Authors: Shelby Foote
When first reports of the disaster reached Strasburg that same Friday, Banks informed Washington that the attack had been made by a rebel force of 5000, which “had been gathering in the mountains, it is said, since Wednesday. Reinforcements should be sent us if possible.” Troops would be sent, he was told in reply; “Do not give up the ship before succor can arrive.” He had no intention of giving up the ship, but by the following morning his estimate of the enemy strength had risen to “not less than 6000 to 10,000. It is probably Ewell’s force, passing through the Shenandoah valley. Jackson is still in our front.” He added: “We shall stand firm.”
Presently the ugly truth came home. Jackson was not “in our front,” nor was Ewell merely “passing through.” They were not only united, they were united on Banks’ flank: moving, he heard, toward Middletown, which was six miles in his rear, one third of the way to Winchester, his main supply base. Still, Banks was determined not to budge. “I must develop the force of the enemy,” he kept saying. When
one of his brigade commanders, Colonel G. H. Gordon, who had attended West Point with Jackson, came to reason with him, urging that the proper action would be to fall back in an attempt to save his men and supplies, the former governor said he would not hear of it; he intended to stand firm.
“It is not a retreat,” Gordon explained, “but a true military movement to escape from being cut off—to prevent stores and sick from falling into the hands of the enemy.”
“By God, sir!” Banks cried hotly, “I will not retreat. We have more to fear from the opinions of our friends than the bayonets of our enemies!”
Gordon now saw what the trouble was: Banks was afraid of being accused of being afraid. The colonel rose. “This, sir, is not a military reason for occupying a false position,” he said. He returned to his camp, saw to the packing of his stores and baggage, got the wagons headed for Winchester, and alerted his men for the order he knew was inevitable. At last it came. The army would fall back, Banks informed him.
Jackson spent a good part of the night staring thoughtfully into a campfire, exploring a problem in geometry. At Strasburg and Front Royal, opposite ends of the base of the triangle resting against the northern face of Massanutton, he and Banks were equidistant from the apex at Winchester. By marching fast he could get there first and capture or destroy the Federal supply dump. But Stonewall wanted more than Banks’ supplies; he wanted his army, too. There was the nub of the problem. If he set out north in a race for Winchester, Banks might move eastward, across his wake, and get away eastward beyond the Blue Ridge. Or if he marched west, against Strasburg, Banks might flee northward, down the pike, and save both his army and his stores. Morning came before the problem had been solved, but at least it had been explored. The latter being the graver risk, Jackson decided to take the former. With luck—or, as he preferred to express it, “with the assistance of an ever kind Providence”—he might still accomplish both his goals.
Luck or Providence seemed at first to be against him. The weather had turned blustery overnight, and the wind was whipping rain in the men’s faces. Slow to fall in, they were even slower in getting started. Before long, the rain turned to hail, plopping into the mud and pelting the marchers. “Press on, men; press on,” Jackson urged them, riding alongside. His impatience increased when he received a cavalry report that Banks was blowing up his Strasburg ammunition dump, preparing to evacuate. In hopes of catching the Federals in motion on the pike, he sent a section of artillery, supported by Wheat’s Tigers, on a road that branched west to Middletown, seven miles away, while the
rest of the army continued slogging north, straining to outstrip the head of the Federal column somewhere short of Winchester, where their paths converged.
Almost nothing went right for the Southerners today, and to lengthen the odds—in spite of his original reluctance, which had given him an even later start than his opponent—Banks was showing a real talent for retreat. His rested men hiked fast on the macadamized pike, while Stonewall’s plodded wearily through mud. Twice the Union column was cut, at Middletown and five miles beyond, with resultant slaughter and confusion, but both were basically rear-guard actions, marred by the fact that the hungry Confederates could not be kept from plundering abandoned wagons instead of forging ahead after more, and the cavalry practically disbanded as the troopers set out for their nearby homes with captured horses. Jackson was furious, but neither he nor Taylor, who brought his brigade across country to join the pursuit along the turnpike, could deal with more than a handful at a time, and even these returned to their looting as soon as the generals’ backs were turned. They would fight when they had to—as for instance in repulsing a 2000-man cavalry charge, which they did in style, emptying hundreds of saddles—but otherwise they were concerned with nothing they could not stuff in their mouths or pockets.
