- Occurrences in the Shenandoah Valley -- battles of “front Royal,” may twenty-third -- capture of Winchester and thousands of prisoners by Jackson -- rout of Banks's corps -- immense booty.
Ashton's letter from the Valley1 read as follows:
Our retreat after the battle of Kearnstown was very rapid and fatiguing; Jackson forced his men along the Valley Pike all night, for we were but few in number, and Shields's force very large. Without much rest, we pushed through Strasburgh, and took the road towards Charlottesville, and had thus got a start of over twenty miles ere the enemy's cavalry came in sight. Ashby, as usual, was in the rear, and nobly beat back the foe, and saved us from annihilation; every rise in the road was disputed by him, until at last the Federals seemed weary of fighting, and contented themselves with hovering in the rear. At Harrisonburgh the enemy gave up the pursuit, but we continued our route, ten miles farther, to McGackeysville, having travelled the whole distance of seventy miles without halting for more than a few hours. At McGackeysville we found that Ewell, with a force of ten thousand men, had crossed the Blue Ridge, and formed a junction with Jackson. This surprised us, it having been thought that his division was with Johnston; it appeared, however, that he had been hovering around Fredericksburgh, on the Rappahannock, watching a division of McDowell, who held the nucleus of a force2 destined to march on Richmond from the west, while McClellan made his attack on the east. Knowing that McDowell dared not move alone, and that Shields threatened to annihilate  Jackson, Ewell had wisely crossed the Ridge and hastened to our assistance. It was now hoped by all, that Shields would leave the Valley, push on through Harrisonburgh, and attack us at McGackeysville; but, after some days, it was ascertained that he remained enjoying the fruits of the battle of Kearnstown, and was waiting until Milroy and Blenker should clear Western Virginia, and arrive on a line with him, when they would all join McDowell at Fredericksburgh. Jackson was not many days at McGackeysville, when a courier from the Georgian, Colonel Johnson, arrived, and informed him that Blenker and Milroy, with their Dutch division, were advancing eastward in Western Virginia, and that his small force of fifteen hundred men was falling back before them. When this news was received, Jackson, finding his original command fully rested, left Ewell's force of ten thousand at McGackeysville, and sallied out during the night, none knew whither. Keeping to the mountains until he arrived at Port Republic, he struck the Valley Pike there, proceeded on, by night and day, towards Staunton, and then, without entering the town, shaped his course north-west through the mountains. After a fatiguing march of seventy miles in three days, through valleys, over mountains, and along frightfully muddy roads, he arrived at nine A. M., May tenth, in sight of Colonel Johnson's little force, which was drawn up in a narrow valley, at a village called McDowell, with the heavy brigades of Milroy and Blenker in line of battle before him. This valley was not more than two hundred yards wide, having steep mountains on either hand, that on our left being called Bull Pasture Mountain. Jackson's men having been allowed a rest of two hours, he and Johnson immediately prepared for battle, and skirmishing began in all directions. Milroy and Blenker seemed confident of success, and handled their troops admirably; they had several pieces of artillery, we had none. At two P. M. the fight commenced in earnest, and Jackson immediately pushed his men forward to bring matters to a crisis. Observing that they suffered from our incessant and accurate musketry-fire, and that their commands would not stand close work, Milroy and Blenker marched their men by the right flank up, and on, to Bull Pasture  Mountain, leaving their artillery strongly posted on the mountain to our right, thinking to gain an elevated position, and destroy us. Their artillery was a great annoyance, but we soon followed the plan of our enemy-marched up the mountain by the left flank, and when arrived at the top, fighting as we went, found it to be an admirable place for an engagement, being perfectly flat. The contest was here renewed with great fury, and we drove the enemy a considerable distance, until night put an end to hostilities, and the enemy slunk off in the darkness. Arrangements were made in expectation of the engagement being renewed in the morning, but when our pickets, finding no opposition, moved forward a considerable distance, it was discovered that the foe had left their dead and wounded, together with a quantity of stores, and had hastily decamped. Every arrangement was instantly