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Chapter 30:

  • June
  • -- Jackson in the Valley -- Shields and Fremont -- battle of cross Keys -- Ashby killed -- battle of Port Republic -- end of the Valley campaign, and rout of the enemy.

Charlottesville, June 20th, 1862.
Dear friend: In my last I informed you that before Jackson left Page Valley to attack Banks's rear in the Shenandoah, Shields had already left, and gone eastwards across the Blue Ridge, towards Fredericksburgh; also, that Fremont was across the Alleghanies, with Milroy and Blenker, too distant to afford Banks any support, so that we were enabled to attack him with impunity. You will remember that Banks, after his route, crossed the Potomac, and that our army remained in possession of the immense booty we had taken. I will now relate the events that followed.

Jackson was now anxiously watching the movements of Shields and Fremont, who from the east and west might cross the mountains, re-enter the valley, and cut off his retreat. We had not lain idle more than a week, when it became known that both those commanders had turned the heads of their respective columns towards Strasburgh, fifty miles to our rear, and were rapidly marching to that point, thinking that, should they reach there in time, we might be compelled to accept battle from their joint forces (thirty thousand) or surrender at discretion. Thus menaced, it was obviously necessary for Jackson to hurry on his movements, and he did so with more than usual expedition. Having destroyed all the baggage that could not be transported, he turned his column towards Strasburgh, and commenced a backward movement in the last days of May. The roads were in fair condition, and marching very rapidly, we drew near the town on the third day. Little rest was allowed, and all pushed forward with remarkable celerity.

As we approached Strasburgh, our advance cavalry were [287] opposed by the enemy on the Pike, and were positively informed that Shields and Fremont were already there. These commanders, however, had not formed a junction, but were in sight of each other — the first-named on the east, and the latter on the west side of the Shenandoah River, which at this point is not very wide. So long as they had not joined their forces Jackson cared but little, feeling confident of soundly thrashing either of them; indeed, he would not have hesitated to attack both had they stopped his march. We had destroyed all the bridges in our route, and as Fremont could not well attack us on the flank, and Shields was doomed to be a spectator for want of bridges to cross, Jackson boldly marched forward, drove in Fremont's Dutch cavalry, took up a position between two mountains, and offered battle to Fremont, or to both, should they choose to join forces for that purpose. Fremont was mortified to find Jackson so strongly posted, and as he could not be flanked, and his troops were unreliable for a desperate attack in front, he deferred all movements for a few hours, hoping that in the mean time Shields could devise means for crossing.

Those few hours' delay were ruinous to both Federal commanders, for during the night Jackson decamped, and in the morning Shields and Fremont looked in vain for him. The weather now proved unfavorable for fast marching, and rain began to pour in torrents, rendering the roads impassable. Still, onward pushed our army down the Pike, as hard as mortals could go; for there was no doubt our successes and escapes had greatly exasperated the enemy, and, numerous as they were, and perfectly fresh, they would leave nothing undone to overtake and punish us, if they could. Dashing along the muddy roads as best we might, Ashby and his cavalry in the rear skirmishing and bridge-burning, we endeavored to reach Mount Jackson, that point being considered a place of safety. It was surmised by some that Shields might push through Page Valley and appear in front, while Fremont followed up the rear; and this he might have done, had he been daring enough to attempt it. Still marching as fast as possible, our wearied force at last reached the vicinity of a small village called Edinburgh, and, crossing the Shenandoah, burned the bridge. We were now not far from Mount Jackson; but the [288] army was so fatigued with its long march over a muddy, rough, and hilly country, that a halt was absolutely necessary. Fremont's pursuit was completely checked by the destruction of the bridge; and, as a further precaution, while the infantry were resting several miles beyond, Ashby's cavalry watched the banks.

The Federals were greatly disappointed to find the bridge gone, but manfully began to rebuild it. This was a work of several days — a respite gratefully improved by our exhausted men; but it becoming known that the enemy had again crossed, and were in pursuit, our main army took up the line of march to. wards Harrisonburgh, while Ashby, as usual, was in the rear with his cavalry. The enemy were far superior to us in horse — they were more numerous, and their animals in excellent condition, so that it required great exertions on the part of Ashby to check their determined onslaughts. Every rise in the road was seized by our men, and held as long as practicable; each patch of timber concealed some of our horsemen; so that although the enemy evinced more ardor and courage than ever witnessed before, our frequent ambuscades cost them dearly. From early morning until evening, all along the route, cavalry skirmishing was incessant, so that Ashby's regiment of one thousand men was completely broken down with fatigue.

