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Philatelic Vignettes of the American Civil War - Jackson's Valley Campaign

Last month I ended my column with Joe Johnston’s wounding at the battle of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks (See McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in the October-November issue of Global Stamp News). I said we would continue this month with General Robert E. Lee’s assault on McClellan’s troops known as the Seven Days. But it occurred to me that this would be an excellent time to tell the story of General Stonewall Jackson’s Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley since it was occurring at the same time as McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and had a big impact on McClellan’s plans.

The maneuvering in the valley began in early March 1862 with a movement by Union forces. General Nathaniel Banks and his 18,000 men occupied Winchester, Virginia on March 12 after Stonewall Jackson’s much smaller 6,000-man Confederate force had evacuated the city the day before. Banks sent General James Shields’ division, about half his force, south another twenty miles to Strasburg and kept William’s division at Winchester. Having cleared the Confederates out of the lower valley, Banks prepared to join McClellan on the Peninsula.

But Confederate General Stonewall Jackson had other plans. Jackson was charged with holding Banks in the valley and preventing the reinforcement of McClellan. When he learned that Union forces were leaving Strasburg and were preparing to leave Winchester, he quickly mobilized his troops and made a forced march north, down the valley.

He caught up to Shields’ division north of Kernstown on March 23. Jackson had serious misgivings about fighting on Sunday, but he believed that he faced only the four regiments of the rearguard of Shields’ division and immediately launched an attack with the forces he had at hand. Unfortunately, for Jackson, Shields’ entire division was nearby and quickly joined the fray. After some initial success, the Confederate attack stalled. Jackson’s troops, greatly outnumbered and running low on ammunition, were forced to withdraw. Shields had 9,000 men engaged in the fighting and suffered 590 casualties. Jackson had a little over 4,000 men engaged and lost 700. Jackson’s defeat is commemorated in Figure 4.

  Figure 4: Event cover commemorates the centennial of Jackson's defeat at Kernstown.

While Jackson suffered a tactical defeat at Kernstown, the battle proved to be of great strategic benefit to the Confederates. The Union high command reasoned that Jackson would not have been so aggressive unless he had been greatly reinforced. They feared that a large Confederate army was now in the valley and was preparing to march on Washington.

Banks was immediately ordered to reestablish his army in the Shenandoah. He would not be joining McClellan on the Peninsula. In addition, General Louis Blenker’s Division of 7,000 was detached from McClellan and sent to the valley. But most damaging of all to McClellan’s plans was the disposition of General Irvin McDowell’s Corps numbering some 40,000 men. McDowell had been stationed at Fredericksburg and was supposed to march overland to Richmond in concert with McClellan’s movement up the peninsula.

But authorities in Washington held Mc-Dowell at Fredericks-burg ready to go to the Shenandoah Valley instead. In addition, General John Fremont’s army in West Virginia was ordered to the valley. An overwhelming force was being diverted to the valley to oppose Jackson, but they were being sent as three separate commands. McDowell commanded the Department of the Rappahannock, Banks commanded the Department of the Shenandoah and Fremont commanded the Mountain Department. All three commanders reported directly to Washington with no one on the scene to coordinate their actions.

In the face of this greatly superior force Jackson initially withdrew south, up the valley. Banks led his troops on an extremely cautious pursuit and took until April 26 to cover the fifty miles from Winchester to New Market, Virginia. In the intervening weeks, Jackson had been reinforced by General Dick Ewell’s division as well as General Edward Johnson’s division and now commanded a total of 17,000 Confederate troops in the valley.

In order to prevent Banks from moving further up the valley, Jackson made a forced march to Swift Run Gap on Banks’ flank. Banks was stymied, as he couldn’t move forward without being attacked in the flank and rear. He also couldn’t turn and attack Jackson in the gap because the position was too strong. Meanwhile, Fremont’s troops began entering the valley from the west with the lead elements, General Robert Milroy’s division, moving toward Staunton, Virginia. Banks decided to wait for Fremont to join him before making any further movement.

Jackson had to prevent Fremont and Banks from combining their forces. He left Ewell’s division at the gap to confound Banks and then took the rest of his command to strike at Milroy. Jackson marched up the valley to Port Republic, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at Brown Gap and arrived at Mechum’s River Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. The trains took his army to Staunton and from there they resumed the march, heading west toward Milroy’s division, which had reached McDowell, Virginia. In four days Jackson’s troops had covered 92 miles, most of it in the mud, not counting the 25 mile train ride.

On May 7, 1862 advance elements of Jackson’s column ran into Milroy’s outposts and drove them back. The Confederates then established a defensive position on Sitlington’s Hill across the Bull Pasture River from the Union camp. Jackson enjoyed superior numbers and a good defensive position but it was the Union troops that attacked first on May 8. The attack was repulsed and the Union forces were compelled to withdraw from McDowell. Oddly enough, Union casualties were lighter than those suffered by the Confederates with Milroy losing 256 men to Jackson’s 498. Jackson pursued the retreating Union army for four days, all the way to Franklin, West Virginia, before returning to the Shenandoah Valley. The battle of McDowell is commemorated in Figure 5.

