Battle of McDowell

The Battle of McDowell, fought May 8, 1862, was a costly but important Confederate victory that came near the beginning of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's brilliant Shenandoah Valley Campaign during the American Civil War (1861–1865). As Union general George B. McClellan prepared to march his Army of the Potomac up the Virginia Peninsula and on to Richmond, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston entrusted Jackson with preventing Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley from reinforcing McClellan. After a defeat at the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, Jackson retreated south, where his Army of the Valley joined with Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's Army of the Northwest and a reinforcing division under Richard S. Ewell. The Confederates, ensconced atop Sitlington's Hill on the west side of Bull Pasture Mountain, fended off the uphill attacks of Robert H. Milroy's Union troops in fighting that lasted until darkness fell. At one point General Johnson shouted a dare to Union forces to flank him, and although they failed, they did severely wound him. Confederates lost many more killed during the fray, but still counted the battle as a victory. McDowell set the stage for the rest of Jackson's hard-marching, hard-fighting campaign that, over the next month, kept Union troops penned up in the Valley. MORE...

 

Background

Before approving McClellan's plans for the Peninsula Campaign, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln insisted his general leave behind troops under Union general Irvin McDowell for the protection of Washington, D.C., as well as a possible strike against Richmond from the north. Stonewall Jackson's soldiers in the Valley were charged with preventing McDowell from reinforcing McClellan, and toward that end, Jackson did his best to keep his army situated between McDowell and McClellan. In the meantime, Lincoln worried that it was dangerous for a Confederate force such as Jackson's to roam free in the Shenandoah Valley, shaped as it is like a dart aimed at the U.S. capital. The president looked to General McDowell, and additional Union troops under Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Frémont, to prevent Jackson from either attacking Washington or defending Richmond.

In this way, the cat-and-mouse game of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign was established, and the two sides met first at Kernstown, in the lower, or northern, Valley on March 23. Jackson attacked a much larger force and was defeated. After recommending the court-martial of the Stonewall Brigade's commander Richard B. Garnett for retreating without orders, Jackson then retreated himself to the upper, or southern, Valley.

Counting on reinforcements from Edward "Allegheny" Johnson and using Ewell's Confederates to pin down General McDowell to the east at Swift Run Gap, Jackson submitted three plans of attack to Robert E. Lee on April 29. He recommended attacking Frémont's troops west of Staunton, "for if successful I would afterward only have Banks to contend with." He created a distraction by pretending to move his army from Staunton toward Richmond, marching his men on May 3 over the Blue Ridge Mountains and then, on May 4, loading most of them onto Virginia Central Railroad trains and, while the rest followed on foot, shipping them back to Staunton. There, on May 5, he united with Johnson's small, brigade-sized army, which was being pursued by one of Frémont's brigades under Robert H. Milroy. Milroy retreated west, toward the village of McDowell while another of Frémont's brigades, this one under Robert C. Schenck, raced to Milroy's support.

The Battle

On May 6, Johnson, a crusty old Virginia native and West Pointer who had fought in the Mexican War (1847–1848), marched his men west from Staunton. He was followed the next morning by Jackson, who deployed cavalry to deflect the Union forces' attention from his route along the Staunton–Parkersburg Turnpike. When Milroy learned of the advance, he concentrated his forces at McDowell in Highland County, with the exception of an artillery battery temporarily left at Shaw's Ridge to shell the Confederate vanguard. Minor skirmishing occurred throughout the day.

The Confederates resumed their march on the frosty morning of May 8. Johnson's forces halted atop Bull Pasture Mountain while he scouted the area and discovered a path to Sitlington's Hill, a mile-long rocky spur overlooking the Union camp beside the Bull Pasture River. Jackson approved the location when he arrived later that morning, and sent his mapmaker, Jedediah Hotchkiss, on a mission to find another path in the hills on which to outflank Milroy. Jackson's own men were still struggling up the mountain, and he did not want to risk a frontal assault. In the meantime, as the occasional bullet or artillery shell ricocheted off the mountain's rocky face, he ordered infantry under William B. Taliaferro forward to Johnson's aid.

