Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates resumed their northward march down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley at dawn on May 21. Jackson planned to join forces with Major General Richard Ewell’s division pulling out of Swift Run Gap. The combined force would then attack the skeleton Federal army at Strasburg under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.
The original plan had been to launch a direct assault on Banks’s Federals. But Ewell received intelligence that a small Federal force comprising Banks’s left flank was stationed at Front Royal, east of Strasburg in the Page Valley. Jackson and Ewell now planned to turn this position instead.
Advancing down the Valley turnpike, Jackson turned east, moved through New Market Gap, crossed the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, and entered the Luray Valley. Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s Confederate cavalry kept Banks unaware of the movement.
The Confederates rose at 6 a.m. on the 22nd and resumed their march, with Ewell’s troops in the lead. Jackson would not divulge where they were headed, but he issued orders prohibiting no more than two men per battalion to leave a fight to tend to the wounded at a time. This strongly indicated that a battle was imminent. As the infantry headed toward Front Royal, Ashby’s cavalry fell back from Strasburg to join them.
Banks remained with his main force at New Market, 25 miles south. He had reported that Jackson left the Valley, but now he was receiving word that Jackson had either returned or never left in the first place. He knew that Ewell had been camped at Swift Run Gap, but he had no idea that Jackson and Ewell had joined forces, and he did not know where they were. Banks wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
“From all the information I can gather–and I do not wish to excite alarm unnecessarily–I am compelled to believe that he (Jackson) meditates attack here. I regard it as certain that he will move north as far as New Market, a position which commands the mountain gap and the roads into the Department of the Rappahannock, and enables him also to cooperate with General Ewell. Once at New Market, they are within twenty-five miles of Strasburg with a force of not less than sixteen thousand men. Our situation certainly invites attack in the strongest manner. At present our danger is imminent at both the line of the (Manassas Gap rail) road and the position at Strasburg.
“To these important considerations ought to be added the persistent adherence of Jackson to the defense of the valley and his well-known purpose to expel the Government troops from this country if in his power. This may be assumed as certain. There is probably no one more fixed and determined purpose in the whole circle of the enemy’s plans.”
This new and sudden development in the Valley alarmed Banks’s superiors considering that Banks had previously assured them that activity in this region was nearing an end. Banks ironically asked for reinforcements on the same day that the division he had sent east arrived at Fredericksburg. There was a second Federal army in the Valley under Major General John C. Fremont, but Fremont’s record in the field gave Banks no confidence in his ability to offer aid.
By the night of the 22nd, the 17,000 Confederates of Jackson and Ewell camped 10 miles from Front Royal, with the Massanutten Ridge providing a natural barrier between them and Banks’s main force. Banks’s entire army numbered no more than 7,000 effectives.
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