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America's Civil War: Front Royal Was the Key to the Shenandoah Valley

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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If this valley is lost, Virginia is lost,' insisted Confederate Major General Thomas Jonathan 'Stonewall' Jackson in early 1862, speaking of the strategically and agriculturally vital Shenandoah Valley. And if Virginia was lost, so too was the Confederacy. The key to the valley, and thus to the Confederacy, was the huge Massanutten Mountain, which bisected much of the valley, and the key to Massanutten was the sleepy little hamlet of Front Royal. Whoever controlled Front Royal controlled, to a great degree, the outcome of the war.

Front Royal, in the northern reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, had a strategic importance that belied its small size. A mile and a half north of the town, the North and South forks of the Shenandoah River united to become one stream. Also nearby was the Manassas Gap Railroad, which passed over the South Fork on a 450-foot-high wooden trestle. Unfortunately, Front Royal was virtually indefensible. High mountain peaks commanded the terrain from three directions. Gaps in the mountains also presented dangers–a swift-moving foe could pop through them at any time to seize the town. Jackson, a prewar resident of the Shenandoah town of Lexington, Va., knew that Front Royal could not be held. He also knew that the Yankees would try.

In the early spring of 1862, Confederate forces in Virginia braced themselves for a renewed Federal push into their territory. This time the offensive would manifest itself in the Peninsula campaign orchestrated by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. His main strike force, five corps from the newly organized Army of the Potomac–about 100,000 men in all–steamed down the Chesapeake from Alexandria, Va., to Fort Monroe, Va., and was to march up the peninsula between the York and James rivers to attack Richmond from the south and east. On March 11 President Abraham Lincoln had relieved McClellan as Union general-in-chief so that the general could better concentrate on the peninsula operation, and in the interim Washington coordinated the operations of the Union armies. Elsewhere in Virginia, plans called for Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell's 40,000-man corps in Fredericksburg to assist McClellan's force by threatening Richmond from the north; Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont's army, 15,000 strong, was to begin operations in the forested Allegheny Mountains; and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks' 20,000-man army would operate in the Shenandoah Valley to prevent Confederate forces there from either reinforcing the Richmond defenders or driving north toward the Union capital. If all went as planned, the rebellion would be crushed by Christmas 1862.

To counter the winter Union buildup, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had finally acquiesced to General Joseph E. Johnston's pleadings to merge the disparate military departments of the Northwest, the Valley, the Potomac, the Aquia, the Peninsula and Norfolk into one department, the Department of Northern Virginia, and place it under Johnston's command. With this new unified department–120,000 men in all–Johnston believed that he could not only drive the 150,000 Federals back across the Potomac but also set the stage for future offensive operations north of that river.

To facilitate his eventual counterstroke, protect Fredericksburg and Richmond and better unify his command, Johnston judiciously decided to pull the old Confederate Army of the Potomac back 25 miles from Manassas to the south side of the Rappahannock River. He did, however, keep one reinforced division in the Shenandoah Valley–Stonewall Jackson's.

On Sunday, March 9, 1862, in accordance with Johnston's orders, the Confederate encampment at Centerville was once again abandoned, and the men marched south and crossed the rain-swollen Rappahannock into Culpeper and Orange counties. By early April, as the Federals' intentions became clearer, Johnston decided to move the bulk of his army farther south, closer to the Confederate capital, leaving only Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell's division behind to guard the Rappahannock line.

Stonewall Jackson, meanwhile, had upset Union plans. On March 23 at Kernstown, Va., he had attacked Banks' army. Although Jackson was defeated, Lincoln believed the Confederate general's division was still a threat, and he ordered McDowell's force, which was to reinforce McClellan near Richmond, to re-main in place so that it could defend Washington if needed. Johnston countered by ordering Ewell to march west into the Shenandoah Valley with Colonel Thomas Munford's 2nd Virginia Cavalry and Colonel Thomas Flournoy's 6th Virginia Cavalry to reinforce Jackson's grandly named Army of the Valley–a single large division–which was busily holding off five invading Federal divisions under Banks and Frémont.

