The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley
provided by A Heritage Enterprise-Your History Connection


Battle of Mc Dowell

P>2. McDOWELL (8 May 1862)

County: Highland, VA

General Location: Rte. 250 east of McDowell, between Bull Pasture River and Sitlington's Hill.

Campaign: Jackson's Valley Campaign

Principal Commanders: [c] Maj. Gen. T. J. Jackson , Brig. Gen. Edward Johnson;

[u] Brig. Gen. R. C. Schenck, Brig. Gen. R. Milroy.

Forces Engaged: [c] Johnson's brigade (six regts.) and Taliaferro's (3 regts.), about 6,000
engaged. [u] Two brigades (Milroy and Schenck), about 6,500. Milroy attacked Sitlington's Hill with
2,250.

Casualties:[c] about 500 k/w/m (12GA suffered about 175 k/w/m); [u] about 260 k/w/m.

Significance: Some historians consider the battle of McDowell the beginning of ``Stonewall''
Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign, while others prefer to include First Kernstown, Stonewall's only
defeat. The battle of McDowell is studied today by military historians for several reasons. At the
tactical level, it can be argued that the US forces achieved a draw. Milroy's ``spoiling attack''
surprised Jackson, seized the initiative, and inflicted heavier casualties, but did not drive the
Confederates from their position. Historians derive lessons about use of terrain, small unit tactics
and leadership, and overexuberance under fire (12th Georgia). At the strategic level, the battle of
McDowell and the resultant withdrawal of the US army was an important victory for the South. The
battle demonstrated Jackson's strategy of concentrating his forces against a numerically inferior
foe, while denying his enemies the chance to concentrate against him. Jackson rode the momentum
of his strategic win at McDowell to victory at Front Royal (23 May) and First Winchester (25 May).

Description of the Battle

Phase One. CS Advance on Parkersburg Turnpike (7 May): Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson's
columns departed West View and Staunton on the morning of 7 May, marching west along the
Parkersburg turnpike. Elements of Brig. Gen. Edward Johnson's brigade composed the vanguard. At
mid-afternoon, Union pickets were encountered at Rodgers' tollgate, where the pike crosses
Ramsey's Draft. The Union force, which consisted of portions of three regiments (3WV, 32OH, 75OH)
under overall command of Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy, withdrew hastily, abandoning their baggage at the
tollgate and retreating to the crest of Shenandoah Mountain.

At Rodgers', Johnson and Jackson conferred. The Confederate force split into two columns to
envelope the US holding position on Shenandoah Mountain. Milroy ordered his force to withdraw and
concentrate at McDowell, where he hoped to receive reinforcements. Milroy also positioned a section
of artillery on Shaw's Ridge to impede Johnson's descent from the crest of Shenandoah Mountain.
These guns were soon withdrawn with their supports to McDowell. By dusk, Johnson's advance
regiments reached Shaw's Fork where they encamped. Because of the narrow roads and few camp
sites, Jackson's army was stretched 8-10 miles back along the pike with its rear guard at Dry
Branch Gap. Jackson established his headquarters at Rodgers' tollgate. During the night, Milroy
withdrew behind the Bullpasture River to McDowell, establishing headquarters in the Hull House.

Phase Two. CS Advance to Sitlington's Hill (8 May): Starting at dawn of 8 May, the
Confederate advance crossed Shaw's Ridge, descended to the Cowpasture River at Wilson's House,
and ascended Bullpasture Mountain. The advance was unopposed. Reaching the crest of the ridge,
Jackson and Jedediah Hotchkiss conducted a reconnaissance of the Union position at McDowell from a
rocky spur right of the road. Johnson continued with the advance to the base of Sitlington's Hill.
Expecting a roadblock ahead, he diverged from the road into a steep narrow ravine that leads to the
top of the hill. After driving away Union skirmishers, Johnson deployed his infantry along the long,
sinuous crest of the hill. Jackson asked his staff to find a way to place artillery on the hill and to
search for a way to flank the Union position to the north.

Phase Three. Deployment of US Forces: About 1000 hours, Brig. Gen. Robert Schenck arrived
after a forced march from Franklin. Being senior to Milroy, Schenck assumed overall command of the
Union force at McDowell with headquarters at the Hull House. He deployed his artillery, consisting of
18 guns on Cemetery Hill and near the McDowell Presbyterian Church to defend the bridge over the
Bullpasture River. He deployed his infantry in line from McDowell south along the river for about 800
yards. He placed one regiment (2WV) on Hull's Hill, west of the river and overlooking the pike. Three
companies of cavalry covered the left flank on the road to the north of the village.

