Lee’s Fateful Message to Jackson

Following Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate victory at McDowell in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, his cavalry under Colonel Turner Ashby briefly continued to pursue the Federals under Brigadier Generals Robert C. Schenck and Robert H. Milroy before moving further north down the Shenandoah Valley toward Harrisonburg.

Jackson’s infantry pursued Schenck and Milroy for 10 miles as the Federals fell back toward Franklin on May 9. However, the Federals’ rear-guard defense and bad roads thwarted the Confederates. Jackson continued his pursuit the next day, blocking Schenck and Milroy from linking with the rest of Major General John C. Fremont’s army from the Mountain Department.

Maj Gen “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: SonoftheSouth.net

Meanwhile, Jackson’s topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, led a cavalry detachment in felling trees and rolling rocks to obstruct the roads between Franklin and Harrisonburg that could link Fremont with the other Federal army in the Valley under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.

Ashby’s troopers rode to Swift Run Gap, where Major General Richard Ewell’s Confederate division was camped. Ewell had been ordered by Jackson to hold this position to guard against a Federal attack on Jackson’s flank. But Ewell had heard little from Jackson since moving into the gap, so now Ashby came to inform Ewell of the victory at McDowell and to deliver a message from Jackson:

“I desire to follow the enemy as far as practicable to-day. My troops are in advance. Should circumstances justify it, I will try, through God’s blessing, to get in Banks’ rear; and if I succeed in this I desire you to press him as far as may be consistent with your own safety should he fall back.”

This message confused Ewell since Jackson was still near Franklin, 60 miles west. More information came from a Federal deserter, who told Ewell that one of Banks’s two divisions under Brigadier General James Shields was heading east out of the Valley while the other was advancing on Strasburg. Ewell, who had been idle at Swift Run Gap for several days, was growing increasingly frustrated with Jackson’s refusal to divulge his plans or offer any details on strategy.

Back west, heavy rain continued slowing Jackson’s pursuit of Schenck and Milroy until he finally called it off on the 12th. By that time, the Federals had taken up defensive positions outside Franklin, and Jackson, having no desire to attack them, pulled back. Also, Jackson received word that Banks’s army was poised to leave the Valley and reinforce the Federals on the Virginia Peninsula.

Jackson directed his adjutant general to issue an order “to render thanks to Almighty God for having crowned our arms with success and to implore His continued favor.” The adjutant general, a Presbyterian minister, expanded the order to an entire day of spiritual reflection. Jackson approved and participated with his troops.

Meanwhile, Ewell wanted to stop Shields’s Federals from leaving the Valley but received no authorization from Jackson to do so. Ewell vented his fury on anyone near him, asking one colonel, “did it ever occur to you that General Jackson is crazy?” He dispatched cavalry to impede Shields’s progress and yelled that Jackson “is as crazy as a March Hare!” To another officer, Ewell hollered, “Why, I could crush Shields before night if I could move from here!… This man Jackson is certainly a crazy fool, an idiot!”

Ewell was unaware that Jackson had lost interest in Franklin and decided upon “other and more important plans.” The next day, Ewell received orders from him to advance north toward Strasburg to confront Banks. Jackson, having held Fremont in check, would have Ashby’s troopers screen his infantrymen as they turned back east to join Ewell. Jackson issued strict orders to the troops for the return march:

  • Fall in at attention, then march on and off cadence at intervals of up to 300 yards.
  • Do not leave the march without an officer’s permission.
  • Take 10 minutes of every hour to rest in a prone position.

As Ewell prepared to move out, he told one of his brigade commanders, “General Jackson’s views may change at any moment. I won’t go too far under present instructions, as I may be wanted elsewhere.” Ewell was right. On May 16, Jackson wrote Ewell, “I design moving, via Harrisonburg, down the valley, and it may be that a kind Providence will enable us to unite and strike a successful blow.” Jackson asked Ewell how long it would take him to get to Harrisonburg to the west and not Strasburg to the east. Jackson also asked Ewell to bring along the two additional brigades at Gordonsville that General Robert E. Lee had sent him, even though Lee had ordered them to stay east of the Valley.

Meanwhile, Banks remained at Strasburg, where he received orders from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to send two regiments to Front Royal so that the Federals currently there could be shipped east. Banks partly complied by sending just his largest regiment. He then warned Stanton that “this will reduce my force greatly, which is already too small to defend Strasburg if attacked.”

As Jackson’s men observed a national day of prayer and fasting, Lee learned from Ewell that Shields’s division was moving northward down the Valley toward the Manassas Gap Railroad, which would be a good position to reinforce either Fredericksburg or the Peninsula as needed. Fearing that Banks may soon withdraw his other division from the Valley, Lee wrote to Jackson:

“Whatever may be Banks’ intention, it is very desirable to prevent him from going either to Fredericksburg or the Peninsula… A successful blow struck at him would delay, if it does not prevent, his moving to either place. But you will not, in any demonstration you may make in that direction, lose sight of the fact that it may become necessary for you to come to the support of General (Joseph) Johnston (on the Peninsula), and hold yourself in readiness to do so if required. Whatever movement you make against Banks do it speedily, and if successful drive him back toward the Potomac, and create the impression, as far as practicable, that you design threatening that line.”

This important message empowered Jackson to advance his Confederates all the way to the Potomac River.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

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