Review: Three Days in the Shenandoah by Gary Ecelbarger

Gary Ecelbarger. Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester (Campaigns and Commanders). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press (April 30, 2008). 273 pp., order, of battle, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0806138862 $29.95 (Hardcover w/DJ).

Were Union troops even involved in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign? From reading many sources focusing on Jackson’s famous campaign, one wonders at times. Gary Ecelbarger sets out to fairly chronicle Three Days in the Shenandoah, including the battles of Front Royal (May 23) and Winchester (May 25). The results of May 23-25, 1862 on the strategic situation in the Eastern Theater far outweighed the number of men involved. By focusing on both sides, Ecelbarger hopes to tell the full story of this mini-campaign within a campaign, and largely succeeds. This well-written, engaging, insightful book offers up some opinions decidedly different from standard accounts of the campaign.

In mid-May 1862, the Confederate cause looked bleak. Confederate forces had been losing battles and ground all spring from Pea Ridge to Shiloh to Richmond. Large Union armies were on the doorsteps of both Richmond and Corinth, Mississippi. The Confederate War Department needed a way to take some of this pressure off. Ecelbarger argues that the events of May 23-25 may have had their genesis in a meeting of some of the top men in the Confederacy in mid-May, including Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph Johnston. A telegram asking Jackson to drive Banks out of the Shenandoah arrived not long after this meeting, and Stonewall set out to make this happen. Outnumbering Banks 3 to 1 due to the departure of Shields’ veteran division east to Fredericksburg, Jackson struck Banks on the flank at Front Royal on May 23, 1862. Jackson and Banks, located several miles to the west at Strasburg, were now in a race to see who could reach Winchester first, and Banks won this race late on May 24. As a result, Jackson was forced to attack on the morning of May 25 on the southern outskirts of the town, driving Banks north to and across the Potomac River. The results, especially those emanating from Front Royal, were tremendous. President Lincoln overreacted and halted a proposed movement of McDowell’s large I Corps, Army of the Potomac from moving south to support McClellan in front of Richmond. Instead, many of these men along with Shields’ division engaged in an ultimately fruitless hunt for Jackson which culminated in the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic in early June. Jackson had achieved a tremendous success which reverberated far beyond the Shenandoah Valley.

In the book, Ecelbarger argues that to understand what happened from May 23-25, 1862, one must answer the following five questions:

  1. What effect did the U.S. and C.S. War Departments have on the campaign?
  2. Why did it take so long for Jackson to attack at Front Royal?
  3. How did the Union force at Front Royal escape?
  4. Why was Jackson cautious on May 24?
  5. What tactical sequence produced victory at Winchester on May 25?

He answers each fully by the time the book is through, and I’ll take a look at the ways in which the author handles each question below.

The Confederate War Department had a largely positive effect on the campaign, conceiving it initially as a way to divert Union attention away from Richmond. In the end, the plan worked brilliantly. It was made even more brilliant by the way in which President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton responded to the news that Jackson was on Banks’ flank at Front Royal. Essentially, says Ecelbarger, Lincoln massively overreacted by preventing McDowell from marching to McClellan’s aid and ultimately sending 40,000 men to Banks, where they did no good anyway. McClellan even argued with Lincoln and pointed out he was playing into the Confederates’ hands in this instance.

Jackson hesitated prior to attacking Front Royal for several reasons according to the author. First, he was unfamiliar with the road network from Front Royal to Winchester and Strasburg. He needed his two cartographers to guide him, and neither was present on the morning of May 23. Second, Jackson wanted to make sure he did not show any Union force at Front Royal too many of his men lest survivors report this information back to Banks at Strasburg.

The small Union force under Colonel John Kenly at Front Royal was able to escape due to tactical errors on Jackson’s part and a skillful defense by Kenly, argues Ecelbarger. The author asserts Jackson had the tendency to inject his units piecemeal into the attack at many engagements throughout the war, citing Brawner’s Farm and Port Republic as other good examples. Jackson was saved from “embarrassment” by the fine action of Lt. Col. Thomas Flournoy and his Virginia cavalry, who attacked Kenly’s much larger but disorganized force as they retreated from Front Royal in an attempt to reach Cedarville to the north, on the road to Winchester.

Jackson was cautious on May 24 for several reasons. First, Jackson failed to send out scouts in a timely manner, and he had no real idea exactly where Banks was. Banks did not absolutely have to retreat to Winchester. He could have also chosen to march east from Strasburg in an attempt to join McDowell at Fredericksburg. As a result, Jackson needed to positively identify where Banks was headed before he could figure out how to react. Second, Jackson had heard rumors of Federal reinforcements and had to make sure these troops did not catch him by surprise. When Jackson did move west to try to intercept Banks’ column, several straggling units of Banks’ army attacked Jackson from the south at Middletown, causing him to briefly turn SOUTH and away from what should have been his main target rapidly retreating to Winchester. Lastly, Jackson’s men needed rest. Many had marched almost fifty miles in the preceding three days. Ultimately, Jackson’s caution kept Ewell inactive most of the day when he could have reached Winchester quite easily. It also allowed Banks and most of his wagon train to escape.

Jackson’s victory at Winchester on May 25 was less due to his tactical skill, says Ecelbarger, than to a fortuitous mistake by the Lt. Colonel of the 27th Indiana, who ordered eight of his companies to retreat just as Taylor’s Louisiana brigade launched an attack against that flank. The result was a precipitous retreat for Banks’ army. However, his decision to stand at Winchester o the morning of May 25 allowed his wagon train a four hour head start to the safety of the Potomac River.

I was very surprised by some of Ecelbarger’s conclusions regarding the campaign. I’ll try to keep this brief as I don’t want to give the surprise away in detail. The author argues that despite everything Jackson accomplished, he could have done so much more. Ecelbarger was also highly complimentary of Banks and the green division he was left. The author believes Banks’ lack of mistakes combined with Jackson’s numerous errors combined to produce a result not too unfavorable concerning the circumstances. He also commends the Union commanders at all levels while criticizing their Confederate counterparts. He believes it “remarkable” that 80% of Banks’ green troops escaped a 3:1 disadvantage against Jackson’s veterans.

Despite these criticisms, Ecelbarger concedes Jackson succeeded wildly and greatly relieved the pressure on Richmond. At the very least, McDowell’s large Corps was no longer in the picture as far as the Confederate capital was concerned. Jackson’s success was due to three things according to the author:

  1. dominance at maneuver
  2. failure to allow obstacles to paralyze momentum
  3. determination to succeed

These three items allowed Jackson to overcome his tactical deficiencies, tired troops, and questionable snap decisions in the campaign, ultimately emerging victorious.

After the 224 pages of text, the author and publisher also included an Order of Battle. Regrettably, this order of battle did not include troop strengths similar to those found in We Are In For It”: The First Battle of Kernstown, Ecelbarger’s earlier book. There were thirty-seven pages of endnotes with quite a bit of discussion contained therein. Ecelbarger consulted a large number of manuscripts and newspapers. The book ended with a functional index. There were a good number of maps for 224 pages of text (12), including quite a few for the various phases of the battles of Front Royal and Winchester.

I greatly enjoyed Three Days in the Shenandoah. Ecelbarger has written another excellent campaign study to follow his aforementioned work on the First Battle of Kernstown. The author’s balanced coverage and somewhat surprising conclusions make this a much needed addition to the current literature on the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. The argument that Jefferson Davis was the mastermind behind this effort also struck me as a good one and was solidly argued. I also agree with the author that Abraham Lincoln was his own worst enemy, sending away thousands of men from where they were needed most, McClellan’s army at Richmond. I highly recommend this work to any student of the tactical and strategic aspects of the Civil War in general and of the Valley Campaign in particular. This is a model campaign study, one which other authors would do well to emulate.

Note: Three Days in the Shenandoah is the 16th volume in the Campaigns and Commanders series from the University of Oklahoma Press.

Special thanks goes to Sandy See at the University of Oklahoma Press.

Other Reviews/Mentions of Three Days in the Shenandoah:

  1. Drew Wagenhoffer’s excellent review
  2. Harry Smeltzer’s mention

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