For all their slackness, the pursuers were gleaning a rich harvest of prisoners and equipment. Too badly outnumbered to turn and fight until he gained a strong defensive position, Banks was sacrificing companies in rear-guard ambuscades and dribbling wagons in his wake like tubs to Jackson’s whale. With them he was buying time and distance so successfully that by sunset it was obvious that his main body was winning the race for Winchester, where just such a strong position awaited him. Even Stonewall was obliged to admit it. But he had no intention of allowing his quarry any more time than he could possibly avoid. He pushed his weary brigades through the gathering twilight. “Press on. Press on, men,” he kept saying. Impatiently he rode with the handful of cavalry in advance, when suddenly the darkness ahead was stitched with muzzle flashes. The troopers drew rein. “Charge them! Charge them!” Jackson shouted. A second volley crashed ahead; bullets whistled past; the horsemen scattered, leaving the general alone in the middle of the road. “Shameful!” he cried after them in his shrill, womanish voice. “Did you see anybody struck, sir? Did you see anybody struck?” He sat there among the twittering bullets, still complaining. “Surely they need not have run, at least until they were hurt.”
Sheepishly the troopers returned, and Jackson sent them forward, following with the infantry. Kernstown lay dead ahead, the scene of blundering in March. Tonight—it was Sunday again by now, as then—there was only a brief skirmish in the darkness. Winchester lay four miles beyond, and he did not intend to allow Banks time to add to
the natural strength of the double line of hills south of town. When one officer remarked that his men were “falling by the roadside from fatigue and loss of sleep. Unless they are rested,” he complained, “I shall be able to present but a thin line tomorrow,” Jackson replied: “Colonel, I yield to no man in sympathy for the gallant men under my command, but I am obliged to sweat them tonight that I may save their blood tomorrow.” He pressed on through Kernstown, but eventually saw that the colonel was right. If he kept on at this rate he would arrive with almost no army at all. He called a halt and the men crumpled in their tracks, asleep as soon as their heads touched the ground.
Jackson did not share their rest. He was thinking of the double line of hills ahead, outlining a plan of battle. At 4 o’clock, unable to wait any longer, he had the sleepy men aroused and herded back onto the road. Before the stars had paled he was approaching the high ground south of Winchester. To his relief he saw that Banks had chosen to make his stand on the second ridge, leaving only a few troops on the first. Quickly Stonewall threw out skirmishers, drove the pickets off, and brought up guns to support the assault he would launch as soon as his army filed into position. Banks had his cannon zeroed in, blasting away at the rebel guns while the infantry formed their lines. Jackson saw that the work would be hot, despite his advantage of numbers. Riding back to bring up Taylor, whose Louisianians he planned to use as shock troops, he passed some Virginia regiments coming forward. They had been ordered not to cheer, lest they give away their position, but as Jackson rode by they took off their hats in salute to the man who had driven them, stumbling with fatigue, to where the guns were growling. He removed his battered cap, riding in silence past the uncovered Virginians, and came upon Taylor, whom he greeted with a question:
“General, can your brigade charge a battery?”
“It can try.”
“Very good; it must do it then. Move it forward.”
Taylor did so. Passing along the ridge the Louisianians came under fire from the Union guns. Shells screamed at them, tearing gaps in their ranks, and the men began to bob and weave. “What the hell are you dodging for?” Taylor yelled. “If there is any more of it, you will be halted under this fire for an hour!” As they snapped back to attention, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked around.
“I am afraid you are a wicked fellow,” Jackson said, and rode away.
What followed was brief but decisive. Taylor’s charge, on the left, was a page out of picture-book war: a long line of men in gray sweeping forward after their commander, who gestured on horseback, pointing the way through shellbursts with his sword. On the opposite flank, Ewell had come into position up the Front Royal road in time to share in the assault. In the center, the Stonewall Brigade surged forward,
down the first slope and up the second, where 7000 Federals were breaking for the rear at the sight of 16,000 Confederates bearing down on them—or, strictly speaking, up at them—from three different directions. The attackers swept over the second ridge and charged through Winchester, firing after the bluecoats as they ran. Jackson rode among his soldiers, his eyes aglow at the sight.
