Report of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, U.S. Army,
HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE SHENANDOAH,
[May 31, 1862.]
SIR: In pursuance of orders from the War Department, Col. John R. Kenly, commanding First Maryland Volunteers, was sent on the 16th day of May from Strasburg to Front Royal, with instructions to relieve the troops under Major Tyndale, attached to General Geary's command, and to protect the town of Front Royal and the railway and bridges between that town and Strasburg. The force under his command consisted of his own regiment (775 available men), two companies from the Twenty-ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel Parham commanding ; the Pioneer Corps, Captain Mapes, engaged in reconstructing the bridges; a portion of the Fifth New York Cavalry, and a section of Knap's battery, Lieutenant Atwell commanding. Nearer to the town of Strasburg were three companies of infantry, charged with the same duty. This force was intended as a guard for the protection of the town and railway against local guerrilla parties that infested that locality, and replaced two companies of infantry with cavalry and artillery, which had occupied the town for some weeks, under Major Tyndale, Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers, for the same purpose. It had never been contemplated as a defense against the combined forces of the enemy in the valley of Virginia.
Front Royal is in itself an indefensible position. Two mountain valleys debouch suddenly upon the town from the south, commanding it by almost inaccessible hills, and it is at the same time exposed to flank movements by other mountain valleys via Strasburg on the west and Chester Gap on the east.
The only practicable defense of this town would be by a force sufficiently strong to hold these mountain passes some miles in advance. Such forces were not at my disposal, and no such expectations were entertained from the slender command of Colonel Kenly. It was a guerrilla force, and not an organized and well-appointed army that he was prepared to meet.
On the 23d of May it was discovered that the whole force of the enemy was in movement down the valley of the Shenandoah, between the Massanutten Mountain and the Blue Ridge and in close proximity to the town. Their cavalry had captured a considerable number of our pickets before the alarm was given. The little band which was charged with the protection of the railway and bridges found itself instantaneously compelled to choose between an immediate retreat or a contest with the enemy against overwhelming numbers. Colonel Kenly was not the man to avoid a contest at whatever odds. He immediately drew up his troops in the order he had contemplated in case of attack of less importance. The disposition of his forces had been wisely made to resist a force equal to his own, and the best, perhaps, that could have been devised in his more pressing emergency.
About 1 o'clock p.m. the alarm was given that the enemy was advancing on the town in force. The infantry companies were drawn up in line of battle about one-half mile in the rear of the town. Five companies were detailed to support the artillery, which was placed on the crest of a hill commanding a meadow of some extent, over which the enemy must pass to reach the bridges, one company guarding the regimental camp nearer to the river, on the right of the line. The companies, three in number, left to guard the town were soon compelled to fall back upon the main force. There were then four companies on the right of the battery, near the camp, under Lieutenant-Colonel Dushane, and five companies on the left, under Colonel Kenly. The battery, Lieutenant Atwell commanding, opened fire upon the enemy, advancing from the hills on the right and left, well supported by the infantry, doing much damage. A detachment of the Fifth New York Cavalry was ordered to advance upon the road, which was attempted, but did not succeed. They held this position for an hour, when they were compelled to retreat across the river, which was done in good order, their camp and stores having been first destroyed.
On the opposite shore their lines were again formed, and the battery in position opened its fire upon the enemy while fording the river. They were again ordered to move left in front on the Winchester road, and had proceeded about 2 miles when they were overtaken by the enemy's cavalry, and a fearful fight ensued, which ended in the complete destruction of this command.
Colonel Kenly, in the front of his column, was wounded in this action. The train and one gun was captured. One gun was brought within 5 miles of Winchester, and abandoned by Lieutenant Atwell only when his horses were broken down.
The enemy's force is estimated at 8,000. The fighting was mostly done by the cavalry on the side of the rebels, with active support from the infantry and artillery. Our own force did not exceed 900 men. They held their ground manfully, yielding only to the irresistible power of overwhelming numbers.
Prisoners captured since the affair represent that our troops fought with great valor and that the losses of the enemy were large.
It is impossible at this time to give detailed accounts of our losses. Reports from the officers of the rement represent that but 8 commissioned officers and 120 men have reported. Of these officers 5 were in the engagement, 2 absent on detached service, and 1 on furlough.
All the regimental officers were captured. Colonel Kenly, who was represented to have been killed, is now understood to be a prisoner. He is severely wounded.
Lieutenant Atwell reports that of 38 men attached to his battery but 12 have reported. The cavalry was more fortunate, and suffered comparatively little loss. Undoubtedly large numbers of the command will yet return, but it is impossible to speculate upon the number.
I have the honor to ask attention to the reports of the remaining officers of the First Maryland Regiment, who participated in the engagement, giving their account of the same, and that of Lieutenant Atwell, commanding the battery.
N. P. BANKS,
Major-General, Commanding, &c.
E. M. STANTON,