Jackson's division was arguably one of the best in the Confederate Army. It consisted of 12 regiments of infantry–11 from Virginia and one from Maryland–and six batteries of artillery. Many of its soldiers were already veterans who had'seen the elephant' at the battles of First Manassas, Kernstown and Romney. Ewell's division was equally impressive, consisting of six Virginia regiments, four Louisiana regiments and one each from North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Ewell also possessed the famed Louisiana Special Battalion from the docks of New Orleans, Major Roberdeau Wheat's much-feared Tiger Zouaves.

When Ewell's division moved out of its encampment on April 18 to join Jackson in the valley, the men had to march in a steady, soaking rain, sometimes coupled with sleet or wet snow. Freezing precipitation continued to torture them for the next 10 days. Louisianian T.A. Tooke remarked: 'We have [done] nothing but march, march, march, and halt and sleep in wet blankets and mud. I thought that I [knew] something about soldiering, but I find that I had never soldiered it this way.'

On Wednesday evening, April 30, Ewell's division crossed over the Blue Ridge through Swift Run Gap and marched into Jackson's camp at Conrad's Store. While the exhausted men established their bivouac sites in the dark, Ewell met with his new commander.

Jackson informed Ewell that he planned to march his own division 50 miles to the west, through Keezletown and Harrisonburg, to the hamlet of McDowell at the foot of the Alleghenies. He fully intended, he said, to drive Frémont out of the valley. In the meantime, Ewell's division, reinforced by Munford's and Flournoy's cavalries, was to hold Banks in check by preventing his army from taking Staunton (from either the east or west side of Massanutten Mountain) or, per Johnston's instructions, by discouraging him from sending reinforcements east over the Blue Ridge Mountains to support McClellan's siege of Richmond.

When Jackson marched his division out of Conrad's Store the next morning, May 1, Ewell was left to his own devices. At the time, unbeknown to Ewell, Banks' army consisted of only one two-brigade division under Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams and some assorted cavalry. The Federals in the valley were so reduced because soon after Banks had taken Winchester in March, he was ordered by his commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln, to send two of his three divisions, those of Brig. Gens. John Sedgwick and James Shields, east by rail to reinforce McDowell at Manassas. McDowell was then to support McClellan on the peninsula. Williams' lone division, now Banks' entire army, was therefore spread thin throughout the northern reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, from Winchester to Strasburg in the west, and from Columbia Bridge to Front Royal in the east. The army's wide dispersal, however, did not mask its relative weakness.

Over the next month, while Jackson marched west to drive Frémont back over the Alleghenies, Ewell established several outposts north of Conrad's Store and sent numerous patrols down both sides of Massanutten to ascertain the whereabouts, strength and intentions of Banks' army as best he could. On May 7, one of these patrols, led by Major Wheat, ran into elements of Banks' army just south of Columbia Bridge at the hamlet of Somerville in the Luray valley. Wheat's force consisted of his battalion of Zouaves, a company from the 9th Louisiana, two cavalry companies from Flournoy's 6th Virginia and one cannon.

As Wheat's men approached the South Fork of the Shenandoah River just north of Somerville, they were surprised and driven back by Colonel Robert Foster's 13th Indiana Volunteers and a company from the 1st Vermont Cavalry. In the early phase of the skirmish, known as the Battle of Somerville Heights, the Federals were able to push Wheat's forces back two miles to Dogtown, where the Zouave Tigers and others were reinforced by Colonel Harry Hays' 7th Louisiana. Once assembled, Hays and Wheat counterattacked and pushed the now outnumbered Federals back to Columbia Bridge, their starting point. Although the Special Battalion surprisingly listed no casualties in the engagement, the 7th Louisiana lost two dead, four wounded and one deserter, said to be a 'crazy Greek.'

The next day, May 8, Jackson defeated the vanguard of Frémont's army, Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy's brigade, at the Battle of McDowell and forced it to retreat west to Franklin, Frémont's headquarters. Content with Frémont's subsequent inaction, Jackson informed Ewell on May 10 that he intended to march back into the Shenandoah Valley and go after Banks in accordance with Johnston's wishes.

On the 18th, Jackson and Ewell met at Mount Solon, about 12 miles southwest of Harrisonburg, to formulate a course of action. They decided to hit Banks' outpost at Front Royal, on the eastern side of Massanutten, between the South Fork and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Manassas Gap Railroad ran through the area, and it was this line that Banks was using to shift his army, most recently Shields' division, to McDowell, who had now taken Fredericksburg in his supporting drive to capture Richmond. If Jackson captured Front Royal, Banks would not only be cut off from McDowell, but his fortified position at Strasburg would also be turned.

