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Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester

Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester

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by Gary Ecelbarger

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The battles of Front Royal and Winchester are the stuff of Civil War legend. Stonewall Jackson swept away an isolated Union division under the command of Nathaniel Banks and made his presence in the northern Shenandoah Valley so frightful a prospect that it triggered an overreaction from President Lincoln, yielding huge benefits for the Confederacy. Gary Ecelbarger


The battles of Front Royal and Winchester are the stuff of Civil War legend. Stonewall Jackson swept away an isolated Union division under the command of Nathaniel Banks and made his presence in the northern Shenandoah Valley so frightful a prospect that it triggered an overreaction from President Lincoln, yielding huge benefits for the Confederacy. Gary Ecelbarger has undertaken a comprehensive reassessment of those battles to show their influence on both war strategy and the continuation of the conflict. Three Days in the Shenandoah answers questions that have perplexed historians for generations.

Bypassing long-overused sources that have shrouded the Valley Campaign in myth, Ecelbarger draws instead on newly uncovered primary sources—including soldiers’ accounts and officers’ reports—to refute much of the anecdotal lore that for too long was regarded as fact. He narrates those suspenseful days of combat from the perspective of battlefield participants and high commanders to weave a compelling story of strategy and tactics. And he offers new conclusions regarding Lincoln’s military meddling as commander in chief, grants Jefferson Davis more credit for the campaign than previous accounts have given him, and commends Union soldiers for their fighting.

Written with the flair of a seasoned military historian and enlivened with maps and illustrations, Three Days in the Shenandoah reinterprets this important episode. Ecelbarger sets a new standard for envisioning the Shenandoah Campaign that will both fascinate Civil War buffs and engage historians.

Product Details

University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Campaigns and Commanders Series , #14
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Three Days in the Shenandoah

Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester

By Gary Ecelbarger


Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5339-1



Since the beginning of the war, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were never as concerned over the survival of the Confederacy as they were on Thursday, May 22, 1862. Five weeks had passed since President Davis had decided that the peninsula was defensible at Yorktown, concurring with the adamancy of General Lee and countering the insistence of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. The conference that generated that decision had been based on a threat posed by McClellan's Army of the Potomac, sixty miles from the Confederate capital. Now, one month and one week later, the enemy army was at the doorstep of Richmond.

The closest major body of water protecting Richmond from McClellan's advance was the Chickahominy River, the moat that flowed southeastward, cutting across the Yorktown Peninsula at points ten miles northeast of Richmond at Mechanicsville and gradually spreading its distance as it worked its way toward the James River, outlining the southern boundary of the Peninsula. Three days earlier, McClellan crossed thousands of troops at Bottom Bridge and was attempting a crossing farther up the river near Mechanicsville. All of this had been made possible by U.S. naval control of the James River. After the Confederates withdrew from the Yorktown line and abandoned the Norfolk naval yard early in the month (and destroyed its formidable ironclad, the CSS Virginia), Union war ships advanced to Drewry's Bluff, six miles south of Richmond. Johnston's fifty-three thousand soldiers stretched across the peninsula twenty miles from Richmond. With his left flank severely threatened, General Johnston decided to retreat from his second defensive line across the Chickahominy to the eastern suburbs of Richmond.

With little opposition to the enemy at the Chickahominy, the citizenry of Richmond had grown uneasy, Jefferson Davis included. He sent his wife southward to safety, and prepared for the inevitable battle that must be fought to save Richmond from Union capture. The entire eastern arc of Richmond was threatened, from Drewry's Bluff south of the capital to the hamlet of Mechanicsville, five miles northeast.

