Category Archives: Virginia

The Battle of Front Royal

May 23, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates scored a major victory and threatened to position themselves between the Federals in the Shenandoah Valley and Washington.

Jackson planned to attack the Federal outpost at Front Royal, east of Massanutten Mountain in the Luray (eastern Shenandoah) Valley. The Federals there had been detached from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Shenandoah, stationed at Strasburg. Using the mountain to screen his movement, Jackson split his 16,000-man command by sending Major General Richard Ewell’s division on a more easterly route to block a potential Federal retreat toward Manassas Junction.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s cavalry blocked the Federals from the west and seized the railroad line to Strasburg, where Banks’s main force was located. Jackson planned to drive the Federals north toward Winchester while keeping them from burning the two important bridges spanning the North and South forks of the Shenandoah River. He was not aware of how many Federals awaited him at Front Royal.

Ewell began his eastern detour around 2 p.m., with skirmishing breaking out at various points along the way. Prominent Confederate spy Belle Boyd rode through the fighting, nearly getting killed by bullets passing through her skirt, to deliver a message to one of Jackson’s officers. It stated that “the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all.”

Jackson’s Confederates conducted a grueling march up a road that gradually ascended 400 feet before reaching a point that overlooked Front Royal. Having received Belle Boyd’s message and intelligence from other scouts, Jackson learned that just one Federal regiment, the 1st Maryland (U.S.), was stationed there. He deployed his own 1st Maryland (C.S.) to attack; the men had been on the verge of mutiny because their enlistments had expired, but now they jumped at the chance to take on their fellow Marylanders. They charged ferociously on the unsuspecting enemy.

Colonel John Kenly, in command at Front Royal, thought that Jackson was 50 miles south and expected no attack. As the Confederates surged forward around 2 p.m., Kenly hurriedly fell back to Richardson’s Hill, north of town. Federal artillery briefly kept the Confederates at bay, but they soon rushed forward again, this time with Ashby’s cavalry closing in on Kenly’s rear.

Battle map | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Battle map | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Kenly ordered a retreat, slowly falling back across the South Fork to Guard Hill. Some Federals stayed back and tried burning the North Fork bridge, but the Confederates put the flames out in time to cross. The 6th Virginia Cavalry raced forward and confronted the Federals at Cedarville. The Federals fired a volley before the enemy surrounded them. Kenly had no choice but to surrender his command.

The Federals lost 904 men, 750 of which were taken prisoner. The Confederates lost 35 killed, wounded, or missing. Banks was shocked upon learning of this defeat because he thought Jackson was at Harrisonburg, 50 miles south. He reported to Washington that the Front Royal garrison was attacked by 5,000 Confederates who “had been gathering in the mountains, it is said, since Wednesday. Reinforcements should be sent us if possible.” This loss put the Lincoln administration on the verge of panic.

The Front Royal engagement resulted in Jackson taking positions on Banks’s left flank. This meant that Banks had to abandon the strong defensive works he had built at Strasburg. He had three options: 1) fall back toward Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal army at Franklin to the west; 2) confront Jackson at Front Royal; or 3) fall back toward Winchester to the north to keep his army between Jackson and Washington. Banks chose the third.

Jackson, guessing that Banks would pick the second or third option, sent Ewell toward Winchester while keeping Brigadier General Charles Winder’s division at Front Royal. The Confederate victory gave Jackson a prime opportunity to cut off Banks’s entire force, which soon began heading north on the Valley turnpike, northwest of Front Royal. The race to keep Banks from reaching Winchester was on.

Meanwhile, Jackson wrote a letter of thanks to Belle Boyd for the information she provided: “I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country to-day.”

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (23 May 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 122, 125-28; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13765-73; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 174; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 431; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 156; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 834; Klein, Frederic S, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 215; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 455-56; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677

Jackson Targets Front Royal

May 22, 1862 – Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard Ewell joined forces in the Shenandoah Valley and moved to attack Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s isolated Federal outpost at Front Royal.

Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Jackson’s Confederates resumed their northward march down the Shenandoah Valley at dawn on May 21. Ewell, commanding the other Confederate force in the Valley, received intelligence that Federals troops comprising Banks’s left flank were stationed at Front Royal, east of Strasburg.

