Morale and Willpower – thoughts on the low point of Jackson’s command in the Shenandoah Valley

Since  it is the 150th anniversary of the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862, I am going to discuss a particular aspect of the campaign – the condition of Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s command at the end of April.  During the preceding weeks Major General Nathaniel Banks had advanced up the Shenandoah Valley as far as Harrisonburg.  As Banks advanced, Jackson retreated, eventually turning east out of the Shenandoah Valley into the Blue Ridge where he camped in Swift Run Gap.  Banks’ scouts reported that Jackson’s command was in rough shape — “no condition for offensive movements”; “reduced, demoralized, on half rations”; “greatly demoralized and broken.”  Several authors have cited these messages as evidence that Banks was uninformed about Jackson’s true situation – for how could a force so demoralized embark on a campaign of such enduring fame, as Jackson was about to do?   I hope to demonstrate that there was truth in Banks’ statements: that Jackson’s command was suffering from severe problems resulting from command tensions, enlistment problems and the general circumstances it faced.  The facts have been written about in other places, though the authors have rarely, if ever, connected the threads to give a picture of the whole.  I will also try to explain how this force could conduct a grueling campaign despite these problems.

At the end of April, Jackson’s force consisted of three infantry brigades and Ashby’s cavalry command.  The first infantry brigade was Jackson’s own, the one he had commanded at the Battle of Bull Run.  At the start of April  Richard Garnett was in command of the brigade but Jackson decided to hold Garnett responsible for the tactical failure at Kernstown.  He had Garnett arrested, replacing him with Charles Winder.  However, Garnett was popular and a “storm of indignation broke out in the Stonewall Brigade”. [Vandiver p.210]  “Because Garnett had been a popular commander and his arrest created so much resentment, the regimental commanders refused to call upon Winder, as was customary. One regiment hissed him as he rode past.” [Farwell p. 244]  “For a good while, the brigade refused to cheer Jackson when he rode through.” [Robertson p. 350]  Even after some time had passed, “Garnett’s dismissal still rankled, and Jackson’s cold manner toward several colonels who came to headquarters tended to produce personal recriminations against the general.  One colonel, curtly shut off in conversation with Jackson, vowed never to go into his headquarters again unless ordered.” [Vandiver p. 213]

The other two infantry brigades had been General Loring’s command at the start of the year.  This was the force Jackson had left in the remote village of Romney in January resulting in an anti-Jackson petition signed by eleven officers including Colonels Jesse Burke, John Campbell, Samuel Fulkerson and William Taliaferro .  Even months later the rift between Jackson and the officers he inherited from Loring’s command had not  healed.  In April, Burke, then in command of the first brigade, went home on indefinite ‘sick’ leave — it seems he had had enough of serving under Jackson – and command of the brigade switched to Campbell.  Also in April, Taliaferro returned to the Valley newly promoted to Brigadier General and assumed command of the second brigade from Fulkerson.  Jackson had been angry about the petition in January and objected to Taliaferro’s promotion.  As a result, Talaiferro “felt the chill at headquarters”.  [Vandiver, p. 213]

Jackson also clashed with Ashby.  Jackson was unsatisfied with how Ashby organized and led his command.  So Jackson issued an order that challenged Ashby’s authority, leading Ashby to submit his resignation. “Jackson’s attempt to rein in his cavalry had backfired.  He faced a potential mutiny.” [Gallagher p. 157] The cavalry was loyal to Ashby and Jackson’s actions irritated them.   Jackson managed to get Ashby to withdraw his resignation but the relationship was strained.

Further problems arose because the army was being reorganized.  In April and May of 1861 volunteers had enlisted for a term of one year.  That enlistment was coming to an end and men wanted a chance to go home.  But the Confederate Congress passed a conscription act compelling the men to remain in the service and the Governor of Virginia issued an executive order that merged Virginia militia units into the Confederate regiments. In addition, with the new enlistments many regimental officers faced reelection.  Some who had been elected to lead a regiment in 1861 now sought service elsewhere.  For example, “A.C. Cummings of the Thirty-Third Virginia became disgusted with Jackson” and left the army — “Losing a man like Cummings showed something was seriously wrong.”  [Vandiver p. 214]  This reorganization generated “bitterness” that “would occasionally hamper operations” [Tanner 162] such as when several hundred militiamen from Rockingham County decided to resist, taking refuge in the Blue Ridge [Cozzens, p. 235] or when men of the 27th Virginia refused to go on, insisting they should be free to go home. [Tanner p. 207]

Finally, Jackson’s command was suffering from the physical conditions it was exposed to.  Supplies were limited; April 1862 had been cold and wet; and Jackson’s army had retreated from the enemy repeatedly over the previous two months, giving up a large portion of the Shenandoah Valley.  “Loss of sleep, coupled with hunger and constant physical effort, was a continuous reality now for the Valley Army.” [Tanner p. 208]  The army’s quartermaster, Major John Harman, wrote to his brother “that he was sick of mismanagement resulting from Jackson’s incompetency”. [Krick p. 11]  Desertion and straggling increased — over “28 percent of the 33rd Virginia deserted and never returned.” [Farwell p.238]

So, turning back to the question posed at the beginning, how could a force so fractured embark on a campaign of such enduring fame?

Part of the answer is that Jackson was reinforced by two other commands – Ed Johnson and Dick Ewell – which did most of the fighting.   The battle of McDowell was mostly fought by Ed Johnson’s men; Front Royal and Cross Keys were fought by Ewell’s men; and at Winchester and Port Republic it was the role of Ewell’s division, especially Taylor’s brigade, that won the day.

But more importantly, the campaign happened because Jackson was a tough SOB.  In similar circumstances other generals might have remained on the defensive, bemoaned their situation, written complaints to their superiors.  But not Jackson.  He dealt with tough circumstances by powering forward and demanding more effort and greater sacrifice.  He dealt with the rebellious Rockingham militia by sending a detachment to shell them out of their farmhouses; he dealt with stragglers by ordering them arrested and returned to the army in irons; he dealt with the mutiny in the 27th Virginia by advising the colonel to line up the regiment and order the disgruntled to be shot.

Jackson’s greatness came not from his tactical talent, which really wasn’t that special, or even his strategic insight, which has been overstated, but rather from the power of his will and his ability to impose it in challenging situations.  It is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and that tough times call for tough measures.  It is also said that fortune favors the bold. In early May his command was coming apart at the seams but despite this Jackson chose to take action and made things happen.  He was as tough and as bold as they come.



Books quoted or referenced:

Mighty Stonewall, Frank E. Vandiver, Texas A&M University Press 1988

Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, Peter Cozzens, The University of North Carolina Press 2008

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, Garry Gallagher – Editor, The University of North Carolina Press 2010

Stonewall in the Valley, Robert Tanner, Stackpole Books 2002

Conquering the Valley, Robert Krick, Louisiana State University Press 2002

Stonewall Jackson, James Robertson, Macmillan 1997

Stonewall: A Biography of General Thomas J. Jackson, Byron Farwell, W. W. Norton 1993


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *