150th Anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s Victory in the Battle of Front Royal


Painting by Mort Kunstler, “On to the Shenandoah” May 23, 1862 – Full size at his website

Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Front Royal, Virginia (the town near where I was raised). On May 23, 1862, almost all the Yankee soldiers in Front Royal were captured, killed or wounded during a surprise attack by Jackson’s “foot calvary.” Both sides fought valiantly, but the northerners were greatly outnumbered. Their commander, Col. John Kenly, was a shirt-tail ancestor of my father and the source of the first name Dad hated. Col. Kenly was badly wounded and captured; after he was exchanged for a Confederate POW, he rose to the rank of Major General and spawned a few great-great aunts and uncles (not certain on that pedigree).

Jackson’s victory may have saved Richmond, since it spooked Lincoln into canceling plans to send 40,000 reinforcements to the Army of the Potomac, which had penetrated to the outskirts of the Confederate capital.

The best thumbnail summary of the battle I found was on Wikipedia. (Most other accounts were tangled or semi-obscure).

Early on May 23, Turner Ashby and a detachment of cavalry forded the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and rode northwest to capture a Union depot and railroad trestle at Buckton Station. Two companies of Union infantry defended the structures briefly, but the Confederates prevailed and burned the building, tore up railroad track, and cut the telegraph wires, isolating Front Royal from Banks at Strasburg. Meanwhile, Jackson led his infantry on a detour over a path named Gooney Manor Road to skirt the reach of Federal guns on his approach to Front Royal. From a ridge south of town, Jackson observed that the Federals were camped near the confluence of the South and North Forks and that they would have to cross two bridges in order to escape from his pending attack.

A detachment of 250 Confederate cavalry under Col. Thomas S. Flournoy of the 6th Virginia Cavalry arrived at that moment and Jackson set them off in pursuit of Kenly. The retreating Union troops were forced to halt and make a stand at Cedarville. Although the cavalrymen were outnumbered three to one, they charged the Union line, which broke but reformed. A second charge routed the Union detachment. The results of the battle were lopsided. Union casualties were 773, of which 691 were captured. Confederate losses were 36 killed and wounded. Jackson’s men captured about $300,000 of Federal supplies; Banks soon became known as “Commissary Banks” to the Confederates because of the many provisions they won from him during the campaign. Banks initially resisted the advice of his staff to withdraw, assuming the events at Front Royal were merely a diversion. As he came to realize that his position had been turned, at about 3 a.m. he ordered his sick and wounded to be sent from Strasburg to Winchester and his infantry began to march midmorning on May 24.

The most significant after effect of Banks’s minor loss at Front Royal was a decision by Abraham Lincoln to redirect 20,000 men from the corps of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell to the Valley from their intended mission to reinforce George B. McClellan on the Peninsula. At 4 p.m. on May 24, he telegraphed to McClellan, “In consequence of General Banks’s critical position I have been compelled to suspend General McDowell’s movements to you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper’s Ferry, and we are trying to throw Frémont’s force and part of McDowell’s in their rear.”

Here are a couple maps illustrating the day’s fighting:

The National Park Service did a nice analysis comparing the 1862 battlefield to the modern layout of the town and area.

The New York Times, in an excellent recent online article entitled “Stonewall in the Valley,” captured the dynamics preceding Jackson’s surprise attack at Front Royal:

Jackson’s small army faced immediate challenges to the north and west: Banks’s main force of 19,000 men was to the north at Harrisonburg, while Frémont had 20,000 men only 35 miles to the west of Banks’s encampment. But the Union generals lacked Jackson’s tactical genius,
still celebrated today, which rested on two maxims: “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy” and “never fight against heavy odds” if you can “hurl your own force on” the “weakest part of your enemy and crush it.”

Jackson put both strategies to use in the valley. Confederate reconnaissance made sure he always knew where his opponents were, but his whereabouts very often proved a mystery to them. On April 28, for instance, Banks assured his superiors that “Our force is entirely secure here. The enemy is in no condition for offensive movements. … I think we are now just in condition to do all you can desire of us in the valley — clear the enemy out permanently.” Two days later Banks wrote again, saying he had more or less scared Stonewall away: “Jackson is bound for Richmond. This is the fact, I have no doubt.”

Jackson and his troops were indeed in motion, but not toward Richmond. On April 30, Jackson set his men marching south from their position in the Elk Run Valley. Spring rains had created a quagmire, trapping his troops in an exhausting, muddy hell. It took them two days to travel 16 miles to Port Republic.

Thinking quickly, Jackson resorted to the sort of maneuver that confounded his enemies and just as often surprised his own troops. “Heaven only knows where he is bound for now,” recorded one Confederate infantryman in his diary. “I know that ninety-nine out a hundred of his men have no more idea of where they will turn up than the buttons in their coats.” Jackson turned his troops to the east and marched through Brown’s Gap to Mechum’s River Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. Once there he loaded his weary and disheartened troops, who thought they were abandoning the valley to the Union forces, onto trains and moved them west to Staunton, the strategically positioned southern anchor of the Shenandoah Valley. “We are retiring and advancing at the same time,” wrote another of Jackson’s men, “a condition an army never undertook before.” A few days later, Jackson won his unexpected victory at McDowell.

The Confederate force’s weeklong slog from the Elk Run Valley to Staunton, while uncharacteristically slow, was a testament to the endurance of Jackson’s “foot cavalry,” who had quickly gained a reputation for showing up where least expected, thereby gaining a psychological edge that often offset the superior numbers enjoyed by the Union army. Jackson’s troops marched 177 miles during a single 17-day period in mid-May, for example, and in the third week of May alone covered up to 30 miles a day in their successful effort to deceive Banks’s forces at Front Royal, toward the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley.

This map illustrates the campaign discussed above:

The war became uglier as the years passed. In 1864, Gen. Sheridan’s troops sought to starve the civilian population into submission by burning all the crops, barns, and many of the houses in Warren County and elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley. Such policies helped explain why Warren County’s population fell by 20% in the 1860s.

If anybody has good sources or good links on the 1862 battle, please add them to the Comment Section.

Photo of the marker for Kenly’s Last Stand

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21 Responses to 150th Anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s Victory in the Battle of Front Royal

  1. Tom DiLorenzo May 23, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Shelby Foote’s trilogy, The Civil War, includes an excellent discussion of the battle.

  2. Jim May 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    Thanks for the lead, Tom. Foote does a great job of capturing the weasely nature of Gen. Banks.

    A New York Herald Tribune who was captured at the battle of Front Royal wrote the following about the “Condition of the Rebel Army” -”The rebels are in a state of destitution. It is but justice to say that when they fed their prisoners so badly they were on short allowance themselves. Their clothes are in tatters, and they have no semblance of uniform. Their drill is very bad…. Their arms are generally good, but in some cases very inferior.”

    Hard to explain, then, why Jackson routed so many different Yankee armies.

  3. Bryan Kenly May 23, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Hello, I was happy to run across your write up. I have gotten into local history and the civil war. If you have any other info about the other battles at F.R. or know of any books, would you please send via email. Thank you for your time Bryan

  4. Jim May 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Bryan, thanks for the comment. There are some good stories at the following links – http://www.google.com/search?q=battle+front+royal+jackson+kenly+banks&rls=com.microsoft:en-us&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&startIndex=&startPage=1&rlz=1I7ADRA_en

    Here is a link to a photo of the marker for Kenly’s Last Stand – full size available at http://www.shenandoah.stonesentinels.com/Front_Royal/Fairview.php

  5. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit May 23, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Jim, I will join you in celebrating this hitherto unknown-to-me event for no other reason than to keep you from standing alone in the scathing glare of Claire’s commentary… :P

  6. Claire May 23, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    Ah, Hobbit, now I know where your loyalties lie.

    But as to my alleged scathingness (http://www.backwoodshome.com/blogs/ClaireWolfe/2012/05/23/a-little-wednesday-miscellany/) … I was merely agreeing with Jim, who did the original scathing, if such it was, in an email to me about this post. :-)

    It’s true though that nobody else I know is celebrating this particular victory. Oh, I’m sure good Southrons are rejoicing and raising their glasses high. But as a born & bred Westerner, I got only the short, quick version of War of Northern Aggression history in school and it was clearly something we considered Other People’s Business, not to be taken personally by us.

