Kernstown by G.F.R. Henderson
By the end of February a pontoon bridge had been thrown across the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, and Banks had crossed to the Virginia shore. An army of 38,000 men, including 2000 cavalry, and accompanied by 80 pieces of artillery, threatened Winchester.
President Lincoln was anxious that the town should be occupied. Banks believed that the opportunity was favourable. “The roads to Winchester,” he wrote, “are turnpikes and in tolerable condition. The enemy is weak, demoralised, and depressed.”
But McClellan, who held command of all the Federal forces, had no mind to expose even a detachment to defeat. The main Confederate army at Centreville could, at any moment, dispatch reinforcements by railway to the Valley, reversing the strategic movement which had won Bull Run; while the Army of the Potomac, held fast by the mud, could do nothing to prevent it. Banks was therefore ordered to occupy the line Charlestown to Martinsburg, some two−and−twenty miles from Winchester, to cover the reconstruction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and to accumulate supplies preparatory to a further advance. The troops, however, did not approve such cautious strategy. “Their appetite for work,” according to their commander, “was very sharp.” Banks himself was not less eager. “If left to our own discretion,” he wrote to McClellan's chief of staff, “the general desire will be to move early.”
On March 7 General D.H. Hill, acting under instructions, fell back from Leesburg, and two days later Johnston, destroying the railways, abandoned Centreville. The Confederate General−in−Chief had decided to withdraw to near Orange Court House, trebling his distance from Washington, and surrendering much territory, but securing, in return, important strategical advantages. Protected by the Rapidan, a stream unfordable in spring, he was well placed to meet a Federal advance, and also, by a rapid march, to anticipate any force which might be transported by water and landed close to Richmond.
Jackson was now left isolated in the Valley. The nearest Confederate infantry were at Culpeper Court House, beyond the Blue Ridge, nearly sixty miles south−east. In his front, within two easy marches, was an army just seven times his strength, at Romney another detachment of several thousand men, and a large force in the Alleghanies. He was in no hurry, however, to abandon Winchester.
Johnston had intended that when the main army fell back towards Richmond his detachments should follow suit. Jackson found a loophole in his instructions which gave him full liberty of action.
“I greatly desire,” he wrote to Johnston on March 8, “to hold this place [Winchester] so far as may be consistent with your views and plans, and am making arrangements, by constructing works, etc., to make a stand. Though you desired me some time since to fall back in the event of yourself and General Hill's doing so, yet in your letter of the 5th inst. you say, “Delay the enemy as long as you can;” I have felt justified in remaining here for the present.
“And now, General, that Hill has fallen back, can you not send him over here? I greatly need such an officer; one who can be sent off as occasion may offer against an exposed detachment of the enemy for the purpose of capturing it...I believe that if you can spare Hill, and let him move here at once, you will never have occasion to regret it. The very idea of reinforcements coming to Winchester would, I think, be a damper to the enemy, in addition to the fine effect that would be produced on our own troops, already in fine spirits. But if you cannot spare Hill, can you not send me some other troops? If we cannot be successful in defeating the enemy should he advance, a kind Providence may enable us to inflict a terrible wound and effect a safe retreat in the event of having to fall back. I will keep myself on the alert with respect to communications between us, so as to be able to join you at the earliest possible moment, if such a movement becomes necessary.”* (* O.R. volume 5 page 1094.)
This letter is characteristic. When Jackson asked for reinforcements the cause of the South seemed well−nigh hopeless. Her Western armies were retiring, defeated and demoralised. Several of her Atlantic towns had fallen to the Federal navy, assisted by strong landing parties. The army on which she depended for the defence of Richmond, yielding to the irresistible presence of far superior numbers, was retreating into the interior of Virginia. There was not the faintest sign of help from beyond the sea. The opportunity for a great counterstroke had been suffered to escape. Her forces were too small for aught but defensive action, and it was difficult to conceive that she could hold her own against McClellan's magnificently appointed host. “Events,” said Davis at this time, “have cast on our arms and hopes the gloomiest shadows.” But from the Valley, the northern outpost of the Confederate armies, where the danger was most threatening and the means of defence the most inadequate, came not a whisper of apprehension. The troops that held the border were but a handful, but Jackson knew enough of war to be aware that victory does not always side with the big battalions. Neither Johnston nor Davis had yet recognised, as he did, the weak joint in the Federal harness. Why should the appearance of Hill's brigade at Winchester discourage Banks? Johnston had fallen back to the Rapidan, and there was now no fear of the Confederates detaching troops suddenly from Manassas. Why should the bare idea that reinforcements were coming up embarrass the Federals?
The letter itself does not indeed supply a definite answer. Jackson was always most guarded in his correspondence; and, if he could possibly avoid it, he never made the slightest allusion to the information on which his plans were based. His staff officers, however, after the campaign was over, were generally enlightened as to the motive of his actions, and we are thus enabled to fill the gap.* (* Letter from Major Hotchkiss to the author.) Jackson demanded reinforcements for the one reason that a blow struck near Winchester would cause alarm in Washington. The communications of the Federal capital with both the North and West passed through or close to Harper's Ferry; and the passage over the Potomac, which Banks was now covering, was thus the most sensitive point in the invader's front. Well aware, as indeed was every statesman and every general in Virginia, of the state of public feeling in the North, Jackson saw with more insight than others the effect that was likely to be produced should the Government, the press, and the people of the Federal States have reason to apprehend that the capital of the Union was in danger.
