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Chapter 17:

  • Jackson's doings in the Shenandoah Valley
  • -- character of this General -- Ashby's cavalry force -- heavy marching -- bivouac in the snow -- ruse of Jackson and capture of the enemy's stores -- battle of Kearnstown, march twenty-third -- scenes and incidents during the fight -- General Garnett accused as the cause of our defeat.

Dear Major: When our regiment received marching orders at Manassas in December, and were ordered up the Valley with old Jackson, you were among the first to congratulate me upon “active service,” and all that kind of thing, but believe me I would willingly have gone back to winter quarters again after a week's trial, for Jackson is the greatest marcher in the world. When we moved up here, our first orders were for a march to Charlestown; next day we moved back to Winchester, in a few days again back to Charlestown, and thence from one place to another, until at last I began to imagine we were commanded by some peripatetic philosophical madman, whose forte was pedestrianism. With little or no baggage, we are a roving, hungry, hardy lot of fellows, .and are not patronized at all by parsons or doctors; the latter have a perfect sinecure amongst us.

Stonewall” may be a very fine old gentleman, and an honest, good-tempered, industrious man, but I should admire him much more in a state of rest than continually seeing him moving in the front. And such a dry old stick, too! As for uniform, he has none-his wardrobe isn't worth a dollar, and his horse is quite in keeping, being a poor lean animal of little spirit or activity. And don't he keep his aides moving about! Thirty miles' ride at night through the mud is nothing of a job; and if they don't come up to time, I'd as soon face the devil, for Jackson takes no excuses when duty is on hand. He is about thirty-five years old, of medium height, strongly built, solemn and thoughtful, speaks but little, and always in a calm, [142] decided tone; and from what he says there is no appeal, for he seems to know every hole and corner of this Valley as if he made it, or, at least, as if it had been designed for his own use. He knows all the distances, all the roads, even to cow-paths through the woods, and goat-tracks along the hills. He sits his horse very awkwardly, although, generally speaking, all Virginians are fine horsemen,1 and has a fashion of holding his head very high, and chin up, as if searching for something skywards; yet although you can never see his eyes for the cap-peak drawn down over them, nothing escapes his observation.

His movements are sudden and unaccountable; his staff don't pretend to keep up with him, and, consequently, he is frequently seen alone, poking about in all sorts of holes and corners, at all times of night and day. I have frequently seen him approach in the dead of night and enter into conversation with sentinels, and ride off through the darkness without saying, “ God bless you,” or any thing civil to the officers. The consequence is, that the officers are scared, and the men love him. He was a student at West-Point, but never remarkable for any brilliancy. What service he has seen was in Mexico, where he served as lieutenant of artillery. At one of the battles there his captain was about to withdraw the guns, because of the loss suffered by the battery, and also because the range was too great. This did not suit our hero; he advanced his piece several hundred yards, and “shortened the distance,” dismounted his opponent's guns, and remained master of the position. [143]

After the Mexican war he left the army, and was professor of mathematics and tactics in the University of Virginia, but was generally looked upon by the students as an old fogy of little talent, and over-gifted with piety. It is my opinion, Major, that Jackson will assuredly make his mark in this war, for his untiring industry and eternal watchfulness must tell upon a numerous enemy unacquainted with the country, and incommoded by large baggage-trains. Jackson evidently intends to supply himself at Federal expense, and as he is a true fire-eater and an invincible believer in our manifest destiny, “ poor Banks will find him a disagreeable opponent to confront in the mountain passes or at the many fords. The Virginians have an idea that he is veritably the coming man,” and from the numbers joining him, it looks as if he meant mischief. But to form an accurate idea of the doings of this man, it is necessary to state in proper order the various affairs in which he has been engaged since last I saw you.

Before Jackson was sent to the Valley in the beginning of December, 1861, General Ashby, with his own regiment and other cavalry detachments, making a total of some twelve hundred horse, assisted by a few companies of foot, (militia,) was watching the river-front from Harper's Ferry to Romney, and very little could transpire of which he was not fully informed. At this time the enemy were strongly posted at Romney and Bath southwards, and Banks, with his whole army being north of the Potomac, it was evident that some great movement was in contemplation, which prudence demanded should be watched by a strong force. Accordingly Jackson was sent to Winchester with his old brigade, three thousand strong, and one battery of four pieces. He had not been in chief command many days ere his restless spirit began to appear, and he seemed bent on mischief — if he could not beat the enemy, he was determined to annoy them.

