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2. McDOWELL (8 May 1862)

County: Highland, VA

General Location: Rte. 250 east of McDowell, between Bull Pasture River and Sitlington's Hill.

Size of Study/Core Areas: 4,539/2,258 acres

GIS Integrity of Study/Core Areas: 100/100 percent; Good/Good

Field Assessment of Study Area Integrity: Good

USGS Quadrants: McDowell, Monterey SE, West Augusta

Select to view a summary of 1991 LAND USE / LAND COVER

Campaign: Jackson's Valley Campaign

Principal Commanders: [c] Maj. Gen. T. J. Jackson , Brig. Gen. Edward Johnson;

[u] Brig. Gen. R. C. Schenck, Brig. Gen. R. Milroy.

Forces Engaged: [c] Johnson's brigade (six regts.) and Taliaferro's (3 regts.), about 6,000 engaged. [u] Two brigades (Milroy and Schenck), about 6,500. Milroy attacked Sitlington's Hill with 2,250.

Casualties:[c] about 500 k/w/m (12GA suffered about 175 k/w/m); [u] about 260 k/w/m.

Significance: Some historians consider the battle of McDowell the beginning of ``Stonewall'' Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign, while others prefer to include First Kernstown, Stonewall's only defeat. The battle of McDowell is studied today by military historians for several reasons. At the tactical level, it can be argued that the US forces achieved a draw. Milroy's ``spoiling attack'' surprised Jackson, seized the initiative, and inflicted heavier casualties, but did not drive the Confederates from their position. Historians derive lessons about use of terrain, small unit tactics and leadership, and overexuberance under fire (12th Georgia). At the strategic level, the battle of McDowell and the resultant withdrawal of the US army was an important victory for the South. The battle demonstrated Jackson's strategy of concentrating his forces against a numerically inferior foe, while denying his enemies the chance to concentrate against him. Jackson rode the momentum of his strategic win at McDowell to victory at Front Royal (23 May) and First Winchester (25 May).

Description of the Battle

Phase One. CS Advance on Parkersburg Turnpike (7 May): Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson's columns departed West View and Staunton on the morning of 7 May, marching west along the Parkersburg turnpike. Elements of Brig. Gen. Edward Johnson's brigade composed the vanguard. At mid-afternoon, Union pickets were encountered at Rodgers' tollgate, where the pike crosses Ramsey's Draft. The Union force, which consisted of portions of three regiments (3WV, 32OH, 75OH) under overall command of Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy, withdrew hastily, abandoning their baggage at the tollgate and retreating to the crest of Shenandoah Mountain.

At Rodgers', Johnson and Jackson conferred. The Confederate force split into two columns to envelope the US holding position on Shenandoah Mountain. Milroy ordered his force to withdraw and concentrate at McDowell, where he hoped to receive reinforcements. Milroy also positioned a section of artillery on Shaw's Ridge to impede Johnson's descent from the crest of Shenandoah Mountain. These guns were soon withdrawn with their supports to McDowell. By dusk, Johnson's advance regiments reached Shaw's Fork where they encamped. Because of the narrow roads and few camp sites, Jackson's army was stretched 8-10 miles back along the pike with its rear guard at Dry Branch Gap. Jackson established his headquarters at Rodgers' tollgate. During the night, Milroy withdrew behind the Bullpasture River to McDowell, establishing headquarters in the Hull House.

Phase Two. CS Advance to Sitlington's Hill (8 May): Starting at dawn of 8 May, the Confederate advance crossed Shaw's Ridge, descended to the Cowpasture River at Wilson's House, and ascended Bullpasture Mountain. The advance was unopposed. Reaching the crest of the ridge, Jackson and Jedediah Hotchkiss conducted a reconnaissance of the Union position at McDowell from a rocky spur right of the road. Johnson continued with the advance to the base of Sitlington's Hill. Expecting a roadblock ahead, he diverged from the road into a steep narrow ravine that leads to the top of the hill. After driving away Union skirmishers, Johnson deployed his infantry along the long, sinuous crest of the hill. Jackson asked his staff to find a way to place artillery on the hill and to search for a way to flank the Union position to the north.

Phase Three. Deployment of US Forces: About 1000 hours, Brig. Gen. Robert Schenck arrived after a forced march from Franklin. Being senior to Milroy, Schenck assumed overall command of the Union force at McDowell with headquarters at the Hull House. He deployed his artillery, consisting of 18 guns on Cemetery Hill and near the McDowell Presbyterian Church to defend the bridge over the Bullpasture River. He deployed his infantry in line from McDowell south along the river for about 800 yards. He placed one regiment (2WV) on Hull's Hill, west of the river and overlooking the pike. Three companies of cavalry covered the left flank on the road to the north of the village.

