Thursday, January 29, 2009

SHENANDOAH 1862 —— By Peter Cozzens

The University of North Carolina Press

$35, 640 pages


In early May 1862, the future of the Confederacy looked bleak. That winter and spring, its forces had suffered a series of heartbreaking reverses, and now Gen. George B. McClellan had an enormous, well-supplied army closing in on the eastern gates of Richmond. In Fredericksburg, Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell had his troops poised to march south and add their numbers to the coming siege.

Just over a month later, however, a series of impressive victories by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had changed the situation dramatically. His successes, first in the Alleghenies and afterward in the Shenandoah Valley, had confounded the efforts of Federal strategists and bought precious time for Gen. Robert E. Lee to strengthen the capital’s defenses.

In his new book “Shenandoah 1862,” author Peter Cozzens notes that most previous accounts of the campaign were one-sided and relied too heavily on Southern sources. He endeavors to present “the first balanced, and I trust comprehensive history of the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, giving equal voice to both Union and Confederate sources.”

In early March, Gen. Nathaniel Banks marched his corps into the lower Valley, forcing Jackson to evacuate his camps around Winchester on March 12. Eleven days later, though, acting on faulty intelligence provided by cavalry commander Col. Turner Ashby, Jackson attacked the Federals at Kernstown, five miles south of Winchester.

The Yankees stopped the tenacious graybacks in a hard-fought struggle. However, Mr. Cozzens points out that if Col. Nathan Kimball, the Federal commander on the field, had “used his numerical superiority to counterattack up the Valley pike … the result might have been a stunning Confederate defeat - perhaps even the annihilation of the Valley army.”

Jackson’s actions that day, however, ultimately helped the Rebel cause by forcing McClellan to keep Banks in the Valley rather than move him east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to guard the approaches to Washington. Also, Mr. Cozzens writes that “it led Lincoln and his advisers to look more closely at McClellan’s stated plan for protecting the nation’s capital. They would not like what they saw, nor would McClellan suffer the consequences easily.”

On April 3, President Lincoln began taking a more active role in matters by ordering McDowell’s command to Fredericksburg, where it could quickly return if the Rebels threatened the capital. This angered McClellan — nicknamed “Little Mac” — who wanted the force with him on the Peninsula.

That spring, Banks slowly followed Jackson up the Valley past Harrisonburg, but, unable to bring him to bay, retreated to Strasburg.

Jackson responded by promptly marching west into the highlands to contest an advance on Staunton by part of Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont’s command. On May 8, on the steep heights just east of the village of McDowell, Jackson defeated Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s brigade.

Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s division reinforced Jackson, and on May 21, he began a series of rapid marches and thrilling fights in which the graybacks swept the bluecoats back across the Potomac.

After driving a small Federal force from Front Royal on May 23, the next day and night Jackson pursued Banks’ troops and supply train, which were fleeing to Winchester. On May 25, the Rebels gained a clear-cut victory at the town, but the cavalry failed to cut the off the retreating foe, and most of the Yankees escaped to Williamsport, Md.

Although many authors have criticized Banks’ actions during this period, Mr. Cozzens’ research indicates that he performed well during the retreat and that his men had great confidence in him.

Now, with the Valley Army spread out from Front Royal and Strasburg north to Harpers Ferry, Lincoln saw a chance to bag the Rebels and promptly telegraphed Fremont and McDowell to close in on them. In the meantime, Jackson swiftly began evacuating his men, prisoners and captured supplies south via the Valley Pike.

To Lincoln’s great dismay, though, his commanders failed him. McDowell dispatched Brig. Gen. James Shields, who on May 30 recaptured Front Royal but did not press on to block the pike at Strasburg. On June 1, Fremont — his march slowed by terrible mountain roads — was unable to reach the town before the Rebels passed through.

As Fremont trailed Jackson, Shields shadowed him to the east of the Massanutten Mountain. On June 8, however, Ewell stopped Fremont at the Battle of Cross Keys, and the next day, Jackson scattered part of Shields’ division at the bloody Battle of Port Republic.

In conclusion, the author acknowledges Jackson’s genius in triumphing over heavy odds but adds that the victories were costly to his army. Citing heavy casualty figures at Kernstown, McDowell and Port Republic, Mr. Cozzens writes, “His tendency to feed his army into battle piecemeal caused unnecessarily high losses and prolonged some contests longer than was warranted.” He also criticizes Jackson’s secretive command style and his tendency to expect too much of his men.

“Shenandoah 1862” is a magnificent, well-documented study of one of the most important campaigns of the Civil War.

Steve French is the author of “Imboden’s Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign.” He can be contacted at

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