American Civil War: Jackson’s Valley Campaign

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War

By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

George B. McClellan’s continued procrastination had already allowed the Confederates to avert a potentially devastating blow. They had also managed to bluff McClellan and buy some more time for themselves to call in reinforcements. But they had other plans as well. Let’s take a look at how the Confederacy responded to the Union army advancing into Virginia.

Aerial view of the Shenandoah Valley.
The Confederates planned a daring counter to the Union’s Peninsula campaign, with Stonewall Jackson given charge and tasked to tie down all the troops of Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Frémont in the Shenandoah Valley. (Image: La Citta Vita/CC BY 2.0/Public domain)

Stonewall Jackson Led the First Aggressive Confederate Response

The Confederates would respond in another way. One way they responded to McClellan’s campaign was by shifting this strength to the Peninsula. The other way they responded was by giving Stonewall Jackson more troops in the Shenandoah Valley, and asking him to tie down a number of Federals.

This is really the first aggressive response. Joseph Johnston’s counter to McClellan amassing over 100,000 soldiers in Virginia is a defensive one, in a sense. He’s falling back toward Richmond. Jackson is going to take the offensive.

General Lee, who is operating as Jefferson Davis’s chief military advisor, is the real architect of the strategy that was going to be put in place now. Lee told Jackson that what he wanted him to do was use these reinforcements he’d get and tie down all the troops of Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Frémont.

Make enough of a commotion in the valley so that all of those troops will be held in the valley and won’t be used to reinforce the forces that are coming against Richmond. Those were the marching orders that Stonewall Jackson got.

How he accomplished that would be left up to him, and he would show his true brilliance as an independent field commander now in what has come to be called the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign or more typically just Jackson’s Valley campaign.

Jackson was reinforced to a level of about 17,000 troops. He looked at the strategic board, knew what his instructions were, and then put together a campaign that remains a model for what an officer using interior lines, the lay of the land, and the geography to his advantage; using fast movements; and having a willingness to fight could accomplish in a difficult strategic situation.

He had a brilliant cartographer who was with him through the whole campaign, a New Yorker named Jedediah Hotchkiss, who’d gone south in the 1840s and then cast his lot with the Confederacy. Hotchkiss helped Jackson immensely in the Shenandoah Valley by helping him understand the geography and providing wonderful maps for him.

Learn more about the American Civil War.

Who Was Stonewall Jackson?

Portrait of Stonewal Jackson
As a military leader, Stonewall Jackson was decisive with a killer instinct. (Image: Nathaniel Routzahn/Public domain)

Jackson is the opposite kind of personality from the cautious McClellan. The two really couldn’t be more different.

Born in western Virginia, he was secretive with his subordinates, but his strongest characteristics as an officer were an aggressiveness, a willingness to take risks, and a sense that you had to inflict the greatest possible damage on your enemy.

Just hit them and hit them and hit them and don’t give them a chance to get up if it’s possible for you to do that. He believed that war was a very hard thing, and that’s how he would conduct it.

He’s one of the great bizarre characters from the civil war, just a bundle of oddities and eccentricities as a person. He was a hypochondriac. He had all kinds of worries about his body.

He would often hold his right hand up in the air—not because he was praying. He was extremely religious, but he didn’t hold his hand up because he was praying, as some people thought, but because he thought he didn’t have an equilibrium of blood in his body and if he held his right hand up, then the blood would flow down and reestablish equilibrium, as he put it.

He wouldn’t eat pepper because he thought it weakened his left leg—not his right leg, just his left leg—if he ate pepper. He wouldn’t let his back touch the back of a chair because he said it jumbled his organs and it was important to sit upright so that your organs were naturally atop one another. He’s a very odd fellow.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Jackson’s Valley Campaign

Map of Battle of McDowell showing Camp McDowell on the top-left, Hall's Ridge on the top-right and the troop movements,   depicted by arrows, in the center of the map.
The Jackson’s Valley campaign started with the Battle of McDowell on May 8, 1862, in which Stonewall Jackson pushed back the advance guard of John C. Frémont’s army. (Image: Jedediah Hotchkiss/Public domain)

He’s in his late thirties early in the war and about to embark on a campaign that will make him the most famous Confederate military leader. He’s decisive, with a killer instinct. He began his campaign on May 8 at the little Battle of McDowell, west of Staunton, Virginia, where he pushed back the advance guard that’s part of John C. Frémont’s army. He then marched rapidly back into the Shenandoah Valley proper.