made for pursuit, and ere midnight our cavalry scouts came in and reported that large fires were seen burning in the direction of Franklin, and that in the hurry and confusion of defeat, and a forced march, immense supplies lay along the road, and that quantities were burning in all directions. We buried our own dead — about one hundred in number-and that of the enemy — some three hundred-and at daylight commenced the pursuit. The distance to Franklin was forty miles, and the road one of the roughest that mortal was ever doomed to travel; but so rapid were the movements of the enemy, that, although we travelled the forty miles in less than twenty hours, they had reached Franklin before us, aid were drawn up in a strong position, occupying the right and left of a road that ran between two mountains, Franklin being in their rear. Jackson thought it probable we might be able to flank them, and sent out a force of cavalry to reconnoitre, who reported that not a single road or cow-path was discovered by which we could get round the enemy. They had artillery on the hills, and every movement we made was clearly seen by them, so that it was deemed unadvisable to attack with our small force, strongly posted as they were, and inaccessible except in front, through the gorge. Learning that his success at McDowell had so frightened Milroy and Blenker that they had called upon Fremont, who  was a few marches behind, Jackson determined to deceive them and fall back. After remaining at Franklin part of two days, he ordered his cavalry to be unusually active, and make incessant demonstrations in all quarters; if necessary, they were to fall back on McDowell, leaving the enemy to infer that strong forces were near at hand; Jackson, in the mean while, refreshed his own and Johnston's men, and began to retreat through McDowell more swiftly than he had advanced Marching at a rapid rate, he reached the Valley Pike at Mount Crawford, eighteen miles from Staunton, and learned that Banks's force had fallen back from Harrisonsburgh to Strasburgh. Moving at a fast rate down the Valley Pike, Jackson proceeded onwards to Newmarket, and was there joined by Ewell's force of ten thousand, which had been awaiting us at Swift Run Gap. Our whole force now amounted to about fourteen thousand men. After a little rest, we all proceeded across the Shenandoah Mountains, and camped near Lurah, in Page Valley, about twelve miles from Front Royal — the rear of Banks's army in the Valley. This requires some explanation. When Shields found Jackson strongly posted at McGackeysville, he declined to advance against him, as I have already mentioned, and withdrawing his forces from between Woodstock and Harrisonburgh, he regained the Valley, determined to push on towards McDowell at Fredericksburgh, and commence the “on to Richmond” movement from the west. Banks also had the same destination, having his force scattered up and down the Valley, the rear being at Front Royal. Blenker and Milroy were similarly bound through Western Virginia, but their defeat had diverted Fremont from his proper route, who immediately went to their assistance. Thinking, therefore, that Jackson was busily engaged in that distant quarter, and not likely to trouble them in the Valley again, Banks and Shields were quietly making their way towards Fredericksburgh, unconscious of danger, when, on the morning of May twenty-second, Jackson and Ewell, with fourteen thousand men, were meditating an attack on their rear. To make all sure, Ewell was detached with ten thousand men to seize Winchester, the enemy's grand depot, before they  could turn and flee, and — as Banks would be obliged to pass through that town — to man the fortifications, and keep him to the southward, while Jackson should strike his column on the flanks, and seize the baggage. With this object Ewell started northwards, and we southwards, towards Front Royal. Although we had been camped within twelve miles of the latter place several days, our movements and position had been kept so secret that the Federal commandant knew nothing of our presence until the attack was actually made on the morning of the twenty-third of May. The Louisianians, as skirmishers, having encircled the place, Jackson, in battle array, marched up to the village, and after some little fighting captured the First Federal Maryland Regiment, seven hundred strong, under command of Colonel Kenly, and immediately seized the town, together with immense stores. During the afternoon our cavalry attacked the enemy at Buckton station on the railroad, and after smart skirmishing, captured several hundred prisoners, and such quantities of stores that they had to be destroyed. Judge of Banks's astonishment when informed of this! Never dreaming of such