If the idea of playing on the fears of his opponents by means of the weak detachment under Jackson ever suggested itself to Johnston, he may be forgiven if he dismissed it as chimerical. For 7600 men* (* Jackson, 4600; Hill, 3000.) to threaten with any useful result a capital which was defended by 250,000 seemed hardly within the bounds of practical strategy. Johnston had nevertheless determined to turn the situation to account. In order to protect the passages of the Upper Potomac, McClellan had been compelled to disseminate his army. Between his main body south of Washington and his right wing under Banks was a gap of fifty miles, and this separation Johnston was determined should be maintained. The President, to whom he had referred Jackson's letter, was unable to spare the reinforcements therein requested, and the defence of the Valley was left to the 4600 men encamped at Winchester. Jackson was permitted to use his own judgment as to his own position, but something more was required of him than the mere protection of a tract of territory. “He was to endeavour to employ the invaders in the Valley without exposing himself to the danger of defeat, by keeping so near the enemy as to prevent his making any considerable detachment to reinforce McClellan, but not so near that he might be compelled to fight.”* (* Johnston's Narrative.)
To carry out these instructions Jackson had at his disposal 3600 infantry, 600 cavalry, and six batteries of 27 guns. Fortunately, they were all Virginians, with the exception of one battalion, the First, which was composed of Irish navvies.
This force, which had now received the title of the Army of the Valley, was organised in three brigades:—
First Brigade (Stonewall): Brigadier−General Garnett. 2nd Virginia Regiment. 4th Virginia Regiment. 5th Virginia Regiment. 27th Virginia Regiment. 33rd Virginia Regiment.
Second Brigade: Colonel Burks. 21st Virginia Regiment. 42nd Virginia Regiment. 48th Virginia Regiment. 1st Regular Battalion (Irish).
Third Brigade: Colonel Fulkerson. 23rd Virginia Regiment. 27th Virginia Regiment. McLaughlin's Battery 8 guns. Waters' Battery 4 guns. Carpenter's Battery 4 guns. Marye's Battery 4 guns. Shumaker's Battery 4 guns. Ashby's Regiment of Cavalry. Chew's Horse−Artillery Battery 3 guns.
The infantry were by this time fairly well armed and equipped, but the field−pieces were mostly smoothbores of small calibre. Of the quality of the troops Bull Run had been sufficient test. Side by side with the sons of the old Virginia houses the hunters and yeomen of the Valley had proved their worth. Their skill as marksmen had stood them in good stead. Men who had been used from boyhood to shoot squirrels in the woodland found the Federal soldier a target difficult to miss. Skirmishing and patrolling came instinctively to those whohad stalked the deer and the bear in the mountain forests; and the simple hardy life of an agriculturalcommunity was the best probation for the trials of a campaign. The lack of discipline and of competent regimental officers might have placed them at a disadvantage had they been opposed to regulars; but they were already half−broken to the soldier's trade before they joined the ranks. They were no strangers to camp and bivouac, to peril and adventure; their hands could guard their heads. Quick sight and steady nerve, unfailing vigilance and instant resolve, the very qualities which their devotion to field−sports fostered, were those which had so often prevailed in the war of the Revolution over the mechanical tactics of well−disciplined battalions; and on ground with which they were perfectly familiar the men of the Shenandoah were formidable indeed.
They were essentially rough and ready. Their appearance would hardly have captivated a martinet. The eye that lingers lovingly on glittering buttons and spotless belts would have turned away in disdain from Jackson's soldiers. There was nothing bright about them but their rifles. They were as badly dressed, and with as little regard for uniformity, as the defenders of Torres Vedras or the Army of Italy in 1796. Like Wellington and Napoleon, the Confederate generals cared very little what their soldiers wore so long as they did their duty. Least of all can one imagine Stonewall Jackson exercising his mind as to the cut of a tunic or the polish of a buckle. The only standing order in the English army of the Peninsula which referred to dress forbade the wearing of the enemy's uniform. It was the same in the Army of the Valley, although at a later period even this order was of necessity ignored. As their forefathers of the Revolution took post in Washington's ranks clad in hunting shirts and leggings, so the Confederate soldiers preferred the garments spun by their own women to those supplied them by the State. Grey, of all shades, from light blue to butter−nut, was the universal colour. The coatee issued in the early days of the war had already given place to a short−waisted and single−breasted jacket. The blue kepi held out longer. The soft felt hat which experience soon proved the most serviceable head−dress had not yet become universal. But the long boots had gone; and strong brogans, with broad soles and low heels, had been found more comfortable. Overcoats were soon discarded. “The men came to the conclusion that the trouble of carrying them on hot days outweighed their comfort when the cold day arrived. Besides, they found that life in the open air hardened them to such an extent that changes in temperature were hardly felt.”* (* Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia chapter 2.) Nor did the knapsack long survive. “It was found to gall the back and shoulders and weary the man before half the march was accomplished. It did not pay to carry around clean clothes while waiting for the time to use them.”* (* Ibid) But the men still clung to their blankets and waterproof sheets, worn in a roll over the left shoulder, and the indispensable haversack carried their whole kit. Tents—except the enemy's—were rarely seen. The Army of the Valley generally bivouacked in the woods, the men sleeping in pairs, rolled in their blankets and rubber sheets. The cooking arrangements were primitive. A few frying−pans and skillets formed the culinary apparatus of a company, with a bucket or two in addition, and the frying−pans were generally carried with their handles stuck in the rifle−barrels! The tooth−brush was a button−hole ornament, and if, as was sometimes the case, three days' rations were served out at a single issue, the men usually cooked and ate them at once, so as to avoid the labour of carrying them.