With the general strategy worked out, Jackson cut the orders to unify his army. His own division would march down the macadamized Valley Pike through Harrisonburg and along the western side of Massanutten to New Market. Ewell's division, on the eastern side of the river, would march to Luray. To help deceive the enemy into thinking that Jackson actually intended to attack Strasburg, on the western side of Massanutten Mountain, Brig. Gen. Richard Taylor's brigade was detached from Ewell and ordered to march west, over Massanutten through Keezletown, and on to Harrisonburg. From there it headed north down the graveled pike, and after marching 26 miles it pulled into New Market, linking up with Jackson on the evening of May 20.

When the Louisianians marched into the encampment, the men of Jackson's division, though worn out by their recent campaign, stood beside the road to catch a glimpse of the famed Tigers, with their distinctive blue-and-white-striped cotton pantaloons, grayish-brown Zouave jackets with red trim, red flannel skull caps and accurate Mississippi rifles. They were quite a sight one man remembered,'stepping jauntingly as if on parade…not a straggler, but every man in his place, though it had marched twenty miles and more, in open column with arms at right shoulder shift.' Artilleryman George Neese of Chew's Horse Artillery recalled: 'I for the first time saw some of the much talked about Tigers….They looked courageous and daringly fearless.'

Once the Tigers and others had marched past Jackson's division, Taylor ordered them to halt, stack arms and break ranks to establish a bivouac. As they did so, he sought out Jackson for further instructions. Finding his new commanding general perched atop a rail fence overlooking the field that the Louisianians were in the process of occupying, Taylor walked up to Jackson, crisply saluted and declared his name and rank. Jackson slowly looked up, peering from beneath his trademark visored cap, and asked Taylor how far his brigade had marched that day.

'Keezletown Road, six and twenty miles,' Taylor proudly replied.

'You seem to have no stragglers,' Jackson noted.

'Never allow straggling,' Taylor said.

'You must teach my people; they straggle badly,' Jackson concluded with a pained grimace.

Just then, the brigade band started to play, and some Creoles from the 8th Louisiana began playing a waltz. Watching from his fence post, Jackson murmured disapprovingly to Taylor, 'Thoughtless fellows for such serious work.' Taylor assured the no-nonsense Presbyterian that his bayou-bred Louisianians were well up to the task at hand. He then politely excused himself to rejoin his brigade, quickly putting a damper on the festivities.

The next day, May 21, Jackson placed the Louisiana Brigade on the point of his army to link up with Ewell's division, which was already on the other side of Massanutten Mountain. With Wheat's Tigers in the van setting the pace as skirmishers, the Army of the Valley marched northeast toward Luray, the designated assembly point. Jackson adopted Taylor's technique of marching for 50 minutes and resting for 10. Private Neese remembered, 'The troops are all in light marching order, having left all their surplus baggage, even their knapsacks, at New Market, and as the Romans of old used to say of the gladiators, they are stripped for fight.' By evening, Jackson had united with Ewell near Luray, creating a force of 16,000 men to take on Banks' 7,500.

On May 22, the newly constituted army continued its journey down the valley toward Front Royal, with the Tigers and the rest of the Louisiana Brigade again leading the march. The men trudged for hours through a soaking rain and ankle-deep mud, and their exhaustion increased. 'Almost tired to death,' one soldier remembered. Jackson camped that evening within 10 miles of Front Royal, the army's first objective. Before the men were allowed to sleep, however, they were ordered to polish their rust-encrusted weapons, which was a sure sign of an upcoming battle.

During the next day's march, Jackson learned that a large portion of the Federal garrison at Front Royal consisted of Colonel John Reese Kenly's 1st Maryland Regiment (U.S.). He therefore placed his own Marylanders–Colonel Bradley Johnson's battalion of expatriates from Elzey's Brigade, the 1st Maryland Volunteers–in the front of Wheat's battalion, to let them have a crack at the Maryland Yankees first. Jackson planned to use the men to take Front Royal from the south, up the east side of the South Fork of the Shenandoah, while his cavalry rode up the west side to cut the Federals' communication lines to Strasburg. When the infantry drove the Federals out of Front Royal, the cavalry would then circle around from the north and west to slam the trap shut.

