How a phantom Longstreet spooked Shields

by Ned B. on October 25, 2012 · 0 comments

When reading about the the Valley Campaign of 1862  I have chuckled at how Gen. James Shields over-reacted to a non-existent threat.  Yet recently I wondered if there was something more to it.  I haven’t been able to find answers to all my questions, but what I have learned seems interesting.

On June 7th, 1862 Shields was directing his four-brigade division south up the Luray valley, hoping to catch Stonewall Jackson, who was retreating up the adjacent Shenandoah valley, when news from his scouts caused Shields to change his movements.  His scouts brought reports that “Longstreet was between Thorntons Gap and Gordonsville with, say, 8,000 men.”  1 In response, Shields decided to “post two brigades at Luray and remain there in person to make head against Longstreet, so that he might not fall on my rear.”2  Yet Longstreet was in front of Richmond the whole time.  When the battle of Port Republic was fought on the 9th, only half of Shields division participated, since Shields had held the other half back to ward off an imaginary enemy.

Shields was wrong about Longstreet, but why had scouts given him that information? If not Longstreet, was there someone else out there that the scouts had encountered?

In looking for answers, I came across two Virginia regiments in the area.  The first was the 21st Virginia which had been detached from Jackson’s division in order to escort the US prisoners captured during the Valley campaign.  On June 6th the regimental commander reported from Waynesborough3 from where they would take the train to Charlottesville then switched lines to take another train to Lynchburg, the location of the prison camp.  So on June 7th, the day Shields freaked out about a phantom Longstreet, the 21st was probably in Charlottesville changing trains.

Then there is a question as to the whereabouts of the 16th Virginia.  As he was setting out for Hanover Court House in late May, Gen. Branch wrote to Gen. Ewell that he was leaving the 16th Virginia at Rapidan Station, just north of Gordonsville. 4   The next time the 16th appears in the Official Records is in Gen. Mahone’s report for the battle of Malvern Hill (it does not appear in Mahone’s reports for the previous battles during the Seven Days).  5  When did it leave Rapidan Station for Richmond?  It seems probable that it was still there in early June.

But the most likely source of the scouts information was two Georgia regiments sent to reinforce Jackson.  In early June, Jackson was reinforced by Lawton’s brigade and Whiting’s division. Later correspondence by US commanders referred to Jackson being reinforced by the divisions of Longstreet and Smith. 6 Whiting’s division was formed from “two brigades of Smith’s division” 7 suggesting that US commanders were confusing Lawton with Longstreet.  Whiting’s division departed Richmond June 11.8 However Lawton’s six regiments moved a few at a time, with the first two regiments (26th and 61st GA) ordered from Richmond to Jackson on June 7.9  In the early morning hours of June 9th, Jackson sent Capt. Boswell of his staff to Mechum’s River station to meet expected reinforcements,10 presumably the same two regiments.   So where would they have been late on the 7th?  The movement though Charlottesville of the 21st Virginia with over 2,000 prisoners on their way to Lynchburg would probably have tied up rail traffic along the line such that the Georgia regiments would have been held at Gordonsville, giving the impression to scouts of a new force arriving there.

I have more questions that remain unanswered, but perhaps the answers don’t matter.  Shields’ handling of his division suggests Jackson would have had the opportunity to beat him in detail even if he hadn’t become spooked by the reports from his scouts.  Still I find it interesting to explore the movements and detachments at the periphery of a campaign that I feel show the complexity of movement, intelligence and command decisions during the war.


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