“Order forward the whole line! The battle’s won!” he shouted. All around him, men were kneeling to fire after the scampering Yankees. He snatched off his cap and waved it over his head in exultation. “Very good!” he cried. “Now let’s holler!” The men took it up, and the Valley army’s first concerted rebel yell rang out so loud it seemed to rock the houses. Stonewall cheered as wildly as the rest. When a staff officer tried to remonstrate with him for thus exposing himself, he paid him no mind except to shout full in his face: “Go back and tell the whole army to press forward to the Potomac!”
The Potomac was thirty-six miles ahead, but distance meant nothing to Jackson so long as an opportunity like the present was spread before his eyes. North of Winchester, all the way to the horizon, Banks’ army was scattered in headlong flight, as ripe for the saber this fine May morning as grain for the scythe in July. At Front Royal his artillery had failed him; today it was his cavalry. As he watched the blue fugitives scurry out of musket range, the Valley commander clenched his fists and groaned: “Never was there such a chance for cavalry! Oh that my cavalry were in place!” Attempting to improvise a horseback pursuit, he brought up the nearest batteries, had the teams uncoupled, and mounted the cannoneers. But he soon saw it would not do; the horses were worn out, wobbly from fatigue, and so were the men. The best he could manage was to follow at a snail’s pace through the waning Sunday afternoon, picking up what the fleeing enemy dropped.
Added to what had already been gleaned in three days of marching and fighting, the harvest was considerable, entirely aside from the Federal dead, the uncaptured wounded, and the tons of goods that had gone up in smoke. At a cost of 400 casualties—68 killed, 329 wounded, and 3 missing—Jackson had taken 3030 prisoners, 9300 small arms, two rifled cannon, and such a wealth of quartermaster stores of all descriptions that his opponent was known thereafter as “Commissary” Banks.
Those were only the immediate and material fruits of the opening phase of the campaign. A larger gain—as Lee had foreseen, or at any rate had aimed at—was in its effect on Lincoln, who once more swung round to find the Shenandoah shotgun loaded and leveled at his head. Banks put on a brave face as soon as he got what was left of his army beyond the Potomac. “It is seldom that a river crossing of such magnitude
is achieved with greater success,” he reported. Though he admitted that “there were never more grateful hearts in the same number of men than when at midday of the 26th we stood on the opposite shore,” he denied that his command had “suffered an attack and rout, but had accomplished a premeditated march of nearly 60 miles in the face of the enemy, defeating his plans and giving him battle wherever he was found.”
Lincoln was not deceived. Anxious though he was for reassurance, he saw clearly that Banks was in no condition to repulse the rebels if they continued their advance beyond the Potomac. In fact, he had already reacted exactly as Lee had hoped and intended. Shields had reached McDowell, and they had set out to join McClellan in front of Richmond; but on Saturday, as soon as news reached Washington of the disaster at Front Royal, they were halted six miles south of the Rappahannock and ordered to countermarch for operations against Jackson. McDowell replied with “a heavy heart” that he would attempt what the President commanded, though he did not believe the movement would succeed. “I am entirely beyond helping distance of General Banks,” he told Lincoln; “no celerity or vigor will avail so far as he is concerned.” Nor did he have a high opinion of Lincoln’s scheme to use him to recover control of the Valley. “I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.… I feel that it throws us all back, and from Richmond north we shall have our large masses paralyzed.” The Commander in Chief thanked him for his promptness, but rejected his advice. “For you it is a question of legs,” he urged as soon as McDowell’s men were on the march for the Valley. “Put in all the speed you can.”
Lincoln had something more in mind than the relief of pressure on Banks or even the salvation of Washington. He wanted to capture Jackson, bag and baggage. Poring over maps of Northern Virginia, he had evolved a plan whereby he would block the rebel general’s retreat and crush him with overwhelming numbers. McDowell’s command, advancing on the Valley from the east, was one jaw of the crusher; Frémont’s was the other. Concentrated at Franklin, the Pathfinder was thirty miles from Harrisonburg, which was eighty miles in Stonewall’s rear. Lincoln wired instructions for him “to move against Jackson at Harrisonburg, and operate against the enemy in such a way as to relieve Banks.” He added: “This movement must be made immediately. You will acknowledge the receipt of this order and specify the hour it is received by you.” Frémont replied within the hour that he would march at once. “Put the utmost speed into it. Do not lose a minute,” Lincoln admonished. And having ordered the combination of two large forces in the presence of the enemy—the movement Napoleon characterized as the most difficult in the art of war—he sat back, like a long-distance chess player, to await results.