Advancing down the Valley turnpike, Jackson then turned east through the Luray Gap in the Massanutten Ridge to cross the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and enter the Luray Valley. Brigadier General Turner Ashby’s Confederate cavalry kept Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Shenandoah, unaware of the movement.

Ewell’s Confederates joined Jackson’s that night; the combined force now totaled 16,000 men and 48 cannon. Jackson planned to attack Banks’s flank at Front Royal. The flank consisted of a small fort and just 1,000 men under Colonel John R. Kenly. Jackson hoped that destroying this force would trap Banks in the Valley and render him unable to reinforce the Federals at either Fredericksburg or the Peninsula.

The Confederates rose at 6 a.m. on the 22nd and resumed their march, with Ewell’s troops in the lead. Jackson would not divulge where they were headed, but he issued orders prohibiting no more than two men per battalion to leave a fight to tend to the wounded at a time. This strongly indicated that a battle was imminent. The men halted for the night within 10 miles of Front Royal, as Ashby’s cavalry fell back from Strasburg to join the main Confederate army.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Banks remained with his main force at New Market, 25 miles south. Unaware that Jackson and Ewell had joined forces and moved north, he believed that Ewell was still at Swift Run Gap and he had no idea where Jackson was. Banks wrote his superiors fearing that Jackson might try attacking New Market, and Ewell might try reinforcing him there.

Ironically, Banks asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to send him reinforcements on the same day that Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Federals near Fredericksburg, reported to the War Department, “Major General (James) Shields’ command (detached from Banks’s army) has arrived here” to reinforce him.

Banks, who had previously been certain that Jackson had left the Shenandoah Valley to join the Confederates on the Peninsula, now suddenly warned:

“To these important considerations ought to be added the persistent adherence of Jackson to the defense of the valley and his well-known purpose to expel the Government troops from this country if in his power. This may be assumed as certain. There is probably no one more fixed and determined purpose in the whole circle of the enemy’s plans.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120-23; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 173; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 430; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 155; Klein, Frederic S, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 214

Conflicting Orders in the Shenandoah Valley

May 20, 1862 – Confederate Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard Ewell struggled with conflicting orders while trying to join forces to attack Federals under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

By this time, Banks, commanding the Federal Army of the Shenandoah, had sent one of his divisions under Brigadier General James Shields eastward out of the Valley. Shields’s Federals were near Warrenton, on their way to reinforce Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. With Major General John C. Fremont’s Federal army at Franklin to the west, Banks was all alone at Strasburg with just 9,000 men against a larger Confederate force heading his way.

The Confederate force actually consisted of two commands separated by 30 miles, with Jackson’s men at Mount Solon and Ewell’s at Swift Run Gap. They were in the process of joining forces to move north and threaten Banks. They also hoped to threaten Washington, which would prompt Shields to return to the Valley and force McDowell to suspend his movement to the Virginia Peninsula.

On the 17th, Ewell received a message from General Joseph E. Johnston (dated May 13) stating that if Banks moved east, Ewell and Jackson must come reinforce the Confederate army on the Peninsula. This posed a dilemma because only part of Banks’s army had moved east. Johnston’s directive also conflicted with orders from General Robert E. Lee, dated May 16, authorizing Jackson and Ewell to move north toward the Potomac River.

Ewell forwarded the message to Jackson at Mount Solon. Jackson asked Johnston to rescind the order, explaining, “I have been moving down the valley for the purpose of attacking Banks, but the withdrawal of General Ewell’s command will prevent my purpose being executed.”

While Jackson’s message was in transit, he directed Ewell to “suspend the execution of the order for returning to the east until I receive an answer to my telegram.” Since neither Jackson nor Ewell knew whether to follow the orders of Johnston or Lee, Ewell obeyed Jackson, his immediate superior. He kept his troops at Swift Run Gap and then rode to Mount Solon to discuss the situation with Jackson personally.

Ewell and Jackson met on the 18th and agreed that whatever they would do needed to be done immediately. Ewell suggested that since his troops were in the Valley, they were actually under Jackson’s command, not Johnston’s, meaning that Jackson’s authority over Ewell superseded Johnston’s. Jackson asked Ewell to put the problem of obeying conflicting orders in writing, and Jackson would respond in a way that would clear Ewell of any blame for disobeying Johnston. Jackson wrote:

“Your letter of this date, in which you have received letters from Generals Lee, Johnston and myself requiring somewhat different movements, and desiring my views respecting your position, has been received. In reply I would state that as you are in the Valley District you constitute part of my command. Should you receive orders different from those sent from these headquarters, please advise me of the same as early a period as practicable. You will please move your command as to encamp between New Market and Mount Jackson on next Wednesday night, unless you receive orders from a superior officer and that of a date subsequent to the 16th instant.”