The valley is divided in one 50-mile stretch by the Massanutten Mountain range. There’s the valley proper to the west and then the Page Valley or the Luray Valley to the right. Jackson marched into the valley proper, crossed over to the Luray Valley, and swept against Front Royal, marching rapidly down the valley. He won a little battle there on the 23rd of May.

Two days later Jackson won the Battle of First Winchester against Nathaniel P. Banks and went all the way to the banks of the Potomac River.

Many in the North were panicked by this. Lincoln saw it as an opportunity to trap Jackson’s army in the lower valley, and he tried to get Frémont to come out of the Alleghenies and some troops from McDowell to come from the direction of Fredericksburg and cut Jackson off in the valley, and then Banks would push against him from the North, and they would destroy him.

But Jackson simply pushed his men harder than the Federals did. He marched them back southward, up the valley, escaped the trap that the Federals were trying to set for him, and marched all the way to the southern terminus of the Massanutten Range.

Federals followed, both in the Page Valley or Luray Valley and in the valley proper, and Jackson turned against them on June 8 and 9. He defeated Frémont’s troops, who’d been coming along the valley proper, in the Battle of Cross Keys on the 8th of June, and defeated Federals, who’d been in the Luray Valley, on the 9th of June at the Battle of Port Republic.

He had accomplished everything that he’d been asked to do. He tied down those Federal troops. Not only had they stayed where they were, but McDowell’s troops were kept at Fredericksburg, as well, because no one was sure what Jackson was going to do. So upwards of 60,000 Union troops are not defeated by Jackson, but they’re kept in place, which is what Lee’s goal had been all along.

Learn more about the Peninsula campaign.

Confederate Morale Got a Much Needed Boost

Jackson had marched 350 miles, and he’d captured an enormous amount of material. He had done everything that he’d been asked to do, and, at the end of this campaign, he marched out of the valley to reinforce the Confederate troops defending Richmond, while all those thousands of Federal troops remained in place.

It was an absolutely brilliant campaign, militarily, but also very important in terms of morale for the Confederate people. The Confederates had been starved for good news from the battlefield.

All that bad news from the west, a Union army almost in Richmond, and now, finally—as if after a very long drought you finally get some rain—here comes good news from the valley, from McDowell and Front Royal and Cross Keys and Port Republic and First Winchester.

These are small battles, but they made a great impact in the Confederacy, because the people were so desperate for good news from the battlefield. They responded by making Jackson their great military idol.

At the end of the campaign, Jackson was successful but the larger picture remained dark, because McClellan’s approaching Richmond with 100,000 men. McDowell is still up there at Fredericksburg. Banks and Frémont could still come back into the picture. No one knew what they would do. And Joseph Johnston seemed unable to do anything but retreat.

Common Questions about Stonewall Jackson and Jackson’s Valley Campaign

Q: Who won Jackson’s Valley Campaign?

The Jackson’s Valley campaign or the Shenandoah Valley campaign was won by the Confederates, by defeating the Union armies in several battles.

Q: Why was the Shenandoah Valley so important?

The Shenandoah Valley was a strategic location that both the Federals and the Confederates wanted to control. As a response to George McClellan marching toward Richmond with an army of over 100,000 men, the Confederates came up with a plan. They gave Stonewall Jackson an army of 17,000 men and tasked him with keeping all the troops of Nathaniel P. Banks and John C. Frémont tied up in the Shenandoah Valley. So, Jackson came up with a strategy and executed it successfully, and that’s known as the Jackson’s Valley campaign.

Q: What was Stonewall Jackson’s greatest accomplishment?

Stonewall Jackson’s greatest achievement was successfully executing the military operation that’s known as the Jackson’s Valley campaign. He won a succession of battles against Union armies, starting with the Battle of McDowell against John C. Frémont’s army, followed by the Battle of First Winchester against Nathaniel P. Banks, and then the Battle of Cross Keys and the Battle of Port Republic in quick succession.

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