a trick, he had established extensive depots up and down the valley — that at Winchester being worth millions of dollars. He had but one way to retreat-by the Valley Pike-and that was held by us; with Ewell marching rapidly towards Winchester to seize the fortifications, and get still farther in his rear. We had accomplished much at Front Royal and Buckton station, and, expecting that Banks would not attempt to move for several days, were meditating proper methods of attack along their line of retreat, for Banks had a very large army, and could not well be assailed in regular form by our small force; but judge of our surprise when, next morning, (twenty-fourth,) word was brought that Banks's whole command was racing up the Pike towards Winchester at an awful rate, and in the wildest excitement. Such marching you never saw cavalry and infantry and baggage-wagons were dashing along at headlong speed in hot haste to reach Winchester, the roads being strewn for miles with every imaginable article known to campaigning. Our cavalry and infantry attacked them at all points, and in every conceivable way; but this army of twenty thousand men pushed along, running and fighting as they went,  jumping over fences, leaving wagons, cannon and thousands of prisoners in our hands. Cavalry were incessantly charging the foe or driving batches of prisoners to the rear. Now the enemy's infantry would halt, and make a show of fighting, but our men gave a yell and a volley, our cavalry plunged into their broken ranks, and they were ruthlessly cut down. In truth, we had been marched and overworked too much to take full advantage of the glorious opportunity now presented; but all did the best they could. The retreat of the enemy was so rapid that it was impossible for infantry to keep up with them, and most of the duty devolved on cavalry. They seized hundreds of fresh cavalry horses, remounted, and were again after the enemy at full gallop, capturing scores of prisoners every mile, and yet the pursuit continued all day. At the village of Middleton a New-Jersey regiment of horse turned to fight, but our cavalry rode against them so furiously that the enemy were instantly unhorsed, fifty of them being killed, one hundred wounded, and two hundred and fifty captured; so that from wagons, baggage, dead, wounded, and prisoners, the roads were almost impassable. Wagons by the dozen were driven from the road, and the traces having been cut, the teams might be seen running wildly about in all directions. The scene was that of Manassas over again. Every field was crowded with fugitives who waited to be captured, while scores of ambulances were filled with footsore or wounded.Federals, and driven to the rear, the men seeming speechless from astonishment. Colonels, Majors, Captains, rank and file, were marched indiscriminately to the rear, while on dashed our wearied cavalry, pistolling and cutting down the still retreating enemy. So it continued all day long on the twenty-fourth, until, perfectly broken down with the labor, we camped at Newtown, a few miles from Winchester. Ewell had not been able to get into Winchester before Banks arrived; and as the place was strongly fortified, Jackson deferred all attack until the twenty-fifth, by which time it was hoped our exhausted infantry would arrive. For miles along the road towards and beyond Winchester, large and innumerable fires told that the enemy were destroying their supplies, and already on their retreat towards the Potomac. Such a sight I could never have conceived. The whole country  seemed on fire, yet every approach towards Winchester was still as death, which led many to suppose we should have a hard fight before gaining the town on the morrow. We had between two and three hundred wagons in our possession untouched, and supplies of every description beyond calculation, so that our wearied and famished soldiery enjoyed themselves hugely, and did not care a straw what the morrow might bring forth. We had beaten Banks — that was an all-sufficing fact; and Jackson, who had been cursed for his long marches and incessant fighting, was now idolized, and every one saw into and loudly applauded his rapid movements and his unexampled success. Standing on a hill near our camps, the sight on the night of the twenty-fourth was awfully grand; whichever way the eye might turn, fires illuminated the dark and distant landscape, and it seemed that the destruction and loss to the enemy were incalculable. Their immense amount of supplies and baggage is explained by the fact that this part of the Valley had been used as the grand depot, not only for Banks himself, but for supplying the commands of Shields, Fremont, Milroy, Blenker, and others, besides the accumulated stores destined for McDowell. Such