The Battle of Winchester
| Soon after midnight Jackson ordered the troops to prepare for the march once more. The men whom Jackson drove in pursuit of the enemy were still under his strict discipline, willing, orderly, and ready to fight. But, worn by yesterday’s exertions and the long marches of the month, they were beginning to tire. Jackson had iron clad rules about the marching of his men but today he could not put them into effect. In the bad weather and confusion and the weariness of the men it was absurd to think of marching fifty minutes in each hour. On most marching days, Jackson sought to hurry the troops up. General A.R Lawton described Jackson’s state of mind as he rode past his lean columns: “He had small sympathy with human infirmity. He was a one-idea man. He looked upon the broken-down men and stragglers as the same thing. He classed all who were weak and weary, who fainted by the wayside, as men wanting
in patriotism. He was the true type of all soldiers...he did not value human life when he had an object to accomplish. He could order men to their death as a matter of course.”|
Once Jackson had determined to march, he puzzled the moves he must make with as little help as possible from his staff. Just before daylight, Jackson held a brief conference with Ewell whose forces were to continue as the army’s vanguard. Ashby, with his cavalry, was to strike for Middletown at daybreak. Ewell was to place two of his cavalry regiments under General Steuart and they were to depart after Ashby for Newton, a point just above Middletown. General Taylor was to follow to his brigade and Jackson’s main force coming close behind. Jackson went with the vanguard, curiously impatient. At about nine o’clock Jackson had word from Steuart: “Banks was preparing to leave Strasburg.”
Jackson rode within sound of the firing and soon could see the stone fences of Middletown. For as far as he could see north and south along the pike a dark column of the enemy flowed in full retreat toward Winchester. Jackson thought that Banks was already ahead of him. How far, he did not know, but he did not hesitate. Ashby’s cavalry cut the procession at the right and drove the enemy to the north ahead of him. Jackson could not know that there was already failure in the road to the north of him and that General Steuart was not working out as he should. Toward noon Federal cavalry numbering two thousand strong thundered into Middletown. Jackson was in a nearby field placing artillery pieces so as to cut off the Federals at the north. The artillery trained their batteries on the solid blue column of horsemen. The Union riders dashed into storms of flying metal and at close quarters none would miss the targets. The Federal cavalry disintegrated. The rear guard of the cavalry, now frightened and confused, milled in the roadway, turning as if to go back to Strasburg. Colonel Ashby rode past Jackson on his black stallion with his saber drawn and charged alone up the road toward the two hundred or more enemy cavalrymen. Jackson thought he rode to certain death, but the sight of the reckless horseman demoralized the Federals and they fled in many directions. Ashby trotted back to Jackson with a squad of prisoners herded before him. Jackson turned on Ashby, a sheepish grin on his face, and said in an attempt at reprimand. “Ashby, you risk the success of the army with such foolish exposure - you must remember who you are man.”
General Jackson now questioned where Banks’ infantry was. Throughout the afternoon he continued a slow push to the north until he was less than twelve miles from Winchester. A fresh disappointment met him at the village of Newton. There he found two of his guns engaging the enemy at the village but without infantry support. When Ashby’s cavalry had fallen upon Banks’ wagon train the undisciplined troopers took to looting the wagons after driving the enemy away. The looting continued until the force was completely dissipated. It would be weeks before some of them returned from their homes where they had taken stolen horses. There was little time for Jackson to deal with undisciplined men but he made a mental note to have these troops punished in one of his strange, moral-building ways. They were no longer to march in the vanguard of the army of the Valley.
The approach of the Stonewall Brigade drove the Federal artillery from Newton but the Federals fought the rear-guard action with skill. The way became easier until the army reached Kernstown. Offers came frequently to Jackson now, asking for respite but Jackson refused to halt the column for the night. Jackson sought to reach the line of hills just south of Winchester. There, he promised that the army would be given two hours rest. When the order was passed the men fell into the road and dropped in their tracks. Jackson changed his mind as the entire army fell asleep. Jackson quickly dashed off a note to Ewell who was on a parallel road in sight of Federal pickets. The note was simple: “Attack at daylight.” After about an hour, Jackson could bear it no longer and he woke his officers and passed the word to march. It was scarcely daylight when they approached the hills south of Winchester. The timing was perfect, Ewell with his one brigade and ten thousand troops swept down on the Federal positions just as Jackson gave the orders to occupy the hill. Ewell struck and held on the right and, although he encountered serious losses, the enemy began to panic. By seven-thirty a.m. the enemy was in full retreat and Jackson went into a frenzy organizing the last chase of Banks. The enemy, going back in order at first, had broken the ranks as they passed through the town. Jackson chased them five miles north of Winchester until his horses were even falling in their harnesses. It was only in this moment, after three days of the most punishing grind, that Jackson seemed to take into account the condition of his army which he had worn to the limits of it’s endurance. Just two hours after resigning from the pursuit of Banks, General Steuart came pounding up on the trail of the enemy. Had Steuart been on time Jackson would have wiped-out, rather than defeated, the army of Banks. One of Jackson’s officers had found Steuart and his cavalrymen at ease just a little over two miles away. Steuart was standing on army regulations that he would take orders only from his immediate superior and that Jackson would have no cavalry until General Ewell ordered him forward. After a short time the astonished Ewell ordered his advance.
Although Banks belittled his own losses reports show they were severe - approximately forty percent of his force including the loss of three thousand prisoners. The Confederate losses were insignificant. Jackson did not know the reactions he had set off in the north. Even as Banks issued victory bulletins as he crossed the Potomac, he did not deceive Washington. President Lincoln recalled General McDowell and instead ordered a detachment of twenty-thousand into the Valley to trap Jackson. The public screamed of the defeat of Banks as headlines warned that Jackson was about to fall on Washington.
As panic-stricken Union troops fled Winchester, Virginia, ahead of advancing troops of Stonewall Jackson on 25 May 1862, General Nathaniel Banks attempted to stop them and restore order. To a mob of running soldiers, Banks shouted, "My God, don't you love your country?" "Yes," came a reply from an unknown soldier, "and I'm trying to get back to it as fast as I can !"
Late one day in May of 1862 Stonewall Jackson was about to order a night attack on the Federals in Winchester. He summoned the five regimental commanders of the Stonewall Brigade for a council of war. He then issued orders incorporating their advice. When the desired assault failed to work out, Jackson was furious. "That is the last council of war I will ever hold." He kept his word!
Stonewall Jackson was beside Richard Taylor as the Louisiana Brigade advanced under heavy artillery fire near Winchester. When some of the troops ducked, Taylor rasped at them, “ What the hell are you dodging for?” Jackson stared reproachfully at Taylor, saying there was no excuse for such language, especially on Sunday. He placed his hand on Taylor’s shoulder and commented, “I am afraid you are a wicked fellow”.
Taken from SIDELIGHTS AND LIGHTER SIDES OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES: A Feast of History in Small Bites Cooked Up by Ralph Green, Past Commander-in-Chief Sons of Confederate Veterans. Used with permission.