As we neared Harrisonburgh, evening was fast approaching, and the column turned towards “Brown's Gap.” The enemy seemed to understand the importance of this movement, and pushed our rear-guard more fiercely than ever. Our cavalry had charged the enemy, and driven their horsemen upon the infantry; but a full brigade came galloping forward, and we retired. The brigade of Ashby now came up, and, with loud shouts, attacked the Yankees and completely routed them, killing and wounding many, capturing several; among the latter their brigadier-general, a fine, soldierly, and handsome Englishman, named Wyndham. This officer loudly cursed his command in unmeasured terms for cowardice, swearing roundly that he would never serve with them again; for although he had been urging them forward the whole day, and personally leading, he could make nothing of them.

Finding that the enemy's infantry were near at hand, Ashby [289] sent information to Ewell, who soon countermarched three regiments, and made dispositions for attack. The enemy deployed their men right and left of the road, and advancing through the woods some distance without opposition, commenced cheering lustily. Several open fields intervened, and their ‘Bucktail Rifles’ (Pennsylvania Reserve Corps) came forward in fine style; but as they approached a strip of woods, on each side the road, our infantry rose up, and delivered a volley full in their faces, and charged upon them. They broke and ran, and while doing so, out rushed Ashby's cavalry, and overtaking them in open ground, cut and thrust without mercy, driving them in confusion upon their reserves. It was now so dark that, afraid of further ambuscades, the enemy halted, and we continued our retreat.

I have now a sad event to relate. While Ashby was leading the First Maryland infantry in a successful charge, an enemy concealed in the bushes, and favored by darkness, took deliberate aim and mortally wounded him. Judge of the universal grief when this was known. Ashby, the chivalric cavalry leader, loved by all,, to close his immortal career by the shot of an unseen enemy Alas! my friend, this was a sad blow to us, and to our cause, for he was the ablest and most dashing officer in the service-gentle and kind, brave to rashness, idolized by all ranks, and feared by all enemies.1 The [290] rest of our march was a melancholy one. We had beaten back the enemy, it is true; but not a thousand such successful combats could compensate for the untimely death of our beloved and gentle Ashby; meek as a child in peace, fierce as a tiger in battle, night and day in the saddle, ever restless and watchful, always in advance when danger threatened. To see him ride to the front in the crisis of battle, and, waving his sword, shout out, “Follow me!” was a sight which none will forget [291] who witnessed it. Gentle, good, kind, Christian, heroic soldier, a host in himself — may he rest his honored head in peace, and posterity honor his name for his countless acts of daring and chivalry!

Having retreated during the night, we halted two miles from the village of Port Republic, and watched a further development of the enemy's plans. Shields's division was on the east, and Fremont's on the west side of the Shenandoah River, nearly parallel, and it seemed the latter was desirous of attacking Jackson while Shields should cross the bridge at Port Republic and get in the rear: the commanders were in sight of each other, and not more than two miles apart. But if they imagined that Jackson would be so silly as to leave the bridge unguarded on his right flank and rear, they were egregiously mistaken; our commander having made it his first object to secure and cover the bridge with artillery, but so concealed that only a few infantry were visible to the enemy. Next morning (June seventh) Fremont slowly advanced, and cavalry skirmishing was incessant all day, but with little effect on either side. The Federal commander wished to draw out Jackson from the bridge, and a fine position he had taken; but that crafty leader laughed at him and remained where he was, so that if the enemy were determined to fight, an advance was the only course left open to them.

The advantage gained by fast marching is here apparent, for had we been less active, Shields would have advanced up the east bank of the river, and, having secured the bridge at Port Republic, would have crossed over, and got in front. It was fortunate, therefore, that Jackson had been able to out-race them, and arrive first. On the evening of the seventh, after cavalry had ceased skirmishing for the day, I ascended a hill, and had a fine view of Fremont's and Shields's commands. They were then abreast of each other, on different sides of the river, but made no disposition for uniting, nor had any bridges been begun for that purpose, while we hugged the west bank in close proximity to the bridge, and waited for Fremont, whose advance had already begun. During the night of the seventh, scouts came in and informed us that Fremont had marched two miles towards us, and was drawn up in line of battle at a place [292] called Cross Keys. It was not a village; there were no more than half a dozen houses scattered around, and all that gave it a name was a rude country church and cemetery.

On the morning of the eighth, we were already prepared for them, but nothing more than heavy artillery fire took place, and many imagined that nothing of importance would transpire. In the afternoon, however, infantry skirmishing brought on a fierce engagement, and for a time the fight was hot and heavy. We had not more than seven thousand engaged, and they about ten thousand; and, although we rapidly gained ground, they maneuvered so well that we accomplished little. Artillery fire was fierce on both sides, and several houses were quickly destroyed by our joint efforts, for, being finely placed, each was afraid of the other occupying them. During the engagement in a little valley, it was discovered that Shields's cavalry advance was endeavoring to surprise and capture the bridge, and had already driven away our infantry; but when the head of their column appeared intent on crossing, several guns opened on them with grape and canister, killing and maiming dozens at every discharge. Finding it impossible to force a passage, Shields withdrew two miles down the river, and left Fremont to fight his own battle.