 Figure 5: Event cover commemorates the centennial of Jackson's defeat of Fremont at the battle of McDowell.

Back in the valley, Jackson immediately began moving toward Banks at Strasburg, Virginia. On May 23, 1862 he destroyed a small Union force commanded by Colonel J. R. Kenly at Front Royal. Jackson’s advance guard opened the attack at 2pm. The Union troops held on for three hours before being driven from the city. They made two more defensive stands before being completely overwhelmed by a charge by the 6th Virginia Cavalry. Of the 1,063 Union troops engaged, 904 were killed, wounded or captured! Jackson lost about 50 men. The lopsided battle of Front Royal is commemorated in Figure 6.

 Figure 6: Event cover commemorates the centennial of Jackson's destruction of a small Union command at Front Royal.

When news of the disaster at Front Royal reached Banks, he decided to withdraw down the valley. He left Strasburg at 3am on May 24 and headed for Winchester. Jackson and his tired troops were already in pursuit. He wanted to get to Winchester before Banks could occupy and fortify the heights southwest of the town. At dawn on May 25, Jackson launched an attack on the center and right flank of the Union line. In short order, the Union line was broken and retreated precipitously. But Jackson’s exhausted troops were in no condition to pursue the fleeing Federals and the bulk of Banks’ army escaped to Martinsburg. The first battle of Winchester is commemorated in Figure 7.

 Figure 7: Event cover commemorates the centennial of Jackson's defeat of Banks at the battle of Winchester.

Authorities in Washington became obsessed with Jackson. Lincoln personally devised the plan to try to trap Jackson. Fremont was again ordered to march his troops from West Virginia and enter the upper valley from the west. McDowell was ordered to march his troops from Fredericksburg and enter the upper valley from the east. If successful, Fremont and McDowell would both be in Jackson’s rear. Banks was ordered to fortify his position in the lower valley and hold Jackson there until the trap could be sprung.

On March 30, Jackson learned of the movements by Fremont and McDowell. He immediately began moving south, up the valley, leaving the Stonewall Brigade behind to contest any pursuit Banks might attempt. He also sent cavalry commanded by General Turner Ashby to slow Fremont’s advance and an infantry brigade to do the same to McDowell’s lead division commanded by General James Shields. Both detachments were successful in delaying the Union advances and by noon, June 1, all of Jackson’s troops had cleared Strasburg and entered the upper valley before the converging Union forces reached could close the trap. Fremont and McDowell could do nothing except order a pursuit of the Confederates, Fremont moving down one side of the valley and McDowell down the other.

Fremont’s troops finally caught up to the Confederate rearguard on June 6. Ashby was killed in a clash between his cavalry and the advance elements of Fremont’s army. The next day Shields also caught up to the Confederates, and there was heavy skirmishing around Port Republic. At one point a detachment of Union cavalry entered the town and came very close to capturing Jackson. On June 8, Fremont launched an assault, led by General Julius Stahel, on the Confederate position at Cross Keys.

The advance was aimed at the Confederate right, which was thought to be behind Mill Creek. Unknown to Fremont, Trimble’s rebel troops had taken a position forward of the creek. When the Union force was about sixty yards away, Trimble’s troops stood up and delivered a withering volley that sent the Union troops staggering back. Trimble counter-attacked and drove the Federal line back several times. A second Union force commanded by General Robert Schenck advanced against the Confederate left but it was poorly coordinated and made no headway. The battle of Cross Keys is commemorated in Figure 8.

 Figure 8: Event cover commemorates the centennial of Jackson's defeat of Fremont at the battle of Cross Keys.

The night of June 8 Jackson found himself camped between two large hostile forces. He could have withdrawn from the valley over the Blue Ridge Mountains via Browns Gap, but he decided to strike one more blow before departing. On June 9, his plan was to use part of Ewell’s division to block Fremont at Cross Keys while he attacked Shields at Port Republic. Jackson concentrated his forces against two of Shield’s isolated brigades. The initial Confederate attacks were repulsed but a flanking column turned the Union left and forced the entire Union line to retreat precipitously. The battle of Port Republic is commemorated in Figure 9.

 Figure 9: Event cover commemorates the centennial of Jackson's victory at Port Republic

With the defeats at Cross Keys and Port Republic, the Union armies retreated down the valley leaving Jackson in control of the upper and middle Shenandoah Valley. It also left Jackson free to reinforce Lee’s army around Richmond. For several crucial weeks Jackson had commanded the attention of three different Union armies and prevented them from being added to McClellan’s overwhelming force on the peninsula. He had not only commanded their attention but through much very hard marching had defeated portions of each of those armies.

Contact's: Dennis Carman