Thus, Jackson and Ewell would move according to Lee’s orders, not Johnston’s. Ewell hurried back to Swift Run Gap to put his men in motion. Jackson had his men up at 2 a.m. on the 19th, and they were on the march within an hour. They moved northwest down the Valley toward New Market, using wagons to bridge the North River. Jackson dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General Turner Ashby to obstruct any roads that Fremont could use to join forces with Banks.

Jackson’s Confederates marched through Harrisonburg on the morning of May 20. They crossed the Massanutten Mountain and entered the Luray, or eastern Shenandoah, Valley. The Confederates then resumed their northward advance along the South Fork of the Shenandoah Valley.

As Ewell’s Confederates also moved northward, Ewell received a message from Johnston dated May 17 reiterating his orders to come to the Peninsula. Johnston wrote, “If Banks is fortifying near Strasburg, the attack would be too hazardous.” Jackson was to “observe him” while Ewell’s men left the Valley.

Ewell rode up to confer with Jackson between Harrisonburg and New Market. Jackson rushed a messenger to Staunton to telegraph Lee: “I am of opinion that an attempt should be made to defeat Banks, but under instructions just received from General Johnston I do not feel at liberty to make an attack. Please answer by telegraph at once.”

That night, Johnston responded to Jackson’s May 18 orders keeping Ewell in the Valley: “The whole question is, whether or not General Jackson & yourself are too late to attack Banks. If so the march eastward should be made. If not (supposing your strength be sufficient) then attack.” Late that night, Lee overrode Johnston’s orders and permitted Jackson to go ahead against Banks as planned.

Once united, Jackson and Ewell would have 16,000 men and 48 guns to confront Banks’s 9,000 Federals at Strasburg.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 114-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 172-73; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 428-29; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 154; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 213-14; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677

McClellan Conditionally Receives Reinforcements

May 17, 1862 – As the Federal Army of the Potomac continued inching toward Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln conditionally approved Major General George B. McClellan’s request for reinforcements.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton persuaded Lincoln to allow Major General Irvin McDowell’s Army of the Rappahannock (formerly I Corps in McClellan’s army) to reinforce McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula. McDowell received orders to “move upon Richmond by the general route of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, cooperating with the forces under General McClellan…” McDowell was to stay “in such position as to cover the capital of the nation against a sudden dash of any large body of the rebel forces.”

Lincoln notified McClellan:

“At your earnest call for re-enforcements he (McDowell) is sent forward to co-operate in the reduction of Richmond, but charged, in attempting this, not to uncover the city of Washington; and you will give no order, either before or after your junction, which can put him out of position to cover this city.”

Stanton supplemented Lincoln’s message with one of his own:

“He (McDowell) is ordered–keeping himself always in position to save the capital from all possible attack–so to operate as to place his left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to cooperate, so as to establish this communication as soon as possible, by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond.”

Thus, McClellan would finally receive the reinforcements he had pleaded for, but under several conditions:

  • McDowell would move overland to link with McClellan’s right instead of moving by water as McClellan had urged.
  • McDowell would “retain the command of the Department of the Rappahannock and of the forces with which he moves forward,” making him McClellan’s equal and no longer his subordinate.
  • McClellan was expected to extend his army’s right over the Pamunkey River while McDowell extended his left until they linked. This meant that McClellan no longer had the option of moving across the Peninsula to try attacking from a James River point (which might have been a better option considering the recent Battle of Drewry’s Bluff).
  • McDowell was not to leave his base on the Rappahannock River until reinforced by Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,000-man division, transferred from Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s army in the Shenandoah Valley.

McClellan objected to these conditions, arguing that it was vital to his plans to have McDowell’s Federals join his army by water rather than land. McClellan also insisted that according to the 62nd Article of War, McDowell had to obey McClellan as the ranking officer and could not act independently. McClellan wrote:

“Indications that the enemy intend fighting at Richmond. Policy seems to be to concentrate everything there. They hold central position, and will seek to meet us while divided. I think we are committing a great military error in having so many independent columns. The great battle should be fought by our troops in mass; then divide if necessary.”