President Davis and General Lee rode out to the latter on Thursday on the Mechanicsville Road. Reports of up to twenty thousand Union soldiers across the river there had yet to be confirmed. Lee and Davis arrived there in the afternoon, where they witnessed an artillery exchange. Davis was troubled not only at the light resistance offered by Confederates on the eastern bank of the Chickahominy but also by the ignorance of the defense as to who was in charge and what plan was in effect. "My conclusion was," wrote Davis upon returning to Richmond, "that if, as reported to be probable, [Union] General [William B.] Franklin, with a division, was in that vicinity he might easily have advanced over the turnpike toward if not to Richmond."

Finally, Generals Johnston and Lee agreed that the Confederate army needed to formulate an attack rather than be dictated to by an attack from McClellan. They both understood that the attack must occur soon, for even if McClellan continued to crawl as he had demonstrated over the past two months, the threat to Richmond extended beyond the Army of the Potomac and beyond Johnston's left flank. Since May 8 Robert E. Lee had been concerned that General McDowell was destined to be reinforced, posing a source of extra pressure coming from the Rappahannock River fifty miles north of Richmond. Over the next two weeks Lee learned that the source of reinforcement would come from the Shenandoah Valley. By mid-May, Lee had been informed that General Shields's division was heading down the Luray Valley to Front Royal, and that Banks had taken the remainder of the Union's Valley army back to Strasburg. Since both towns rested twelve miles apart on the Manassas Gap Railroad, the obvious conclusion formulated by General Lee was that Banks would transport his army by rail to Alexandria. From there Lee believed Banks would reinforce McClellan either directly by water transport to the peninsula or indirectly by linking with McDowell's army, strengthening it on the right bank of the Rappahannock, and allowing it to cross the river and head southward to Richmond.

Confederate War Department strategy had focused on one major goal: to prevent reinforcements from swelling McClellan's ranks, in order to allow General Johnston to have a fighting chance to beat the Army of the Potomac east of Richmond. One option to prevent McDowell from reinforcing McClellan was to strengthen the resistance on the opposite bank of the Rappahannock. Because Lee (and by extension, Davis) had hedged his bets that Banks would bypass McDowell at Falmouth and directly support McClellan by steamer transport down the Chesapeake Bay, Lee moved to negate the advantage of strengthening the defense at Fredericksburg and looked to wipe away McClellan's potential reinforcements from their source — the Shenandoah Valley.

Back in the mid-April overnight conference Jefferson Davis first suggested using Stonewall Jackson as an offensive weapon to thwart the Union strategy of reinforcement on the Yorktown Peninsula, and in doing so, to accomplish Confederate strategy. By the middle of May, Robert E. Lee had deemed Jackson strong enough to conduct an offensive. Jackson had reached Allegheny Johnson in time to achieve a rare feat for the Confederacy in the spring of 1862 — a battle victory. Jackson won the Battle of McDowell on May 8 despite suffering nearly twice as many losses on the defensive than did Frémont's attacking brigades — commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy and Robert Schenck — attacking the Confederate defense on Sitlington's Hill.

Lee was pleased to learn that the immediate threat from Frémont was quelled as Jackson pushed him all the way down to Franklin, eliminating his ability to link with Banks. In the process Jackson absorbed the six regiments and batteries from the Army of the Northwest into his division (General Johnson was wounded in the battle and would not participate). He returned to the western edge of the Valley on May 17, prepared to attack Banks once he received orders from Richmond.

General Lee had involved himself with Jackson's progress, frequently wiring dispatches from Richmond to Staunton, where they were carried by a courier to Jackson. Shortly before Jackson fought at McDowell, Lee received Jackson's strength report and must have been encouraged at the numbers on paper, for Jackson reported more than eight thousand infantry in his three brigades. Ewell had reported the same for his command three weeks earlier, so Lee determined that these divisions, plus the troops from the Army of the Northwest, bolstered Confederate strength in the Valley past eighteen thousand men, with battle losses factored into the calculation.

