November 28, 1862-Marching to Destiny: Jackson's use of the Blue Ridge Mountains to screen his movement to Fredericksburg
The Blue Ridge Mountains as a Confederate Ally
Shenandoah National Park protects nearly 200,000 acres of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The park's scenic byway, Skyline Drive winds along the crest and features numerous overlooks that give visitors sweeping views of the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley to the east and west. This unique vantage point also gives visitors the chance to see for themselves the important role these mountains played in advancing the cause of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
A previous article, Shenandoah's Civil War Connection, describes how the Confederate armies utilized the Blue Ridge Mountains as a natural screen to conceal the movement of troops and highlights the skill of Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in utilizing the lesser known passes through the mountains to obscure his troop movements from prying eyes during his famous 1862 Valley Campaign.
Jackson made it clear that this talent for using the Blue Ridge Mountains to his strategic advantage was not limited to a single campaign when he exhibited the same aptitude five months later.
The Road from Antietam
On September 17, 1862 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Union Army of the Potomac engaged each other at the Battle of Antietam, on what remains the single bloodiest day in American history.
The following day Confederate commander Robert E. Lee decided to pull his army off the field of battle and retreat across the Potomac River into Virginia. He then decided to split the army in two, sending the newly designated II Corps under Jackson up the Shenandoah Valley while he and the remainder of the army moved south where they spent the next two months regrouping in the piedmont region between Culpeper and Fredericksburg.
While Jackson and his Corps rested unopposed in the valley, Lee kept eye on the Union Army of the Potomac. On November 17 the Right Grand Division of this army, a third of the total force now commanded by Ambrose Burnside, reached the ground just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, VA.
The next day, on November 18, Lee began moving the 40,000 men under his direct command to block Burnside's advance and sent this message to Jackson: "I think it would be advisable to put some of your divisions in motion across the mountains."
This simple message was all Jackson needed to take his corps on a route he had planned out in case the need arose. Whereas in June he had used Browns Gap southeast of Harrisonburg to move his forces to Richmond, now Jackson wished to pass through the mountains further north.
Upon receipt of Lee's message Jackson ordered his lead division, commanded by D.H. Hill, to begin moving toward the mountains. His initial order was not specific and Hill responded by asking for greater detail. On November 20, 1862 Jackson sent this message to D.H. Hill: "Your route will be from New Market via Columbia bridge, & Fishers Gap. You will leave the Valley pike at New Market, & keep to the right of Luray."