Phase Four. US Attack on Sitlington's Hill: Schenck and Milroy sent out skirmishers to contest the base of Sitlington's Hill along the river. As CS forces on the crest of the hill increased in numbers, Schenck and Milroy conferred. Union scouts reported that the Confederates were attempting to bring artillery to the crest of the hill which would make the US position on the bottomland at McDowell untenable. In absence of an aggressive CS advance, Schenck and Milroy attempted a spoiling attack. Milroy advanced his brigade (25OH, 32OH, 75OH, 3WV) and the 82nd Ohio of Schenck's brigade, about 2,300 men. About 1500 hours Milroy personally led the attacking force, which crossed the bridge and proceeded up the ravines that cut the western slope of the hill.

In the meantime, Jackson had been content to hold the crest of the hill while searching for a route for a flanking movement to the north. He declined to send artillery up the hill because of the difficulty of withdrawing the pieces in the face of an attack. Union artillerymen on Cemetery Hill elevated their pieces by digging deep trenches in the ground for the gun trails and began firing at the Confederates in support of the advancing infantry. Schenck also had a six-pounder hauled by hand to the crest of Hull's Hill to fire on the CS right flank above the turnpike (some accounts say a section of guns, another says a whole battery). The Union line advanced resolutely up the steep slopes and closed on the Confederate position. The conflict became ``fierce and sanguinary.''

The 3rd West Virginia advanced along the turnpike in an attempt to turn the CS right. Jackson reinforced his right on the hill with two regiments and covered the turnpike with the 21st Virginia. The 12th Georgia at the center and slightly in advance of the main CS line on the hill crest bore the brunt of the Union attack and suffered heavy casualties. The fighting continued for four hours as the Union attackers attempted to pierce the center of the CS line and then to envelope its left flank. Nine CS regiments were engaged, opposing five US regiments in the fight for Sitlington's Hill. At dusk the Union attackers withdrew to McDowell.

Phase Five. Union Withdrawal (9 May): At dark US forces withdrew from Sitlington's Hill and recrossed to McDowell, carrying their wounded from the field. About 0200 hours of 9 May, Schenck and Milroy ordered a general retreat along the turnpike toward Franklin. The 73rd Ohio held their skirmish line along the river until near dawn when they withdrew and acted as rear guard for the retreating column. Ten men of the regiment were inadvertently left behind and captured. Shortly after the Federals retired, the Confederates entered McDowell. Schenck established a holding position on 9 May (north of modern intersection of rte. 629 and US 220) but only minor skirmishing resulted. For nearly a week, Jackson pursued the retreating Union army almost to Franklin before commencing a return march to the Valley on 15 May.

Current Condition of the Battlefield

The battlefield of McDowell retains the highest integrity of all of the Shenandoah Valley battlefields surveyed; this is due to its location and the rugged nature of the ground, which precludes almost any land use other than agriculture or woodland. Highland County retains a low population density (fewer residents now than at the time of the battle) and a distinct rural character. In general, the landscape consists of narrow river valleys which are farmed and high ridge lines which are mostly forested with interspersed pastureland. The line of Jackson's advance along rte. 250 passes through the George Washington National Forest, which ends at the Cowpasture River. The core of the battlefield on Sitlington's Hill is owned and preserved by the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS) and the Lee- Jackson Foundation. Together the two groups own more than 200 acres bounded by rte. 250 on the east and north, including the ravine used by CS troops to reach the summit and main areas of attack and defense. A single individual owns the remaining portions of Sitlington's Hill. A hiking trail on APCWS property leads to the crest of Sitlington's Hill, providing unmarked access for visitors.

The village of McDowell retains much character, including many historic structures: a renovated mill next to the bridge, Presbyterian Church (used as a field hospital by both sides), and the Hull House (Federal headquarters). The general store and other structures appear to date from about 1900. Hull's Hill north of rte. 250 is privately owned; its crest is maintained as pastureland as at the time of the battle, while its slopes and base are heavily wooded.

Perception of Threats to Battlefield

The general perception is that the battlefield of McDowell was substantially preserved by the recent APCWS acquisition of about 100 acres on Sitlington's Hill. The county's economy is sluggish, compared with that of the Shenandoah Valley proper, and little development of any kind is present. The county prides itself on its annual Highland Maple Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors every spring. Local residents are content that ``their battlefield'' is in one piece, and many expressed the desire that more tourists could be attracted to McDowell to visit it. The Hull House is currently occupied seasonally and the structure appears in good condition.

Identified Sites and Features Associated with the Battlefield


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Last Update 7/17/95 by VLC