The spring of 1862 was cold and wet in Virginia, and the dismal weather might well be taken as a reflection of the fortunes of the Confederacy. Throughout the long winter, Southern forces had met with defeat from the Atlantic coast to beyond the Mississippi. The downward spiral continued in March, when Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s small army was forced from the battlefield at Kernstown, in the Shenandoah Valley. Badly outnumbered Jackson withdrew southward, ceding control of most of the Valley to the Federal invaders, and by the end of April, the Union troops had drawn near to Staunton, Virginia, Jackson’s supply base and a critical transportation hub with the Valley’s sole railroad link to the capital at Richmond. Jackson well understood that if the Federals managed to take Staunton, they would deliver yet another heavy blow to the Confederate cause.
It was Jackson’s recognition of the importance of Staunton, and his energetic and creative response to the crisis, that propelled the war to the remote mountain village of McDowell, Virginia.
Staunton owed its strategic importance to good roads and the Virginia Central Railroad, which connected the agriculturally rich Shenandoah region with Richmond and eastern Virginia. So important was this link that President Jefferson Davis and his advisor, Gen. Robert E. Lee, stated that they would rather lose control of much of tidewater, and even abandon the key naval facilities at Norfolk, than lose communication with Staunton and the Valley via the Virginia Central. Served by the excellent Valley Turnpike, and by the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, Staunton had grown to a population of 3,875 people in 1860, the second-largest town in western Virginia, behind Winchester, which had but 500 more residents. Staunton had long been a regional transportation hub, so it naturally became a supply base for Jackson when he brought his small Valley army to the area. Just as naturally, Staunton became a target for the Federals.
Brig. Gen. Robert Huston Milroy was a forty-six-year-old Indiana native consumed by a lifelong dream: He desired fame as a great military commander. Unable to go to West Point, Milroy ran off to Vermont, where he enrolled in the military school now known as Norwich University. In two years, he graduated as valedictorian. Still unable to gain a commission in the army, Milroy returned to Indiana, studied law and became a judge. He saw no combat in the war with Mexico, so his dream was still simmering when the Civil War came. He became a general and served well in the first year of the war, mostly in command of about 3,000 men in the mountains of western Virginia. During the harsh winter, Milroy earned the affections of his troops. “I doubt,” one Federal soldier wrote later, “that in the whole history of the war, there was another instance where another regiment came nearer idolizing their commander.” Another soldier described Milroy as “one of the most impetuous, go ahead, fearless men in the whole army.”
With the coming of spring Milroy saw another opportunity to attain his cherished dream, and he saw that opportunity at Staunton. He had for weeks been badgering his superiors for permission to push the “traitors” out of the mountains and to threaten or even capture Staunton. On March 29, however, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont took command of the Mountain Department and gave Milroy permission to move forward. Frémont was specific, though, in prohibiting Milroy from advancing too far. The aggressive Milroy immediately exceeded his orders, moving past Monterey (where Frémont wished him to stop) and on to McDowell, which Milroy hoped to use as an outpost for forays toward Staunton.
A few miles to the east of McDowell, some 5,000 Confederate soldiers and African American laborers worked to fortify the crest of Shenandoah Mountain. These troops were commanded by Brig. Gen. Edward Johnson, a Virginian and a West Point graduate. He and his 3,000 troops had opposed Milroy all winter in the mountains. The two forces had skirmished frequently and had clashed in a small battle at Camp Allegheny in December. Johnson, a bluff, forty-six-year-old bachelor, had spent his adult life in the Old Army, bore a scar on his face from a wound received in the Mexican War and held the respect of Stonewall Jackson, who praised his “high qualities as a soldier.” Milroy declared he would attack Shenandoah Mountain as soon as he could get permission.
Far to the east, in the Valley, Federals of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ command had forced Jackson and his little army to withdraw to the safety of Conrad’s Store at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jackson did not know the Federals’ intentions, but when the Northerners reached Harrisonburg it seemed Banks had thoughts of going on to Staunton. Residents of the city prepared for the worst by transferring sick and wounded soldiers, military stores, money from the local banks and the records of the courts over the mountains to Charlottesville. Jackson watched the Federals with a sharp eye, and looked for an opportunity to strike.
Milroy, ever aggressive and flagrantly disregarding his orders, kept pushing eastward, but he could find no enemy to fight. In fact, Milroy had been too aggressive and apparently convinced the Confederates that his force was stronger than it was. Concerned by the presence of Banks’ large force north of Staunton and the hyperactive Milroy to the west, Robert E. Lee wrote from Richmond to General Johnson, directing him to abandon work on Shenandoah Mountain and move closer to Staunton. If the enemy followed, Lee explained, and if he was too strong to resist, Johnson was to abandon Staunton altogether and retire across the Valley to defend the gaps in the Blue Ridge. Lee told another officer that, by all appearances, Staunton would likely be taken by the Federals.
But Jackson, too, was aggressive. He had kept in close communication with Johnson, and had a good idea about the condition of the troops and the roads west of Staunton. Jackson’s greatest concern was that Milroy and Banks, who remained at Harrisonburg, “if left unmolested. . .could readily form a junction. . .and move with their united forces against Staunton. To avoid these results,” Jackson later explained, “I determined…to strike at Milroy and then to concentrate…against Banks.”
