The Blow Must Be Sudden and Heavy

By this month, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal corps in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley had been reinforced due to the unexpected engagement at Kernstown in late March. As the Federals resumed their advance from Strasburg, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s small Confederate Army of the Shenandoah fell back southward up the Valley from Mount Jackson, screened by Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry. Ashby and the Stonewall Brigade held the line at Stony Creek, which Jackson’s cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss considered a good line for the rear guard. The rest of Jackson’s army took positions near Rude’s Hill, which Hotchkiss called “a fine position to hold; the next one (hill) above Stony Creek.”

The Confederates were shocked to learn that Jackson had relieved Brigadier General Richard Garnett of command of the vaunted Stonewall Brigade. Jackson accused Garnett of “neglect of duty” by ordering a retreat without Jackson’s permission at the Battle of Kernstown on March 23. Jackson believed that Garnett had cost him a victory, but in reality, had Garnett not ordered the withdrawal, the Stonewall Brigade and possibly even the entire army would have been destroyed. Jackson provided no specifics on the charges against Garnett, and they were later dropped.

Meanwhile, a massive influx of new Confederate recruits prompted Jackson to reorganize his force. Jackson also directed troops to round up locals who refused to answer the conscription call; these were mostly Mennonite or Quaker pacifists. Jackson acknowledged their refusal to fight by employing them as teamsters, laborers, and cooks. A detachment also hunted down and captured a group of deserters led by Captain William H. Gillespie, who had served on Jackson’s staff and was up for a promotion to lieutenant.

East of the Shenandoah, General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew his Confederate army beyond the Rapidan River and ordered Jackson to stop Banks from seizing Staunton, a key Valley town holding the main Confederate supply line to Richmond. Johnston authorized Jackson to call on Major General Richard Ewell, whose 8,500-man division was at Brandy Station, to reinforce him in the Valley if needed. On April 10, Jackson informed Ewell that he may be forced to withdraw further up the Valley, and three days later, Jackson directed Ewell to join him at Swift Run Gap.

Ewell instead asked Jackson to join him in an attack on the Federal division of Brigadier General Louis Blenker, which was on its way to reinforce Banks but was currently isolated east of the Blue Ridge. Ewell wrote, “Blenker’s troops are very much scattered and demoralized, are ill-treating the people, robbing and stealing, and wantonly killing all stock. They are Dutch. Were you to come through the mountains and attack Blenker’s force we would find them scattered and cut up, and it would cause Banks to clear the Valley. Blenker’s men are deserting; those I have seen are stupid, ignorant Dutch.” Jackson ignored Ewell’s suggestion and reiterated his orders for Ewell to bring his division to Swift Run Gap.

The Federal threat against Jackson’s army was minimized by Banks’s slow, methodical pace up the Valley. For over a week, Colonel Ashby’s small cavalry force blocked the Federals at Stony Creek. Banks reported on the 15th, “Ashby still here. We have a sleepless eye on him, and are straining every nerve to advance as quickly as possible.” Banks began planning to capture the crossroads at New Market. To do so, he planned to outflank Jackson at Stony Creek and Rude’s Hill.

Two days later, a Federal infantry column under Brigadier General James Shields surprised Ashby by crossing Stony Creek before dawn. At the same time, Federal cavalry crossed the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on a bridge that Ashby had failed to burn before retreating. Skirmishing occurred until Ashby’s command fell back to Jackson’s main line at Rude’s Hill. Jackson’s artillery slowed the Federal advance. The Confederates slowly withdrew, and Federals entered Mount Jackson around 7 a.m. The “sullen inhabitants” watched the Federals march through town with flags waving and bands playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Jackson planned to withdraw to the North River, if necessary, and wait for Ewell to arrive. The Confederates resumed their retreat on the 18th, moving through Harrisonburg before stopping about five miles southeast of town at a place called Peale’s Crossroads. Jackson’s Confederates ended their withdrawal on the rainy night of the 19th. Having covered nearly 100 miles in the past month, the men crossed the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and camped at the foot of Swift Run Gap. This spot covered the Luray Valley, Harrisonburg, and Staunton. If Banks moved south of this point, Jackson could attack him from the rear.

Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, Ewell’s Confederates arrived at Gordonsville on their way to linking with Jackson at Swift Run Gap. General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, received word that the Federal Army of the Rappahannock (formerly First Corps of the Army of the Potomac) had established a base of operations against Richmond at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg in northeastern Virginia. Lee wrote:

“If you can use Genl. Ewell’s division in an attack on Genl. Banks, and to drive him back, it will prove a great relief to the pressure on Fredericksburg, but if you should find Genl. Banks too strong to be approached, and your object is to hold Genl. Ewell in supporting distance to your column, he may be of more importance at this time between Fredericksburg and Richmond.”

Banks was unaware of Jackson’s position. He sent a Federal expedition to seize the Luray Valley bridges across the South Fork of the Shenandoah; they scattered some Confederate cavalry but could not find Jackson’s army. Banks therefore notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I believe Jackson left this valley yesterday.” But Jackson had not left. He took up positions in the Blue Ridge Mountains, hidden by the Massanutten Ridge. He then dispatched his topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, to lead a cavalry expedition (not Ashby, who had failed him at Stony Creek) in destroying the bridges over the South Fork.

Hotchkiss found the Confederate troopers at the Shenandoah Iron Works, with “many of them under the influence of apple-jack.” This disorganized force could only burn one of the three bridges before being driven back to Jackson’s main body by Federal cavalry. Around the same time, Major General John C. Fremont’s new Federal Mountain Department army pushed “Allegheny” Johnson’s Confederates away from the Shenandoah Mountain.

During this time, Jackson responded to Lee’s suggestions by stating that he preferred to have Ewell join him, but he would go along with whatever Lee thought best. Jackson’s plan was to allow Banks to move on Staunton and then attack him from the rear, but such an action might not succeed without Ewell’s reinforcements. Jackson wrote, “I have given you my views respecting things here, but it may be that General Ewell could render more service at Fredericksburg, and, if so, I hope that you will direct his movements accordingly.”

Banks continued to wrongly assume that Jackson had retreated east, presumably to reinforce Johnston’s army on the Virginia Peninsula. Banks told his superiors that Jackson’s supposed retreat “from the Valley by the way of the mountains, from Harrisonburg toward Stanardsville and Orange Court-House, on Gordonsville is confirmed this morning by our scouts and prisoners.” However, Jackson remained at Swift Run Gap; the scouts did not reconnoiter the gap and Confederate prisoners lied about his true whereabouts.

As the Federals moved southward toward Harrisonburg and occupied Luray, Banks reported that “Jackson has abandoned the valley of Virginia permanently, en route for Gordonsville, by way of the mountains.” But Federal scouts continued missing Swift Run Gap, the most logical point to move east toward Gordonsville. Meanwhile, Jackson was well aware of Banks’s movements thanks to Jedediah Hotchkiss’s close reconnaissance.

On the 25th, Lee replied to Jackson’s message by leaving it to Jackson whether or not to use Ewell’s troops to attack Banks. Lee wrote:

“I have hoped in the present divided condition of the enemy’s forces that a successful blow may be dealt them by a rapid combination of our troops before they can be strengthened themselves either in position or by re-enforcements… The blow, wherever struck, must, to be successful, be sudden and heavy. The troops used must be efficient and light. I cannot pretend at this distance to direct operations depending on circumstances unknown to me and requiring the exercise of discretion and judgment as to time and execution.”

Jackson chose to use Ewell to attack Banks. He began planning an operation that would divert Federal attention from both Fredericksburg and the Peninsula. The Federals were closing in on Swift Run Gap, so Jackson ordered Ewell to head to Stannardsville without offering any further details.

Meanwhile, a portion of Banks’s army advanced into New Market while the main body reached Harrisonburg. From Washington, Stanton expressed concern that the Federal forces in the Valley were moving too far apart. He also warned Banks that Shields could be detached from his command and sent east to join the Rappahannock army. For his part, Banks had moved an unimpressive 35 miles in 10 days while completely mistaking the location and intention of Jackson’s army.


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