Thomas J. Jackson's Tactical Retreat
| Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton conferred and then planned to trap
Jackson by having
McDowell from the east and
Fremont from the west converge on Strasburg. As the main Valley Pike passed through that town, Jackson would be cut off from his principal retreat route. Although both McClellan and McDowell objected to such an interruption of the drive toward Richmond, the Secretary of War insisted that his plan prevail.|
On the night of May 27th, near midnight, an orderly interrupted Jackson’s staff with word from a civilian coming to warn General Jackson. He spoke of traveling fifty miles that day to warn the General that he had passed Federals on the mountain road. They were General McDowell’s men, fresh troops out of Fredericksburg, and he had passed the troops of General Shields with ten thousand in the vanguard alone. The civilian claimed they are already less than a day’s march from Front Royal behind you in the Valley. Jackson, after questioning the man, calmly ordered to put the troops in marching array. He intended to strike toward the Potomac and Harper’s Ferry. The Yankees were gathering behind him: Shields from the eastern flank and Fremont from the west. Within a few days they could be cut-off along the Valley Pike by as many as fifty thousand Union troops. But Jackson plunged northward on a raid. Jackson was in close touch with Richmond now and he sensed a vastly increased interest in his little army by headquarters strategists. He had had suggestive orders to make a show of strength toward the Potomac if the chance arose. General Joseph E. Johnston had said: “If you can threaten Baltimore and Washington, do so...it may produce an important diversion. ...Your movements of course, depend upon the enemy’s strength in your neighborhood.”
While discussing this movement with General Elzey, Elzey passed to Jackson the report that the enemy had placed big naval Dahlgren guns on the heights at Harper’s Ferry. After a brief skirmish at Harper’s Ferry the Yankees were driven off and the army at last turned south for the retreat down the Shenandoah Valley. While his army traveled down the pike toward Winchester, Jackson met with Boteler, his chief link with Richmond. “I want you to go to Richmond for me, for more men. Banks is across the river at Williamsport, being reinforced from Pennsylvania. Saxton is in front of me, getting reinforcements from the railroad. I have just learned that Shields is near Front Royal, and Fremont is moving. You can see, I am nearly surrounded by a large force.” Jackson explained the disposition of his fifteen thousand men. “If they will send me more men to bring my force to forty thousand, I can cross the Potomac, lift the siege of Richmond, and change the fighting front from the Potomac to the Susquehanna.”
As Jackson approached Winchester, he received the disturbing news that the troops he had left at Front Royal, the Twelfth Georgia, had been attacked by General Shields. After setting fire to three hundred thousand dollars worth of captured stores, the Twelfth Georgia had safely retreated from the overwhelming Federal advance. Shields had now cut the Valley Pike at Front Royal and that escape route was gone. This also placed the Federal force only twelve miles from Strasburg, while Jackson’s troops were forty four miles from that point. Jackson’s rear guard, in fact, was almost sixty miles from Strasburg where safety lay, because of sixteen miles of captured wagons and stores. Jackson sent Ashby out with orders: “Cut-off the Federal view at every roadway, every lane, every ford; engage the pickets, drive off the cavalry, do all possible to confuse Shields and Fremont and to delay their junction.” In the flying horsemen and their guns, Jackson put his faith that his infantry could outmarch the enemy five miles to one. Jackson insisted on his characteristic marching style as his army passed through Winchester, forcing them to rest ten minutes out of every hour lying flat on the road, for he would not permit sitting or standing. By midnight the Stonewall Brigade had made thirty-five miles and the troops fell to the ground exhausted. Jackson spoke to General Taylor and said: “Fremont was three miles to the west, and must be defeated in the morning. Shields was moving up the Luray Valley, and might cross Massanutton to New Market...” The importance of preserving these captured stores would take all of Jackson’s personal attention while he relied on the army under Ewell’s direction to deal with Fremont.