    And really, I hope that if I ever do opt to scathe, I’d do it much more forcefully and cut-to-the-quickingly than that!

  7. Jim May 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    Due respect to a ‘born & bred Westerner’ – the Civil War was a good fracas to avoid.

  8. David Green, MD May 23, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    Burke Davis’ “They called him Stonewall” has a great description of the Valley Campaign, including Front Royal. The book is available unabridged on audio, my preferred method of “reading” these days…Thanks for the post!

  9. BrockTownsend May 23, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    Excellent piece and posted.

  10. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit May 24, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    I was only thinking of Jim’s tender feelings and delicate sensibilities, Claire. He’s like a kind and gentle hothouse flower, unaware of some of the harsher aspects of life, and even a mild reproof of the most gentle sort can send him scuttling for cover like … like … like something that scuttles for cover. :P

  11. Jim May 24, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    LawHobbit, ever since you started working for the government, I have noticed a dearth of comic metaphors in your postings. Those ellipses go on your permanent record.

  12. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit May 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    Dearth O’Metaphors … wasn’t that Vader’s Irish cousin in Star Wars?

  13. Jim May 24, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Never known an Irishman to come up short on metaphors.

    They aren’t so good at analogies, but not everyone can be French.

  14. Claire May 24, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

    “like a kind and gentle hothouse flower”

    Yeah? Well, the one time I met Mr. Hothouse Flower in person he was sitting on a balcony smoking cigars and speculating* about whether the balcony would make a good sniper’s nest.

    If this is how hothouse flowers are these days … hey, we’re in better shape than I thought!

    *Not to JBTS: just speculating. You know, in a sort of speculative, theoretical, philosophical way. He had, as a matter of fact, been completely disarmed by the Taking Scissors Away people and couldn’t have shot a squirrel from that vantage point. Even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t. See “speculative” above. Anyhow, I think the statute of limitations has run out.

  15. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit May 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    He was just putting on a brave front for you. He’s well aware, I’m sure, of the penalties attached to speculating in public and would never EVER speculate off a balcony at a hotel.

    And the fact that he puts up with me is a clear indication in regard to his squirrel shooting tendencies (or any lack thereof).

  16. Tom Blanton May 24, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    There’s something about balconies that makes southern boys want to shoot guns.

    Meanwhile, down here in Richmond the Union is still screwing around. They’re making us use greenbacks with a picture of Lincoln on them. A constant reminder of how we had to burn down the city to keep Lincoln’s boys from stealing our stuff. Plus, these Lincoln greenbacks will barely buy a pack of smokes and a lotto ticket.

  17. Jim May 24, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

    Now, it it weren’t for federal taxes & policies, you could probably get 3 packs for a fiver.

    I think back to my college days (brief as they were) – and contrast the “nickel bags” of the 1970s with a less-than-full-pack of cigarettes you can buy for $5 in many states.

    But I suppose the wizards at the Bureau of Labor Statistics wouldn’t have the gumption to use that comparison in the official Consumer Price Index.

  18. Tom Blanton May 25, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    Nickel bag? A fiver used to buy a 1/4 oz of low-grade herb or a whole carton of cigarettes about 40 years ago. Now a 1/4 oz of high-grade herb can go for a C-note. I think a carton of smokes goes for about $100 in NYC, if not more.

    But, the weed got a whole lot better while the quality of the tobacco has gone down. Plus the tobacco is really bad for you when you live longer than you could have ever imagined when you started smoking.

    On the upside, there are no monuments to Lincoln in Richmond.

    Here’s Stonewall Jackson to remind us of the recent unpleasantness:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/project2000/5236481055/in/photostream

  19. Jim May 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    Good ol’ Monument Ave. in Richmond! I’m glad the city government has not formally labeled all the statutes on that street as hate crimes.

  20. Tory II, Illinois May 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Patriotism:

    “Loving your country and knowing when to HATE its govt”.

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