June 11, 2015

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In mid-June 1862, residents of the Shenandoah Valley were witness to an unbelievable spectacle: two Union armies retreating northward along parallel routes while another beaten Union army cowered behind the safety of the Potomac River. The three Federal hosts had outnumbered their single Confederate opponent by three to one. Yet each had met defeat at the hands of an unassuming, uncommunicative officer who substituted purpose for personality, and who, since January, had operated on the premise: “If this Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.”

Results of this 1862 Valley Campaign were many, far-reaching, and long lasting.

Timing could not have been more opportune for morale. The Southern people were desperate for victories. Beginning in the autumn of 1861, the Confederacy had suffered one reverse after another: Mill Springs, Roanoke Island, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Pea Ridge, New Orleans. The North’s principal army had advanced up the Virginia peninsula and by late spring stood poised at the outskirts of Richmond. The Union navy was steadily implementing its blockade of the Atlantic coast. Pessimism coursed through the South because optimism seemed non-existent.

Suddenly, from the isolated region of western Virginia, came a flash of hope for the Confederacy. At a time when the South badly needed a victory and a hero, it got both in the form of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. He had gained his nickname “Stonewall” at Manassas eleven months earlier. Then, in the Valley Campaign, all the attributes of military genius emerged in Jackson: determination, boldness, an eye for terrain, fearlessness, a willingness to gamble, and the respect, if not adoration, of his men.

During the period from March 22 to June 9, 1862, Jackson had no more than 17,000 ill-equipped troops at hand. Yet those self-styled “foot cavalry” marched 670 miles, won five battles and numerous skirmishes, demoralized three Union armies totaling more than 65,000 men, and created near-consternation among high-ranking Federal officials. Three times Jackson’s unexpected successes caused President Abraham Lincoln to suspend plans for sending a full corps lying idly at Fredericksburg to reinforce Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan in front of Richmond. Conversely, Jackson’s actions in the Valley relieved considerable pressure on Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s main Confederate force confronting McClellan.

From a tactical point of view, not one of the three Union armies sent into the Valley ever brought Jackson to bay. Instead, “Old Jack” inflicted 5,000 casualties, captured 9,000 small arms and 20 pieces of artillery, and seized tons of military stores for a floundering nation always in need of such materiel. Jackson did all of this at a cost of 1,100 Confederate soldiers, most of whom were captured rather than injured.

Jackson’s offensive changed the entire face of the Civil War in the Virginia theater. Southerners cleared the Shenandoah Valley of Federal invaders for the first time in the conflict. A somewhat befuddled McClellan, denied Union reinforcements he deemed essential for the campaign against Richmond, switched speeds from dead slow to near paralysis while the rejuvenated Army of Northern Virginia under a new commander, Robert E. Lee, prepared for a major counteroffensive east of Richmond.

What happened in the Valley also had permanent effects on the Union commanders who failed there. Nathaniel P. Banks acquired the stigma of a loser and was never again entrusted with major field responsibilities. James Shields faded into oblivion. John C. Frémont resigned from the service after a junior officer received command of a new army.

Furthermore, the Shenandoah Valley was the most important wheat-growing region in the South. Wheat, as well as cornfields, orchards, and herds of cattle, sheep, and hogs contributed to its designation as “The Bread Basket of the Confederacy.” At the end of the 1862 campaign, a Virginia line officer exclaimed: “Gallant Jackson is again Master of the Glorious Valley!”  Products from the Shenandoah would continue to sustain soldiers and civilians alike for two more years.

Through victory Jackson also gained recognition in both the North and South. Barely known beyond the Valley when the campaign began, Jackson in three months became the most famous field commander in the Civil War. Neither side could or would ignore him thereafter. His brilliance as a general and his piety as a man made him a perfect soldier for the Southern cause.

The Valley Campaign instilled unbroken optimism in the ranks of Confederates throughout Virginia. “This little army thinks there is nobody like him,” a Mississippi captain noted. “Everyone seems to regard him as a personal friend.” A member of the Rockbridge Artillery wrote of his compatriots: “They had entered the campaign with lots of grit, with plenty of enthusiasm, but with no experience; they had emerged with… a courage born of good leadership and pride of achievement. They might not shine on dress parade, but their country knew, and the world knew, they were soldiers.”

Jackson did not play by the military manual; he was no traditionalist. He believed that the only way a weaker force could destroy a stronger one was by attacks unexpected, swift, and relentless. Alacrity and audacity should be the keys. Never do what the enemy expects. Keep your opponent off-guard. Create a sense of superiority, have confidence in your soldiers, maintain faith in God, and success results.

The thirty-eight-year-old Virginian demonstrated those beliefs to near perfection in the spring of 1862. The world praised his accomplishments in the Valley Campaign; military academies around the world still teach it in the curricula. Writers have termed what Jackson did in the Valley as one of the most brilliant operations in modern military history. However, Jackson himself dismissed all claims to fame. The Valley had been delivered from evil by Providence. On the day after the campaign ended, Jackson wrote his wife: “God has been our shield, and to His name be all the glory.”

About the Author:

James I. Robertson, Jr. is alumni distinguished professor of history at Virginia Tech and also serves as the executive director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. A best selling author, Robertson’s publications include the award winning Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend and The Stonewall Brigade.

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.