In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a portion of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate army was set to meet a Federal advance from the northwest while the rest of Jackson’s army faced a separate threat from the northeast.
By the morning of June 8, a portion of Jackson’s army under Major General Richard Ewell was at Cross Keys, defending against a Federal force moving toward them under Major General John C. Fremont. Jackson was with the rest of his army outside Port Republic, three miles south, where the North River merged with the South Fork of the Shenandoah to form the South River. Jackson guarded the vital bridge there against Brigadier General James Shields’s Federals, though he did not expect Shields to seriously threaten the position.
Jackson was outnumbered and pinned between two enemy forces, but swollen rivers and burned bridges made it impossible for Fremont and Shields to support each other if needed. Jackson therefore planned to shift the bulk of his force at Port Republic to help hold Fremont off at Cross Keys and then, if necessary, turn back to confront Shields. To that end, Ewell had 6,000 men in strong defensive positions ready to take on Fremont’s 11,000-man command.
Jackson’s plan was foiled when Federal cavalry under Brigadier General Samuel Carroll unexpectedly rode into Port Republic, nearly separating Jackson from his men and capturing several of his staff members. The Federals could have taken the entire enemy force, or at least cut it off from its supply wagons across the South River by burning the vital North Bridge. But for some reason, Carroll prohibited the bridge from being destroyed.
Federal artillery scattered the town’s residents and destroyed several buildings and homes. Confederate gunners began returning fire, and the rear guard made a stand that eventually pushed the Federals back out of town the way they came. Meanwhile to the north, action had begun at Cross Keys.
As Fremont’s troops advanced, Ewell’s front line held them up long enough for the rest of the Confederates to assemble in their strong defenses. Fremont, who was too far in the rear to accurately assess the situation, thought that he was facing Jackson’s entire army and therefore opted to launch an artillery barrage rather than attack. Both sides traded cannon fire for about two hours before Fremont directed Brigadier General Julius Stahel’s brigade to move around and attack the Confederate right flank.
Stahel’s men moved as ordered, but they were unaware that Brigadier General Isaac Trimble’s Confederate brigade had moved forward a half-mile on the right, crawling to avoid detection. When the Federals came within 50 yards, Trimble’s men rose and fired into them. After two more volleys, the surviving Federals fell back.
The fight reverted to an artillery duel, but it had to be cut short due to ammunition running low on both sides. Trimble advanced another half-mile down the Keezletown road to attack a Federal battery, forming a mile-wide gap between Ewell’s right and center. The Federals pulled their guns back before Trimble’s men could reach them.
Ewell brought up Brigadier General Richard Taylor’s brigade to fill the gap caused by Trimble and shore up the left. A portion of Fremont’s army led by Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy advanced to attack the Confederate left at Mill Creek, but the Federals were met unexpectedly by enemy skirmishers firing into them. Milroy tried to regroup, but his men were then hit by Ewell’s artillery in the center.
As Milroy prepared to shift right, an order came from Fremont to fall back. This shocked Milroy because had Fremont committed his entire force, he could have taken the Confederate positions. But Fremont seemed confused by the unexpected Confederate strength and decided to disengage. Five regiments under Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck stood idle to Milroy’s right, having never received orders to get into the fight.
Despite his objections, Milroy complied with Fremont’s directive, and the Federals withdrew under cover of their artillery. As the Confederates took the Federals’ positions, Trimble pleaded with Ewell to counterattack. But Ewell, following Jackson’s orders to stay on the defensive, refused.
Fremont sustained 684 casualties (114 killed, 443 wounded, and 127 missing), with half the losses suffered by the 8th New York. Ewell lost just 288 (41 killed, 232 wounded, and 15 missing), but two of his brigade commanders (Arnold Elzey and George Steuart) were badly wounded.
Meanwhile, Fremont received a message that Shields had arrived at Port Republic and would be ready to link with him. Unbeknownst to Fremont, Shields had written the message before Jackson’s Confederates drove him back out of town. Thus, Fremont planned to renew the attack the next day.
President Abraham Lincoln, unaware that all this was taking place, wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton explaining that operations in the Shenandoah Valley needed to be suspended: “Richmond is the principal point for our active operation. Accordingly, it is the object of the enemy to create alarms everywhere else and thereby to divert as much of our force from that point as possible. On the contrary, as a general rule we should stand on the defensive everywhere else, and direct as much force as possible to Richmond.”
Lincoln therefore directed Major General Irvin McDowell to pull his Federal command (which included Shields’s division) out of the Valley and reinforce the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula. This included Shields’s division, which Lincoln noted was “so terribly out of shape, out at elbows, and out at toes,” due to hard marching and little to show for it. This would leave the forces of Fremont and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in the Valley to defend against any attempt by Jackson to renew the offensive.
But neither Fremont nor Shields knew of Lincoln’s plan yet. Nor did Jackson, who was emboldened by his successes. He planned to attack Shields the next morning, and then turn to finish Fremont off in the afternoon. Jackson ordered Trimble’s reinforced brigade to hold Cross Keys while the rest of Ewell’s men crossed the North River and joined Jackson at Port Republic. Jackson risked his army’s destruction if either Fremont or Shields attacked, but Jackson was convinced they would not.
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