Such was Jackson's infantry, a sorry contrast indeed to the soldierly array of the Federals, with their complete appointments and trim blue uniforms. But fine feathers, though they may have their use, are hardly essential to efficiency in the field; and whilst it is absolutely true that no soldiers ever marched with less to encumber them than the Confederates, it is no empty boast that none ever marched faster or held out longer.
If the artillery, with a most inferior equipment, was less efficient than the infantry, the cavalry was an invaluable auxiliary. Ashby was the beau−ideal of a captain of light−horse. His reckless daring, both across−country and under fire, made him the idol of the army. Nor was his reputation confined to the Confederate ranks. “I think even our men,” says a Federal officer, “had a kind of admiration for him, as he sat unmoved upon his horse, and let them pepper away at him as if he enjoyed it.” His one shortcoming was his ignorance of drill and discipline. But in the spring of 1862 these deficiencies were in a fair way of being rectified. He had already learned something of tactics. In command of a few hundred mounted riflemen and a section of horse−artillery he was unsurpassed; and if his men were apt to get out of hand in battle, his personal activity ensured their strict attention on the outposts. He thought little of riding seventy or eighty miles within the day along his picket line, and it is said that he first recommended himself to Jackson by visiting the Federal camps disguised as a horse doctor. Jackson placed much dependence on his mounted troops. Immediately he arrived in the Valley he established his cavalry outposts far to the front. While the infantry were reposing in their camps near Winchester, the south bank of the Potomac, forty miles northward, was closely and incessantly patrolled. The squadrons never lacked recruits. With the horse−loving Virginians the cavalry was the favourite arm, and the strength of the regiments was only limited by the difficulty of obtaining horses. To the sons of the Valley planters and farmers Ashby's ranks offered a most attractive career. The discipline was easy, and there was no time for drill. But of excitement and adventure there was enough and to spare. Scarcely a day passed without shots being exchanged at one point or another of the picket line. There were the enemy's outposts to be harassed, prisoners to be taken, bridges to be burnt, and convoys to be captured. Many were the opportunities for distinction. Jackson demanded something more from his cavalry than merely guarding the frontier. It was not sufficient for him to receive warning that the enemy was advancing. He wanted information from which he could deduce what he intended doing; information of the strength of his garrisons, of the dispositions of his camps, of every movement which took place beyond the river. The cavalry had other and more dangerous duties than vedette and escort. To penetrate the enemy's lines, to approach his camps, and observe his columns—these were the tasks of Ashby's riders, and in these they were unrivalled. Many of them were no more than boys; but their qualifications for such a life were undeniable. A more gallant or high−spirited body of young soldiers never welcomed the boot and saddle. Their horses were their own, scions of good Virginian stock, with the blood of many a well−known sire—Eclipse, Brighteyes, and Timoleon—in their veins, and they knew how to care for them. They were acquainted with every country lane and woodland track. They had friends in every village, and their names were known to every farmer. The night was no hindrance to them, even in the region of the mountain and the forest. The hunter's paths were as familiar to them as the turnpike roads. They knew the depth and direction of every ford, and could predict the effect of the weather on stream and track. More admirable material for the service of intelligence could not possibly have been found, and Ashby's audacity in reconnaissance found ready imitators. A generous rivalry in deeds of daring spread through the command. Bold enterprises were succeeded by others yet more bold, and, to use the words of a gentleman who, although he was a veteran of four years' service, was but nineteen years of age when Richmond fell, “We thought no more of riding through the enemy's bivouacs than of riding round our fathers' farms.” So congenial were the duties of the cavalry, so attractive the life and the associations, that it was no rare thing for a Virginia gentleman to resign a commission in another arm in order to join his friends and kinsmen as a private in Ashby's ranks. And so before the war had been in progress for many months the fame of the Virginia cavalry rivalled that of their Revolutionary forbears under Light−Horse Harry, the friend of Washington and the father of Lee.
