June 11, 2015

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After months of Confederate inaction during 1861, followed by defeats on the western frontiers of their new nation early in 1862, Southerners reacted with relief and satisfaction to the exploits of Stonewall Jackson in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Even after the high point at the end of May when Jackson neared the Potomac River, though, salvaging a successful end to the campaign remained problematic.

As Jackson fell back up the Valley at the beginning of June, two sizable Federal forces chased him southward. Gen. John C. Frémont led the pursuit west of Massanutten Mountain. Gen. Irvin McDowell commanded the Yankees forging southward on a parallel route east of the fifty-mile-long Massanutten range. Neither Frémont nor McDowell would earn niches in the ultimate Union pantheon of heroes, but McDowell deserved credit for some early war achievements. Frémont, by contrast, had advanced far beyond his level of competence or usefulness.

When Jackson’s march south up the Valley passed the tip of Massanutten, the loss of that screening feature obliged him to make a stand before his foes’ two columns could unite against him. He chose the river-junction village of Port Republic, leaving a few cavalry and some of Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s infantry as a rearguard in the vicinity of Harrisonburg. As early as June 3, Jackson had selected his point of concentration, and instructed his topographic expert to produce drawings of the ground around Port Republic.

Frémont’s advance brushed against Confederates in the southeastern outskirts of Harrisonburg on June 6 in a skirmish, otherwise of no lasting moment, that killed the charismatic Southern cavalry hero, Gen. Turner Ashby. “God bless that man!” one  captain wrote of his dead general.

Two days later, Frémont bestirred himself and launched a ponderous move in Jackson’s direction. Midway between Harrisonburg and Port Republic the Federal column ran into Ewell’s force, stoutly ensconced on a strong ridge above Mill Creek in a country region known as Cross Keys.

The most violent episode of the June 8 Battle of Cross Keys erupted in front (north) of the main Mill Creek line. Confederate Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, a short, elderly Marylander of unflinchingly fiery temperament, lunged ahead, avid to clash with the invaders. The men of the 8th New York Infantry obligingly marched straight toward Trimble’s advanced position without any idea what they faced. The New Yorkers, many of them German-born, climbed out of a stream valley onto a plateau.

As the unwary Federals reached the crest, they found themselves within fifty yards of Trimble’s eager muskets, arrayed behind a fence at the edge of some woods. Confederates from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina poured volleys into their hapless foe, butchering them in heaps. An Alabama soldier marveled, “we came near killing and wounding the whole force.” The New Yorkers who survived, another Alabamian wrote, “went so fast down the hill you might have played marbles on their coat-tails.” Gen. Trimble boasted that the “deadly fire” his men unleashed dropped “the deluded victims of Northern fanaticism and misrule by scores.” The unlucky New Yorkers’ “gallantry deserved a better fate,” Trimble concluded.

The rest of the engagement at Cross Keys sputtered through the afternoon. Every time Frémont half-heartedly approached the formidable Mill Creek position, Confederate fire forced him to recoil. As darkness silenced the guns on June 8, Ewell had not budged a foot from his primary position. The action had cost about 800 Northern casualties, as against fewer than 300 on the Southern side.

Overnight on June 8-9, Ewell abandoned his position and, on Jackson’s orders, headed toward Port Republic. The rearguard’s well-managed fight on June 8 had won time and space. Now Ewell needed to join the main Southern force as it prepared to face the Yankees who had been moving up the eastern arm of the Shenandoah Valley.

While Ewell was thwarting Frémont at Cross Keys on June 8, Jackson had been coping with the most dramatic threat to his personal safety of the entire war. Early on that Sunday morning, a force of Northern artillery and cavalry descended on the village of Port Republic. Confederate horsemen, demoralized by the death of their beloved leader Ashby (and never well organized or disciplined in any case), had abandoned their screening duties. The first news of the enemy onset came not from Southern outposts, but instead in the form of screaming shells, followed moments later by horsemen splashing through the South River and into the streets just below Jackson’s headquarters knoll.

With enemy troops swarming between him and most of his army, Jackson faced a dangerous ordeal reaching safety. Astride his familiar war horse “Little Sorrel,” the general galloped toward the covered bridge over the North River, pausing only long enough to chastise a staff officer who was cursing under the excitement of the moment. When Jackson raced through the bridge “at a full gallop,” an eyewitness reported, “I expected to see him killed.” As the general reached midstream, an enemy shell crashed through the structure right above his head

Having effected a narrow escape, Jackson looked back across the river and saw a piece of artillery unlimbering on the bank he had just left. Thinking—hoping—that the gun might be from his own reserve artillery, Stonewall gestured emphatically for the gun to come over to join him. The Ohioans manning the piece, themselves somewhat bewildered, received permission to fire at the arm-waving mounted stranger, just as Jackson prudently scampered over the ridge and out of range. Elaboration of this brief, dramatic episode soon turned it into an excessively colorful tale, exaggerated in several particulars.

Plenty of Confederate reinforcements hurried to Port Republic from the nearby infantry camps, charged back through the bridge, and evicted the Federal raiders from the village. Jackson’s startling crisis passed quickly after a few moments of high drama. By the time the hubbub abated, the roar of artillery fire had begun to echo across the few miles from Cross Keys as Gen. Ewell began his fight against Frémont.

The Federal raiders who had so narrowly missed capturing or killing Jackson belonged to the advance of a force commanded by Gen. James Shields. Shields answered to Gen. Irvin McDowell, but neither Shields nor McDowell ever reached the battle zone near Port Republic. Their subordinate, Gen. Erastus B. Tyler, led the advance elements that threatened Jackson on June 8, then met him in pitched battle on the 9th.

