Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson planned to attack the Federal outpost at Front Royal, east of Massanutten Mountain in the Luray (eastern Shenandoah) Valley. The Federals there had been detached from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Shenandoah at Strasburg. Banks had expected Jackson to try to move on the Valley Pike, but he did not expect Jackson to do it nearly 20 miles in his rear. Using the mountain to screen his movement, Jackson split his 17,000-man command by sending Major General Richard Ewell’s division on a more easterly route to block a potential Federal retreat toward Manassas Junction.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s cavalry blocked the Federals from the west and seized the railroad line to Strasburg, where Banks’s main force was located. Jackson planned to drive the Federals north toward Winchester while keeping them from burning the two important bridges spanning the North and South forks of the Shenandoah River.
Ewell began his eastern detour around 2 p.m., with skirmishing breaking out at various points along the way. Prominent Confederate spy Belle Boyd rode through the fighting, nearly getting killed by bullets passing through her skirt, to deliver a message to one of Jackson’s officers. It stated that “the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all.” Jackson already knew what he was facing, but Belle’s courage impressed the Confederate officers.
Jackson’s men conducted a grueling march up a road that gradually ascended 400 feet before reaching a point that overlooked Front Royal. Having received Belle Boyd’s message and intelligence from other scouts, Jackson learned that just one Federal regiment, the 1st Maryland (U.S.), was stationed there. He deployed his own 1st Maryland (C.S.) to attack; the men had been on the verge of mutiny because their enlistments had expired, but now they jumped at the chance to take on their fellow Marylanders. They charged ferociously on the unsuspecting enemy.
Colonel John Kenly, in command at Front Royal, thought that Jackson was 50 miles south and expected no attack. As the Confederates surged forward around 2 p.m., Kenly hurriedly fell back to Richardson’s Hill, north of town. Federal artillery briefly kept the Confederates at bay, but they soon rushed forward again, this time with Ashby’s cavalry closing in on Kenly’s rear.
Kenly ordered a retreat, slowly falling back across the South Fork to Guard Hill. Some Federals stayed back and tried to burn the North Fork bridge, but the Confederates put the flames out in time to cross. The 6th Virginia Cavalry raced forward and confronted the Federals at Cedarville. The Federals fired a volley before the enemy surrounded them. Kenly had no choice but to surrender his command.
The Federals lost 773 men, of which 691 were taken prisoner. The Confederates also seized vast quantities of munitions and supplies, including two Parrott rifled guns. They lost just 36 killed, wounded, or missing. Although Ewell had proposed the attack, he graciously reported, “The decided results at Front Royal were the fruits of Major General Jackson’s personal superintendence and planning.”
Banks was shocked upon learning of this defeat because he thought Jackson was at Harrisonburg, 50 miles south. He reported to Washington that the Front Royal garrison was attacked by 5,000 Confederates who “had been gathering in the mountains, it is said, since Wednesday. Reinforcements should be sent us if possible.” This loss put the Lincoln administration on the verge of panic.
The Front Royal engagement resulted in Jackson taking positions on Banks’s left flank. This meant that Banks had to abandon the strong defensive works he had built at Strasburg. He had three options: 1) fall back toward Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal army at Franklin to the west; 2) confront Jackson at Front Royal; or 3) fall back toward Winchester to the north to keep his army between Jackson and Washington. Banks chose the third.
Jackson, guessing that Banks would pick the second or third option, sent Ewell toward Winchester while keeping Brigadier General Charles Winder’s division at Front Royal. The Confederate victory gave Jackson a prime opportunity to cut off Banks’s entire force, which soon began heading north on the Valley turnpike, northwest of Front Royal. The race to keep Banks from reaching Winchester was on.
Meanwhile, Jackson wrote a letter of thanks to Belle Boyd for the information she provided: “I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country to-day.”
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