But if the raw material of Jackson's army was all that could be desired, no less so was the material of the force opposed to him. The regiments of Banks' army corps were recruited as a rule in the Western States; Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia furnished the majority. They too were hunters and farmers, accustomed to firearms, and skilled in woodcraft. No hardier infantry marched beneath the Stars and Stripes; the artillery, armed with a proportion of rifled guns, was more efficient than that of the Confederates; and in cavalry alone were the Federals overmatched. In numbers the latter were far superior to Ashby's squadrons; in everything else they were immeasurably inferior. Throughout the North horsemanship was practically an unknown art. The gentlemen of New England had not inherited the love of their Ironside ancestors for the saddle and the chase. Even in the forests of the West men travelled by waggon and hunted on foot. “As cavalry,” says one of Banks' brigadiers, “Ashby's men were greatly superior to ours. In reply to some orders I had given, my cavalry commander replied, “I can't catch them, sir; they leap fences and walls like deer; neither our men nor our horses are so trained.”"* (* Brook Farm to Cedar Mountain, General G.H. Gordon page 136.) It was easy enough to fill the ranks of the Northern squadrons. Men volunteered freely for what they deemed the more dashing branch of the service, ignorant that its duties were far harder both to learn and to execute than those of the other arms, and expecting, says a Federal officer, that the regiment would be accompanied by an itinerant livery stable! Both horses and men were recruited without the slightest reference to their fitness
for cavalry work. No man was rejected, no matter what his size or weight, no matter whether he had ever had anything to do with horseflesh or not, and consequently the proportion of sick horses was enormous. Moreover, while the Southern troopers generally carried a firearm, either rifle or shot−gun, some of the Northern squadrons had only the sabre, and in a wooded country the firearm was master of the situation.
During the first two years of the war, therefore, the Federal cavalry, generally speaking, were bad riders and worse horse−masters, unable to move except upon the roads, and as inefficient on reconnaissance as in action. For an invading army, information, ample and accurate, is the first requisite. Operating in a country which, almost invariably, must be better known to the defenders, bold scouting alone will secure it from ambush and surprise. Bold scouting was impossible with such mounted troops as Banks possessed, and throughout the Valley campaign the Northern general was simply groping in the dark.
But even had his cavalry been more efficient, it is doubtful whether Banks would have profited. His appointment was political. He was an ardent Abolitionist, but he knew nothing whatever of soldiering. He had begun life as a hand in a cotton factory. By dint of energy and good brains his rise had been rapid; and although, when the war broke out, he was still a young man, he had been Governor of Massachusetts and Speaker of the House of Representatives. What the President expected when he gave him an army corps it is difficult to divine; what might have been expected any soldier could have told him. To gratify an individual, or perhaps to conciliate a political faction, the life of many a private soldier was sacrificed. Lincoln, it is true, was by no means solitary in the unwisdom of his selections for command. His rival in Richmond, it is said, had a fatal penchant for his first wife's relations; his political supporters were constantly rewarded by appointments in the field, and the worst disasters that befell the Confederacy were due, in great part, to the blunders of officers promoted for any other reason than efficiency. For Mr. Davis there was little excuse. He had been educated at West Point. He had served in the regular army of the United States, and had been Secretary of War at Washington. Lincoln, on the other hand, knew nothing of war, beyond what he had learned in a border skirmish, and very little of general history. He had not yet got rid of the common Anglo−Saxon idea that a man who has pluck and muscle is already a good soldier, and that the same qualities which serve in a street−brawl are all that is necessary to make a general. Nor were historical precedents wanting for the mistakes of the American statesmen. In both the Peninsula and the Crimea, lives, treasure, and prestige were as recklessly wasted as in Virginia; and staff officers who owed their positions to social influence alone, generals, useless and ignorant, who succeeded to responsible command by virtue of seniority and a long purse, were the standing curse of the English army. At the same time, it may well be questioned whether some of the regular officers would have done better than Banks. He was no fool, and if he had not studied the art of war, there have been barrack−square generals who have showed as much ignorance without one−quarter his ability. Natural commonsense has often a better chance of success than a rusty brain, and a mind narrowed by routine. After serving in twenty campaigns Frederick the Great's mules were still mules. On this very theatre of war, in the forests beyond Romney, an English general had led a detachment of English soldiers to a defeat as crushing as it was disgraceful, and Braddock was a veteran of many wars. Here, too, Patterson, an officer of Volunteers who had seen much service, had allowed Johnston to slip away and join Beauregard on Bull Run. The Northern people, in good truth, had as yet no reason to place implicit confidence in the leading of trained soldiers. They had yet to learn that mere length of service is no test whatever of capacity for command, and that character fortified by knowledge is the only charm which attracts success.
Jackson had already some acquaintance with Banks. During the Romney expedition the latter had been posted at Frederick with 16,000 men, and a more enterprising commander would at least have endeavoured to thwart the Confederate movements. Banks, supine in his camps, made neither threat nor demonstration. Throughout the winter, Ashby's troopers had ridden unmolested along the bank of the Potomac. Lander alone had worried the Confederate outposts, driven in their advanced detachments, and drawn supplies from the Virginian farms. Banks had been over−cautious and inactive, and Jackson had not failed to note his characteristics.
Up to March 9 the Federal general, keeping his cavalry in rear, had pushed forward no farther than Charlestown and Bunker Hill. On that day the news reached McClellan that the Confederates were preparing to abandon Centreville. He at once determined to push forward his whole army.
Banks was instructed to move on Winchester, and on the morning of the 12th his leading division occupied the town.
Jackson had withdrawn the previous evening. Twice, on March 7 and again on the 11th, he had offered battle.* (* Major Harman, of Jackson's staff, writing to his brother on March 6, says: “The general told me last night that the Yankees had 17,000 men at the two points, Charlestown and Bunker Hill.” On March 8 he writes: “3000 effective men is about the number of General Jackson's force. The sick, those on furlough, and the deserters from the militia, reduce him to about that number.” Manuscript.) His men had remained under arms all day in the hope that the enemy's advanced guard might be tempted to attack. But the activity of Ashby's cavalry, and the boldness with which Jackson maintained his position, impressed his adversary with the conviction that the Confederate force was much greater than it really was. It was reported in the Federal camps that the enemy's strength was from 7000 to 11,000 men, and that the town was fortified. Jackson's force did not amount to half that number, and, according to a Northern officer, “one could have jumped over his intrenchments as easily as Remus over the walls of Rome.”
Jackson abandoned Winchester with extreme reluctance. Besides being the principal town in that section of the Valley, it was strategically important to the enemy. Good roads led in every direction, and communication was easy with Romney and Cumberland to the north−west, and with Washington and Manassas to the south−east. Placed at Winchester, Banks could support, or be supported by, the troops in West Virginia or the army south of Washington. A large and fertile district would thus be severed from the Confederacy, and the line of invasion across the Upper Potomac completely blocked. Overwhelming as was the strength of the Union force, exceeding his own by more than eight to one, great as was the caution of the Federal leader, it was only an unlucky accident that restrained Jackson from a resolute endeavour to at least postpone the capture of the town. He had failed to induce the enemy's advanced guard to attack him in position. To attack himself, in broad daylight, with such vast disproportion of numbers, was out of the question. His resources, however, were not exhausted. After dark on the 12th, when his troops had left the town, he called a council, consisting of General Garnett and the regimental commanders of the Stonewall Brigade, and proposed a night attack on the Federal advance. When the troops had eaten their supper and rested for some hours, they were to march to the neighbourhood of the enemy, some four miles north of Winchester, and make the attack before daylight. The Federal troops were raw and inexperienced. Prestige was on the side of the Confederates, and their morale was high. The darkness, the suddenness and energy of the attack, the lack of drill and discipline, would all tend to throw the enemy into confusion; and “by the vigorous use of the bayonet, and the blessing of divine Providence,” Jackson believed that he would win a signal victory. In the meantime, whilst the council was assembling, he went off, booted and spurred, to make a hasty call on Dr. Graham, whose family he found oppressed with the gloom that overspread the whole town. “He was so buoyant and hopeful himself that their drooping spirits were revived, and after engaging with them in family worship, he retired, departing with a cheerful “Good evening,” merely saying that he intended to dine with them the next day as usual.”
When the council met, however, it was found that someone had blundered. The staff had been at fault. The general had ordered his trains to be parked immediately south of Winchester, but they had been taken by those in charge to Kernstown and Newtown, from three to eight miles distant, and the troops had been marched back to them to get their rations.
Jackson learned for the first time, when he met his officers, that his brigades, instead of being on the outskirts of Winchester, were already five or six miles away. A march of ten miles would thus be needed to bring them into contact with the enemy. This fact and the disapproval of the council caused him to abandon his project.
Before following his troops he once more went back to Dr. Graham's. His cheerful demeanour during his previous visit, although he had been as reticent as ever as to his plans, had produced a false impression, and this he thought it his duty to correct. He explained his plans to his friend, and as he detailed the facts which had induced him to change them, he repeatedly expressed his reluctance to give up Winchester without a blow. “With slow and desperate earnestness he said, 'Let me think—can I not yet carry my plan into execution?' As he uttered these words he grasped the hilt of his sword, and the fierce light that blazed in his eyes revealed to his companion a new man. The next moment he dropped his head and released his sword, with the words, No, I must not do it; it may cost the lives of too many brave men. I must retreat and wait for a better time.'“ He had learned a lesson. “Late in the evening,” says the medical director of the Valley army, “we withdrew from Winchester. I rode with the general as we left the place, and as we reached a high point overlooking the town we both turned to look at Winchester, now left to the mercy of the Federal soldiers. I think that a man may sometimes yield to overwhelming emotion, and I was utterly overcome by the fact that I was leaving all that I held dear on earth; but my emotion was arrested by one look at Jackson. His face was fairly blazing with the fire of wrath that was burning in him, and I felt awed before him. Presently he cried out, in a tone almost savage, 'That is the last council of war I will ever hold!'“
On leaving Winchester Jackson fell back to Strasburg, eighteen miles south. There was no immediate pursuit.
Banks, in accordance with his instructions, occupied the town, and awaited further orders. These came on the 18th,* (* O.R. volume 12 part 1 page 164.) and Shields' division of 11,000 men with 27 guns was at once pushed on to Strasburg. Jackson had already withdrawn, hoping to draw Banks up the Valley, and was now encamped near Mount Jackson, a strong position twenty−five miles further south, the indefatigable Ashby still skirmishing with the enemy. The unusual audacity which prompted the Federal advance was probably due to the fact that the exact strength of the Confederate force had been ascertained in Winchester. At all events, all apprehension of attack had vanished. Jackson's 4500 men were considered a quantite negligeable, a mere corps of observation; and not only was Shields sent forward without support, but a large portion of Banks' corps was ordered to another field. Its role as an independent force had ceased. Its movements were henceforward to be subordinate to those of the main army, and McClellan designed to bring it into closer connection with his advance on Richmond. How his design was frustrated, how he struggled in vain to correct the original dissemination of his forces, how his right wing was held in a vice by Jackson, and how his initial errors eventually ruined his campaign, is a strategical lesson of the highest import.
From the day McClellan took command the Army of the Potomac had done practically nothing. Throughout the winter troops had poured into Washington at the rate of 40,000 a month. At the end of December there were 148,000 men fit for duty. On March 20 the grand aggregate was 240,000.* (* O.R. volume 11 part 3 page 26.) But during the winter no important enterprise had been undertaken. The colours of the rebels were still flaunting within sight of the forts of Washington, and the mouth of the Potomac was securely closed by Confederate batteries. With a mighty army at their service it is little wonder that the North became restive and reproached their general. It is doubtless true that the first thing needful was organisation. To discipline and consolidate the army so as to make success assured was unquestionably the wiser policy. The impatience of a sovereign people, ignorant of war, is not to be lightly yielded to. At the same time, the desire of a nation cannot be altogether disregarded. A general who obstinately refuses to place himself in accord with the political situation forfeits the confidence of his employers and the cordial support of the Administration. The cry throughout the North was for action. The President took it upon himself to issue a series of orders. The army was ordered to advance on February 22, a date chosen because it was Washington's birthday, just as the third and most disastrous assault on Plevna was delivered on the “name−day” of the Czar. McClellan secured delay. His plans were not yet ripe. The Virginia roads were still impassable. The season was not yet sufficiently advanced for active operations, and that his objections were well founded it is impossible to deny. The prospect of success depended much upon the weather. Virginia, covered in many places with dense forests, crossed by many rivers, and with most indifferent communications, is a most difficult theatre of war, and the amenities of the Virginian spring are not to be lightly faced. Napoleon's fifth element, “mud,” is a most disturbing factor in military calculations. It is related that a Federal officer, sent out to reconnoitre a road in a certain district of Virginia, reported that the road was there, but that he guessed “the bottom had fallen out.” Moreover, McClellan had reason to believe that the Confederate army at Manassas was more than double its actual strength. His intelligence department, controlled, not by a trained staff officer, but by a well−known detective, estimated Johnston's force at 115,000 men. In reality, including the detachment on the Shenandoah, it at no time exceeded 50,000. But for all this there was no reason whatever for absolute inactivity. The capture of the batteries which barred the entrance to the Potomac, the defeat of the Confederate detachments along the river, the occupation of Winchester or of Leesburg, were all feasible operations. By such means the impatience of the Northern people might have been assuaged. A few successes, even on a small scale, would have raised the morale of the troops and have trained them to offensive movements. The general would have retained the confidence of the Administration, and have secured the respect of his opponents. Jackson had set him the example. His winter expeditions had borne fruit. The Federal generals opposed to him gave him full credit for activity. “Much dissatisfaction was expressed by the troops,” says one of Banks' brigadiers, “that Jackson was permitted to get away from Winchester without a fight, and but little heed was paid to my assurances that this chieftain would be apt, before the war closed, to give us an entertainment up to the utmost of our aspirations.”* (* General G.H. Gordon.)
It was not only of McClellan's inactivity that the Government complained. At the end of February he submitted a plan of operations to the President, and with that plan Mr. Lincoln totally disagreed. McClellan, basing his project on the supposition that Johnston had 100,000 men behind formidable intrenchments at Manassas, blocking the road to Richmond, proposed to transfer 150,000 men to the Virginia coast by sea; and landing either at Urbanna on the Rappahannock, or at Fortress Monroe on the Yorktown peninsula, to intervene between the Confederate army and Richmond, and possibly to capture the Southern capital before Johnston could get back to save it.
The plan at first sight seemed promising. But in Lincoln's eyes it had this great defect: during the time McClellan was moving round by water and disembarking his troops—and this, so few were the transports, would take at least a month—Johnston might make a dash at Washington. The city had been fortified. A cordon of detached forts surrounded it on a circumference of thirty miles. The Potomac formed an additional protection. But a cordon of isolated earthworks does not appeal as an effective barrier to the civilian mind, and above Point of Rocks the great river was easy of passage. Even if Washington were absolutely safe from a coup de main, Lincoln had still good reason for apprehension. The Union capital was merely the seat of government. It had no commercial interests. With a population of but 20,000, it was of no more practical importance than Windsor or Versailles. Compared with New York, Pittsburg, or Philadelphia, it was little more than a village. But, in the regard of the Northern people, Washington was the centre of the Union, the keystone of the national existence. The Capitol, the White House, the Treasury, were symbols as sacred to the States as the colours to a regiment.* (* For an interesting exposition of the views of the soldiers at Washington, see evidence of General Hitchcock, U.S.A., acting as Military Adviser to the President, O.R. volume 12 part 1 page 221.) If the nation was set upon the fall of Richmond, it was at least as solicitous for the security of its own chief city, and an administration that permitted that security to be endangered would have been compelled to bow to the popular clamour. The extraordinary taxation demanded by the war already pressed heavily on the people. Stocks were falling rapidly, and the financial situation was almost critical. It is probable, too, that a blow at Washington would have done more than destroy all confidence in the Government. England and France were chafing under the effects of the blockade. The marts of Europe were hungry for cotton. There was much sympathy beyond seas with the seceded States; and, should Washington fall, the South, in all likelihood, would be recognised as an independent nation. Even if the Great Powers were to refuse her active aid in the shape of fleets and armies, she would at least have access to the money markets of the world; and it was possible that neither England nor France would endure the closing of her ports. With the breaking of the blockade, money, munitions, and perhaps recruits, would be poured into the Confederacy, and the difficulty of reconquest would be trebled. The dread of foreign interference was, therefore, very real; and Lincoln, foreseeing the panic that would shake the nation should a Confederate army cross the Potomac at Harper's Ferry or Point of Rocks, was quite justified in insisting on the security of Washington being placed beyond a doubt. He knew, as also did Jackson, that even a mere demonstration against so vital a point might have the most deplorable effect. Whatever line of invasion, he asked, might be adopted, let it be one that would cover Washington.
Lincoln's remonstrances, however, had no great weight with McClellan. The general paid little heed to the political situation. His chief argument in favour of the expedition by sea had been the strength of the fortifications at Manassas. Johnston's retreat on March 9 removed this obstacle from his path; but although he immediately marched his whole army in pursuit, he still remained constant to his favourite idea. The road to Richmond from Washington involved a march of one hundred miles, over a difficult country, with a single railway as the line of supply. The route from the coast, although little shorter, was certainly easier. Fortress Monroe had remained in Federal hands. Landing under the shelter of its guns, he would push forward, aided by the navy, to West Point, the terminus of the York River Railroad, within thirty miles of Richmond, transporting his supplies by water. Washington, with the garrison he would leave behind, would in his opinion be quite secure. The Confederates would be compelled to concentrate for the defence of their capital, and a resolute endeavour on their part to cross the Potomac was forbidden by every rule of strategy. Had not Johnston, in his retreat, burnt the railway bridges? Could there be a surer indication that he had no intention of returning?
Such was McClellan's reasoning, and, putting politics aside, it was perfectly sound. Lincoln reluctantly yielded, and on March 17 the Army of the Potomac, withdrawing by successive divisions from Centreville to Alexandria, began its embarkation for the Peninsula, the region, in McClellan's words, “of sandy roads and short land transportation.”* (* O.R. volume 11 part 3 page 7.) The vessels assembled at Alexandria could only carry 10,000 men, thus involving at least fifteen voyages to and fro. Yet the Commander−in−Chief was full of confidence. To the little force in the Shenandoah Valley, flying southward before Shields, he gave no thought. It would have been nothing short of miraculous had he even suspected that 4500 men, under a professor of the higher mathematics, might bring to naught the operations of his gigantic host. Jackson was not even to be followed. Of Banks' three divisions, Shields', Sedgwick's, and Williams', that of Shields alone was considered sufficient to protect Harper's Ferry, the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, and the Chesapeake Canal.* (* Ibid page 11.) Banks, with the remainder of his army, was to move at once to Manassas, and cover the approaches to Washington east of the Blue Ridge. Sedgwick had already been detached to join McClellan; and on March 20 Williams' division began its march towards Manassas, while Shields fell back on Winchester.
On the evening of the 21st Ashby reported to Jackson that the enemy was retreating, and information came to hand that a long train of waggons, containing the baggage of 12,000 men, had left Winchester for Castleman's Ferry on the Shenandoah. Further reports indicated that Banks' whole force was moving eastward, and Jackson, in accordance with his instructions to hold the enemy in the Valley, at once pushed northward.* (* A large portion of the Army of the Potomac, awaiting embarkation, still remained at Centreville. The cavalry had pushed forward towards the Rapidan, and the Confederates, unable to get information, did not suspect that McClellan was moving to the Peninsula until March 25.)
On the 22nd, Ashby, with 280 troopers and 3 horse−artillery guns, struck Shields' pickets about a mile south of Winchester. A skirmish ensued, and the presence of infantry, a battery, and some cavalry, was ascertained. Shields, who was wounded during the engagement by a shell, handled his troops ably. His whole division was in the near neighbourhood, but carefully concealed, and Ashby reported to Jackson that only four regiments of infantry, besides the guns and cavalry, remained at Winchester. Information obtained from the townspeople within the Federal lines confirmed the accuracy of his estimate. The enemy's main body, he was told, had already marched, and the troops which had opposed him were under orders to move to Harper's Ferry the next morning.
On receipt of this intelligence Jackson hurried forward from his camp near Woodstock, and that night reached Strasburg. At dawn on the 23rd four companies were despatched to reinforce Ashby; and under cover of this advanced guard the whole force followed in the direction of Kernstown, a tiny village, near which the Federal outposts were established. At one o'clock the three brigades, wearied by a march of fourteen miles succeeding one of twenty-two on the previous day, arrived upon the field of action. The ranks, however, were sadly weakened, for many of the men had succumbed to their unusual exertions. Ashby still confronted the enemy; but the Federals had developed a brigade of infantry, supported by two batteries and several squadrons, and the Confederate cavalry were slowly giving ground. On reaching the field Jackson ordered the troops to bivouac. “Though it was very desirable,” he wrote, “to prevent the enemy from leaving the Valley, yet I deemed it best not to attack until morning.” An inspection of the ground, however, convinced him that delay was impracticable. “Ascertaining,” he continued, “that the Federals had a position from which our forces could be seen, I concluded that it would be dangerous to postpone the attack until next day, as reinforcements might be brought up during the night.”* (* O.R. volume 12 part 1 page 381. The staff appears to have been at fault. It was certainly of the first importance, whether battle was intended or not, to select a halting−place concealed from the enemy's observation.) Ashby was directed to detach half his cavalry* (* 140 sabres.) under Major Funsten in order to cover the left flank; and Jackson, ascertaining that his men were in good spirits at the prospect of meeting the enemy, made his preparations for fighting his first battle.