Jackson's numbers convinced Lee that he could conduct an offensive operation in the Valley. Perhaps dictating the order from Jefferson Davis, Lee sent Jackson a dispatch on May 16, expressing the desire that he strike Banks in an attempt to keep him from leaving the Valley to support McClellan's occupation of the Peninsula. The Confederate War Department also approved of Jackson uniting with Dick Ewell to accomplish this goal. The notion was that Ewell and Jackson were necessary to operate together in the Valley, although Lee had warned Jackson, "But you will not ... lose sight of the fact that it may become necessary for you to come to the support of General Johnston."

General Johnston was not on the same page as General Lee on where the Confederate forces in and near the Valley should best serve. Since April, it can be assumed that Johnston wanted Jackson and Ewell to reinforce his army on the Peninsula. This assumption is based on the stated desire to bring up forces from South Carolina and Georgia to initiate an offensive. Within days of Lee telegraphing his mission to Jackson, Johnston wrote dispatches ordering Ewell and Gen. Lawrence O'Bryan Branch (heading a brigade of North Carolinians east of the Blue Ridge) to come to his aid at Richmond. For reasons never made clear, Johnston chose not to transmit his messages into the Valley by telegraphing them to Staunton; instead, he sent the dispatches by courier on horseback. This necessarily delayed delivery by two to three days a message that could have been received within hours of deciphering it at the telegraph office in Staunton. On May 18, perhaps after meeting with General Lee and President Davis, Johnston reversed his orders for General Ewell, allowing him to remain in the Valley, while General Branch would continue on to Richmond.

Thus, while elements of McClellan's army approached within eight miles of Richmond from three directions on May 22, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnston all planned to meet the direct threat from McClellan's army, while at the same time hoping that Jackson, with Ewell, could accomplish by planned strategy a similar outcome to that achieved two months earlier by his attack at Kernstown without planning — that is, to prevent Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley from leaving the Valley and to hold in place other Union troops earmarked for concentration at Richmond. All three Confederate giants shared the mind-set — that time was not on their side.

At Strasburg, General Banks felt the same way about his situation on May 22, 1862. Banks had come to the conclusion on that Thursday that his army would soon be assaulted. He had been well aware that Jackson had returned to the upper (southern) Valley after defeating Schenck and Milroy at the Battle of McDowell. He was warned by Frémont of Jackson's postbattle movements. Confederate prisoners, including infantry, brought in from both Jackson's and Ewell's commands further developed the strength and location of their divisions. Admitting his anxiety over Jackson's return, Banks expressed his views in a dispatch he wrote at the same time that General Lee and President Davis fretted over the vulnerability of Richmond. "From all the information I can gather," declared Banks, "I am compelled to believe that he meditates attack here."

As the third-ranking officer of all the Union volunteer forces in the war, forty-six-year-old Nathaniel Prentiss Banks could attribute his appointment to one factor — his political influence. As a three-term Massachusetts governor and former speaker of the house, Banks held moderate political views that endeared him throughout New England, and that convinced him to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. In 1861 he was passed over as secretary of the navy, a position Lincoln initially favored him for shortly after being elected. The president commissioned him a major general and provided him a large division, in order to place the former Democrat on a high tier and thus recruit his constituents and rally Democrats and moderates to support the war effort of the Republican administration. That Banks had no military experience did not dissuade Lincoln in his decision to place him in such a high military position, one that led to a corps, and subsequently a department, command in the Shenandoah Valley.

Although his military experience was lacking, Banks did not ill fit his uniform. Physically, his presence was not commanding, for he was neither tall nor muscular; nevertheless; Banks's mien appealed to those who saw him for the first time. One observer declared, "He is by all odds the most impressive man, in countenance, language and demeanor, whom I have seen since the war commenced." Near Edinburg in the heart of the Valley, where Banks had participated in divine services in April, an observant staff officer studied the way the citizenry took in the general: "Immediately beside him stood a boy about twelve years old, ragged and snub-nosed, in the most independent and critical attitude, devouring the General with his eyes, measuring him from top to toe, probably guessing how long it would take him to grow into a major general. The scene was American."