Tyler selected a powerful position about two miles downstream from Port Republic. He had only about 4,000 men available to him and Jackson counted more than three times that number in the vicinity. Many of the Confederates, however, were strewn across the country up toward Cross Keys and would only arrive tardily if at all. Tyler’s greatest asset, moreover, was the compact line he would occupy, its left anchored snugly on a dominant shoulder of the Blue Ridge and its right on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, booming high after a very wet spring.

The initial Confederate advance against Tyler’s force early on June 9 consisted of only two Virginia regiments from Jackson’s own renowned Stonewall Brigade, supported by a sprinkling of artillery. When they deployed on the river plain next to the river, the key to the enemy position became manifestly clear to every participant. Artillery at the left end of the Federal line occupied the open crest of a dominating ridge known as “The Coaling.” The Lewis family, whose home “Lewiston” stood at the foot of the slope, had turned wood into charcoal on the spot, giving The Coaling its name.

Jackson’s quick intuition hardly needed an extended workout:  the humblest private, untutored in the art and science of warfare, could grasp the fundamental facts. Whoever controlled The Coaling controlled the battlefield. The two regiments on the river plain must hang on against Tyler’s far stronger force, until friends could come up and seize the key ground. Jackson’s unmistakable requirements rested upon three immutable imperatives. 1) He must wrest The Coaling from the enemy. 2) He must accomplish that mission without a frontal assault, which would be dreadfully costly and probably could not succeed. 3) He must achieve the goal promptly, because Frémont’s Federals by this time had broken contact with Ewell’s rearguard and were streaming across country toward the bluffs on the other side (the left bank) of the river, from which they could bring artillery fire onto Jackson’s flank.

The Southern reinforcements necessary to assault The Coaling reached the front tardily and piecemeal because a bottleneck at an ersatz wagon bridge near Port Republic slowed their progress to a trickle. Jackson grimly clung to his plan, dictated by the ground:  he must take The Coaling as soon as possible. He assigned that crucial duty to the next two Virginia regiments that reached the field. The 2nd and 4th Virginia, commanded by the maladroit Colonel Charles A. Ronald, climbed onto a thicket-choked finger and made their wary way to a knob opposite The Coaling. When ill-disciplined soldiers betrayed their supposedly secret arrival by random musket shots, Union guns across the ravine spun around and spewed canister in “allopathic doses.” Ronald’s regiments fell back, not much hurt but thoroughly rebuffed, disorganized, and out of the action.

Fortunately for Jackson, the shock troops of his Valley Army began to arrive, barely in time to meet the emergency. Gen. Richard Taylor soon brought five regiments and a battalion of tough Louisianans to the fray. Jackson peeled off one regiment to buttress his hard-pressed men on the river plain, but sent the rest of Taylor’s troops into the thickets toward The Coaling. The men from the deep South who had charged to win the day for Jackson at Winchester two weeks earlier faced a decisive moment again as they crept toward The Coaling.

When they reached the lip of a ravine just opposite The Coaling, Taylor’s hardy soldiers aligned themselves and then charged in a screaming torrent. They surged across the Union guns, where the Northern artillerists “fought their pieces to the last,” in the admiring words of a Louisiana soldier; “no words can do justice to their heroism.”

With Confederates astride the key ground, the tide necessarily turned also on the river plain below The Coaling. Federals who had been having their way with outnumbered Rebels near the river suddenly found their left and rear threatened by the victorious Louisianans. They had no viable option but to begin to fall back. Amazingly, some Northern infantry mustered the energy to storm back onto The Coaling. Even more amazingly, they retook the hilltop:  Civil War positions seized by a storming party rarely fell back into possession of the original owners. Taylor rallied his men, who once again claimed The Coaling. In the close, desperate struggle, “Men ceased to be men. They cheered and screamed like lunatics—they fought like demons—they died like fanatics….In every great battle of the war there was a hell-spot. At Port Republic it was on the mountain side.”

Yet again determined Northerners bravely clawed their way back to The Coaling, only to be driven off a third time. By this juncture, Gen. Ewell had arrived with some of his troops who had been victors at Cross Keys the day before. Ewell and his men helped to restore order on the river plain, then established firm control of the high ground, leaving the defeated Federal army no choice but to scramble downstream in considerable disorder, heading whence they had come before the battle.

Casualties by day’s end reached the vicinity of 1,000 for each side. Stonewall Jackson had concluded his famed Valley campaign with two victories in two days.

The primary importance of Jackson’s successes in those two days in early June of 1862 arose from the battles’ consequences on a larger scale. Federals retreating from Cross Keys and Port Republic freed Jackson to cross the Blue Ridge a week later and head toward the Confederacy’s besieged capital city. Although Jackson himself failed to live up to expectations—for the only time in his dazzling career—during the Seven Days Campaign around Richmond, his troops made it possible for Gen. Robert E. Lee to drive the Federals away. As a Louisiana colonel, much distinguished at Port Republic, wrote in retrospect of the two-day struggle on June 8-9:  “Its importance is not to be measured by the immediate results of the field; but rather by its relation to, and effect upon, the grand strategy of the war in Virginia.”

The campaigns that followed in the next eleven months projected Jackson to global fame that continues unabated into the twenty-first century. By the time he died near Fredericksburg on May 10, 1863, Stonewall Jackson had become an American legend.

About the Author:

Robert K. Krick was chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for thirty years. He is the author of more than 100 articles and fifteen books including Conquering the Valley: Stonewall Jackson at Port Republic and the award winning Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain. From 2003-2005 he worked as a consultant to the U.S. Marine Corps for the new national museum in Northern Virginia.

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.