By midnight on Sunday June 1, the rear guard of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s army had marched south away from Winchester in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This was the vaunted Stonewall Brigade, and the men had endured an exhausting, unprecedented 35-mile march to prevent two converging Federal commands from joining forces against them. The Confederates resumed their march that morning and joined the rest of Jackson’s army at Strasburg around noon.
This gave Jackson about 16,000 men. Major General John C. Fremont’s army of 15,000 Federals was to Jackson’s west, between Wardensburg and Strasburg, unable to advance further because heavy rain turned the roads to mud. Major General Irvin McDowell’s 30,000 men were to Jackson’s east, between Strasburg and Front Royal. McDowell’s vanguard consisted of the division of 9,000 men commanded by Brigadier General James Shields.
Shields was set to chase Jackson down, but he stopped momentarily when false rumors came in that Major General James Longstreet’s Confederate division was coming up in his rear. McDowell briefly hesitated in the hopes that his divisions could catch up to each other, but he ultimately allowed Shields to detach his men and move south, up the Luray Valley.
Jackson pushed his men through the torrential rain toward Fisher’s Hill, two miles south. On the way, he learned that Shields would be moving along a parallel route on the eastern side of Massanutten Mountain. Shields hoped to get ahead of the Confederates and block their escape at New Market. He intended to burn the bridge at Conrad’s Store, guessing that Jackson needed it to get across the Blue Ridge and reinforce the Confederates on the Peninsula in southeastern Virginia.
Sensing that Fremont posed the greater threat, Jackson dispatched Major General Richard Ewell’s division to oppose his advance west of Strasburg. Skirmishing occurred near Mount Carmel as pickets and artillerists traded fire. Ewell, outnumbered two-to-one, refused to attack. Fremont, unaware of his advantage, held back in fear that Ewell was trying to lure him into a trap.
The pouring rain continued as night fell, and Fremont called a halt until morning. He reported to President Abraham Lincoln, “A reconnoitering force just in reports the enemy retreating, but in which direction is not yet known. Our cavalry will occupy Strasburg by midnight. Terrible storm of thunder and hail now passing over. Hailstones as large as hens’ eggs.” This enabled Jackson to narrowly escape the Federal pincers, but he was still in serious danger as his Confederates resumed their southward march before dawn on the 2nd.
The Valley turnpike was almost impossible to traverse due to the tremendous rainfall. Fremont’s pickets tried to resume the chase, as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton telegraphed both Fremont and McDowell, “Do not let the enemy escape you.” By this time, Fremont’s army had dwindled to less than 12,000 due to men falling out of the ranks to loot and pillage the countryside. This was especially prevalent among the men of Brigadier General Louis Blenker’s division, most of whom were German immigrants. Officers did little to curtail such activity.
A detachment of Fremont’s cavalry led by Brigadier General George Bayard caught up to the Confederate rear guard, which was held by Brigadier General George Steuart’s cavalry, near Woodstock, 10 miles south of Strasburg. The Confederates were routed, and Steuart’s men were so disgusted with their commander that they asked Jackson to be placed under command of Brigadier General Turner Ashby. Jackson complied and placed all his cavalry under Ashby.
Ashby’s troopers tried to save what was left of Steuart’s command, but they were on the verge of being routed themselves before being saved by the Stonewall Brigade. The Confederates fell back, and Jackson continued pushing them southward as more storms raged. Jackson reported to General Joseph E. Johnston, his immediate superior (unaware that Johnston had been wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines and was out of action):
“I did not fall back too soon, as the enemy’s object was obviously to get in my rear, and had I not been in Strasburg yesterday the Federals would have been. We brought off a large amount of medical, ordnance, and other stores, but many have been destroyed for want of transportation, but the most valuable have been saved. I will hold myself in readiness to cross the Blue Ridge should you need me.”
Meanwhile, Shields continued paralleling Jackson to the east. His Federals reached the Shenandoah River around 5 p.m. but could not cross because Confederates had burned the White House and Columbia bridges. The river was too deep to ford, and the Federals had nothing with which to build pontoons. So Shields pushed his men 20 miles farther south, hoping to cross at Conrad’s Store. By the end of the 2nd, Shields’s men had marched 25 miles.
Shields wrote Lincoln and Stanton that Jackson’s force was smaller than originally thought, and added, “We have too many men here, and no supplies. How I will get along I do not know, but I will trust to luck–seize cattle, live on beef–to catch Jackson.” Shields asked them to send McDowell’s men back east to Fredericksburg, leaving just Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s 11,000 men at Winchester and Fremont’s 12,000 in the Valley.
By this time, the administration was beginning to seriously doubt that Banks, McDowell, or Fremont had the ability needed to catch and defeat Jackson. This was reflected by Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay, who wrote, “The latest information from the Shenandoah Valley indicates that Jackson’s force has slipped through our fingers there, notwithstanding that he was almost surrounded by our armies.”
Farther north on the Potomac River, Major General Franz Sigel arrived to take command of the Federals stationed at Harpers Ferry and Williamsport, Maryland. They became a division in Banks’s Army of the Shenandoah. But Sigel reported that “1,200 (of the 8,000 men) are useless, and all the balance are undrilled and undisciplined.” Even so, he prepared to lead them to join the rest of Banks’s force. This force, which had run out of the Valley the previous week, was now back in and stationed near Winchester.
Jackson’s Confederates crossed the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on the 3rd, burned the bridge behind them, and camped near Mount Jackson at their old site on Rude’s Hill. Meanwhile, Shields explained to McDowell that the bridges had been burned, so he would continue to Conrad’s Store: “The bridge there I expect to find burned also, but by going higher up we may find a ford… we must cross today somehow. My next move will be to push on to Stanardsville, destroy the railroad and depot, and if possible to Staunton or Charlottesville.” This would be a tremendously long roundabout trek, but Shields vowed to “destroy their means of escape somehow.”
McDowell forwarded Shields’s message to Washington, noting that Shields offered no specifics on how he intended to stop Jackson with this long marching: “The ‘somehow’ in which the general is to cross the river today, swollen as it is by the heavy rains, is not so clear, and delay defeats the movement … and as to his preventing the enemy’s escape ‘somehow,’ I fear it will be like his intention of crossing the ‘river somehow.’ The amount of all this is that he cannot cross the Shenandoah in time to intercept Jackson. His command is in no condition to go to the places he names.”
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