote to himself, “Is not war a game of risks, are not fear and doubt states of nervous sentiment which embarrass leaders and prevent results? Are we less able to penetrate the enemy’s country than Jackson to penetrate ours?”

Meanwhile, the Federal commander at Romney, Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, had received word of Jackson’s threat to Hancock and dispatched his 2,000 Federals to Blue’s Gap, where they routed a small detachment of Confederates guarding the Northwest Turnpike. This opened the road to Winchester for a Federal advance. Rather than go back to defend Winchester, Jackson decided to continue with his original plan. But now his rush to seize Romney would take on an all-new importance.


  • 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.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.

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