As morning dawned on June 3, Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate army continued its withdrawal southward up Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with two separate Federal forces in hot pursuit. Major General John C. Fremont’s Federals trailed Jackson on the Valley Turnpike, while Brigadier General James Shields’s division chased Jackson on a parallel route up the Luray Valley to the east. The forces pushed through intermittent rain throughout the day.
At Edinburgh, Jackson’s men crossed the bridge over Stony Creek and tried to burn it behind them, but Fremont’s cavalry led by Brigadier General George Bayard stopped them. The Confederates marched on, crossing the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and this time successfully burning the bridge. This forced Fremont to halt at Mount Jackson until his engineers could come up and build a pontoon bridge. Jackson’s troops camped at their old site near New Market.
Meanwhile, Shields was at Luray, unable to cross the South Fork because the bridge was out there as well. He reported to his superior, Major General Irvin McDowell, that he would have to continue on to Conrad’s Store. He went on: “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.”
That night, President Abraham Lincoln wrote McDowell: “Anxious to know whether Shields can head or flank Jackson. Please tell about where Shields and Jackson respectively are, at the time this reaches you.” McDowell replied that he could guess where Jackson was, but “I have nothing on that point from either General Fremont or General Shields.”
Heavy rain continued falling throughout the 4th, preventing Fremont from crossing the North Fork. Fortunately for him, the rain also kept Jackson’s men in camp for most of the day. Shields received word that the bridge over Elk Run near Conrad’s Store had been destroyed as well. This meant that his Federals would have to march down to the last remaining bridge over the North River, near Port Republic. Shields wrote McDowell, “If it be humanly possible, I will ascend the river, cross it, and take Jackson in the rear.”
How Shields would do this was a mystery since he also reported, “My command are already destitute of everything in the way of shoes, and will soon be destitute of provisions and forage.” But Shields felt this was the only way to destroy Jackson: “I cannot fight against the elements, but give me bread to keep me alive and they will never leave this valley. Their force is inconsiderable, not, in my opinion, seven thousand. I want hard bread, salt, sugar and coffee. Send me those. I will stampede them down to Richmond if you give me plenty of bread.”
Shields accurately estimated Jackson to have no more than 7,000 men, but his unrealistic notions of destroying them when his troops were going hungry and running out of supplies caused his superiors to lose confidence in him. Moreover, Shields based his strategy on the false assumption that Jackson was trying to leave the Valley to join the Confederates on the Virginia Peninsula. Shields dispatched part of his force to Staunton, while his remaining Federals guarded the bridge to Port Republic, which Shields thought Jackson would need to escape.
But Jackson was not planning to escape. His men were in line of battle at New Market, expecting Shields to attack from the east and Fremont to advance from the west. When neither Shields nor Fremont showed, Jackson resumed his southward march at 1 a.m. on the 5th. Jackson knew Shields would have to either go back north or try to cross the North River at Port Republic. If Shields chose the latter, Jackson would be waiting for him.
Jackson’s force moved through Harrisonburg, having marched over 100 miles in a week. The cavalry and supply trains continued southwest toward Staunton, while the infantry moved to meet Shields’s Federals at Port Republic, 11 miles southeast. By this time, Shields had pulled the bulk of his force back to Luray due to false rumors that a Confederate detachment under Major General James Longstreet was on its way to reinforce Jackson.
The Confederate vanguard reached Port Republic near nightfall, as Jackson learned that Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s Confederate cavalry had destroyed all the bridges between Front Royal and Port Republic. This would prevent Shields from crossing the river and joining forces with Fremont. Confederate signalmen atop Massanutten Mountain reported that Shields was still in the Luray Valley, 14 miles away, and Fremont remained near New Market.
