One of the many tragic themes of the American Civil War was the way the conflict ripped families, friends, and/or neighbors apart. This was especially true in the border regions, including the state of Maryland. On May 23, 1862 in Front Royal, Virginia, former neighbors and friends came face-to-face on the field of battle.
The Battle of Front Royal is unique in this aspect. The battle would be the only time during the four-plus years of the war that units with the same numerical designation and from the same state—1st Maryland CSA and 1st Maryland USA—would line up opposite each other and fight it out.
The prelude to the battle provides one of the best cases of pre-combat oratory in the entire Civil War. The commander of the 1st Maryland CSA, Colonel Bradley Johnson, was in command of a regiment in turmoil. The different companies had been raised in two places—a few in Richmond for a year and the others in Harpers Ferry for the duration of the war. One of the companies had already seen their time expired and had left, most wanting to join the cavalry. Some of the other companies had actually stacked arms and refused to budge—their weapons on May 23rd were carried in the regiment’s wagons and the men marched under guard.
“Stonewall” Jackson on that day marched with Ewell’s column as it approached the Union garrison at Front Royal, under the command of Colonel J. R. Kenly. The North had in Front Royal only a few pieces of artillery and a reinforced regiment (that regiment was the 1st Maryland USA), numbering altogether a little over 1,000 men. Jackson issued the order for the 1st Maryland CSA to march to the front, deploy, and with the Louisiana brigade of General Richard Taylor take the town.
Upon receiving the order, Johnson, a prewar attorney, read the order to his regiment that he had received from Jackson; “Colonel Johnson will move the 1st Maryland to the front and attack the enemy at Front Royal. The army will halt until you pass.” Johnson then turned to his regiment.
“You have heard this personal order from General Jackson and you are in a pretty condition to obey. You are the sole hope of Maryland. You carry with you her honor and her pride. Shame on you—shame on you. I shall return this order to General Jackson with the endorsement, ‘The First Maryland refuses to the face the enemy’, for I will not trust the honor of the glorious old State to discontented, dissatisfied men. I won’t lead me who have no heard. Every man who is discontented must fall out of ranks—step to the rear and march with the guard. If I can get ten good men, I’ll take the Maryland colors with them and will stand for home and honor; but never again call yourselves Marylanders! No Marylander ever throw down his arms and deserted his colors in the presence of the enemy—and those arms and these colors give you by a women! Go!
[Bradley Johnson’s wife had helped raise the funds for the guns and supplies the 1st Maryland carried off to war]
As one can imagine, the effect in the ranks was inspiring, provoking cheers and promises of “Forward, we’ll follow you” and the men under guard pleaded to have their rifles returned.
The 1st Maryland CSA then made the forced march to the front of the Confederate column and deployed for battle. As they moved forward they captured a three-man picket post and as they quizzed the captives the startling fact that they faced their fellow statesmen became apparent. The gray-clad Marylanders had sworn that if they ever got the chance, they would show they were the “genuine Marylanders”. Front Royal was that chance and the 1st Maryland CSA lived up to their boast.
Put out front with the “Louisiana Tigers” of Major Roberdeau Wheat’s Louisiana Battalion, the Southerners drove the Northern skirmishers through the town toward Kenly’s position on Richard’s Hill. There Kenly had placed the few artillery pieces he had to slow the Confederate infantry assault. However, Confederate cavalry approaching from the west made his position untenable and Kenly retreated across the South and North Fork bridges to another elevation attempting to burn the bridges in the process. Persistent Confederate infantry ran forward to try and stop the conflagration and then attempted to rebuild what was destroyed as Confederate cavalry crossed and threatened to flank Kenly’s force. Kenly decide to continue the retreat down the Winchester Turnpike in the face of this threat to his flank, but fell wounded. Confederate cavalry, causing panic in the Union ranks, swept in and approximately 700 Union soldiers were netted as prisoners in the pursuing flight.
The victory it its entirety was lopsided; over 700 Union casualties compared to less than 50 combined Confederate losses.
Where did the quote “Maryland whip Maryland” come from? Randolph McKim, a Confederate Marylander recorded that a lovely woman resident of Front Royal ran to the soldiers of the 1st Maryland as they moved through town in pursuit of the Yankees, waving a Confederate flag. She cried out, “Maryland whip Maryland!” That quote stuck for posterity as a reference to the Battle of Front Royal.
Members of the 1st Maryland CSA were cordial to their fellow captured statesmen in blue. Most were neighbors or friends prior to the war. Some even had family members wearing Union blue; Major W.W. Goldsborough, who would later write about the war, found that one of the captured soldiers was his brother! The wounded Colonel Kenly left an account published by the Baltimore Sun newspaper, that the Confederate Marylander officers through their “actions and treatment were particularly kind.” After all, they were family members, friends, and acquaintances. They just differed in their political and perhaps moral bearings.
In the larger context of the Valley Campaign of 1862, Jackson’s destruction of the Union garrison at Front Royal completely flanked Union General Nathaniel Banks forces at Strasburg. The next day would see Confederate cavalry making the retreat of Banks force to Winchester uncomfortable. The following day, May 25th, Jackson would strike again—but that account can wait.