To that end, McClellan reorganized his army to create a V and VI corps. V Corps, formerly the 1st Division of III Corps and the Regular Reserve Division, was given to his friend Fitz John Porter. VI Corps, formerly the 1st Division of I Corps and the 2nd Division of IV Corps, was given to another friend, William B. Franklin.

On the Confederate side, General Joseph E. Johnston continued withdrawing his army to more defensible positions closer to Richmond. Johnston’s left flank was just outside northeastern Richmond at Fairfield Race Course. His right was near Drewry’s Bluff, on the banks of the James River.

President Jefferson Davis wrote his wife Varina, who he had sent out of Richmond for her safety: “We are uncertain of everything except that a battle must be near at hand.” Capital residents discussed whether the Confederate troops could stop McClellan’s drive on the capital. Davis tried boosting morale by proclaiming that the city would be defended, in accordance with a congressional resolution.

Meanwhile, McClellan divided his army along both banks of the Chickahominy River and awaited the arrival of McDowell’s troops from northern Virginia. By May 21, the Federals were within eight miles of Richmond, with General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps operating at Bottom’s Bridge spanning the Chickahominy. As McClellan continued maneuvering his men, Lincoln responded to his objections regarding the use of McDowell’s Federals:

“You will have just such control of Gen. McDowell and his force as you therein indicate. McDowell can reach you by land sooner than he could get aboard of boats if the boats were ready at Frederick’sburg,–unless his march shall be resisted, in which case, the force resisting him, will certainly not be confronting you at Richmond.”

Although McClellan was within striking distance of Richmond, he continued fretting that his force was not strong enough to confront the Confederate defenders. He wrote his friend, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, stationed on the North Carolina coast, “The Government have deliberately placed me in this position. If I win, the greater the glory. If I lose, they will be damned forever, both by God and men.”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (17 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 172-73; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7441; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 417-18, 441-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 153, 154-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 213-14; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76

Lee’s Fateful Message to Jackson

May 16, 1862 – As Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson moved back east, he received a message from General Robert E. Lee giving him free rein to operate against the Federals in the Shenandoah Valley, and even threaten Washington.

Gens R.E. Lee and T.J. Jackson | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gens R.E. Lee and T.J. Jackson | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Following Jackson’s victory at McDowell, his cavalry under Colonel Turner Ashby briefly continued pursuing the Federals under Brigadier Generals Robert C. Schenck and Robert H. Milroy before moving further north down the Shenandoah Valley toward Harrisonburg.

Jackson’s infantry pursued Schenck and Milroy for 10 miles as the Federals fell back toward Franklin. However, the Federals’ rear guard defense and bad roads thwarted the Confederates. Jackson continued pursuing the next day, blocking Schenck and Milroy from linking with the rest of Major General John C. Fremont’s army from the Mountain Department.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss, led a cavalry detachment in felling trees and rolling rocks to obstruct the roads between Franklin and Harrisonburg that could link Fremont with the other Federal army in the Valley under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.

Ashby’s troopers rode to Swift Run Gap, where Major General Richard Ewell’s Confederate division was camped. Ashby informed Ewell of the victory at McDowell and delivered a message from Jackson:

“I desire to follow the enemy as far as practicable to-day. My troops are in advance. Should circumstances justify it, I will try, through God’s blessing, to get in Banks’ rear; and if I succeed in this I desire you to press him as far as may be consistent with your own safety should he fall back.”

This message confused Ewell since Jackson was still near Franklin, 60 miles west. More information came from a Federal deserter, who told Ewell that one of Banks’s two divisions under Brigadier General James Shields was heading east out of the Valley while the other was advancing on Strasburg. Ewell, who had been idle at Swift Run Gap since April 30, was growing increasingly frustrated with Jackson’s refusal to divulge his plans or offer any details on strategy.

Back west, heavy rain continued slowing Jackson’s pursuit of Schenck and Milroy until he finally called it off on the 12th. By that time, the Federals had taken up defensive positions outside Franklin, and Jackson, having no desire to attack them, pulled back. Also, Jackson received word that Banks’s army was poised to leave the Valley and reinforce the Federals on the Virginia Peninsula.

