Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s smashing victory at First Winchester, the emotional high point of his Valley Campaign, sent Federal forces tumbling out of the Valley – and prompted northern leaders into a reaction that inadvertently helped save Richmond.
- See Winchester I Today
The Running Fight
Stonewall Jackson’s victory at Front Royal put him on the flank of Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ Federal army at Strasburg. In danger of being cut off, Banks abandoned Strasburg and conducted a hurried retreat northward to Winchester on May 24. Jackson’s pursuit was handicapped by uncertainty about Banks’ plans and intended route, which forced him to divide his force to cover multiple possibilities. Although Confederate forces assailed the withdrawing Federals along the Valley Pike, smashing into the Union column at Newtown and Middletown, most of the Union troops escaped and reached Winchester…with Jackson in close pursuit.
By nightfall of May 24, Union Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ men were in a defensive position on the north side of Abram’s Creek, braced for the advancing Confederates. At first light on May 25 picket fire opened the battle.
The first Confederate attack occurred against the Union left flank atop Camp Hill. After failed attempts to seize that flank, Jackson turned his attention to Banks’ right atop Bowers Hill. Around 7:30 a.m. a flank attack led by Gen. Richard Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade dislodged Banks’ defenders.
“This charge of Taylor’s was the grandest I saw during the war.” – Confederate Sgt. John H. Worsham, 21st Virginia
In less than one hour Banks’ line crumbled under the pressure of Jackson’s assault and Union soldiers fled north through the streets of Winchester. As Banks’ men ran through town, angry civilians reportedly shot at the Union soldiers. Jackson’s men pursued as far north as Stephenson’s Depot, but with insufficient cavalry and a war-weary army – slowed by throngs of civilians in the streets welcoming Jackson and his men as liberators – Banks was able to escape.
“I do not remember having ever seen such rejoicing….the people seemed nearly frantic with joy…Our entrance into Winchester was one of the most stirring scenes of my life.” – Stonewall Jackson
Banks lost nearly a third of his force. He also lost a tremendous amount of military supplies, including 500,000 rounds of ammunition, more than 100 cattle, and nearly 15,000 pounds of bacon – leading the Confederates to nickname him “Commissary Banks.”
“My God, men, don’t you love your country?” – A frustrated Gen. Nathaniel Banks, trying to rally retreating Federal soldiers north of Winchester
“Yes, and I am trying to get to it as fast as I can.”– A soldier’s reply, as he continued north
Lincoln’s Trap and Jackson’s Narrow Escape
Jackson’s victory disrupted Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s plans to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. As Jackson advanced to the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, Abraham Lincoln saw an opportunity to trap the audacious Stonewall and his army, and ordered Federal troops to converge on Strasburg to cut him off. By doing so, Lincoln inadvertently fulfilled the rebels’ goal of drawing Union forces away from the campaign against Richmond – forces that might have helped Federals capture the capital. As Gen. James Shields closed in from the east and Gen. John C. Frémont from the west, Jackson withdrew south, narrowly escaping the trap. The last of Jackson’s forces, the famed “Stonewall Brigade,” passed through Strasburg, just ahead of the Federals, on June 1. Jackson then continued south, with Fremont and Shields in pursuit.