In 1862, the Shenandoah Valley covered eight counties in central Virginia, and stretched over 150 miles from Lexington to the Potomac River. Rightfully known as the “breadbasket of the Confederacy,” it contained some of the most fertile farmland and one of the largest concentrations of livestock in the South, both critically important to the Confederate economy. Edged by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountain range to the west, the Shenandoah River and its tributaries nourished some 2,000 farms by 1860. The Valley Turnpike, completed in 1840, ran from Harrisonburg to Winchester, and its improved surface rivalled other toll roads in the region. Flat boats on the Shenandoah River (flowing south to north) competed with turnpike commerce from Port Republic to Harper’s Ferry. Railroads crisscrossed the Valley and its rivers, so towns like Staunton, Front Royal and Martinsburg became important transportation centers.
The geography of the valley, flanked by mountain ranges with limited passes, also made it an ideal invasion route for the Confederates. Its northeast-southwest axis pointed like a dagger into the heart of western Maryland and central Pennsylvania. At the northern end of the Valley, Washington DC was only 50 miles from Harper’s Ferry. Any Confederate army that occupied the Valley would always be a threat to the North. Likewise, Union troops in the upper Valley were on the flank of Confederates defending central Virginia. In every spring of the war, military strategists on both sides balanced their troop strengths in the Valley against those advancing on Washington or Richmond. Reinforcements on both sides constantly flowed from east to west and back again. Military action in the Valley was always a counterweight to the campaigns fought between the Potomac and the James.
Colonel Thomas J. Jackson knew the Valley well. Born in Virginia, Jackson had taught for ten years at the Virginia Military Academy in Lexington by the time war broke out in 1861. He raised and trained five regiments of Valley soldiers, and his heroic stand like a “stone wall” at Manassas earned him a nickname and fame across the South. Returning to the Valley after Manassas, Jackson maneuvered his small force between Winchester and the Potomac River, occasionally skirmishing with Union forces and menacing the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between Romney and Harper’s Ferry. Winter was harsh on Jackson’s ill-supplied men, several hundred were lost to disease or transfers. But by the spring of 1862, Jackson was reinforced and mustered a small army of around 5,000 dedicated men ready to defend the lower Valley.
By early March, the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan prepared to advance on Richmond. To protect Washington, D.C. from Jackson’s threat, McClellan ordered Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks to secure the northern (or lower) end of the Valley. Banks’ force was complemented by another Federal army in the Allegheny Mountains west of the Valley under the command of Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont. Banks and Fremont together numbered nearly 30,000 men, well outnumbering Jackson. To the east, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army facing McClellan moved south from Manassas, forcing Jackson to also withdraw south, covering Johnston’s western flank. Jackson ceded the lower Valley to Banks, who occupied Winchester on March 12.
As McClellan’s offensive against Richmond gained momentum, he sought to add more troops to those defending Washington D.C. Believing that Jackson posed no offensive threat in the Valley, McClellan ordered Banks and two of his three Union divisions to depart Winchester and move east. Immediately, Jackson saw an opportunity to recapture the town he had reluctantly evacuated. His cavalry leader, however, the dashing but inexperienced Col. Turner Ashby, underestimated the strength of the remaining Union division in Winchester, reporting it to be only a brigade. Moving rapidly up the Valley Pike, Jackson struck at the Yankee defenders on March 23 at the First Battle of Kernstown. Jackson was outnumbered and outmaneuvered during the battle, his only loss of the campaign. Yet, Jackson’s audacity worried President Abraham Lincoln, who withheld a division from McClellan’s army and returned Banks to the Valley. Jackson’s tactical loss became a Confederate strategic victory.
As Jackson withdrew up the Valley after Kernstown, Banks’ army at Winchester was reinforced and followed the Confederates south. Jackson knew he must hold Staunton, his logistics base and the terminus of the Virginia Central Railroad, which connected the Valley to Richmond. Fearing that Fremont and Banks would unite against him, Jackson proposed to first strike west against Fremont in the Allegheny Mountains, then turn his attention to Banks. Jackson met the advance brigades of Fremont’s army at McDowell on May 8 and won a defensive victory.
Turning north towards Banks, encamped around Strasburg, Jackson sidestepped the Yankee defenders there and on May 23 captured Front Royal at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, cutting Banks off from the east. Banks fell back north, where Jackson attacked him at the First Battle of Winchester on May 25. Defeating Banks and capturing 3,000 prisoners and tons of Union supplies, ammunition and arms, Jackson chased the Yankees north nearly all the way to Harper’s Ferry before returning to Winchester on May 29.
Jackson’s marching and fighting had nearly worn out his men. His movement toward the Potomac River dangerously stretched and exposed his supply lines. With Banks’ army still heavily damaged, Fremont’s army to the west and a division under Brig. Gen. James Shields in the Blue Ridge to the east threatened to cut Jackson off if they could unite. Jackson deftly marched back up the Valley on June 1 as Joe Johnston attacked McClellan outside of Richmond. Fremont and Shields failed to unite, but both followed Jackson south along opposite sides of Massanutten Mountain, towering above the Valley floor for 50 miles. Jackson’s objective was the strategic bridge over the South Fork of the Shenandoah River at Port Republic: Confederate control of the bridge would prevent the two Union columns from joining each other at the south end of Massanutten.
Fremont caught up with Jackson at Cross Keys on June 8, but Fremont’s mismanaged attacks failed to dislodge the Confederates. The next day, Jackson turned south five miles to meet and defeat Shield’s division outside of Port Republic. Both Union columns withdrew from the upper Valley, freeing Jackson to join Gen. Robert E. Lee, who had assumed command in the east after Johnston was wounded.
“Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign was bold in strategy and tactics. Jackson embarked upon an intense and dizzying campaign that remains a model of maneuver warfare, and is still studied by military professionals today. For 11 weeks, Jackson avoided efforts by three Federal commanders to trap and destroy his smaller force. Jackson and his “foot cavalry” marched 670 miles in one 48-day period and fought five pitched battles. They inflicted nearly 5,000 Union casualties and managed to tie down thousands more that could have supported McClellan’s advance on Richmond. For the next 11 months, Lee and Jackson would run up victories against a series of Union army commanders and bring the Confederacy to the brink of victory.