Phase Four. US Attack on Sitlington's Hill: Schenck and Milroy sent out skirmishers to contest
the base of Sitlington's Hill along the river. As CS forces on the crest of the hill increased in
numbers, Schenck and Milroy conferred. Union scouts reported that the Confederates were
attempting to bring artillery to the crest of the hill which would make the US position on the
bottomland at McDowell untenable. In absence of an aggressive CS advance, Schenck and Milroy
attempted a spoiling attack. Milroy advanced his brigade (25OH, 32OH, 75OH, 3WV) and the 82nd
Ohio of Schenck's brigade, about 2,300 men. About 1500 hours Milroy personally led the attacking
force, which crossed the bridge and proceeded up the ravines that cut the western slope of the hill.

In the meantime, Jackson had been content to hold the crest of the hill while searching for a route
for a flanking movement to the north. He declined to send artillery up the hill because of the
difficulty of withdrawing the pieces in the face of an attack. Union artillerymen on Cemetery Hill
elevated their pieces by digging deep trenches in the ground for the gun trails and began firing at the
Confederates in support of the advancing infantry. Schenck also had a six-pounder hauled by hand to
the crest of Hull's Hill to fire on the CS right flank above the turnpike (some accounts say a section
of guns, another says a whole battery). The Union line advanced resolutely up the steep slopes and
closed on the Confederate position. The conflict became ``fierce and sanguinary.''

The 3rd West Virginia advanced along the turnpike in an attempt to turn the CS right. Jackson
reinforced his right on the hill with two regiments and covered the turnpike with the 21st Virginia.
The 12th Georgia at the center and slightly in advance of the main CS line on the hill crest bore the
brunt of the Union attack and suffered heavy casualties. The fighting continued for four hours as
the Union attackers attempted to pierce the center of the CS line and then to envelope its left flank.
Nine CS regiments were engaged, opposing five US regiments in the fight for Sitlington's Hill. At dusk
the Union attackers withdrew to McDowell.

Phase Five. Union Withdrawal (9 May): At dark US forces withdrew from Sitlington's Hill and
recrossed to McDowell, carrying their wounded from the field. About 0200 hours of 9 May, Schenck
and Milroy ordered a general retreat along the turnpike toward Franklin. The 73rd Ohio held their
skirmish line along the river until near dawn when they withdrew and acted as rear guard for the
retreating column. Ten men of the regiment were inadvertently left behind and captured. Shortly
after the Federals retired, the Confederates entered McDowell. Schenck established a holding
position on 9 May (north of modern intersection of rte. 629 and US 220) but only minor skirmishing
resulted. For nearly a week, Jackson pursued the retreating Union army almost to Franklin before
commencing a return march to the Valley on 15 May.

Current Condition of the Battlefield

The battlefield of McDowell retains the highest integrity of all of the Shenandoah Valley battlefields
surveyed; this is due to its location and the rugged nature of the ground, which precludes almost any
land use other than agriculture or woodland. Highland County retains a low population density (fewer
residents now than at the time of the battle) and a distinct rural character. In general, the
landscape consists of narrow river valleys which are farmed and high ridge lines which are mostly
forested with interspersed pastureland. The line of Jackson's advance along rte. 250 passes through
the George Washington National Forest, which ends at the Cowpasture River. The core of the
battlefield on Sitlington's Hill is owned and preserved by the Association for the Preservation of Civil
War Sites (APCWS) and the Lee- Jackson Foundation. Together the two groups own more than 200
acres bounded by rte. 250 on the east and north, including the ravine used by CS troops to reach the
summit and main areas of attack and defense. A single individual owns the remaining portions of
Sitlington's Hill. A hiking trail on APCWS property leads to the crest of Sitlington's Hill, providing
unmarked access for visitors.

The village of McDowell retains much character, including many historic structures: a renovated mill
next to the bridge, Presbyterian Church (used as a field hospital by both sides), and the Hull House
(Federal headquarters). The general store and other structures appear to date from about 1900.
Hull's Hill north of rte. 250 is privately owned; its crest is maintained as pastureland as at the time
of the battle, while its slopes and base are heavily wooded.

The village of McDowell retains much character, including many historic structures: a renovated mill
next to the bridge, Presbyterian Church (used as a field hospital by both sides), and the Hull House
(Federal headquarters). The general store and other structures appear to date from about 1900.
Hull's Hill north of rte. 250 is privately owned; its crest is maintained as pastureland as at the time
of the battle, while its slopes and base are heavily wooded.

Highland County Historical Society
aa
History of the War in the Valley Historic Places Tour Valley Museums   Soldiers and Civilians    Site Map Valley Historical Links


 




Contact Hal Sharpe

Thank you for visiting my Shenandoah Valley in the Civil War pages.
Pease come back and visit again!