Nathaniel Banks’ Yankees are no match for Jackson’s ‘foot cavalry’ at 1st Winchester.
Stonewall Jackson had two missions in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862. The first was to make sure the region, a vital agricultural hub between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains, stayed in Confederate hands. He had worked toward that goal since receiving command of the independent Valley District in the Department of Northern Virginia the previous November. Then in April another critical challenge came his way, one that could decide the fate of the Confederacy. With Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s 100,000-man Army of the Potomac advancing up the Virginia Peninsula and threatening Richmond, it was Jackson’s duty to prevent the Federal armies operating in the Valley and at Fredericksburg from joining Little Mac’s juggernaut as it moved north.
Facing Jackson was Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, head of the 16,000-man Department of the Shenandoah. A three-time Massachusetts governor and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, 46-year-old Banks was one of the Union Army’s many political generals with no military experience. It probably wasn’t fair that his first command came against the budding legend Stonewall. After all, trying to defeat Jackson in battle, or at least keep him at bay, was a daunting task for any general, let alone a rookie commander. Although Banks would handle himself adequately during his four months in the Valley, the wily Jackson would ultimately prove too strong.
Jackson’s year got off to a troubling start. In January, his ambitious Romney Campaign ended in a stalemate, compelling Jackson to consider resigning his commission when subordinate officers criticized him. Then he was defeated March 23 by a detachment from Banks’ army at First Kernstown. But if anything, the setbacks hardened his resolve to rid the Valley of Federal threats once and for all. On May 8, Jackson triumphed at the Battle of McDowell. Banks had already granted a request from Washington to let Brig. Gen. James Shields’ division join Irvin McDowell’s 40,000-man army in Fredericksburg as it prepared to take part in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. The McDowell loss proved it was a shortsighted decision.
Banks suspected an attack on his army, based at Strasburg, would come any day. Jackson was indeed on the move, looking to make a swift strike on lightly defended Front Royal and then advancing to Winchester to put his army between Banks and Washington, D.C. That, he believed, would spark a response from the Federals and give Jackson the opportunity to destroy Banks’ army.
The attack on Front Royal came the afternoon of May 23, led by Richard Ewell’s Division. As expected, the Rebels had early success. But a determined stand by Col. John C. Kenly’s 1,063-man force, as well as another by two Union infantry units during a cavalry attack by Col. Turner Ashby at nearby Buckton Depot, delayed the Rebels long enough to get a warning out to Banks.
At 10 p.m., Banks ordered a full withdrawal up the Valley Pike to the Potomac River and Maryland. Leading the way was the army’s lengthy wagon train, filled with supplies and sick and wounded soldiers. The train would keep moving until it reached the Potomac; Banks’ infantry and cavalry would follow the 15 miles or so to Winchester and set up a defensive perimeter in the hills south of the city. Banks conceded that his army, limited now to about 6,000 men, was no match for Jackson and Ewell, but he hoped to hold them in check as long as possible.
Skirmishes at Middletown and Newtown on May 24 slightly delayed the Rebels, and Banks had his men in place below Winchester in time. Jackson attacked at 6 a.m. May 25 but soon discovered the undermanned Federals occupying the hills had a terrain advantage.
Union artillery on a hill hindered the initial Confederate sally against the 3rd Brigade of Maj. Gen. Alpheus Williams’ 1st Division on Bowers Hill. Jackson countered by placing two guns on a nearby rise, setting off a two-hour artillery duel.
On the Federal left, on Camp Hill, were 1,700 men in Col. Dudley Donnelly’s brigade. A low-lying fog and the 4th U.S. Artillery’s six smoothbore cannons gave Donnelly the advantage as the 21st North Carolina and 21st Georgia attacked. But the Rebel numbers were too great. Realizing he was being flanked on his left by Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart’s Virginia cavalry, Donnelly began pulling his men back to safety through Winchester.
Brig. Gen. Richard Taylor’s Louisianans delivered the decisive blow, moving in behind the Stonewall Brigade and then swinging left to flank Col. George Gordon’s men on Bowers Hill. Gordon rushed the 29th Pennsylvania and 27th Indiana over, but it was too little, too late. By 10 a.m., a mass Federal retreat through Winchester had begun. Jackson, however, did not follow. Banks steadied his men and organized an orderly 12-hour withdrawal 40 miles to the Potomac, opposite Williamsport, Md.
Jackson completed his Valley Campaign with crushing victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic on June 8 and 9, as Ewell’s men again played an instrumental role. The Union threat in the Valley over for now, Jackson marched to Richmond to help defend the capital. He contributed to McClellan’s defeat during the Seven Days’ Campaign. The Union would not wrest away control of the Valley until the fall of 1864, thanks to a brash cavalry general named Phil Sheridan.
Chris Howland is senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.