Battle of McDowell - May 8, 1862

Map showing positions of army's
Battle of Mcdowell by Jedediah Hotchkiss

Library of Congress

Following the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862, Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson retreated to Mount Jackson. Union General Nathaniel Banks, reinforced significantly, pursued Jackson. By mid-April, pressured by Banks, Jackson continued his withdrawal, eventually establishing his camps at Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Meanwhile Banks moved south to Harrisonburg, where he would remain until early May.

Jackson’s challenge now was to hold the Shenandoah Valley for the Confederacy – and to prevent Union forces then stationed in the Valley and in western Virginia from moving east to support General George B. McClellan’s campaign against Richmond. Of immediate concern to Jackson was the possibility that Banks would link up with troops in the newly-created Mountain Division, commanded by General John C. Frémont. The vanguard of Frémont’s command, under General Robert Milroy, was already pushing east towards Staunton, an important rail and supply center for the Confederacy.
Confederate officer in uniform
Edward "Allegheny" Johnson

American Battlefield Trust

On April 29, 1862, Jackson telegraphed General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, laying out three different plans for dealing with the Union threat: unite with General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s command west of Staunton and strike Milroy; join forces with General Richard Ewell’s division – over 8,000 strong and already moving towards the Valley to reinforce Jackson - and head north in the Valley, taking on Banks’s Federals; or link up with Ewell and move up the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, threatening Banks’s line of communication. Lee left the final decision to Jackson as to which plan to adopt, and Jackson chose the first: unite with Johnson and move against Milroy.

On April 30th, as Ewell’s division was approaching Swift Run Gap, Jackson led his command south, then east, across the Blue Ridge, to Mechum’s Station, a stop on the Virginia Central Railroad and not too far from Charlottesville, Virginia. To Banks this showed that Jackson was leaving the Shenandoah Valley – and the Union general reported it as such to Washington, D.C. – but Jackson’s move was a ruse. Once at Mechum’s, the bulk of Jackson’s force boarded railroad cars and returned to Staunton in the Valley. Part of Jackson’s command had to march, but by May 5th, Jackson had all of his troops in Staunton.

Believing Jackson gone from the Shenandoah Valley, the authorities in Washington ordered Banks to withdraw down the Valley, to Strasburg, and to send the division commanded by General James Shields back east.

On May 7, 1862, Jackson, now numbering some 11,600 after joining forces with Johnson, started moving west on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. As Jackson’s column marched, there was some skirmishing with Milroy’s outposts, but in the late morning of May 8th Jackson reached the outskirts of McDowell. Around noon Jackson, Johnson, Jedidiah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s cartographer, and a small number of Confederate infantry, scaled Sitlington Hill, a elevation that rose nearly 600 feet above the level plain below and dominated the immediate area. Reconnoitering Milroy’s camps in and around McDowell a mile distant, Jackson determined that he would attack the Federals the next day. But Milroy beat him to the punch.

Realizing that he was outnumbered, Milroy convinced General Robert Schenck, whose brigade arrived at mid-morning – with Schenck, Milroy could count perhaps 4,500 troops – that the best defense was a “spoiling attack”: attack the Confederates, catching them off-guard, then retreat after dark. Milroy was also concerned with reports that Confederate artillery was being positioned on Sitlington Hill; from there, enemy cannon could easily hit the Federal camps in McDowell.

Northern officer in uniform
Robert Milroy

Library of Congress

At 4:30 p.m. on May 8, 1862, five Union regiments, some 2,500 infantry, supported by artillery, moved out, crossed the Bullpasture River, and began marching up Sitlington Hill. It was not easy. Nathaniel C. McLean, Colonel of the 75th Ohio Infantry, and in charge of the attack, remembered that the “side of the mountain up which I was compelled to attack was entirely destitute of protection, either from trees or rocks, and so steep that the men were at times compelled to march either to one side or the other in order to make the assault.”

