Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was at Winchester, Virginia, with a portion of his Confederate Army of the Shenandoah. Another portion, led by Brigadier General William W. Loring, was at Romney, about 30 miles northwest. Loring had petitioned Confederate officials at Richmond to move his command out of Romney, where the men were suffering harsh privations and were vulnerable to Federal attack.
As Jackson’s superiors received word of the hardships suffered by his men at Romney, they began to question the military value of keeping them there. General Joseph E. Johnston, Jackson’s immediate superior, had sent him a message before even learning of the suffering at Romney urging him to concentrate his army “to oppose an enemy coming from Harper’s Ferry, Williamsport, or the northwest.” Johnston further opined that it was “imprudent… to keep your troops dispersed as they now are… The enemy might not only prevent your concentrating, but interpose himself between us, which we must never permit.”
On January 29, Johnston responded to a letter written by Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin asking him to look into rumors about mistreatment in Jackson’s army. Johnston, who knew nothing of this beforehand, responded, “Without being entirely certain that I understand the precise object of apprehension in the Valley District, I have dispatched the acting inspector general of the department to see and report without delay the condition of Major-General Jackson’s troops.”
That same day, Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro, a brigade commander in Loring’s army at Romney, delivered the petition against Jackson to President Jefferson Davis. Davis had already heard rumors of immense suffering at Jackson’s hands, and he legitimized this break in the chain of command by accepting the petition. Davis then wrote Benjamin, “It will be necessary to act promptly. Have you been notified of the return of General Jackson to Winchester and the withdrawal of the brigade with which he undertook the service from which he is reported to have retired, leaving only those who were sent to re-enforce him? Will confer with you at your pleasure.”
Davis and Benjamin met the next day. Based on the accounts of suffering they had heard, along with rumors of a Federal effort to separate Jackson at Winchester from Loring at Romney, Davis directed Benjamin to telegraph Jackson that evening: “Our news indicates that a movement is being made to cut off General Loring’s command. Order him back to Winchester immediately.”
The rumors turned out to be false. Brigadier General Frederick Lander commanded Federal forces at Cumberland, Maryland, which was closer to Romney than Jackson was. Lander wanted to attack Loring badly, but his superiors had ordered him to maintain a defensive posture along the Potomac River, guarding the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad supply line, until spring.
Jackson was shocked and outraged upon receiving Benjamin’s order on the morning of the 31st. It breached military protocol because not only should such an order have come from Johnston rather than Benjamin, but it revealed that Loring had gone over Jackson’s head to Richmond. Even worse, Jackson knew that rumors of Federals advancing to cut him off from Loring were false. He had considered his Romney campaign a success, and he expected Loring to hold that town as part of a larger plan to retake western Virginia. This order questioned not only his authority, but his competence as a commander.
Adhering to military guidelines, Jackson issued orders for Loring’s forces to abandon Romney and return to Winchester. This left his forward units at Bath unprotected, and they soon withdrew as well. Jackson then replied to Benjamin:
“Your order requiring me to direct General Loring to return with his command to Winchester immediately has been received and promptly complied with. With such interference in my command I cannot expect to be of much service in the field, and accordingly respectfully request to be ordered to report for duty to the superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, as has been done in the case of other professors. Should this application not be granted, I respectfully request that the President will accept my resignation from the Army.”
The response was sent through Johnston, who immediately saw that losing Jackson would be a crippling blow to the Confederate cause. He responded:
“My dear friend, I have just read, with profound regret, your letter to the Secretary of War, asking to be relieved from your present command… Let me beg you to reconsider this matter. Under ordinary circumstances, a due sense of one’s own dignity, as well as care for professional character and official rights, would demand such a course as yours. But the character of this war, the great energy exhibited by the Government of the United States, the danger in which our very existence as an independent people lies, require sacrifices from us all who have been educated as soldiers… I have taken the liberty to detain your letter, to make this appeal to your patriotism, not merely from warm feelings of personal regard, but from the official opinion which makes me regard you as necessary to the service of the country in your present position.”
Before he received Johnston’s letter, Jackson wrote to Virginia Governor John Letcher, asking for his help to return to the teaching job at V.M.I. he had held before the war. The controversy over losing such a valuable commander continued into February.
- 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.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- 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.