As Washington was blockaded on the Lower Potomac by our batteries at Cockpit Point and other places, they still received large supplies by the Baltimore and Ohio Canal, which runs parallel with the Potomac from Washington, and branches off on the Upper Potomac to Wheeling. If the ‘dams’ could be destroyed up the river, Jackson conceived that it would sorely perplex the enemy to supply their large army around [144] Washington. Accordingly the General marched his force to the Potomac, and amid the cold and snows of this region had his men waist-deep in the river, endeavoring to tear down “Dam no. 5.” Although much labor was expended night and day for several days, we did not accomplish our object, but lost somewhat from the continual fire of the enemy. We desisted from the undertaking for a week, and as the enemy had retired from the river-bank, we returned again, and after many efforts effectually destroyed the “dam,” so that the canal was unnavigable, and remained so a long time. The amount of fatigue our men endured over this work, laboring as they constantly did in the water above waist-deep, and in the intense cold, can never be sufficiently appreciated. I feel certain that hundreds of them will be ruined for life by rheumatism and the like.

When this was accomplished, Jackson was desirous of surprising the Federal force stationed at Bath, and, though inferior to them in number and equipment, was resolved to capture or crush them. Without much time for preparation, and allowing none to know whither he was bound, Jackson gathered his little force of twenty-two hundred men, and amid the snow, sleet, rain, and ice of the first days of January, 1862, began his march. No one can tell the horrors of this march We had to travel over fifty miles of the roughest country in the world, and were obliged to take unfrequented roads to keep the movement secret. Over hills our few wagons toiled along; ice was on the ground, and neither man nor beast could maintain a footing. Sometimes, indeed, horsemen, infantry, wagons and all, would slip over an embankment. Men were bootless, hatless, and ragged; horses could scarcely stir; no tents were carried, and all had to sleep out upon the snow as best they could; for being within a few miles of the enemy's posts, we were not allowed to kindle fires.

It is no exaggeration to say that I have frequently fallen asleep, and, on awakening, found a foot of snow all over me We soon discovered that the snow kept us warm, and when the “halt” sounded, it became customary with our men to make a sort of arbor with sticks, which was covered and packed close with snow on three sides; creeping underneath this and leaving their heads only uncovered, they were comfortable for the night! This was a decided novelty; but, believe me, Jackson [145] was cursed by every one for this mad adventure, and looked upon as a maniac for dragging his command about through a bleak, cold region without supplies, and losing men and horses every mile-man and beast tumbling down on the ice, and dislocating limbs at every rod. Nor did we accomplish the object for which we started. Ashby's cavalry arrived at the appointed time, and took up a position on the outskirts of Bath to take the enemy in the rear, but it was impossible for infantry and artillery to get up in time; so taking advantage of our slow travelling, the enemy retreated to the Potomac, (not more than one and a half mile distant,) and got safe across before we arrived. The cavalry, it is true, did some independent fighting, and skirmished with the enemy in gallant style; but though killing, wounding, and capturing a few, not a thousand such adventures would compensate for the loss sustained by this hurried and painful march. This was about the fourth of January.

Having rested two or three days in Bath, and lived upon the Federal stores found there, Jackson made daily demonstrations at the river, picket firing and displaying his force, collecting boats, chopping down timber, and the like, till the enemy imagined that his command was the advance of a large force about to cross into Maryland. Shields was then in command of the Upper Potomac, but had the largest part of his force in Romney, a town south of the Potomac, across the Alleghany, in Western Virginia. He felt certain that we were bent on crossing, and, though forty miles above, transferred his whole command to the north bank to dispute our supposed passage. As soon as Jackson was informed of this, he marched up the south bank to Romney, surprised and captured many of the enemy, and destroyed what he could not carry away of Shields's immense stores Did you ever hear of such a manoeuvre in your life? It was a lucky hit for,us, and we supplied ourselves with wagon loads of goods of every description, including wines, brandies, cigars, and a thousand other things. We forgot much of our annoyance with Jackson in this trip, and all began to think “he had method in his madness,” and was “a pretty good sort of old gentleman enough, but a little too much inclined to “double quick” movements.” As might have been expected, Shields was particularly annoyed to find himself imposed upon by the [146] small force under Jackson, and, keenly feeling the loss of his stores and small garrison at Romney, was moving heaven and earth to catch “Stonewall” in some trap. Jackson was too much of a fox for him, however, and when it became apparent that Banks and Shields were preparing to send heavy forces across into Virginia, Stonewall collected his brave little corps from different points of the river, and had every thing in readiness for retiring down the Valley, whenever circumstances should demand it.

