Crossing Hell on the Ice

Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and his Confederate Army of the Shenandoah targeted Romney, a key hamlet in northwestern Virginia. Jackson had led his 10,000 men on a circuitous route from Winchester to Bath on the Potomac River, from which they bombarded Hancock on the Maryland side. When that town proved too strong to take, Jackson had withdrawn and was now poised to seize his prime objective of Romney. But the weather was brutally cold, and the men endured extreme hardships in this torturous campaign.

The Federal forces at Romney, commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley, had routed a small Confederate outpost on the Northwest Turnpike, thereby opening the road to Winchester. This was Jackson’s base, and he could have fallen back to defend it, but instead he opted to continue with his plan to seize Romney. When Kelley learned this, he opted to stay at Romney and await reinforcement from the Federals at Hancock, led by Brigadier General Frederick Lander.

Falling back from Bath, Jackson’s troops reached Unger’s Store on the night of January 7 and spent the next couple days trying to recover from the extreme cold. The army had a very long sick list; one brigade commander reported that 500 men were ill, and another reported 300. Jackson directed the men to heat water for baths and refit the horses with ice calks.

Meanwhile, Lander had orders to abandon Hancock and join forces with Kelley at Romney and then fall back to better protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. But Lander wanted to pursue Jackson’s Confederates instead. He had asked his immediate superior, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, for permission to do so, but Banks had denied it, citing the cold weather.

Lander then bypassed Banks to ask General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, who also refused. McClellan stated through Banks, “Say to General Lander that I might comment very severely on the tone of his dispatches but abstain. Give him positive orders to repair at once to Romney and carry out the instructions I have sent already to fall back on the railway. It would be folly to cross the river at Hancock under the present circumstances.”

Gen. F.W. Lander | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Lander resentfully complied, arriving at Romney on the 9th and joining forces with Kelley’s Federals. The combined force numbered about 7,000 men. Lander urged Kelley to take the offensive against Jackson, but Kelley (who was recovering from illness at Cumberland, Maryland) declined, citing overwhelming Confederate numbers closing in on them. Jackson did have superior numbers, but they were by no means overwhelming.

Thwarted again in his effort to fight, Lander angrily withdrew from Romney on the night of the 10th. Falling back in freezing rain, Lander exclaimed, “The next time I undertake to move an army, and God almighty sends such a rain, I will go around and cross hell on the ice!” The Federals withdrew to Patterson’s Creek Station on the B&O line, six miles east of Cumberland, Maryland.

Jackson’s Confederates finally left Unger’s Store on the 13th. Cavalry reported that the Federals had abandoned Romney after wildly overestimating Jackson’s strength. The morning was sunny and mild, but temperatures soon plummeted. A storm developed late that afternoon that turned into driving rain, sleet, and then snow. Brigadier General William W. Loring’s Army of the Northwest, which consisted of three brigades attached to Jackson’s command, struggled to keep pace with the Stonewall Brigade.

Jackson’s advance elements arrived outside Romney on the night of the 14th in driving sleet. A soldier said that when they arrived, “every soldier’s clothing was a solid cake of ice,” with “icicles two inches long hanging from the hair and whiskers of every man.” Loring’s men were still on their way; Loring had opposed this campaign, and tensions between he and Jackson continued mounting.

By the 16th, the entire army had arrived to occupy Romney, which one soldier called “a hog pen.” Most residents had abandoned the town, and troops took up quarters in private homes, churches, and the courthouse. Loring’s men, resentful of Jackson’s hard push through terrible weather, hissed and jeered him as he rode past. Overall, Jackson’s campaign that had begun on New Year’s Day was lackluster at best. He had taken Romney as planned, but he had failed to subdue Hancock first, thereby only partially accomplishing the mission. The weather had also taken an unforeseen toll on his army.

Jackson reported to Richmond that the Romney area was back under Confederate control, having sustained just 32 casualties (four killed and 28 wounded) during the campaign. This did not include the hundreds suffering from frostbite, hypothermia, and other weather-related illnesses. He requested 4,000 reinforcements to defeat Lander and Kelley and capture Cumberland, a vital supply depot on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. As his men suffered, Jackson planned to send them on another attack.


  • 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.
  • Smith, Dean E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

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