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Notes on the battle of McDowell.


by Robert C. Schenck, Major-General U. S. V.
On the 7th of May I left Franklin with about 2000 men to join and support General Milroy, menaced with attack by Stonewall Jackson, near McDowell, about forty miles distant. During this forced march my troops made the remarkable time of 34 miles in 23 hours. When I arrived, on the morning of the 8th, I found Milroy, with his small force in the village at the foot of the mountain, defending himself against the enemy occupying the heights above, shut in, in fact, in a sort of amphitheater. The only easy escape from the position was down the narrow valley and small stream back by the road by which I had arrived. I, of course, assumed the command by right of seniority. The only question was how best to extricate ourselves from this disadvantageous position in the presence of a force of the enemy largely superior in numbers. My whole force, after my arrival at McDowell and junction with Milroy, was but about 4000 men.

General Milroy, always moved by undaunted and impetuous, though rather uncalculating, bravery, would have remained to challenge and await attack. But, after conference, it was agreed that the better plan would be to send, that evening, whatever portion of our united force was available for the attack up the side of the mountain to assault the enemy and deliver a blow, if we could, and then retire from his front before he had recovered from the surprise of such a movement. I gave the order accordingly. No officer could have carried it out more effectively than did General Milroy.

The movement was executed successfully. The attacking force was composed of a good part of Milroy's men and of those of my immediate command who were least fatigued. The whole number engaged was 2600; of these we had just ten per cent. killed and wounded. We remained at McDowell, at the foot of the mountain, the point from which our troops moved to the attack through that night, buried our dead, sent off the wounded and all stores, and withdrew in good order toward Franklin in the early morning. Our march back to Franklin, which occupied three days, was orderly and was not seriously molested by Ashby's cavalry or any force of the rebels in pursuit.

At Franklin we kept Jackson with his whole force at bay with our still much inferior numbers, until General Fremont arrived there on the 13th of May. With the troops I had left behind at Franklin, when I marched to the relief of Milroy, I had at no time before Fremont arrived to take command more than 6500 men. On the 8th of May, Fremont was at Petersburg on his march from Lost Creek to Franklin, and certainly nowhere within less than 50 or 60 miles of McDowell. That was poor “supporting distance.”

Ii.--extracts from the report of General R. H. Milroy.

“May 7th I was first advised by my scouts and spies that a junction had been effected between the armies of Generals [Stonewall] Jackson and [Edward] Johnson, and that they were advancing to attack me at McDowell. Having the day previous sent out a large portion of the 3d West Virginia and 32d and 75th Ohio Regiments to Shaw's Ridge and upon Shenandoah Mountain for the purpose of protecting my foraging and reconnoitering parties, I immediately ordered my whole command to concentrate at McDowell, and, expecting reenforcements, prepared for defense there. . . . Upon the next morning (the 8th instant) the enemy was seen upon the Bull Pasture Mountain, about one and three-fourths miles distant from McDowell, on my right and front. I commenced shelling them and sent out parties of skirmishers to endeavor to ascertain their numbers. At about 10 A. M. your brigade arrived. Desultory firing of a section of Hyman's battery and occasional skirmishing engaged the attention of the enemy during the morning. . . . In the afternoon, at about 3 o'clock, being informed by Captain George R. Latham, of the 2d West Virginia Volunteer Infantry, who, with his company, was engaged in skirmishing, that the rebels were endeavoring to plant a battery upon the mountain, which would command our whole encampment, with your permission I made a reconnoissance for the purpose of obtaining accurate information of their strength and position. . . . Under my order the 25th Ohio and 75th Ohio Regiments (the former under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel W. P. Richardson, and the latter under the command of Colonel N. C. McLean and Major Robert Reily) advanced in the most gallant manner up the face of the hill and attacked the enemy in their front. Numbering less than one thousand men, unprotected by any natural or artificial shelter, they advanced up a precipitous mountain-side upon an adversary protected by intrenchments and the natural formation of the mountain, and unsupported drove them (being at least twice their numerical strength) over the crest of the mountain, and for one and a half hours maintained unaided, while exposed to a deadly fire, the position from which they had so bravely driven the foe.”

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