a race, riot, confusion, loss in men and materiel as Banks suffered on that eventful day are totally beyond my power to describe. Early on the morning of the twenty-fifth, Jackson began to move on Winchester. Dense columns of smoke issuing from the town made it evident that the enemy were busily engaged in burning stores; but as Jackson did not relish this idea, he pushed forward, and, meeting with a feeble resistance, we rushed into the town, driving the foe through every street; even women and children assisting us by, throwing brick-bats, or whatever they conveniently could, from the windows. The fight was neither long nor sanguinary; the Federals were more scared than hurt, yet our cavalry commenced a hot pursuit, and hung within a few yards of their rear, fighting and chasing them in the same style as the day before. By our opportune arrival, much property was saved of incalculable value, including several hundred boxes of new arms of various sorts, for all branches of the service, besides a vast supply of medicines, a few cannon, and countless articles of value. It was about noon ere the pursuit commenced in force; and  as our men were now well clothed, and provided with an abundance of all the necessaries and many of the luxuries of life, all were gay and anxious to push forward, and, if possible, drive the enemy into the Potomac. Hurrying forward towards Charleston, we found that Banks Had shaped his course towards Williamsport, and ere he had crossed over to that town, our advance was well up with him; while the number of dead, wounded, and prisoners along the road showed what havoc Ashby had made among the foe with his cavalry. Hats, caps, muskets, boots, wagons, dead, wounded, prisoners, burning stores, sabres, pistols, etc., lined every yard of the road, while hundreds of fatigued and famished Yankees concealed themselves in every wood, making their way towards the Potomac as best they could, footsore, unarmed, ragged, and totally demoralized. Had our men been marched less, and fully recruited from their terrible mountain fights and journeys, it would have been impossible for Banks to have drawn off a single regiment; but, as we were far more fatigued than they, the punishment inflicted and the vigor of our pursuit were not half as effective as they might have been. Never giving up, however, Ashby still hung on their rear, and unmercifully thrashed them whenever they turned to fight. At last, totally prostrated from fatigue, and helpless as children, we reached the vicinity of Williamsport, on the evening of the twenty-sixth, and found that all who remained of the enemy had effected a passage across the river at different points, and were safe in Maryland. The bare idea of our excessive labor during the pursuit on the twenty-fourth, twenty-fifth, and twenty-sixth, is enough to terrify me, for the whole route travelled was more than fifty miles, and every furlong of it witnessed an encounter of some sort; so that when we found the foe had escaped, most of us felt infinite relief. The complete details of our success can never be known, but, speaking roughly, we had captured thousands of prisoners, killed and wounded hundreds more,, seized miles of baggage-wagons, immense stores of every imaginable description, together with many cannons, thousands of small arms, ammunition by hundreds of tons, clothing, medicines, public documents of value, thousands of shoes, and had burned millions' worth of property for want of transportation. Throughout  the whole route from Strasburgh to Williamsport, in every late and every field, booty still lay where the enemy had left it, and for many days after our arrival on the Potomac, cavalry had little else to do but sally forth, and pick up small parties of prisoners endeavoring to make their way to the river. All description of this memorable defeat of the enemy under Banks must fall short of the reality. Such sights I never expected to behold in the whole course of my existence. The confusion, rout, noise, destruction, incessant discharge of arms, the utter prostration and consternation of the enemy, were appalling, and although I know nothing of this kind will ever be heard North, and that the Federal leaders will speak lightly of the facts;3 God  forbid that any army of ours should be so broken up and so totally demoralized as was that of the vain-glorious and arrant  Abolitionist, General N. P. Banks. How many millions of dollars they have lost in this retreat of three days will never be known, and perhaps can not be calculated; but this I do know, that we are now wallowing in the luxuries of life, and Jackson has sufficient stores to last an indefinite time, should we successfully transport them out of the Valley. Excuse haste, and believe me yours,