The Battle of Port Republic

In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson planned to follow up his victory at Cross Keys on June 8 with an attack on the other Federal command advancing toward him at Port Republic, three miles south. Jackson had left a token force at Cross Keys to face Major General John C. Fremont’s Federals while transferring the rest to confront the command of Brigadier General James Shields. Jackson boldly planned to defeat Shields and then turn back northwest to defeat Fremont.

As his Confederates assembled, Jackson sent the Stonewall Brigade, led by Brigadier General Charles S. Winder, eastward across the South River to take the fight to Shields’s Federals. But the South River bridge was so unstable that Winder’s men had to cross single-file, which gave the Federals time to identify the movement and prepare for the attack.

Shields’s force consisted of four brigades led by Brigadier Generals Erastus B. Tyler and Samuel Carroll, totaling 3,000 men and 16 cannon. These troops took positions atop a steep hill in the Confederates’ front, with the artillerists firing down on the approaching enemy.

Jackson had lost the element of surprise. He also had just one brigade across the river to face four brigades in strong, elevated positions. Nevertheless, Jackson ordered an attack. The Stonewall Brigade split in two, with one force moving directly up the hill against the Federal guns and the other moving through the heavy brush to get around the Federal left.

Brigadier General Richard Taylor’s Confederate brigade soon arrived, which Jackson divided as well. The Louisiana Tigers joined Winder’s men scaling the hill, and Taylor’s other portion joined the Confederates moving around the flank to silence the Federal batteries. Meanwhile, Colonel John D. Imboden hurriedly assembled the Confederate guns to offset the Federals’ artillery and prevent them from receiving any reinforcements from Shields.

Winder’s Confederates facing the hill charged across the Lewis farm but stopped within 200 yards of the Federal line, sustaining heavy casualties before finally breaking in retreat. Carroll’s Federals began pursuing them. Jackson had to abandon his plan to defeat Shields and then turn to defeat Fremont, instead ordering the brigade in Fremont’s front to hurry in support and burn the bridge behind them.

Prospects were not good for the Confederates. They were running low on ammunition, they were under constant bombardment from the Federal guns, and they were in danger of being cut off from their supply base at Staunton. Finally, Major General Richard Ewell arrived with another Confederate brigade to join the fight. Seeing that Carroll’s pursuit had exposed the Federal flank, Ewell ordered his men to attack this vulnerable spot.

Another Confederate brigade arrived, which Jackson directed to support the flank attack against the Federal batteries. Taylor’s Confederates finally made their way around the Federal left and charged into the Federal gunners, capturing six cannon. Federal infantry counterattacked and slowly drove the enemy back in vicious combat, as reinforcements arrived on both sides.

Imboden massed his Confederate guns and began pouring deadly fire into the Federal positions, while the Confederates who had retreated regrouped and began to advance again. A lull fell over the field as the Federals halted to ponder their next move. Jackson took this opportunity to order an all-out attack.

Winder regained his lost ground, while Taylor regained the Federals guns and trained them on their former owners. The Federals slowly retreated, ultimately falling back eight miles to Conrad’s Store. Jackson watched the Federal withdrawal and said to Ewell, “He who does not see the hand of God in this is blind, sir. Blind!”

Shields met the Federals at Conrad’s Store with two brigades and prepared for a Confederate attack that never came. Jackson’s men were too exhausted to pursue, and they still had Fremont in their rear to worry about. The lone brigade holding up Fremont’s entire army narrowly escaped across the Shenandoah River after Fremont finally realized that he was facing just a token force.

Fremont claimed victory because the brigade withdrew, but since the Confederates had only intended this to be a holding action, they could claim success. They escaped across the Shenandoah and burned the bridge behind them, making pursuit impossible. Fremont bombarded the field from the bluffs across the river, which destroyed ambulances carrying men from both sides but did little damage to Jackson’s army. Jackson moved his men to Brown’s Gap in the Blue Ridge, out of harm’s way. The fight was over.

Jackson, who managed this battle poorly, sustained more casualties than in any of his other Valley engagements. He lost over 800 men out of the 7,000 that ultimately took part. Moreover, he may not have even needed to fight this battle, as he could have simply withdrawn from Port Republic, burning the bridge spanning the North River to prevent pursuit, and reached Brown’s Gap just as easily. But he could claim victory nonetheless, as he reported on the night of the 9th: “Through God’s blessing the enemy near Port Republic was this day routed with the loss of six pieces of artillery.”

The Federals lost over a third of their men, or 1,018 (67 killed, 393 wounded, and 558 missing) out of 3,000. Shields soon received orders to rejoin the Federals under Major General Irvin McDowell that were moving to the Peninsula. Shields, who wanted another crack at Jackson, said, “I never obeyed an order with such reluctance.” Fremont was ordered to stop pursuing Jackson now that the Confederates had moved far enough south to no longer threaten Washington. Fremont gratefully complied, saying he had “expended (his) last effort in reaching Port Republic.”

This marked the last battle in Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign. Since April 29, his “foot cavalry” had marched almost 400 miles and won five battles (McDowell, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys, and Port Republic) against four commanders (Schenck, Banks, Fremont, and Shields). Facing armies totaling 60,000 men, Jackson never had more than 17,000 effectives at any one time. He used superior mobility and knowledge of his surroundings to achieve incredible success, and, as Jackson reported, “God has been our shield, and to His name be all the glory.”

Jackson’s achievements baffled the Federal high command, terrified government officials at Washington, and prevented tens of thousands of troops from reinforcing Major General George B. McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula. Perhaps more importantly, Jackson greatly boosted the plummeting Confederate morale. He now had the flexibility to either move freely throughout the Valley or move east to reinforce the Confederates on the Peninsula.


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