In order to avoid the Union picket posts on the main road south of Front Royal, Jackson chose to march his men up a steep, winding path, called Snake Road by the locals, about a mile south of the town. Soon after 1 p.m., Johnson's Marylanders, no doubt exhausted after their climb, crested the last wooded hill that led into Front Royal and drove out a nest of Federals who were quietly resting at the head of Snake Road. After a few minutes of skirmishing, the Confederates were met by a 'rather well-looking woman,' the famous Southern spy Belle Boyd, a citizen of Front Royal, who was drawn by the fire and who extolled the men to 'charge right down and [you will] catch them all.' Believing Boyd's story, Jackson ordered Johnson, Wheat and Taylor to do just that while he brought up the rest of his army.

Front Royal was less than a mile to their front. Another half mile or so beyond the hamlet, up the main road atop Richardson's Hill, was Kenly's main camp. Beyond that was the confluence of the North and South forks of the Shenandoah River. A bridge spanned each fork, and a viaduct of the Manassas Gap Railroad crossed the South Fork and headed west to Strasburg, where Banks' headquarters was located. The Federal garrison at Front Royal consisted of 16 companies of infantry–nine from the 1st Maryland, three from the 2nd Massachusetts, two from the 29th Pennsylvania and one each from the 3rd Wisconsin and the 27th Indiana. They were supported by two companies of New York cavalry, a section of guns from the Pennsylvania Light Artillery and a company of engineers. All told, there were about 1,100 Federal soldiers in and around the town.

The Marylanders and the Tigers were ordered to drive down the hill and storm Front Royal while Taylor brought up the rest of his brigade. Wheat, excited by the order and no doubt wanting to vindicate himself after Somerville, charged down the left side of the road and was the first Confederate to enter the town. He'shot by like a rocket,' Colonel Johnson reported. 'His red cap gleaming, revolver in hand, and got in first, throwing his shots right and left.' Lucy Rebecca Buck, the daughter of a respected landowner in Front Royal, remembered the initial clash between Federal and Confederate forces at Front Royal: 'Going to the door we saw the Yankees scampering over the meadow below our house….By this time some scattered parties of Confederate infantry came up and charged their ranks, after firing one volley they wheeled about–every man for himself they scampered out of town like a flock of sheep–such an undignified exodus was never witnessed before.'

Once the Federals were driven from Front Royal, Wheat and Johnson, supported by the 6th Louisiana, ordered their men to head for the main Federal camp, located on a commanding hill north of the town. As the emboldened Confederates approached a ridgeline that fronted Richardson's Hill, however, they were forced to the ground by two Parrott rifles and several companies of infantry firing down from the fortified encampment.

Wheat ordered his Tigers to take cover around Rose Hill Manor, a large brick-and-wood structure about 250 yards to the right front of the Federal line, where, according to Lucy Buck, 'a good deal of fighting was done.' Before long, Jackson himself arrived on the scene with Captain James Carrington's Charlottesville Artillery and posted it atop a hill to Wheat's right rear. With Wheat's Tigers and Johnson's Marylanders pinned down, General Taylor recommended a double envelopment. While Wheat's and Johnson's men continued to fix Kenly's position in front and Carrington's battery provided support, Taylor pointed out, he could sweep his 7th, 8th and 9th Louisiana regiments to the far right, past Johnson's Marylanders, and cross the relatively unguarded railroad trestle that spanned the South Fork, getting in Kenly's rear. As they did so, Colonel Isaac G. Seymour's 6th Louisiana Regiment would sweep to the left, making a dash for the South Fork Bridge immediately behind Kenly's camp and drawing the Federals' fire. Without hesitation, and no doubt impressed by the Louisianian's enterprise, Jackson nodded in approval, and Taylor launched his first major attack of the war.

From his hilltop bastion, Kenly watched helplessly as the Pelican Staters worked their way around his position. He decided to order his men to torch the camp and retreat across both branches of the Shenandoah before they were completely cut off. Once across the North Branch, Kenly ordered the bridge burned and established a new line along the riverbank, anchored by the precipitous Guard Hill, to hold back the enemy as long as possible while he alerted Banks to the threat.

