The Battle of McDowell
Today marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of McDowell (May 8, 1862)—the second full scale engagement of Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
As Union General George B. McClellan marched his Army of the Potomac up the Virginia Peninsula towards Richmond, Jackson's Army of the Valley prevented Federal troops from joining them. After a defeat at the Battle of Kernstown (March 23rd), Jackson retreated south where Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's Army of the Northwest and Richard S. Ewell's division offered reinforcements. By May 8th, the Confederates had ensconced themselves atop Sitlington's Hill—on the west side of Bull Pasture Mountain.
Along the hill's slopes, 2000 Union troops led by Robert Milroy and Robert Schenck attacked the entrenched Rebels. In addition, Schneck placed 18 guns atop Cemetery Hill to help defend the bridge over the Bullpasture River. As the Federal troops slowly climbed the hill’s western slope, deep ravines and heavy woods protected them from enemy fire. Meanwhile, Johnson arranged his men in a U-shape atop the hill and prepared for the forthcoming attack. Fighting lasted for several hours but with the aid of William Booth Taliaferro’s and J.A. Campbell’s brigades, the Rebel force successfully repelled the Union assault.
At dusk, the Union force withdrew from Sitlington’s Hill and recrossed the river to McDowell. Around 2 am on May 9th, Scheck and Milroy ordered a general retreat towards Franklin, West Virginia. Shortly after the Federals retired, the Rebels entered McDowell. For the next week, Jackson pursued the retreating Union army. On May 15th, he finally gave up and began a return march to the Valley.
Strategically, the Union’s army and corresponding withdrawal marked a key victory for the South; it illustrated Stonewall Jackson’s penchant for concentrating Rebel forces against a numerically inferior foe and denying the enemy an opportunity to launch a strong attack. Jackson’s triumph at McDowell also prevented John C. Frémont's army in the western Shenandoah Valley from uniting with that of Nathanial P. Banks. The momentum of Jackson's achievement would continue into the dual Confederate victories at Front Royal (May 23rd) and First Winchester (May 25th). Notably, while the Rebels outnumbered the Federals (2,800 to 2,300), they endured more casualties; 450 to the Union 258.
Image Credit: National Park Service.