Jackson moved from Swift Run Gap in the first days of May, ostentatiously crossing to the east side of the Blue Ridge (to deceive the Federals into thinking he was abandoning the Valley) and then stealthily returning to join Johnson west of Staunton. With a total force of 9,000 men, Jackson left the Valley on May 7 and entered the mountains through Buffalo Gap.
The Federal pickets hastened back to McDowell with word of the Confederate advance. Milroy immediately moved to meet the enemy, and his artillery halted Jackson’s vanguard at Shenandoah Mountain, where the Southerners bivouacked for the night. Milroy, however, believed his strong position was being flanked, and he withdrew on the night of May 7, planning to make a stand at McDowell.
Jackson pushed his men forward the next morning, crossing Shaw’s Ridge, the Cowpasture River, and ascending Bullpasture Mountain, just beyond which lay McDowell, Milroy, and his feisty brigade of Ohioans and western Virginians. Jackson, Johnson, and their staff officers reconnoitered the mountain and immediately saw the advantages offered by a spur known locally as Sitlington’s Hill.
The top of the hill resembled the back of a Bactrian camel, the two humps rising 800 feet and 1,200 feet above the bottomlands below. Johnson arrayed his troops to cover both knolls, facing westward and overlooking the village. Jackson considered this force sufficient to hold the hill for the rest of the day and directed his officers to find a route by which to bring artillery up the slopes. In the morning, Jackson planned, he would shell the Federals out of McDowell.
But Milroy had different plans, and had no intention of leaving McDowell just yet. On the previous day, May 7, he had summarized the developing situation in a dispatch to his superiors. The missive reached Brig. Gen. Robert C. Schenck at Franklin, Virginia, thirty miles from McDowell. Schenck’s command had marched all the way from Maryland, but, in response to Milroy’s plea for help, the column kept moving. At 10 a.m. on May 8, after an heroic march of thirty-four miles in twenty-three hours, Schenck’s 1,500 men shuffled into McDowell.
Milroy told his superior officer that though Jackson held the high ground and apparently outnumbered the Federals, it would be imprudent to withdraw without learning the Confederates’ strength. Schenck concurred and permitted his impetuous subordinate to launch a “reconnaissance” up Sitlington’s Hill.
At about 3 p.m., Col. Nathaniel McLean led 1,000 men of the 75th and 25th Ohio regiments across the Bullpasture River toward the Confederate left. Another column, consisting of the 82nd Ohio, 32nd Ohio, and 3rd Virginia (U.S.), moved toward the Confederate center and right. Johnson and his subordinates arranged their regiments to meet the threat. The 82nd and 32nd Ohio regiments exchanged charges and countercharges with the 23rd Virginia near the Confederate center, the 44th Virginia parried repeated thrusts by the 25th Ohio, and the 12th Georgia clashed with McLean’s 75th Ohio in a desperate fight that would continue intermittently throughout the afternoon. On the Confederate right, near the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, the 3rd Virginia (U.S.) exchanged musket fire—and a bit more—with the 31st Virginia. Both regiments had been raised near Clarksburg and now many of those on the firing lines, some wearing gray, some wearing blue, recognized neighbors in the enemy ranks. According to one soldier the jibes and insults flew as thickly as the bullets.
The Federals climbed upward, and upward, almost 700 feet above their starting point, up heavily wooded slopes of seventy degrees, in some places. Not only did they climb, but they fought as well. This fighting advance up the steep sides of the mountain by Milroy’s and Schenck’s men was as heroic as anything performed by Federal troops during the war.
But Jackson’s men were of equal mettle. Reinforcements hustled breathlessly upward through the ravines to strengthen the Confederate line on the crest. The Southerners fought ferociously, especially the 12th Georgia Infantry, which lost 182 men in about four hours of fighting. Johnson himself left the field with an ankle wound that would keep him sidelined for many months. But for all the heroism on both sides, the result of the battle was never in doubt. The Confederate position was much too strong to be breached, and the Federals were not numerous enough to carry the hill. The fighting did not die out until after sunset, when the Federals, low on ammunition, retired to McDowell.
At about 1 a.m. Milroy and Schenck, having given their men a few hours sleep, left their campfires burning and withdrew to Monterey and on to Franklin. Jackson gave his men a day of rest then set off in pursuit. He well knew, however, that he had accomplished much toward his purpose of defending Staunton. Convinced that Milroy and Schenck would not again trouble Staunton any time soon, Jackson rapidly returned to the Valley.
After months of defeats, the people of the Confederacy welcomed the results at McDowell as a victory—but it was a mixed victory by any reckoning. Though he had fought with the advantage of the high ground, Jackson had suffered 75 dead and 423 wounded. The Federals, despite battling uphill against superior numbers, had lost 256 men killed wounded or missing—roughly half of the Confederate loss. But Jackson had achieved much strategically because he had secured Staunton. Without Staunton, Jackson had no base from which to operate in the Valley, and the Federals would have controlled as much of the area as they wished. With Staunton secure, Jackson was free to roam throughout the region and to take the fight to the enemy, and in mid-May, he did just that.
About the Author:
William J. Miller is the author or editor of nine books on the Civil War, including Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss and Great Maps of the Civil War. He is a former editor of Civil War Magazine, has published more than 100 articles on the conflict and frequently leads battlefield tours.
This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, “If this Valley is lost, Virginia is lost!”: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.