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Book Review: Conquering the Valley (Robert K. Krick) : CWT

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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CONQUERING THE VALLEY
The heart of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign spanned six weeks and ended near the place it had begun: Port Republic, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There and at Cross Keys, a village five miles northwest of Port Republic, Jackson's army defeated two Union forces on June 8 and 9, culminating an operation that has since become legendary in the annals of Civil War history.

Although Jackson's twin victories on those two days were minor engagements by Civil War standards of numbers engaged and casualties incurred, Robert K. Krick argues in Conquering the Valley that had Jackson been defeated, his campaign would have been lost, and with it, Richmond and Virginia. Their impact, Krick contends, affected "the course of the war at large."

Except for a brief opening chapter that summarizes the earlier part of the campaign, and a brief concluding chapter on the engagements' significance, Krick devotes the entire book to the two days' fighting and its immediate aftermath. The result is a study of the battles in microcosm. Few, if any, details of the combat are overlooked in what undoubtedly will be the definitive work on Cross Keys and Port Republic.

The engagements unfold with meticulous care in Krick's hands. On June 8, after Union cavalry stormed into Port Republic and nearly captured Jackson, the scene shifted to Cross Keys, where Confederate units under Brigadier General Richard Ewell confronted Federals under Major General John Fr?mont. From mid-morning until dusk, the opponents engaged in combat marked by the slaughter of the 8th New York, Southern assaults, and Northern counterattacks. In the end, Ewell's troops held the field, allowing Jackson to meet Brigadier General James Shields's Union force northeast of Port Republic the next day.

Jackson struck early on June 9, but the Federals held a strong position, anchored between the south fork of the Shenandoah River and a knoll known as "the Coaling." From the eminence, Union cannon dominated the field, ravaging enemy units. Eventually, Jackson's main line collapsed, being saved from defeat only by the capture of the Coaling by Brigadier General Richard Taylor's Louisiana brigade. Confederate reinforcements secured the victory, and with it, Jackson's campaign. The two days of fighting cost both sides roughly 3,200 men.

Krick describes the combat down to the regimental level. Incidents and anecdotes enrich the narrative, and woven throughout are civilian eyewitnesses' accounts of the fighting and their stories about its impact on their lives. The book is as much a chronicle of those caught within the confines of war as it is a chronicle of warriors.

For readers familiar with Krick's previous works, the narrative is vintage Krick. He blends countless quotations from participants with acerbic judgments and wry humor. Stories of individuals abound, enriching the text. It is history at its best.

He renders judgments of the ranking officers throughout the text and is unsparingly and justifiably critical of Fr?mont's and Shields's performances. Both commanders had an opportunity to punish the Confederates but acted with caution, even timidity. Brigadier General Robert Milroy at Cross Keys and Brigadier General Erastus Tyler at Port Republic directed the Union efforts with little or no support from their superior officers.

Conversely, Krick praises the contributions of Confederate brigadier generals, notably Ewell, Taylor, Charles Winder, and Isaac Trimble. Ewell, in particular, demonstrated the ability to handle numbers of units on a battlefield. The troops under the brigadiers determined the outcome of the fighting.

The figure of Jackson dominates the story, however. To Krick, the general is an "eccentric genius," whose generalship is worthy of the contemporary and historical acclaim it has secured. His only criticism of Jackson is the general's misuse of Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro's brigade, which Krick attributes to Jackson's mistrust of Taliaferro. As Krick concludes, "The Valley and the River remain a perpetual memorial for Stonewall Jackson."

In Conquering the Valley, Krick describes the two engagements that secured that "perpetual memorial" for Jackson. It is unlikely that anyone will render a better account of Cross Keys and Port Republic. The book combines impeccable scholarship and fine writing. In time, it should be regarded, deservedly, as a classic study of Civil War combat.

Jeffry D. WertCentre Hall, Pennsylvania

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