He was liked by the rank and file of his command, although no one considered him a top military commander. Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch readily contrasted Banks with a general he disliked. "Genl. Shields is a humbug of the first water," claimed Hatch, while "Genl. Banks although no great general is a good man and nice gentleman. It is unfortunate that he has not more educated military men on his staff." Alpheus Williams found Banks a hard nut to crack. "He is not very communicative, even to those near him in command," Williams wrote his daughter, "and although always pleasant and courteous, he cannot be said to be a companionable person."

The greatest dissent against Banks came from the Second Massachusetts Infantry. Although recruited from Banks's home state, they felt no allegiance to their fellow Bay State commander. They blamed Banks for their stagnancy, and could not hold their frustration within their ranks. "To give Banks so small a force shows the estimation in which he is held," complained Capt. Edward G. Abbott, "Now while we are sitting here quietly at our ease other Mass. Men are fighting, doing what we should do. ... We are no better than a home guard — When this war is over other regiments will laugh and sneer at us — Oh you were in Gen. Banks army."

With the departure of Shields's division from the Valley six days earlier, Banks's "army" had been reduced to a division. It was his favorite division, for he had led these troops prior to his ascent to command the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and subsequently to head the Department of the Shenandoah. The division, under Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams, had been reduced to two infantry brigades after a third one had been transferred to Irvin McDowell's army at the end of March. The eight remaining infantry regiments hailed from Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

The spirit of Banks's army broke in the face of the May Day orders. "I have never been so low in faith and hopelessness as I am ... in thinking over the conduct of the war and the management of public affairs," lamented David Hunter Strother, Banks's topographical engineer. New York native John S. Clark, another staffer, concurred. "It seems the wiseacres of Washington are standing trembling in their boots for fear Sesech will roll an overwhelming army on Washington and capture the President," he complained to his wife.

Maj. Delevan D. Perkins also agonized tremendously over leaving New Market. The New York native served as Banks's chief of staff. He was one of several of Banks's aides who had assisted Col. Nathan Kimball during the battle of Kernstown in March, and his next major encounter occurred at New Market a little more than one month later. There Major Perkins had fallen in love. Her name was Annie. She was a captivating twenty-two-year-old cousin of Mrs. Mose, a farmer's wife forced to manage the three-hundred-acre homestead while her husband and sons served in the Confederate army. Annie happened to be visiting Mrs. Mose when Banks chose the house as headquarters. Within five days, she and Major Perkins began a speaking relationship that progressed to pleasant walks together. The orders to change base killed their relationship. The couple was reduced to tears when they parted company, never to meet again. "Major Perkins has had a desperate encounter," explained another staff officer to his wife, "and came off second best."

The disappointment at the retrograde movement and frustration of inactivity was not isolated to the headquarters staff. Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, the division commander whose troops were to pull back to Strasburg, summarized the sentiment within the ranks: "[I]f the amount of swearing that has been done in this department is recorded against us in Heaven I fear that we have an account that can never be settled." Frustrated and depressed over the conduct of operations, General Williams described the miserable conditions to his daughter and vented, "I am getting terribly disgusted and feel greatly like resigning." A regimental officer was equally disappointed. "With that pitiful force to which Banks's 'army corps' is now reduced, and at that point fifty miles back of our recent advance, we have no other hope or purpose than protecting Maryland!" He sarcastically and rhetorically declared, "A proud sequel, is it not?"


Excerpted from Three Days in the Shenandoah by Gary Ecelbarger. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gary Ecelbarger is the award-winning author of seven books on the Civil War era, including The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta and Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester, and is coauthor of three others. He has served as a historical consultant for battlefield interpretation in the Shenandoah Valley and has worked for twenty years as a symposium speaker and historical tour guide throughout the country.

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Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
((Hold on ^_^ Also, I thought we were doing Dee/Cas and Dean/Cassie?))