A Question of Legs

By this time, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates were driving the Federal army under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In response, the Lincoln administration directed two separate forces (Major General John C. Fremont’s in western Virginia and Major General Irvin McDowell’s in eastern Virginia) to march into the Valley, reinforce Banks, and destroy Jackson’s army.

Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont | Image Credit: Wikipedia

President Abraham Lincoln had ordered Fremont to move his 13,000-man army from Franklin southeast to Harrisonburg “in such a way as to relieve” Banks. Fremont found this difficult because, as he reported, “Bridges and culverts had been destroyed, rocks rolled down, and in one instance trees felled across the way for the distance of nearly a mile.”

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton then issued an order on May 25 that, in Fremont’s eyes, superseded Lincoln’s: “You must direct your attention to falling upon the enemy at whatever place you can find him with all speed.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.”

With this order, Fremont decided to do an about-face and head for Petersburg, to the northeast. His troops conducted a 30-mile march through heavy rain and hail before arriving there on the afternoon of the 26th. But then Fremont ignored the part of Stanton’s order about not stopping by ordering a halt for supplies. This allowed his trailing division under Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy to catch up, reaching Petersburg at 8 a.m. on the 27th. Fremont’s full army then moved out to join Banks.

That same day, McDowell was busy shuttling troops from his army near Fredericksburg to trains rolling through Manassas Junction on their way into the Valley. Some 20,000 Federals in two divisions were soon in motion. One of McDowell’s division commanders, Brigadier General James Shields, was in Washington when panicked reports came in that Jackson was threatening Manassas. Shields assured Stanton that if Jackson came this way, “we will give him a bloody reception. It will be worse than Winchester (Kernstown), and will avenge Banks.”

Jackson ordered the 26th to be a rare day of rest for his “foot cavalry.” They settled into Winchester and took stock of what they had seized from Banks, as Jackson sent a report to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper:

“During the last three days God has blessed our arms with brilliant success… On Friday (May 23) the Federals at Front Royal were routed, and one section of artillery, in addition to many prisoners, captured. On Saturday Banks’s main column, while retreating from Strasburg to Winchester, was pierced, the rear part retreating towards Strasburg. On Sunday the other part was routed at this place…A large amount of medical, ordnance, and other stores have fallen into our hands.”

Jackson issued an official proclamation of gratitude to his men for their “brilliant gallantry in action and patriotic obedience under the hardships of forced marches.” But as always, Jackson was sure to urge his men to thank God “to recognize devoutly the hand of a protecting Providence in the brilliant successes of the last three days, which have given us the results of a great victory without great losses.”

By the morning of the 26th, Banks’s Federals were completing their crossing of the Potomac River into Maryland. Banks reported to Stanton, “We believe that our whole force, trains and all, will cross in safety. The men are in fine spirits and crossing in good order. The enemy… has not made an appearance this morning.” The last Federals crossed around noon without incident. Banks wrote, “There were never more grateful hearts in the same number of men, than when, at mid-day on the 26th, we stood on the opposite shore.” He reported to Washington:

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

“The substantial preservation of the entire supply train is a source of gratification. It numbered about five hundred wagons. On a forced march of fifty-three miles, thirty-five of which were performed in one day, subject to constant attack, not more than fifty wagons were lost… My command had not suffered an attack and rout, but had accomplished a premeditated march of nearly sixty miles in the face of the enemy, defeating his plans and giving him battle wherever he was found.”

But the fact remained that Banks’s army had abandoned the Shenandoah Valley after suffering tactical defeats at both Front Royal and Winchester. And despite preserving much of his supplies, Banks lost a good deal of them as well. Even so, the army was not demoralized; on the contrary, many applauded Banks’s leadership and blamed the Lincoln administration for not sending them enough men or supplies to hold the Valley.

Lincoln notified McClellan, “We have General Banks’s official report. He has saved his army and baggage and has made a safe retreat to the river, and is probably safe at Williamsport. He reported the attacking force at 15,000.”

At Winchester, Jackson’s Confederates continued to rest on the 27th. Now that they had defeated Banks, Jackson planned to follow the May 16 order of General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, to “drive him back toward the Potomac and create the impression, as far as practicable, that you design threatening that line.” That night, Congressman Alexander Boteler arrived and delivered orders from the War Department directing Jackson to move on Harpers Ferry. Jackson also received word that Shields’s division was entering the Valley from the east and approaching Front Royal.

Fremont resumed his northeastern march. His plan was to move to Strasburg, which would cut Jackson’s line of retreat up the Valley. Word reached Lincoln that Fremont’s men were moving through Moorefield, which was in the opposite direction from Franklin as Harrisonburg and still on the western side of the Shenandoah Mountains. Unaware that Fremont was now following Stanton’s more ambiguous order, Lincoln wrote sternly to Fremont near 10 p.m., “I see that you are at Moorefield. You were expressly ordered to march to Harrisonburg. What does this mean?”

Fremont answered at 6 a.m. on the 28th: “In executing any order received, I take it for granted that I am to exercise discretion concerning its literal execution, according to circumstances. If I am to understand that literal obedience to orders is required, please say so. I have no desire to exercise any power which you do not think belongs of necessity to my position in the field.” For some reason, Fremont did not mention Stanton’s order of May 25.

Stanton ordered Fremont to halt at Moorefield and await further orders. Neither Stanton nor Lincoln took into account the obstacles, both natural and manmade, that Fremont faced in trying to move across the Valley. That night, after learning that Jackson was moving toward Harpers Ferry, Stanton told Fremont, “The President directs you to move upon Jackson by the best route you can.”

Although there were now two Federal forces moving toward his rear from opposite directions, Jackson dispatched his troops north instead of south on the morning of the 28th. Brigadier General Charles Winder led the Stonewall Brigade out of Winchester, followed by the division of Brigadier General Richard Ewell. Finding stronger than expected resistance in the Harpers Ferry area, the Confederates fell back to Charles Town for the night.

Meanwhile, McDowell’s two divisions continued heading toward the Valley. The lead division under Shields crossed Thoroughfare Gap on the 28th and was now within 20 miles of Front Royal. The other division led by Major General Edward O.C. Ord was not far behind.

Lincoln urged McDowell to keep up the strong pace, well aware that neither McDowell nor Fremont were known for their aggressiveness. Lincoln wrote, “It is for you a question of legs. Put in all the speed you can. I have told Fremont as much, and directed him to drive at them as fast as possible.” McDowell replied, “I beg to assure you that I am doing everything with legs and steam to hurry forward matters in this corner.”


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