Jackson directed his adjutant general to issue an order “to render thanks to Almighty God for having crowned our arms with success and to implore His continued favor.” The adjutant general, a Presbyterian minister, expanded the order to an entire day of spiritual reflection. Jackson approved and participated with his troops.

Meanwhile, Ewell wanted to stop Shields’s Federals from leaving the Valley but received no authorization from Jackson to do so. Ewell vented his fury on anyone near him, asking one colonel, “did it ever occur to you that General Jackson is crazy?” He dispatched cavalry to impede Shields’s progress and yelled that Jackson “is as crazy as a March Hare!” To another officer, Ewell hollered, “Why, I could crush Shields before night if I could move from here!… This man Jackson is certainly a crazy fool, an idiot!”

Ewell was unaware that Jackson planned to return to the Valley. The next day, Ewell received orders from Jackson to advance north toward Strasburg to confront Banks. Jackson, having held Fremont in check, would have Ashby’s troopers screen his infantrymen as they turned back east to join Ewell. Jackson issued strict orders to the troops for the return march:

  • Fall in at attention, then march on and off cadence at intervals of up to 300 yards.
  • Do not leave the march without an officer’s permission.
  • Take 10 minutes of every hour to rest in a prone position.

As Ewell prepared to move out, he told one of his brigade commanders, “General Jackson’s views may change at any moment. I won’t go too far under present instructions, as I may be wanted elsewhere.” Ewell was right. On May 16, Jackson asked him how long it would take him to get to Harrisonburg to the west and not Strasburg to the north. Jackson also asked Ewell to bring along the two additional brigades at Gordonsville that General Robert E. Lee had sent him, even though Lee had ordered them to stay east of the Valley.

As Jackson’s men observed a “fast day,” Lee learned from Ewell that Shields’s division was moving northward down the Valley toward the Manassas Gap Railroad, which would be a good position to reinforce either Fredericksburg or the Peninsula as needed. Fearing that Banks may soon withdraw his other division from the Valley, Lee wrote to Jackson:

“Whatever may be Banks’ intention, it is very desirable to prevent him from going either to Fredericksburg or the Peninsula… A successful blow struck at him would delay, if it does not prevent, his moving to either place. But you will not, in any demonstration you may make in that direction, lose sight of the fact that it may become necessary for you to come to the support of General Johnston, and hold yourself in readiness to do so if required. Whatever movement you make against Banks do it speedily, and if successful drive him back toward the Potomac, and create the impression, as far as practicable, that you design threatening that line.”

This important message empowered Jackson to advance his Confederates all the way to the Potomac.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 114; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 168-69, 171; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 416, 421-22; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 150-53; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 208-09, 211; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 460, 677

The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1862 – Confederate batteries repulsed the advance of a Federal naval fleet on the James River, which helped ease some of the panic spreading throughout the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The day after crewmen of the C.S.S. Virginia destroyed their vessel, they assembled under their commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, at Drewry’s Bluff. Once owned by a man named Drewry, this was a 100-foot-high eminence on the north bank of a sharp bend in the James, about seven miles from Richmond. It was officially known as Fort Darling, and it was the last stronghold preventing Federal naval forces from reaching Richmond via the James River.

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The crewmen were assigned to help man the eight heavy cannon on the bluff. The overall fort commander, General George W.C. Lee (oldest son of Robert E. Lee), had directed the guns’ placements, as well as the placement of obstructions (including the C.S.S. Jamestown) in a narrow point of the river. The C.S.S. Patrick Henry, a civilian steamer with heavy guns, was stationed in front of Drewry’s Bluff.

The fortification of Fort Darling was a joint effort by the Confederate army, navy, and marines, led by both Commander Ebenezer Ferrand of the navy and General William Mahone of the army. After working tirelessly in the rain for two days, the Confederates commanded all potential river approaches.

The Federal James River Flotilla, led by Commander John Rodgers, began moving up the James toward the Confederate capital on the 14th. The flotilla consisted of the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena (a new corvette), and the wooden ships U.S.S. Aroostook, Naugatuck, and Port Royal. The crews had orders from Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.” The navy hoped to capture Richmond as it had captured New Orleans the previous month.

