On May 1, the Lincoln administration started a Federal troop reduction in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Department of the Shenandoah, received orders to send Brigadier General James Shields’s division east to reinforce the Federals stationed near Fredericksburg, on the Rappahannock River. This left Banks with just one division in the Valley.
With Banks effectively neutralized, the small Confederate army led by Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson moved west to join forces with Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, had originally urged Jackson to attack Banks, but Jackson opted to confront the other Federal army in the Valley under Major General John C. Fremont. Lee responded to Jackson’s plan on the 1st: “I must leave the selection of the one to be adopted by your judgment.” By this time, Jackson was already in motion.
Banks believed that Jackson had gone east, out of the Valley. Jackson tried to confirm that belief by planning to first head east and then suddenly turn west to meet up with Johnson near Staunton. This was rendered unnecessary by Banks detaching Shields, but Jackson pushed his men nonetheless and divulged his plan to nobody. They slogged through pouring rain on the 1st, covering just five miles in the move from Conrad’s Store to Staunton. A new recruit, Private Joe Kaufman, wrote in his diary, “I begin to think Old Jack is a hard master from the way he is putting us through. Oh, how I wish peace would be declared!”
When the troops reached Port Republic late on the 2nd, they turned east toward the Blue Ridge and bivouacked at the western foot of Brown’s Gap for the night. The men had marched just 15 miles in two and a half days. The march resumed the next day through Brown’s Gap, with their secret destination being the Virginia Central Railroad at the Mechums River. “Old Jack” drove subordinates crazy by refusing to share his plans, but he fooled both friend and foe into thinking he was leaving the Valley, which set the stage for his upcoming offensive.
Jackson’s Confederates arrived at the Mechums River Station, about 10 miles west of Charlottesville, on Sunday the 4th. As the men arrived, they were loaded onto westbound trains heading back into the Valley. Jackson himself rode to Staunton and met with his cavalry commander, Colonel Turner Ashby, who had been observing Banks’s Federals around Harrisonburg. As Jackson set up headquarters at the Virginia Hotel, his troops began arriving via railroad around 5 p.m., wondering why they had marched east only to be shipped back west. The brilliance of the move was not immediately apparent.
By the following evening, Jackson’s entire force assembled around Staunton. “Allegheny” Johnson’s Confederates were six miles west and moving closer as they retreated from Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy’s division, detached from Fremont’s army. While in Staunton, Jackson finally replaced his old blue major’s uniform from his teaching days at the Virginia Military Institute with a new major general’s uniform.
Jackson also received a message from Lee, which stated that Banks was in the process of withdrawing from Harrisonburg. To Lee, this probably meant that Banks was sending troops to the Rappahannock, and those troops would soon move down to the Virginia Peninsula to join the main thrust on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lee wrote, “Object of evacuating Harrisonburg may be concentration at Fredericksburg. Watch Banks movements. If you can strike at Milroy do it quickly.”
The next day, Jackson pushed his men west to link with Johnson. In four days, Jackson’s men had marched 92 miles and traveled another 25 by rail in a remarkable feat of logistics. Meanwhile, a Confederate detachment skirmished with Banks’s Federals and pushed them back from Harrisonburg to New Market. Banks was completely fooled as to Jackson’s location and intention. With Milroy at Monterey, Jackson and Johnson headed for McDowell, a hamlet 10 miles east of Milroy.
The two Confederate commands set out on the warm, dry morning of May 7. They were still separated by about a five-hour march as they reached the eastern edge of the Alleghenies and closed in on McDowell, with Johnson’s 3,000 men in the lead. Jackson’s officers were “totally ignorant” of where they were going, and some took a wrong road that required a 25-mile countermarch to return to the main force. When Jackson’s Confederates caught up with Johnson’s, the combined force would number about 10,000 men.
The Federals spotted the Confederates approaching along the Staunton & Parkersburg turnpike. After a quick artillery barrage, the Federals withdrew across the Bull Pasture River toward McDowell, leaving their baggage and tents. McDowell would be a difficult hamlet to defend because it was surrounded by high ground, but Milroy decided to stay and, if necessary, fight.
That night, Fremont responded to Milroy’s call for reinforcements by sending Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck’s 1,500-man brigade. This would increase Milroy’s total to 6,000. If Milroy would launch a quick attack the next morning, he could destroy Johnson’s small army before Jackson’s men could move up to reinforce it. But Milroy opted to stay on the defensive.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- 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.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.