The Battle of McDowell

Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy’s Federal division from Major General John C. Fremont’s army was isolated at the hamlet of McDowell in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The town was virtually impossible to secure because it was surrounded by hills that attackers could use to fire down on defenders. The most formidable ridge was Sitlington’s Hill, which was part of Bull Pasture Mountain.

Milroy assembled his ranks at 4 a.m. and awaited an attack from Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s Confederates in the heights outside McDowell. Johnson’s 3,000-man force was several miles ahead of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 7,000 Confederates marching along the Staunton & Parkersburg turnpike to join them. Milroy deployed artillery and skirmishers to contest Johnson’s approach. Johnson held back, opting to wait for Jackson’s arrival.

When Jackson came up, he surveyed the situation and determined that a frontal attack would prove too costly because the Confederates would have to funnel through a narrow ravine that the Federals could cover with cannon and rifles. Jackson instead planned to occupy Sitlington’s Hill and launch a flank attack from there.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck’s 1,500-man brigade arrived to reinforce Milroy, raising the Federal force total to 6,500. Milroy thanked Schenck for getting there “just in time.” Schenck outranked Milroy and therefore took overall command. Schenck did not believe that Jackson would attack and began preparing to evacuate McDowell that night. But Milroy received word that Jackson was putting a battery on Sitlington’s Hill that could fire down and decimate the Federals. Schenck allowed Milroy to reconnoiter the hill with five regiments totaling about 2,300 men.

Jackson was not placing artillery on Sitlington’s Hill because it was too difficult to pull the guns up onto the heights. But he was positioning infantry there, and the Confederate troops held the crest of the hill while Jackson, not suspecting Federal opposition, scouted for a potential flanking movement to the north.

Map of the fight at McDowell, with Federals in blue and Confederates in red | Image Credit:

The Federals began to scale the slope around 3 p.m. They were met by Johnson’s Confederates firing on them from above, hidden by boulders and dense woods. The Federals continued to ascend, and as the ground leveled, they launched a heavy attack on Johnson’s right. Jackson deployed troops to shore up the line’s weak center, where vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued.

Another two Confederate regiments took up positions on the right to keep the Federals from flanking their line. The Confederates held firm, withstanding hours of infantry lunges and artillery barrages. As the sun began to set, the Federals started running low on ammunition. Near 10 p.m., they gathered their wounded and fell back to McDowell.

Around 12:30 a.m. on the 9th, Schenck led a Federal withdrawal across the Bull Pasture River toward Franklin, 30 miles north. Milroy stayed behind with a detachment to tend to the dead and wounded, and to burn any supplies they could not take with them. By the time the sun rose, these Federals had evacuated McDowell and joined the main withdrawal.

This battle caused confusion in Washington because it was fought at McDowell, and the Federal general currently commanding troops across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg was Irvin McDowell. Also, the name “Johnson” was mistaken for “Johnston,” commander of the Confederate army on the Virginia Peninsula; at one point, officials believed that Jackson was heading east to join Johnston in taking on McDowell rather than joining Johnson to attack Federals at McDowell.

The Federals lost 261 men (26 killed, 230 wounded, and five missing), while the Confederates lost 532 (146 killed, 382 wounded, and four missing). Surprisingly, the defenders holding the high ground sustained more losses than the attackers, partly because the Federals used more accurate Enfield rifles. In addition, the Confederates were mostly firing downhill into the sun, and they tended to overshoot as a result. Jackson’s inability to deploy artillery also played a role. “Allegheny” Johnson was put out of action with a serious ankle wound, and Jackson absorbed Johnson’s Army of the Northwest into his new Army of the Valley.

Schenck and Milroy achieved their goal of fighting a delaying action, so the fight at McDowell could be considered a tactical Federal victory. But when it was over, the Confederates held the field, they made it impossible for Fremont’s army to join with Banks’s, and they ensured that Fremont would not be able to invade eastern Tennessee as hoped. So strategically, McDowell was a Confederate victory. It enabled Jackson to seize the initiative in the Shenandoah Valley, and from this point on he would not let go.


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