Panic swept Richmond as residents realized that they were now under threat from Federal army forces on the Peninsula and naval forces on the James. Alarm bells rang in the capital as the ships continued upriver on May 15, with Confederate sharpshooters firing on them from rifle pits on shore. In a public meeting outside City Hall, Virginia Governor John Letcher declared:

“Some one said to me the other day, that the duty of surrendering the city would devolve either upon the president, the mayor, or myself. I said to him if the demand is made upon me, with the alternative to surrender or be shelled, I shall reply, bombard and be damned!”

Richmond Mayor Joseph C. Mayo told his constituents:

“I say now, and will abide by it, when the citizens of Richmond demand on me to surrender the capital of Virginia and of the Confederacy to the enemy they must find some other man to fill my place. I will resign the mayoralty. And when that other man elected in my stead shall deliver up the city, I hope I have physical courage and strength enough left to shoulder a musket and go into the ranks.”

A committee met with President Jefferson Davis to get his assurance that the Confederate government would help local officials defend the city to the end. The meeting was interrupted by a message stating that Federal warships were coming up the James River. Davis told the committee members, “This manifestly concludes the matter.”

The vessels came in sight around 7:35 a.m., with the Galena and Monitor emerging from the fog in the lead. As the Confederate gunners opened fire, the Galena dropped anchor about 600 yards from Fort Darling and began firing back. The gun noise rattled windows in Richmond.

Action at Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Action at Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

With the three wooden ships staying out of range, the Monitor steamed past the Galena to draw fire but could not elevate the guns in her revolving turret high enough to hit the Confederates on the bluff. The Monitor moved back downriver, near the wooden ships, to find her range. But from that distance, her smoothbore Dahlgren guns were less effective. The Monitor also drew too much water to become fully engaged. This allowed the Confederates to focus primarily on the Galena.

Commander Rodgers reported that “balls came through, and many men were killed with fragments of her own iron.” The Galena sustained large holes in her deck from the plunging fire of shot and shell. The Patrick Henry connected with an 8-inch solid shot through the Galena’s bow port, and the ship was also running low on ammunition. At 11:05, Rodgers ordered her to withdraw, after a shot sparked a fire.

Meanwhile, the Port Royal took a hit on the forward wheel and another below the waterline, forcing her to fall back. The Naugatuck took heavy punishment and was rendered useless when her 100-pound Parrott gun exploded upon firing. The Aroostook stayed out of range.

The rest of the flotilla followed the Galena when she withdrew downriver, and the Confederates hollered three cheers for their victory. Richmond residents also celebrated, but only briefly because Major General George B. McClellan’s army still threatened them from the Peninsula.

The Federals lost 13 killed and 11 wounded aboard the Galena, along with three others wounded on the wooden ships. Some Federals had been killed or wounded by sharpshooters on the riverbanks. Paymaster William Keeler of the Monitor, which was hit three times but sustained no casualties, went aboard the Galena and later wrote his wife:

“Here was a body with the head, one arm & part of the breast torn off by a bursting shell, another with the top of his head taken off the brains still steaming on the deck, partly across him lay one with both legs taken off at the hips & at a little distance another completely disemboweled.”

The Galena sustained 50 hits, with 18 piercing the four-inch plating and reaching the wooden hull. The Monitor captain reported that “the action was most gallantly fought against great odds, and with the usual effect against earthworks. It was impossible to reduce such works, except with the aid of a land force.”

Corporal John B. Mackie of the Galena’s Marine Guard later became the first U.S. marine awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery under fire in this battle. Navy Department General Order No. 17, dated July 10, 1863, allowed U.S. marines to be eligible for the award.

The Confederates lost seven killed and eight wounded. After the victory, President Davis wrote his wife Varina:

“The panic here has subsided and with increasing confidence there has arisen a desire to see the city destroyed rather than surrendered. The great temporal object is to secure our independence and they who engage in strife for personal or party aggrandisement, deserve contemptuous forgetfulness.”

The Federal repulse was sudden and surprising to many who expected the ships to easily bypass the obstructions and batteries. But the Federals did benefit somewhat from the incursion: they had forced the Confederates to obstruct the river, which prevented them from going down just as it kept the Federals from coming up. It also revealed an ideal spot for a Federal army landing, just 10 miles from Richmond, if McClellan opted to move his supply base from the York to the James. Few knew at the time how important Harrison’s Landing would become.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 128-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13705-14; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 401-02; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 170-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 416; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151, 153; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3418-30; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 296; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211-13; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 427; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 109; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 330-31, 383-85; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 227, 571

The Peninsula Campaign: Closing in on Richmond

May 12, 1862 – Panic began spreading throughout the Confederate capital of Richmond as Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was now just 22 miles away and still advancing up the Virginia Peninsula.