Meanwhile, General Robert E. Lee, now commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the Peninsula, envisioned Jackson taking the offensive in the Valley while Lee prepared to counterattack Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis:
“After much reflection, I think if it was possible to reinforce Jackson strongly, it would change the character of the war. This can only be done by the troops in Georgia, S.C. and N.C. Jackson could in that event cross Maryland into Penn. It would call all the enemy from our Southern Coast and liberate those states. If these states will give up their troops I think it can be done… McClellan will make this a battle of posts. He will take position from position, under cover of his heavy guns. I am preparing a line that I can hold with part of our forces in front, while with the rest I will endeavour to make a diversion to bring McClellan out.”
Lee began working with Secretary of War George W. Randolph to gather the reinforcements Jackson had requested. Lee was aided by continuous rain on the Peninsula, which virtually assured that McClellan would not attack. McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness prompted Lee to push for Jackson to take the offensive in a message to Randolph: “His plan is to march to Front Royal and crush Shields. It is his only course, and as he is a good soldier, I expect him to do it.”
By the 6th, Jackson’s infantry awaited Shields at Port Republic while his cavalry under Ashby awaited Fremont near Harrisonburg. The rains had stopped by this time, and Fremont’s force resumed its pursuit once more. A small Federal cavalry force approached, led by Colonel Percy Wyndham, a British soldier-of-fortune. Ashby’s troopers quickly scattered the command, capturing Wyndham and 63 of his men.
The main body of Fremont’s force entered Harrisonburg, where a reporter for the New York Times noted that the “few inhabitants who were not afraid to be seen holding converse with National soldiers stated that it was the avowed intention of Jackson to bear to the left, leaving the turnpike, and make a stand at ‘Port Republic,’ a little village distant twelve miles.”
Ashby turned to confront the Federal infantry marching through Harrisonburg, with support from Major General Richard Ewell’s Confederates. The Federals came on stronger than Ashby expected and nearly routed the Confederates; Ashby was killed leading a countercharge. Ewell took command, and the Confederates eventually drove the Federals back. Ewell then withdrew to join Jackson’s main force.
Ashby’s troopers mourned the loss of their popular commander. Jackson was informed of Ashby’s death that night, and he wrote in his report several months later: “As a partisan officer I never knew his superior. His daring was proverbial; his power of endurance almost incredible; his tone of character heroic; and his sagacity almost intuitive in divining the purposes and movements of the enemy.” Ashby was succeeded as cavalry commander by Colonel Thomas Munford.
On the 7th, Ewell’s Confederates continued withdrawing toward Jackson’s position at Port Republic. They stopped at Cross Keys, a hamlet midway between Port Republic and Harrisonburg, to make a stand against Fremont’s approach. Ewell commanded positions on a ridge overlooking several miles of open ground that the Federals would have to cross. Ewell posted four artillery batteries in the center of his line, and woods afforded him natural protection on both his flanks.
Fremont held a council of war to decide his next move. His Federals were running low on food and supplies, but with Ewell blocking him from any further pursuit, he resolved to attack the next morning. Unbeknownst to Fremont, President Lincoln was just about to send orders for Fremont to stay put at Harrisonburg and for Bayard’s cavalry and Shields’s division to return to McDowell’s base at Fredericksburg. These messages would not reach Fremont before he finally gave battle in the Valley.
Meanwhile, Jackson positioned his Confederates on high ground overlooking the confluence of the South Fork and North River at Port Republic. From this point, they could see Shields’s Federals advancing. Confederate Congressman Alexander R. Boteler delivered a message to Jackson from President Davis, which congratulated the general on his success and responded to his request for more men:
“Were it practicable to send you reinforcements it should be done, and your past success shows how surely you would, with an adequate force, destroy the wicked designs of the invader of our homes and assailer of our political rights… (but) it is on your skill and daring that reliance is to be placed. The army under your command encourages us to hope for all which men can achieve.”
Jackson, knowing his command could be called to the Virginia Peninsula at any time, wrote to General Joseph E. Johnston (still unaware that Lee had replaced Johnston as army commander): “Should my command be required at Richmond I can be at Mechum’s River Depot, on the Central Railroad, the second day’s march, and part of the command can reach there the first day, as the distance is 25 miles. At present, I do not see that I can do much more than rest my command and devote its time to drilling.”
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