On Sunday, June 1st, Ewell’s men skirmished with Fremont’s troops, but no serious enemy intentions evolved. Jackson put General Taylor’s men to cover the rear after nightfall. He had just received word from Winchester that Banks had crept back into that town but it was impossible for the Federals to attack the rear of Jackson’s force that night. It looked as if Jackson, only because he had gauged the enemy General so well, had managed to drive down the Valley between two armies of Federals. Late that day, Jackson knew he was safe as General Winder’s men, having covered thirty-six miles that day, brought up the rear guard. Jackson did not rest. He sent out orders to press on to New Market.
The rear guard was charged by the enemy repeatedly as Jackson’s trailing regiments brushed across Fremont’s front. For hours General Winder, with the Stonewall Brigade, had fought for his life against swarms of Union horsemen. It was only when Ashby came to his aid that the threat ended.
Jackson burned the only bridge on the main north-south road after crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah near the village of Mount Jackson. The river was running rapidly and, although the pursuing Fremont arrived with a pontoon train, his troops could not cross enmass. Jackson’s troops had a full day of rest for the first time since Front Royal. While his army rested, the General took out a map of Virginia. He circled the tiny town of Port Republic, just south of the Massanutton’s, a position very much to his liking. This was the finest spot lying between the routes of Shields and Fremont. It commanded the only nearby bridge and was a strong fortress. From the hills Jackson could force Shields to move up so the latter would be open to attack. The position also gave the Confederates’ inner lines of communication and a good route of retreat into hill country in case of disaster.
Stonewall now received some welcome news from his engineer Hotchkiss, a genius for terrain. From a mountaintop, Hotchkiss had seen the column of General Shields bogged down in muddy roads. They were still miles away so it was probable that Jackson would have time to fight off Fremont’s force before Shields could arrive. This would be a matter of delicate timing because the two enemy Generals would be within the sound of each other’s guns. On the sixth of June, just as Jackson was ready to clash with Fremont, he was deprived of his most dashing Commander. General Ashby’s troops, resting near a roadside at Harrisonburg were surprised by the first New Jersey cavalry who had crossed the river undetected. Ashby, in his usual fashion, had ordered men into saddles and charged the Federals. The charge netted him sixty-four of the enemy, but, as the skirmishing went on, Ashby caught sight of a party of Federal infantry and persuaded General Ewell to loan him three regiments of infantry. They met a crack outfit called the Pennsylvania Bucktails and captured their Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Cane.
He told his captors: “Today I saved the life of one of the most gallant men of either army - General Ashby - a man I admire as much as you do.” Cane said he had seen Ashby within fifty yards of his line during the afternoon and had knocked aside the rifles of his men as they were raised to shoot the unsuspecting Confederate. But, within the hour, Ashby was dead. He had led Ewell’s men into the stubborn Federal troops whose volley’s had broken the Federal charge time after time. Ashby’s horse tumbled and he went ahead on foot, leading the infantrymen. He died under a volley at point blank range. Jackson was so shocked at the news he could hardly accept it. The cavalry screen of the army in the Valley had fought endlessly under Ashby. He had recorded a record thirty five battles within the last twenty eight days. His death at age thirty-four gave the Valley army it’s first lesson in mourning a hero. Jackson put the memory of him into records: “An official report is not an appropriate place for more than a passing notice of the distinguished dead, but the close relations which General Ashby bore to my command, for most of the previous twelve months, will justify me in saying that as a partisan officer I never knew his superior. His daring was proverbial, his tone of character heroic, his power of endurance almost incredible, and his sagacity almost intuitive in divining the purposes and movements of the enemy.”
The loss of such a man as Ashby was irreparable. He might not have been much of a disciplinarian and he occasionally might slip up as at Kernstown, but he could usually be dependent upon to come through when needed the most. He was a natural leader, brave as they came, and by his screening movements and efficient scouting, as well as by hard fighting, Ashby had been responsible for much of Stonewall's success. With the exception of Jackson himself, no other person's death would have been as costly to the Army of the Valley as that of Turner Ashby.
With Fremont and Shields in different valleys and Jackson in between, the Confederate general could easily have escaped with his army if he had desired to do so. Instead he chose to remain and defeat each of his opponents in turn.