Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, whose 6,500 Federals had won the race to Winchester in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, prepared to face Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s oncoming Confederates. Having been soundly beaten at Front Royal and then pursued, Banks guessed that Jackson had 15,000 men, but he actually had no more than about 10,000 effectives due to combat casualties, illness, straggling, and extreme fatigue.
Banks held a council of war in the early hours of May 25, where he and his officers agreed to “make a fight as we were.” Banks concluded, “I determined to test the substance and strength of the enemy by actual collision.” Considering that Winchester was the primary supply base for Federal forces in the Valley, there was little else that Banks could do. He deployed his Federals on the low range of hills south of Winchester.
Jackson’s Confederates advanced in the chilled, foggy dawn. Jackson normally made it a point not to fight on the Sabbath, but he made an exception on this day. He sent Brigadier General Charles S. Winder’s Stonewall Brigade, supported by Colonel John A. Campbell’s brigade, against the Federal center at Bower’s Hill. They easily pushed the Federals off the ridge, but the Federals put up stronger resistance as they fell back to a second ridge.
Both sides traded artillery fire, but the superior Federal guns got the best of the exchange. Meanwhile, Major General Richard Ewell’s division came up and attacked the undersized Federal left flank. Jackson directed the brigade under Brigadier General Richard Taylor (son of former President Zachary Taylor) to attack the extreme Federal right in concert with Ewell on the left.
Taylor’s Confederates shrieked the “Rebel yell” as they charged, and the rest of the Confederate army followed suit. The Federals resisted at first, but both flanks quickly crumbled, and finally the troops broke and fled in panic. They hurried through Winchester and continued on toward the Potomac River. The Confederates seized their defenses and entered Winchester, where they took all the valuable supplies that the Federals left behind.
The mostly pro-Confederate residents of the town came out to cheer their liberators. The troops stopped to take in the adulation, but Jackson wanted them to continue pressing Banks all the way to the Potomac. Jackson could not find Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s cavalry, which he needed to lead the pursuit; they were busy looting the Federal camps. So he called up Ewell’s cavalry, but they did not arrive until mid-afternoon.
The Confederates started giving chase, but they dropped out from exhaustion at Bunker Hill, six miles north. Banks may have gotten away, but “Old Jack” had driven him out of the Valley and captured his supply depot. This made the battle at Winchester a resounding Confederate victory and Jackson a hero in the Confederacy.
The Confederates captured 9,354 small arms, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, two rifled cannon, $250,000 worth of medical supplies, $125,000 in quartermaster supplies, 103 heads of cattle, and almost 34,000 pounds of stores such as back and bread. They had captured so many of Banks’s supplies over the past three days that they nicknamed the Federal commander “Commissary Banks.” This came at a cost of just 400 casualties (68 killed, 329 wounded, and three missing). Jackson’s army now had control of most of the Shenandoah Valley and was just 50 miles away from Washington.
The Federals suffered 2,028 casualties in the chase of May 24 and the battle of the 25th (71 killed, 243 wounded, and 1,714 missing, of which about 800 were taken prisoner). Despite the defeats, a New York reporter wrote, “General Banks, during the whole of the battle and retreat, showed himself to be a man and a general who cared for his men and worked singly with them. He managed the retreat nobly and has inspired new faith in the soldiers for him.”
Banks reported to Washington at 2:40 p.m., “The Rebels attacked us this morning at daybreak in great force. Their number was estimated at fifteen thousand, consisting of Ewell’s and Jackson’s divisions… Our trains are in advance and will cross the river in safety.” Three hours later, Banks wrote that despite reports of Jackson planning to invade Maryland, the Federals would “pass the Potomac tonight safe–men, trains, and all, I think, making a march of thirty-five miles.” Banks’s men reached the Potomac around 11 p.m. and were completely across into Maryland the next day.
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, visiting Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federal army on the Rappahannock River in northeastern Virginia, informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that two divisions were now on their way to the Valley. This helped calm fears in Washington to some degree.
However, before Stanton had received any word from Chase or Banks, he sent a hysterical call to the governors of the northern states: “Intelligence from various quarters leaves no doubt that the enemy in great force are marching on Washington. You will please organize and forward immediately all the militia and volunteer forces in your state.” He then issued a second call: “Send all the troops forward that you can immediately. Banks is completely routed. The enemy are in large force advancing upon Harper’s Ferry.”
Stanton then contacted Major General John C. Fremont, who had been ordered to bring his Federal army out of western Virginia to reinforce Banks. Stanton informed Fremont of Banks’s defeat and wrote, “You must direct your attention to falling upon the enemy at whatever place you can find him with all speed. You must not stop for supplies, but seize what you need and push rapidly forward; the object being to cut off and capture this rebel force in the Shenandoah.” Fremont moved his men to Petersburg and then, disregarding Stanton’s orders, stopped for supplies.
With the Federals reeling in the Shenandoah, the Lincoln administration now looked to Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac for the victory they so desperately needed.
- Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Crocker III, H. W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008.
- Jensen, Les D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.