On the heels of Kenly's retreating Federals, Johnson's Marylanders charged up Richardson's Hill and through the burning camp, snagging a few prisoners and crossing over the South Fork Bridge. Advancing another 400 yards up the road, they were stopped cold by Kenly's new line atop Guard Hill and by the burning North Fork Bridge. They were soon joined by Taylor and his Louisiana regiments, who were just crossing the South Fork.

With the low-lying North Fork Bridge on fire, overlooked by Federal artillery posted atop Guard Hill, and with no sign of reinforcements, Taylor rode back to meet with Jackson, who had just crossed the South Fork Bridge. Surveying the scene, Jackson resolved to continue the attack. He would march across the North Fork Bridge–burning or not–and drive the enemy into the ground.

Fortuitously, at that moment, Wheat was slowly escorting his desperadoes through the destroyed Federal camp and across the South Fork Bridge. Jackson determined to use the Tigers to lead the attack and ordered them to pass through the Marylanders and take the burning bridge.

Ewell's adjutant, Captain Campbell Brown, remembered: 'I shall never forget the style in which Wheat's Battalion passed us as we stood on the road. [Wheat] was riding full gallop, yelling at the top of his voice; his big sergeant-major running at top speed just after him, calling upon the men to come on; and they strung out according to their speed and'stomach for the fight,' following after, all running; all yelling; all looking like fight. Their peculiar Zouave dress, light striped, baggy pants, bronzed and desperate faces and wild excitement made up a glorious picture. Wheat himself looked in a fight as handsome as any man I ever saw.'

With Wheat in the lead, the Tigers descended the road toward the river's edge, stormed across the bridge through the flames, and secured the other side in the face of the enemy's desperate fire. The Tigers were soon joined by Taylor and the remainder of the Louisiana Brigade, who quickly put out the blaze. The span was saved, 'but it was rather a near thing,' Taylor later recalled. 'My horse and clothing were scorched, and many men burned their hands severely while throwing brands into the river.'

With the North Fork Bridge now in Confederate hands, Jackson ordered Johnson's Marylanders and Taylor's Louisianians to push up the road and through the wooded gap to dislodge the Federals. In the meantime, Colonel Flournoy's 6th Virginia Cavalry attacked the Federals from the rear, unhinged their line and forced them to retreat farther up the road toward Winchester. 'The pursuit begun was kept up vigorously,' Jackson's aide, Lieutenant Henry Kyd Douglas, remembered. 'There was much handsome work done by Flournoy's cavalry, with good results.' By late afternoon, the mounted Virginians ran down what was left of Kenly's doomed command near Cedarville, capturing the whole lot, including the regiment's colors and the colonel himself.

While the cavalry and the 1st Maryland pursued Kenly, the New Orleans Tigers were recuperating along the shady banks of the North Fork when they heard a train whistle coming from the direction of Manassas Gap. Earlier in the day, Flournoy's cavalry had cut the telegraph lines between Strasburg and Manassas, and the engineer of the Federal train, which consisted of two locomotives, three passenger and 50 freight cars, apparently had no idea that the town had been filibustered by Jackson's army.

Sensing an opportunity for more glory for his men, Wheat quickly roused his Tigers up from their late-afternoon snooze and ordered them to charge the mov-ing train. Swarming up the embankment and across the flat land, the Tigers hopped aboard the locomotive, threw its wholly surprised driver to the ground, and brought the train to a stop. When the former wharf rats opened the cars, they were pleasantly surprised to find more than $300,000 worth of commissary and quartermaster stores packed inside.

All told, the battle for Front Royal cost Banks about 900 casualties–750 prisoners, 32 killed and 122 wounded–and Jackson only 36, mostly from Flournoy's cavalry. With Front Royal saved, Jackson was able to turn Banks from his position at Strasburg, hit him at Middletown and push him out of Winchester, thus recapturing, for the time being, the Shenandoah Valley.

Lincoln's reaction was to send McDowell's force after Jackson, thus ending any chances of its supporting McClellan at Richmond. Deprived of reinforcements, McClellan's drive toward Richmond ground to a halt, and the Union's best chance of ending the war with a quick, decisive victory was lost. In more ways than one, Front Royal had indeed been the key.



This article was written by Gary Schreckengost and originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of America's Civil War magazine.

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