Down in the valley below, Schenck, an Ohio politician, had arrived with Union reinforcements, and he later described the precarious situation: "I found Milroy, with his small force in the village at the foot of the mountain, defending himself against the enemy occupying the heights above, shut in, in fact, in a sort of amphitheater. The only easy escape from the position was down the narrow valley and small stream back by the road by which I had arrived."

Upon receiving a report, which later proved to be false, that Jackson was wheeling his artillery to the crest of the hill, Milroy—an Indiana-born lawyer who referred to the Confederates as the "traitor army"—determined that his annihilation was certain if he didn't move. Late in the afternoon, he ordered a frontal assault on Sitlington's Hill, a move that was less desperate than it might seem. As the Union troops slowly climbed the western slope, they were protected by deep ravines and heavy woods. Johnson, meanwhile, braced for the attack by arranging his men in a U-shape, with his right flank anchored on the turnpike and his left along the edge of a ravine on the south slope. With the sun setting, and his old regiment the 12th Georgia out front, Johnson's men slightly outnumbered their enemy 2,800 to 2,300, but, as the historian John S. Salmon has pointed out, "they were too inexperienced to realize they were silhouetted against the sky, making them easy targets."

Milroy personally led his entire brigade and one of Schenck's across the Bull Pasture River, through a treacherous ravine, and up the hill. Supported by artillery on Hull's Hill to the west of the river, he and his men met the 12th Georgia in the center and supporting Confederate units along the turnpike. They cut through the Georgians and pushed steadily on the right for nearly two hours. The fighting was so close that at one point the Union soldiers recognized General Johnson in the fray. "There's old Johnson; let's flank him!" they yelled. In turn, Johnson shouted, "Yes, damn you! Flank me if you can." Near the end of the battle, Johnson's ankle was shattered by a bullet and he had to be moved behind the lines.

The battle surged slowly in the Confederates' favor as night fell. As artillery and musket fire flashed off the darkened mountainsides, Milroy recalled his exhausted troops. Jackson personally led the Stonewall Brigade onto the battlefield, but by then the Union forces had gone. They stole west in the middle of the night, leaving the field for Jackson to claim at daybreak.

Aftermath

Even in attacking uphill, Milroy managed to inflict twice as many casualties as his own troops sustained, earning him praise from his superior, General Schenck. In the end, though, victory belonged to Stonewall Jackson, who prevented Frémont's army in the western Shenandoah Valley from uniting with Banks's men. Subsequent victories at Front Royal (May 23), Winchester (May 25), Cross Keys (June 8), and Port Republic (June 9) crushed all major Union forces in the Valley and in the process left them confused even about where Jackson's army was located. This allowed Jackson to steal east to help defend Richmond during the Seven Days' Battles.

Allegheny Johnson, meanwhile, also earned praise from his superior. In his final report on the battle, Jackson wrote: "General Johnson, to whom I had intrusted the management of the troops engaged, proved himself eminently worthy of the confidence reposed in him by the skill, gallantry, and presence of mind which he displayed on the occasion." In his absence, Johnson's Army of the Northwest was swallowed up by Jackson's Army of the Valley, but the next year a still-gimpy Johnson—commanding Jackson's old division after Jackson's death—faced Milroy again, helping destroy the Union garrison at Winchester in June 1863 during the Gettysburg Campaign. The defeat nearly ended Milroy's military career.

Time Line

  • May 9, 1862, 2 a.m. - Union forces under Robert H. Milroy, defeated by Confederates under Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, quietly depart the village of McDowell.
Further Reading
Allan, William. History of the Campaign of Gen. T. J. (Stonewall) Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia: From November 4, 1861, to June 17, 1862. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lippincott, 1880. Reprint, Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop, 1974.
Armstrong, Richard L. The Battle of McDowell, March 11–May 18, 1862: Jackson's Valley Campaign, 2nd ed. Lynchburg, Virginia: H. E. Howard, 1990.
Robertson, James I. Jr. Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend. New York: Macmillan Pub., 1997.
Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Mechanicsburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Wright, C. Battle of McDowell. (2011, April 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/McDowell_Battle_of.

  • MLA Citation:

    Wright, Catherine. "Battle of McDowell." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 1, 2009 | Last modified: April 5, 2011


Contributed by Catherine Wright, the collections manager at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. She is the editor of Lee's Last Casualty: The Life and Letters of Sgt. Robert W. Parker, Second Virginia Cavalry (2008).