The fertile soil and farming communities of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley provided food for Confederate soldiers and its mountain ranges acted as a screen for any army using it as an avenue of invasion. From the opening days of the war in 1861, hostile forces clashed in dozens of intense engagements in the Shenandoah.
To support the operations on the Virginia Peninsula and protect Washington, D.C. from Confederate assault, General George B. McClellan ordered Federal forces under General Nathaniel P. Banks to secure the “lower” or northern end of the Valley. Banks’ force, combined with additional Federal units from Western Virginia under the command of General John C. Frémont, totaled nearly 40,000 men. Confronting Banks and Frémont were approximately 17,000 men commanded by General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Already famous for his actions at First Manassas, or Bull Run, the aggressive Jackson proved to be more than the Federal commanders could handle.
After an early setback during the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, Jackson embarked upon an intense and dizzying campaign that remains a model of maneuver warfare. In ten weeks Jackson managed to avoid Federal efforts to trap his smaller force and mount a series of relentless attacks against Union forces. Jackson and his “foot cavalry” marched more than 450 miles and fought five pitched battles at McDowell, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys, and Port Republic. They inflicted more than 4,000 Union casualties, and managed to tie down thousands more that would have been better utilized in supporting McClellan’s advance against Richmond. The absence of these forces helped to contribute to the rise of Southern fortunes in the East.