As night approached, events were progressing favorably for us; we had driven the enemy from the field, and had pursued them more than a mile, capturing many prisoners, and small arms; but as another and a fiercer battle was in store, Jackson halted, hurriedly buried his dead, and secured his prisoners, and finding that Fremont had fallen back to Harrisonburgh, a distance of three miles, determined to attack Shields on the other side of the river. His entire force having crossed about midnight, and his baggage-train being safe on its way towards Charlottesville, Jackson destroyed the bridge, and prepared his men for the battle of Port Republic, which was to take place early in the morning, drawing up his lines as close as possible to the enemy. As the sun rose I observed that Shields's force was admirably posted between two hills, his wings being much higher than the centre, with artillery on the hill-sides to strengthen them. They occupied, in fact, the corner of a valley; and it seemed impossible to flank them, mountains being on their left, and the river on the right. Their guns [293] also were all admirably disposed, and had full command of every approach, so that when heavy skirmishing opened at eight A. M., it seemed evident to many that although we were of equal force, except in artillery, it would prove a tough and sanguinary experiment before the enemy could be dislodge from their stronghold; add to this, they held the road for retreat, and could destroy every man of us, should we endeavor to follow them between the mountains.

Nothing daunted, and assured that Fremont was unwilling, were he able, to cross and join commands, Jackson opened the fight with great vigor, being determined to close his brilliant Valley campaign with a signal victory over his old enemy. Afraid to move forward from the mountains, Tyler (for Shields was absent) seemed content to stay where he was, and would not meet us in open ground, so that we suffered somewhat in approaching him. Several attempts were made to turn his flanks, and capture the guns, without success, yet in every instance where they advanced, our troops immediately rushed to the attack with loud yells, and drove the enemy back with slaughter. Again and again, we used every possible stratagem to draw them, and when all failed, we pushed up in front, determined to bring the affair to a finish.

While pushing them severely in front and attracting attention by the vigor of our attack, a small force was sent along the mountain-side on their flank, which suddenly charging down their rear, filled the wing with consternation; at the same time a body of chosen troops, bent on death or glory, rushed up hill on the opposite wing, and after a sharp and sanguinary encounter, seized the guns. The effect of these daring and successful movements was electrical. Finding both wings broken and showers of small shot assailing the centre, the enemy rallied and endeavored to dispossess us, but in a struggle of infantry against infantry the result ceased to be doubtful. As soon as the enemy appeared in line, to renew the combat on the wings, our men there raised a terrific yell, and advancing at the “double-quick,” dodged the enemy's volley, and rushing into them with the bayonet, drove them in confusion on the centre, which Jackson was now assailing with every disposable [294] man, shot and shell flying over us, and dealing destruction on the enemy.

Tyler perceived that all was over, that his troops were thoroughly beaten, and could not be rallied, and now fought desperately to keep open the road for retreat. The destruction was immense, for crowded as they were, every shot told with marked effect, and such was the panic that seized them, hundreds scattered over the hills, while in the. distance our cavalry might be seen in every direction charging on the hill-sides far above the battle-field. The battle had raged from eight A. M. until past noon, and the field presented a harrowing sight as we pushed forward in pursuit. Five or six pieces of artillery, thousands of small arms, dozens of wagons filled with stores, many ambulances, twelve wagon-loads of ammunition, hundreds of prisoners, several standards, tents, camp equipage, horses, pistols, sabres-all were scattered about as we rushed forward in the chase, and such was the ardor of our men, that their vengeance seemed insatiable, while an enemy remained in sight.

But the most singular incident of the day was Fremont's behavior. Hearing that we had crossed to the east side of the river, and were thrashing Shields's command, he formed his division and marched from Harrisonburgh towards the scene, and finding the bridge gone, began shelling across in all directions; this he continued doing for several hours, so that many who were burying the enemy's dead were killed or maimed. White flags were displayed, but this heroic gentleman would not respect our labors, but continued firing without intermission long after the fight had closed! How very valiant this was!2

When night closed in we found that our killed and wounded amounted to three hundred, and that of the enemy to one thousand, not counting the fight of Cross Keys, where our loss was three hundred, and that of Fremont five hundred.

