By this time, there were four independent armies operating in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley:
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s 19,000-man Federal Army of the Shenandoah was situated around New Market and Harrisonburg
- Major General John C. Fremont’s 20,000-man Federal army operated in western Virginia
- Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s 3,000-man Confederate Army of the Northwest was stationed near Staunton
- Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 11,000-man Confederate army was secretly camped at Swift Run Gap
Banks looked to expel Jackson’s Confederates from the Valley, while Fremont looked to keep Johnson occupied. They would then join forces and place the Valley under Federal occupation. Fremont detached 3,000 troops under Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy to threaten Johnson at Staunton, with another 3,000 under Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck following in support.
Banks was confident that Jackson’s Confederates had left the Valley to reinforce their comrades on the Virginia Peninsula. As such, he prepared to join forces with Fremont. But President Abraham Lincoln, not as confident as Banks, expressed concern that having Banks join Fremont would put the Federals too far south, leaving Washington exposed to a potential attack by Jackson. He had Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton notify Banks:
“You are requested to consider whether you are not already making too wide a separation between the body of troops under your immediate command and your supporting force… It is possible that events may make it necessary to transfer the command of General (James) Shields (commanding a division under Banks) to the Department of the Rappahannock.”
Banks replied that even though there had been trouble getting supplies so far south, “our supplies are in improving condition.” Regarding the plan to join forces with Fremont, Banks wrote, “The movement is right, the force could be rapidly concentrated.” According to Banks, Fremont reported (via Milroy) that there were “no troops of the enemy in or about Staunton.” In another message the next day, Banks reassured his superiors that his men were “entirely secure” at Harrisonburg. Completely underestimating Jackson, Banks reported, “The enemy is in no condition for offensive movements.”
Some Federal officers were less confident. Brigadier General Alpheus Williams, commanding a division in Banks’s army, wrote of Jackson, “We fear he has been largely reinforced, and intends to turn upon us here or wait for us in his present strong position.”
Jackson had no intention of leaving the Valley; instead, he requested 5,000 reinforcements from the Peninsula so he could launch a counteroffensive. General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, replied, “A decisive and successful blow at Banks’s column would be fraught with the happiest results, and I deeply regret my inability to send you the reinforcements you ask.” Lee suggested that Jackson call upon “Allegheny” Johnson to join forces with him.
The next day, Jackson submitted three possible plans of attack to Lee:
- Major General Richard Ewell’s division would hold the Confederate positions at Swift Run Gap and prevent Banks from threatening Staunton while Jackson and Johnson joined forces to defeat Milroy and Fremont
- Johnson would keep Milroy and Fremont occupied while Jackson and Ewell joined forces to defeat Banks
- Jackson would move north toward Winchester to pull Banks farther from Fremont
Without waiting for Lee’s approval, Jackson arranged to execute the first plan, because “if successful I would afterwards only have Banks to contend with, and in doing this would be reinforced by General Johnson.” Dispatching Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry toward Harrisonburg, Jackson led his men out of Swift Run Gap in pouring rain on the 30th and headed toward Port Republic, 14 miles south. This would be the first leg of a march through Brown’s Gap to the Virginia Central Railroad, which would be used to send his army to Staunton. The Confederates took a muddy road along the east bank of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and covered only five miles by nightfall.
This began one of the hardest forced marches of the war, during which the men would travel 92 miles on foot and another 25 by railroad over the next four days, forever earning the nickname of the “Foot Cavalry.” This rapid movement would deceive the Federals even more than they already were and scare the Lincoln administration into shifting its focus from the Peninsula to the Valley.
That night, Ewell’s 8,000 Confederates marched over the Blue Ridge and took up positions near Jackson’s old camp at Swift Run Gap. Ashby’s cavalry harassed Banks’s Federals until Ewell could come up. Johnson’s Confederates remained camped at West View, seven miles west of Staunton.
Banks wrote Stanton, “You need have no apprehensions for our safety.” He erroneously reported that Jackson was “bound for Richmond. This is the fact, I have no doubt… There is nothing to be done by us in this Valley.” Banks sent another wire on the night of the 30th requesting that his troops join either the Federals on the Rappahannock or those on the Peninsula since it was “the most safe and effective disposition possible. I pray your favorable consideration. Such order will electrify our force.”
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- Cozzens, Peter, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
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