You may be sure that, under such an active marauder as our leader, our wagon train was well supplied with all things needful, thanks to the superabundance of the enemy; and that when we finally bade farewell to the river towns on our return trip, our baggage was much more considerable than when we had arrived there. In truth, most of our infantry and cavalry had amply supplied themselves with all things needful; for among Shields's supplies at Romney, we captured hundreds of rifles, pistols, swords, much cavalry and wagon harness, many horses, and, together with what we picked up here and there in our many inroads within the enemy's lines, made up a respectable amount of booty.

Ashton. McGackeysville, March 26th, 1862.
P. S.-Before this arrives, you will have learned that Jackson has had a fight with Banks and Shields, at a place called Kearnstown, in which affair I received a shot in my arm. I am doing well, thanks to a strong constitution and the unceasing kindness of the Virginian ladies, who act towards us like mothers or sisters. When last I put pen to paper, I did not seriously imagine that old “Stonewall” intended moving in such fearful weather; but when it was known the General's servant had packed up, I knew we were all bound for a tramp somewhere. “Whenever I misses massa a little while in de day, I allers knows he's prayina a spell; whenever he's out all night, I knows we's goina to move next day; but when he stays out and comes back to have a long spell of prayina, I knows dare's goina to be a fought somewhat, mighty quick, and dis chile packs up de walibles and gets out ob de way like a sensible colored pusson ” This colored thermometer was ‘packin‘ [147] up de walibles’-pots and pans; so there was nothing to be done but “grin and bear it.”

Sure enough we had a long trip: our leader marched us nearly blind; but as he was always in front himself, cheering on the men, all bore it patiently. As we drew near a place called Kearnstown, it was ascertained that Banks and his second in command, Shields, were in strong force in and around Winchester, and great circumspection was necessary to entice a part of their commands after us, so as to whip them in detail. Shields came after us, all primed and cocked for a fight, and we “tolled ” him to Kearnstown, where the first shots were exchanged. We had not many troops, (not more than twenty-two hundred,) while our opponents must have had ten thousand. For some time it proved to be an artillery fight, in which our pieces stood up nobly to their work, against heavy odds, and suffered considerable loss. Shields was unable to discover our line of battle or our real force, but had to feel his way; and as his regiments approached the woods in which we lay, our boys poured in rapid volleys, and could scarcely be restrained from abandoning their covert to charge. Observing their increase of force at different points, we frequently changed ground, and presented a different line of fire, so that they seemed puzzled to make out our intentions or movements.

About three in the afternoon, on the twenty-third of March, it became evident that Shields was advancing upon us with all his force; and we obtained information from a prisoner that Banks, considering the Valley cleared of Jackson, had gone to Washington, leaving Shields in command. Finding that the enemy was rapidly approaching, Jackson disposed his little force of twenty-two hundred as best he could, on the right and left of the road, Brigadier Garnett commanding the left, Jackson the centre, and Ashby, with his cavalry, the right. Heavy skirmishing was maintained on both sides until about five P. M., when a full brigade of the enemy were observed by Ashby endeavoring to get in on our right and rear, while the fire continually increased in volume in the centre and left. Well knowing that our little force would be totally surrounded if this flank movement should be permitted, Ashby determined to put a bold face upon matters, and attack them. Observing [148] their advance, covered by a cloud of skirmishers, approaching through open grassy fields, he gathered around him several companies, and dashing out from the woods, killed or captured nearly every one of the sharp-shooters; then riding up to the Federal column, his men discharged their pieces, and galloped back to the woods in a shower of shot from the enemy, which being aimed too high, did but kill three of our men, and wound half a dozen more. Determined to clear their front, the Federal cavalry now rode forward at a swinging gallop, but had not proceeded far, when Ashby again advanced, sabre in hand, and his men were soon among the enemy, cutting and shooting right and left, and driving them, in great confusion, across the open ground. So obvious was their rout that the infantry of the enemy opened to let their discomfited horsemen through to the rear.

While Ashby's gallant little band was thus checking the enemy on the right, and effectually retarding the Federal flank movement, the fight was raging with great fury on the left and centre. Garnett and Jackson found themselves overpowered by numbers, but determined to keep up the fight at all hazards until darkness should come on, through which they might securely retreat down the Valley. Garnett begged for ammunition, but the wagons had long been started on the march, for fear of capture, and he had to rely on the bayonet. This was called into requisition several times, but could not resist the many heavy regiments continually sent to the front. Observing a long stone fence running across a very large open field, which the enemy were endeavoring to reach, Garnett determined to seize it as a natural breastwork and hold the enemy in check. Shields ordered his men to move forward at the “ double quick” and seize the position, but had not fairly started on the run before the Twenty-fourth Virginia (Irish) ran rapidly forward, and arrived at the fence first, so that when the enemy approached they were received with a deadly volley at ten paces, which killed two thirds of them: the rest retreated to their former position in the woods, from whence they maintained an ineffectual fire until dark.

Despite the heroism of our men, we had suffered so severely, that some time after seven P. M., Jackson withdrew from the [149] field, with a loss of some five hundred killed and wounded, nearly three hundred prisoners, and two pieces of artillery. Jackson evidently did not anticipate meeting with such a heavy force of the enemy; for they were reported as retreating from Winchester; but this proved untrue, for they were, as the battle proved, posted in considerable number, and during the fight had the better position of the two, much cavalry, and powerful artillery. Garnett has been censured, and some say by Jackson, and was threatened with a court-martial for not maintaining his ground on the left; but any commander would have acted similarly under the circumstances, for he was entirely out of ammunition, and completely overpowered by artillery; so that he had no alternative but to fall back or be annihilated. His artillery had been captured by numerous cavalry; yet he inflicted more loss upon the enemy than he himself suffered, and withdrew his small force from the field, as coolly as if on parade.2

We withdrew rapidly southward, but the enemy did not pursue until next morning, by which time we had got far on our journey. Having rested at Strasburgh, we rapidly pushed across the mountain towards Harrisonburgh; Ashby's cavalry and the enemy's being continually engaged to our rear in fierce skirmishing, in which the latter suffered considerably. After many hardships and fast travelling, we reached this place on the twenty-sixth, the enemy's advance having halted at Harrisonburgh. Jackson is much censured for this fight, and although he acted according to orders, is cursed by every one. We lost no baggage, nor any persons of prominence, but the enemy had [150] several officers killed. Shields himself was desperately wounded in the arm by a shell. There seems to be the fulfilment of his own apostrophe to heaven, in this man Shields. He was a very successful and dashing general of volunteers in Mexico, commanded the New-York Volunteers there, and at one time led on the Palmetto (South-Carolina) Regiment in a storming party, in which he was successful. Several years subsequently, at a banquet in Charleston, (South-Carolina,) he had greatly eulogized the South-Carolinians for their gallantry and heroism, and in token of admiration for Southern valor, wished that his right arm might be palsied or shattered, rather than draw a sabre against the sons of the sunny South.


1 General Jackson was never known to put his horse out of a trot, except when desirous of escaping the cheering of his men, on which occasions he would raise his cap, discovering a high, bald forehead, and force his old “sorrel” into a gallop. This old “sorrel” war-horse is well known throughout the army; with head down, it seldom attempts more than a trot, but stands fire well, and that may be the reason why the General prefers and always rides him. Many gentlemen, imagining that the hero would appear to better advantage on a blood animal, have presented several to him, but they are seldom used. When our army entered Maryland, in September, 1862, in order to get in the rear of General Miles at Harper's Ferry, and secure the fourteen thousand men under his command, Jackson's corps was stationed east of Frederick, and an influential citizen, in token of admiration, gave the Commander a very valuable horse, that he might appear to advantage. Jackson mounted in the public street, and was immediately thrown into the mud! The old “sorrel” was again brought forth, and the General ambled off, very good humoredly, never essaying to mount “fine” horses again.

2 Brigadier-General Richard Garnett, who commanded the left, has been accused as the cause of our defeat on this occasion. Jackson commanded him to hold his position at any sacrifice, but being entirely out of ammunition, he did not do so. It was ascertained during the engagement that Shields had already prepared to evacuate Winchester, and that all his baggage had passed through that same morning-he was only fighting, in truth, to secure a safe retreat. Garnett, of course, was unaware of this, or he would have obeyed, and Winchester been ours; for when our forces retired, the enemy were amazed, and, instead of retreating themselves, followed us up very closely and spiritedly. General. Garnett is a Virginian; entered the old service as Second Lieutenant of infantry, July first, 184; was captain Sixth Infantry, May ninth, 1855; and resigned, to enter the Confederate service. He is reputed a very able officer, and has seen much service in Western Virginia, under Lee, and subsequently in every fight in the Valley under Jackson.

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