The position occupied by the Federals was by no means ill−adapted for defence. The country round Winchester, and indeed throughout the Valley of the Shenandoah, resembles in many of its features an English landscape. Low ridges, covered with open woods of oak and pine, overlook green pastures and scattered copses; and the absence of hedgerows and cottages gives a park−like aspect to the broad acres of rich blue grass. But the deep lanes and hollow roads of England find here no counterpart. The tracks are rough and rude, and even the pikes, as the main thoroughfares are generally called, are flush with the fields on either hand. The traffic has not yet worn them to a lower level, and Virginia road−making despises such refinements as cuttings or embankments. The highways, even the Valley pike itself, the great road which is inseparably linked with the fame of Stonewall Jackson and his brigade, are mere ribbons of metal laid on swell and swale. Fences of the rudest description, zigzags of wooden rails, or walls of loose stone, are the only boundaries, and the land is parcelled out in more generous fashion than in an older and more crowded country. More desirable ground for military operations it would be difficult to find. There are few obstacles to the movement of cavalry and artillery, while the woods and undulations, giving ample cover, afford admirable opportunities for skilful manoeuvre. In the spring, however, the condition of the soil would be a drawback. At the date of the battle part of the country round Kernstown was under plough, and the whole was saturated with moisture. Horses sank fetlock−deep in the heavy meadows, and the rough roads, hardly seen for mud, made marching difficult.
The Federal front extended on both sides of the Valley turnpike. To the east was a broad expanse of rolling grassland, stretching away to the horizon; to the west a low knoll, crowned by a few trees, which goes by the name of Pritchard's Hill. Further north was a ridge, covered with brown woods, behind which lies Winchester. This ridge, nowhere more than 100 feet in height, runs somewhat obliquely to the road in a south−westerly direction, and passing within a mile and a half of Pritchard's Hill, sinks into the plain three miles south−west of Kernstown. Some distance beyond this ridge, and separated from it by the narrow valley of the Opequon, rise the towering bluffs of the North Mountain, the western boundary of the Valley, sombre with forest from base to brow.
On leaving Winchester, Williams' division had struck due east, passing through the village of Berryville, and making for Snicker's Gap in the Blue Ridge. The Berryville road had thus become of importance to the garrison of Winchester, for it was from that direction, if they should become necessary, that reinforcements would arrive. General Kimball, commanding in Shields' absence the division which confronted Ashby, had therefore posted the larger portion of his troops eastward of the pike. A strong force of infantry, with waving colours, was plainly visible to the Confederates, and it was seen that the extreme left was protected by several guns. On the right of the road was a line of skirmishers, deployed along the base of Pritchard's Hill, and on the knoll itself stood two batteries. The wooded ridge to westward was as yet unoccupied, except by scouting parties.
Jackson at once determined to turn the enemy's right. An attack upon the Federal left would have to be pushed across the open fields and decided by fair fighting, gun and rifle against gun and rifle, and on that flank the enemy was prepared for battle. Could he seize the wooded ridge on his left, the initiative would be his. His opponent would be compelled to conform to his movements. The advantages of a carefully selected position would be lost. Instead of receiving attack where he stood, the Federal general would have to change front to meet it, to execute movements which he had possibly not foreseen, to fight on ground with which he was unfamiliar; and, instead of carrying out a plan which had been previously thought out, to conceive a new one on the spur of the moment, and to issue immediate orders for a difficult operation. Hesitation and confusion might ensue; and in place of a strongly established line, confidently awaiting the advance, isolated regiments, in all the haste and excitement of rapid movement, or hurriedly posted in unfavourable positions, would probably oppose the Confederate onset. Such are the advantages which accrue to the force which delivers an attack where it is not expected; and, to all appearance, Jackson's plan of battle promised to bring them into play to the very fullest extent. The whole force of the enemy, as reported by Ashby, was before him, plainly visible. To seize the wooded ridge, while the cavalry held the Federals fast in front; to pass beyond Pritchard's Hill, and to cut the line of retreat on Winchester, seemed no difficult task. The only danger was the possibility of a counterstroke while the Confederates were executing their turning movement. But the enemy, so far as Jackson's information went, was rapidly withdrawing from the Valley. The force confronting him was no more than a rear−guard; and it was improbable in the extreme that a mere rear−guard would involve itself in a desperate engagement. The moment its line of retreat was threatened it would probably fall back. To provide, however, against all emergencies, Colonel Burks' brigade of three battalions was left for the present in rear of Kernstown, and here, too, remained four of the field batteries. With the remainder of his force, two brigades of infantry and a battery, Jackson moved off to his left. Two companies of the 5th Virginia were recruited from Winchester. Early in the day the general had asked the regiment for a guide familiar with the locality; and, with the soldier showing the way, the 27th Virginia, with two of Carpenter's guns as advanced guard, struck westward by a waggon track across the meadows, while Ashby pressed the Federals in front of Kernstown.