Thus ended Jackson's memorable campaign in the Valley, a [295] chapter in history which is without parallel, but though the majority think that these movements were all his own, it may not be so. He was constantly in receipt of orders from Lee, and he faithfully obeyed them. No man in the army is half so obedient as old “Stonewall,” or so determined to be obeyed; the result is, that no army has shown greater endurance, marched farther, fought more frequently, suffered less, or done half the work that has fallen to our lot. Our men seem to know intuitively the designs of their commanders, and they second them without a murmur. Where we are marching to now, I cannot form the least idea, but as we move eastward, it is whispered that we go to Charlottesville to recruit, and after being heavily reenforced, may reenter the Valley again, and perhaps push for Maryland. All at present is profound mystery, but I am sincerely rejoiced at the prospect of some little rest.

A messenger starts to-night across country for Richmond, and I hurriedly close to send by him.

Yours, Ashton.

1 A friend of mine published the following regarding the last day of Ashby's life:

It was a busy one. Scarcely had he ordered his baggage train to proceed before the enemy opened fire upon his camp. With but two companies of his old cavalry he prepared to meet them; seeing this, they immediately withdrew. The command was then moved slowly through Harrisonburgh, and drawn up three hundred yards from the opposite end. Soon a regiment of blue coats' came charging it through town, around the bend, in full sight of Ashby's men, who stood as if fixed to the ground. When within a short distance the enemy's horse began to slacken their speed, only giving us time to render the salute due them. Soon their ranks were broken, and in confusion they fled through the streets.

Never before had I heard our noble general utter such a shout. It was not one caused by victory over a brave foe after a hard contested fight, but only seemed designed to shame an ignominious band for running before they were hurt. We had begun to entertain a high opinion of this body of cavalry. In one instance it flanked and charged upon a battery, which was left without a support — a most daring feat for them. (Here General Ashby stood by the guns, fired every load from his three pistols, and brought every thing away safely.) Soon we were moving long the road to Port Republic, the enemy pressing closely. Ashby's eagle eye was upon them, as watching for an excuse to give them battle. An excuse, and even the necessity for a fight, soon became evident.

The road was very bad, the train moved slowly, and the main body of the enemy's cavalry was only a mile from its rear. They gave us no time to prepare to meet them. Ashby had but begun to form his men, before three regiments, with colors flying and bands playing, emerged from a wood three quarters of a mile distant. Bearing to bur right, they charged, presenting a beautiful sight. Ashby could contain himself no longer., Gently drawing his sabre, and waving it around his head, his clear-sounding voice rang out his only command: “Follow me.” The dash was simultaneous. Fences were cleared which at any other time would have been thought impossible. The enemy came to a halt. It was but for a moment. As they heard the strange whizz of the sabre around their heads, they broke and ran. The work of slaughter commenced. At every step Ashby, followed closely by his men, cut them down, or sent them to the rear. For two miles and a half the chase continued, and became more bloody at every step. Never before did our General or his men use their sabres so unsparingly. None but those who have witnessed a similar scene can imagine the spectacle. Enraged by deeds too horrible to mention, led by a general whose presence exerted a mystic influence over every heart, the bravery of the men knew no limit, and seldom was a summons to surrender heard. The scattered fragments of the three regiments hid themselves behind their column of infantry three miles beyond the point of attack; and the pursuit ended not until this infantry opened fire. Here Ashby drew up his men, and remained beneath their fire, and waited for reenforcements from Jackson. We took forty-four prisoners-among them the colonel commanding the brigade of cavalry. The infantry having arrived, Generals Ashby, Ewell, and Stewart (of Maryland) led them to the fight. Here Ashby's gallantry could not have been excelled. Having led the First Maryland regiment in a charge, which sent the enemy flying from that quarter, he sought the Fifty-eighth Virginia, and still between the two fires he ordered the charge. His horse fell dead; he arose, beckoned to the men, and whilst in the very act, a ball entered low in his left side, came out near the right breast, and shattered his right wrist. Falling mortally wounded, not even a groan or a sigh was uttered by the dying hero. He was brave whilst living, braver still in death. The men were not discouraged, but pressed on, and soon the victory was ours. Night closed the fighting. The noble Ashby fell between six and seven in the evening. The news went like a flash through our lines. Every heart was wounded. The aged, the young, and hard-hearted wept. Nature made deeper the gloom; and soon the darkness of the night made still darker the regions of the mind. He now sleeps in the University Burying-Ground, near Charlottesville.

2 General Patterson, in a recent speech at Philadelphia, gave Fremont's character in brief. He declared that he was “a statesman without a speech, a soldier without a battle, and a millionaire with ‘nary red.’ ” He could only abbreviate the description by calling him an unmitigated humbug. His staff usually comprised nearly sixty officers.

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