Conflicting Orders in the Shenandoah Valley

By mid-May, the situation was fluid in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Shenandoah, had sent one of his divisions under Brigadier General James Shields eastward out of the Valley. Shields’s men were near Warrenton, on their way to reinforce Major General Irvin McDowell’s army at Fredericksburg. With Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal army at Franklin to the west, Banks was all alone at Strasburg with just 9,000 men against a larger Confederate force heading his way.

Banks’s Federals were in low spirits because they did not know why they had recently retreated from the enemy or why they were now alone in a place they did not want to be. Brigadier General Alpheus Williams, Banks’s sole division commander still in the Valley, wrote his daughter:

“You will see that we have made a retrograde movement. I cannot explain the reason, because I really don’t think there is any. If there be one, it is unknown to us here and is confided to the authorities at Washington. We regard it as a most unfortunate policy and altogether inexplicable, especially as we had the game all in our hands, and if the moves had been made with the least skill we could easily have checkmated Jackson, Ewell, and Johnson, instead of leaving them to attack and drive back Milroy (at McDowell).

“Here we are with a greatly reduced force, either used as a decoy for the Rebel forces or for some unaccountable purpose known only to the War Department. The worst part is that we have put ourselves in a most critical position and exposed the whole of this important valley to be retaken and its immense property of railroads and stores to be destroyed.”

The Confederate force actually consisted of two commands separated by 30 miles, with Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s men at Mount Solon and Major General Richard Ewell’s at Swift Run Gap. They were in the process of joining forces to move north and threaten Banks. They also hoped to threaten Washington, which would prompt Shields to return to the Valley and force McDowell to suspend his movement to the Virginia Peninsula. Meanwhile, a third Confederate force in the Valley under Brigadier General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson would keep Fremont occupied.

On May 17, Ewell received a message from General Joseph E. Johnston, overall Confederate commander in Virginia. Dated May 13, Johnston wrote, “I have written to Major General Jackson to return to the valley near you, and if your united force is strong enough, to attack General Banks. Should the latter cross the Blue Ridge to join General McDowell at Fredericksburg, General Jackson and yourself should move eastward rapidly to join the army near Fredericksburg.”

Johnston’s directive posed a dilemma because only part of Banks’s army had moved east. Did Johnston want Jackson and Ewell to come east only if Banks left the Valley with his entire force? These instructions also conflicted with orders from General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis. Dated May 16, Lee had authorized Jackson and Ewell to move north toward the Potomac River.

Ewell rode through the night and reached Jackson’s headquarters at Mount Solon on the morning of the 18th. Jackson read Johnston’s order, and he and Ewell agreed that Johnston would most likely revoke it if he knew the true situation in the Valley. Jackson wrote to Johnston, “I have been moving down the valley for the purpose of attacking Banks, but the withdrawal of General Ewell’s command will prevent my purpose being executed.” While Jackson’s message was in transit, he directed Ewell to “suspend the execution of the order for returning to the east until I receive an answer to my telegram.”

Jackson and Ewell discussed whether they should follow the orders given them by Johnston or Lee. Ewell suggested that since his troops were in the Valley, they were actually under Jackson’s command, not Johnston’s, meaning that Jackson’s authority over Ewell superseded Johnston’s. Jackson asked Ewell to put the problem of obeying conflicting orders in writing, and Jackson would respond in a way that would clear Ewell of any blame for disobeying Johnston. Jackson wrote:

“Your letter of this date, in which you have received letters from Generals Lee, Johnston and myself requiring somewhat different movements, and desiring my views respecting your position, has been received. In reply I would state that as you are in the Valley District you constitute part of my command. Should you receive orders different from those sent from these headquarters, please advise me of the same as early a period as practicable. You will please move your command as to encamp between New Market and Mount Jackson on next Wednesday night, unless you receive orders from a superior officer and that of a date subsequent to the 16th instant.”

Thus, Jackson and Ewell would move according to Lee’s orders, not Johnston’s. Ewell hurried back to Swift Run Gap to put his men in motion. Jackson had his men up at 2 a.m. on May 19, and they were on the march within an hour. They moved northwest down the Valley toward New Market, using wagons to bridge the North River. Jackson dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General Turner Ashby to obstruct any roads that Fremont could use to join forces with Banks.

Jackson’s Confederates marched through Harrisonburg on the morning of the 20th. They crossed the Massanutten Mountain and entered the Luray, or eastern Shenandoah, Valley. The Confederates then resumed their northward advance along the South Fork of the Shenandoah Valley.

As Ewell’s Confederates also moved northward, Ewell received a message from Johnston dated May 17 reiterating his orders to come east and reinforce the Confederates opposing McDowell at Fredericksburg. Johnston wrote, “If Banks is fortifying near Strasburg, the attack would be too hazardous… we must leave him in his works.” Jackson was to “observe him” while Ewell’s men left the Valley.

Ewell rode up to confer with Jackson between Harrisonburg and New Market. Jackson rushed a messenger to Staunton to telegraph Lee: “I am of opinion that an attempt should be made to defeat Banks, but under instructions just received from General Johnston I do not feel at liberty to make an attack. Please answer by telegraph at once.”

That night, Johnston responded to Jackson’s May 18 orders keeping Ewell in the Valley: “The whole question is whether or not Generals Jackson & yourself are too late to attack Banks. If so, the march eastward should be made; if not (supposing your strength be sufficient) then attack. At such a distance a commanding officer can receive only general instructions.” A second message from Johnston arrived shortly after: “The object you have to accomplish is the prevention of the junction of General Banks’s troops with those of General McDowell.”

Late that night, Lee overrode Johnston’s orders and permitted Jackson to go ahead against Banks as planned. Johnston seconded Lee’s directive to Jackson: “If you and General Ewell united can beat Banks, do it.” Once united, Jackson and Ewell would have 16,000 men and 48 guns to confront Banks’s 9,000 Federals at Strasburg.


  • 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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