The loss of the Federal outpost at Front Royal in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley caused considerable alarm among the Federal high command. This meant that the Confederates, led by Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, could now interpose themselves between the Federal Army of the Shenandoah at Strasburg and Washington. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, the Federal commander, rushed to prevent this as soon as he heard of the defeat at Front Royal. This became a race between Jackson and Banks, with the prize being the Federal supply base at Winchester.
On the cold, rainy morning of May 24, Banks led his Federals northward out of Strasburg on a 20-mile march to Winchester. Refusing to admit that this was a retreat, Banks informed his superiors that he would “enter the lists with the enemy in a race or a battle (as he should choose) for the possession of Winchester.” Banks estimated Confederate strength to have increased to “not less than 6,000 to 10,000. It is probably (Major General Richard) Ewell’s force, passing through the Shenandoah valley. Jackson is still in our front. We shall stand firm.”
Banks’s assumption that Jackson was “still in our front” indicated that he was still unaware Jackson and Ewell had joined forces. Based on Federal intelligence, Banks believed that Ewell had fallen back to Front Royal, leaving the Valley turnpike to Winchester open.
Banks’s superiors replied, “Do not give up the ship before succor can arrive.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton asked Major General John C. Fremont, commanding a Federal army at Franklin in western Virginia, to send reinforcements to Banks if possible. Fremont replied that he could not spare any men because “the enemy seems everywhere reinforced and active.” Fremont also complained that heavy rains and dwindling supplies were demoralizing his army.
Jackson anticipated Banks’s retreat toward Winchester. After confirming that his hunch was correct, he sent Ewell’s Confederates northward down a road parallel to the Valley turnpike. Jackson then led his men toward Middletown, hoping to trap Banks between his troops and Ewell’s before the Federals could reach Winchester. Jackson would then push northward to Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River.
Jackson’s Confederates marched seven miles to Newtown, where they placed artillery atop a hill to fire on the Federal rear guard marching below. With the Federals stuck between stone walls on either side, Jackson reported that “in a few moments the turnpike, which had just before teemed with life, presented a most appalling spectacle of carnage and destruction. The road was literally obstructed with the mingled and confused mass of struggling and dying horses and riders.”
Jackson finally ordered a halt, as Federal troops found “the bodies of men and horses so piled up that it was impossible to proceed.” Those not pinned between the stone walls or among the bodies fled toward Winchester. Jackson’s cavalry rounded up prisoners, along with large amounts of abandoned wagons and supplies. The Confederates spent time looting that could have been better spent chasing and destroying Banks’s army.
Allowing the Federals to escape mainly intact prompted Jackson to fear that they would entrench themselves on the heights southwest of Winchester, where Jackson had lost the Battle of Kernstown in March. He therefore drove his men on a forced march to hurry their pursuit.
At Washington, President Abraham Lincoln took command of military strategy. He telegraphed Fremont and overrode his refusal to aid Banks:
“The exposed condition of General Banks makes his immediate relief a point of paramount importance. You are therefore directed by the President to move against Jackson at Harrisonberg [sic] and operate against the enemy in such way as to relieve Banks. This movement must be made immediately. You will acknowledge the receipt of this order and specify the hour it is received by you.”
Next came the delicate situation concerning Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula in southeastern Virginia. McClellan had just been promised reinforcements from Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federal army on the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia. But now that Banks’s army was on the verge of destruction, Lincoln pulled McDowell back. He explained to McClellan: “In consequence of General Banks’ critical position I have been compelled to suspend General McDowell’s movements to you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper’s Ferry, and we are trying to throw Fremont’s force and part of McDowell’s in their rear.”
McClellan replied with surprising restraint: “Telegram of 4 p.m. received. I will make my calculations accordingly.”
Lincoln then issued orders to McDowell:
“General Fremont has been ordered by telegraph to move to Franklin and Harrisonburg to relieve General Banks and capture or destroy Jackson’s and Ewell’s forces. You are instructed to lay aside for the present the movement on Richmond to put twenty thousand men in motion at once for the Shenandoah, moving on the line or in advance of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson and Ewell, either in cooperation with General Fremont or in case want of supplies or of transportation interferes with his movement, it is believed that the force which you move will be sufficient to accomplish the object alone… Reports received this morning are that Banks is fighting with Ewell, eight miles from Harper’s Ferry.”
These orders came just after Brigadier General James Shields’s Federal division from Banks’s army had arrived to reinforce McDowell. Now he would have to turn right around and go back. At this time, McDowell’s Federals were marching overland and were within six miles of joining with McClellan on the Peninsula.
McDowell obeyed but complained to Stanton, “The president’s order has been received and is in process of execution. This is a crushing blow to us.” He then telegraphed Lincoln, “I beg to say that co-operation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon.” Explaining that the Confederates could destroy Banks before he even arrived, McDowell wrote, “I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.”
McDowell also complained to Brigadier General James Wadsworth, in charge of the Washington defenses: “If the enemy can succeed so readily in disconcerting all our plans by alarming us first at one point, then at another, he will paralyze a large force with a very small one.” Shields, having served under Banks, told McDowell that “the same cry was constantly heard (from Banks) … that large numbers of thousands of the enemy always coming upon them.” Except this time, it was true.
Lincoln tried to mollify McDowell by sending Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase down to personally explain the situation to him. Chase left by boat around 5:30 p.m., and Lincoln followed up in a message to McDowell: “I am highly gratified by your alacrity in obeying my orders. The change was as painful to me as it can possibly be to you or anyone. Everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of your movement.”
By the night of the 24th, the Federals began straggling into Winchester, having won the race and avoiding the trap set by Jackson and Ewell. Residents there, being mostly pro-Confederate, cheered for Jackson and heckled the Federals as they came into town. Banks reported to Washington at 8 p.m.:
“I was satisfied by the affair at Front Royal yesterday that I could not hold Strasburg with my force against Jackson’s and Ewell’s armies, who I believed intended immediate attack. Though I might have saved my command, it would have been impossible to secure the vast stores and extensive trains accumulated there… I concluded that the safest course for my command was to anticipate the enemy in the occupation of Winchester. My advance guard entered this town at five this evening, with all our trains in safety.”
Banks’s last statement was not exactly true. While he succeeded in securing about 500 wagons, he lost a quite a few during both the Front Royal defeat and the forced march to Winchester.
Ewell arrived at Kernstown, a few miles south of Winchester, that evening and awaited Jackson’s men. Jackson continued advancing into night and early morning, finally reaching Kernstown before taking a two-hour rest at 2 a.m. on the 25th.
Despite losing the race to Winchester, “Old Jack” had the Federals on the run in the Valley and seemed to be singlehandedly turning the war’s tide in the Confederacy’s favor. However, McDowell would soon be coming to help Banks confront Jackson from the north, while Fremont started moving to cut Jackson off to the south.
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