For many Union and Confederate soldiers at McDowell, this was their introduction to battle, and probably would have echoed Colonel George H. Smith of the 25th Virginia Infantry, who wrote that “this was my first fight, and I hardly knew what to do.” Despite the lack of experience, McDowell saw intense combat, starting before 6 p.m. and lasting well after dark. One participant recalled that the “sheets of flame shot from the angry mouths of the guns, lighting up the whole side.”

Although the Confederates were defending, they actually suffered higher casualties. This was primarily due to several factors: for one, as the sun set in the west, behind the Union lines, Confederates were silhouetted against the clear sky to the east. Next, because Confederates stood above their Union foe, they tended to overshoot; and finally, most of the Federal infantry were armed with rifled muskets, while many Confederates were still armed with smoothbores. (One Confederate regiment, the 12th Georgia Infantry, took especially high casualties.)

Action along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike saw the 3rd Virginia (Union) face skirmishers from the 31st Virginia. Some members from both regiments had been recruited in Clarksburg - where “Stonewall” Jackson was born – so while exchanging volleys, they also called out their former neighbors by name.

The fighting continued after dark, but close to 9 p.m., as Union soldiers began to run low on ammunition, Milroy ordered his men to withdraw. They pulled back into McDowell, bringing as many of their wounded with them as they could, and before 2 a.m. on May 9th, the Federal retreat to Franklin, Virginia, began. Jackson moved into the village of McDowell the next morning, assigning to the Virginia Military Institute cadets, who were present at the battle but had not taken part in the fighting, the unpleasant task of burying the dead and dealing with the wounded, Union casualties at McDowell numbered 256, while the Confederates suffered 532. Of that number, the 12th Georgia Infantry lost 175 (see sidebar on that unit).

The morning of the May 9th, Jackson sent news to Richmond, writing, “God blessed our arms with victory at McDowell yesterday.” This victory was received with great jubilation, for the Confederacy had experienced numerous set-backs that spring: a Union blockade that was starting to take effect; the loss of Memphis, Island No. 10, and New Orleans along the Mississippi River; the defeat at Shiloh; and McClellan’s Army of the Potomac inching its way up towards Richmond. Jackson’s victory at McDowell did much to raise Southern morale; it also stopped the Federal advance into the Upper Valley, and to Staunton.

The next day, May 10th, Jackson began his pursuit of the Union forces, following them to Franklin. Satisfied that they had been dealt with for the time being, Jackson turned back to McDowell, and then to Staunton. Now Jackson could turn his attention to Banks, and that is exactly what he would do.
Civil War era sketch
Sketch of Sitlington Hill

Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation

12th Georgia Volunteer Infantry

The 12th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment was raised in the spring of 1861, completing its organization in Richmond that June. Sent to western Virginia it participated in operations there, then became part of Brigadier General Edward Johnson’s command. When Johnson linked up with Jackson in early May 1862, the 12th Georgia was in Colonel Zephaniah Conner’s brigade, which also included the 25th and 31st Virginia Infantry Regiments.

During the May 8, 1862 Battle of McDowell, the 12th took position on the left center of the Confederate line on Sitlington Hill. There they occupied a ridge spur that required the regiment to form like an inverted V. This position, exposed to the enemy from three sides, was one reason the Georgians suffered such high casualties. But there were other reasons.

The 12th Georgia used .69 caliber muskets, whose range was little more than 100 yards - about as far away as the Federals stood – while their opponents, the 75th Ohio, was using rifled muskets, with much greater range and accuracy. Also, as evening fell, the Georgians found themselves silhouetted against a clear sky to the east, making them fine targets. Finally, as losses mounted, the 12th’s officers ordered their men to pull back to a less exposed position; the men refused, and the next day, one member of the regiment explained that, “we did not come all the way to Virginia to run before Yankees.”

Their bravery cost them. Entering the battle with 540 in the ranks, the 12th Georgia saw 52 killed and 123 wounded, a loss of nearly 35 %.

The 12th Georgia would go on to serve the rest of the war in the Army of Northern Virginia, including being part of Jubal Early’s Valley Army in the summer and fall of 1864. In April 1865, only 55 officers and men remained in the regiment to surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Last updated: August 22, 2020

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