May 8, 1862
After Stonewall Jackson diverted Union troops and attention back to the Shenandoah Valley with his attack at Kernstown, the Union pursuit forced him to retreat to the southern end of the Valley. By taking up a flanking position atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, he protected the vital railroad town of Staunton from further Union advances.
But in addition to the Union threat from the Shenandoah Valley itself, Staunton was threatened by the Union army under Gen. John Fremont from the mountains to the west. Fremont and Lincoln had an unworkable scheme to march into the Valley and advance into East Tennessee to liberate the Union sympathizers. Additional Union troops were to capture the bridge over the New River in Southwest Virginia, but this effort failed then were nearly cut off at Lewisburg
Fort Johnson and the View From the Fort
Confederate Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson had withdrawn to Fort Johnson on April 1st from a more vulnerable position further west. His small force protected Staunton from the west at Fort Johnson atop Shenandoah Mountain. The Yankees thought the mountain position was nearly impregnable, but on April 18th, Johnson abandoned the fort. Staunton was now vulnerable from the west, and Jackson had to do something.
Jackson had taken up position atop the Blue Ridge from which he could threaten Banks' rear should he move on Staunton. Ewell's division was placed under Jackson's command, and Jackson ordered him to the Blue Ridge camp while his division moved into the Valley on the way to join Johnson. The roads were muddy and nearly impassable, so the men marched back east across the Blue Ridge to the rail line. The confused troops then took the train to Staunton and marched west. Jackson's men deployed on Sitlington's Hill overlooking Federal camps at McDowell. The Union commander, Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy, decided to attack first to gain time to withdraw during the evening.
This is the view looking north across the field Milroy's men crossed. The town of McDowell is in the background. Cedar Knob rises above the town and was the position of one or two Union guns wenched there during the battle. The ridge to the left was the main position of Union artillery. Union infantry crossed this field to attack the Confederates on Sitlington's hill on the center and right of the picture and are thought to have moved up the ravine on the right of the picture.
Climbing the Sitlington's Hill
Federal infantry undoubtedly had a difficult time climbing the hill, which is steep in many places. Nevertheless, once in position, the Yankees opened a deadly fire on the rebels silhouetted against the sky. The Yanks clearly got the better of the firefight, losing 256 men to 500 Confederate casualties, but they could not push the Confederates off the ridge. As night fell, the Union force withdrew north.
Church at McDowell
Hull House Used as Federal headquarters
In the days that followed, Jackson pursued Milroy north. This threatened Banks in the Shenadoah and forced him back to Strasburg. Jackson re-entered the Shenandoah Valley, joined Ewell at Luray and struck a detachment at Front Royal. After nearly cutting off Banks' retreat, Jackson dealt him a major blow at Winchester. After being threatened with encirclement, Jackson withdrew to the southern end of the Valley, where he would turn on his pursuers at Port Republic and Cross Keys.
topo map The large panoramic photo was taken from Route 678 south of McDowell. Union artillery was placed on Cedar Knob.
Click here for the Best of Civil War Books and Prints
Return to Battles and Battlefields of the Shenandoah Valley