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

McClellan divided his army by sending one part toward Richmond from West Point and leading another to White House Landing, 15 miles up the Pamunkey River. This enabled the Federals to seize control of the Richmond & York River Railroad. It also gave them possession of White House, a 4,000-acre plantation where George Washington had courted Martha Custis. It was now owned by Martha’s granddaughter, Mary Custis Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee. Mrs. Lee pinned a note on the house door:

“Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington forebear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants. A grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington.”

Reaching White House put the Federals just 22 miles from Richmond. Capital residents hurried to leave, with traders trying to sell their goods to foreign consuls before moving out. Davis sent his wife Varina out of town, writing to her:

“If the withdrawal from the Peninsula and Norfolk had been done with due preparation and a desirable deliberation, I should be more sanguine of a successful defense of this city… I know not what to expect when so many failures are to be remembered, yet will try to make a successful resistance…”

Mrs. Davis joined many other residents in fleeing to western Virginia or North Carolina, as panic increased in the capital.

By May 14, McClellan’s troops had advanced about 30 miles since taking Yorktown 10 days before. McClellan informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, traveling with him on the Peninsula, that he intended to try another flanking maneuver to cut off the Confederate retreat at White House. But to be successful, McClellan argued that he needed Major General Irvin McDowell’s 40,000-man army on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg in northern Virginia.

McClellan stated, “No time will be lost in bringing about a decisive battle.” In a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan explained, “All my information from every source accessible to me establishes the fixed purpose of the rebels to defend Richmond against this army by offering us battle with all the troops they can collect from east, west, and south.”

At this time, McClellan asserted that he could not “bring into actual battle against the enemy more than 80,000 men at the utmost,” and these men would be fighting not just the Confederates that had fled Yorktown, but a “much larger force, perhaps double my numbers.” Thus, McClellan’s estimate of 120,000 Confederates at Yorktown had grown over the last 10 days to 160,000.

McClellan said that there might be a chance that the Confederates would abandon Richmond without a fight, but, “it would be unwise, and even insane, for me to calculate upon anything but a stubborn and desperate resistance.” McClellan “respectfully and earnestly” asked Lincoln to reinforce the army “without delay by all the disposable troops of the Government.”

In reality, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had less than 60,000 effectives on the Peninsula, and they were pulling back toward Richmond. Johnston’s left flank withdrew away from the Federal gunboats on the Pamunkey as his men took up strong defensive positions at the Baltimore Crossroads.

Davis and his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rode out to meet with Johnston and “better understand his plans and expectations.” Davis later stated that “a long conversation followed which was so inconclusive that it lasted until late in the night, so late that we remained until next morning.” To the concern of Davis and Lee, Johnston seemed to have no plan other than to build defenses and await a Federal attack.

Returning to Richmond, Davis met with Lee and the cabinet to discuss options in case they had to abandon the capital. The men suggested establishing new defensive lines south of the James, with Lee recommending falling back to the Staunton River, some 100 miles southwest. Then he added, “But Richmond must not be given up. It shall not be given up!” Meanwhile, Virginia state legislators approved a resolution:

“That the General Assembly hereby express its desire that the capital of the State be defended to the last extremity, if such defence is in accordance with the views of the President of the Confederate States; and that the President be assured that whatever destruction or loss of property of the State or individuals shall thereby result, will be cheerfully submitted to.”

Johnston continued his withdrawal on the 15th, moving his forces across the Chickahominy River, the last waterway separating the Federals from Richmond. Johnston pulled back from the river’s middle and lower stretches, moving some units to within three miles of the capital.

McClellan arrived at White House and set up headquarters in a tent on the mansion’s front lawn. He prohibited his men from desecrating the home or property, and White House became the main Federal supply base on the Peninsula. McClellan then visited nearby St. Peter’s Church, where George Washington married Martha Custis. That night, he wrote his wife, “As I happened to be there alone for a few minutes, I could not help kneeling at the chancel and praying.”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 127, 129-30; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (14 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169, 171; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 416-18; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151-53; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211-12; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 330; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 133-34; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262