Marching to Fredericksburg via New Market

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On one of my research trips to New Market when I was working on Call Out The Cadets, I made the trek to the top of New Market gap in Massanutten Mountian in the Shenandoah Valley. Modern Route 211 crosses the mountain running east/west and parallels the old roadbed in use during the Civil War era. And there at the top of the gap is a connection to the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had waited in the Shenandoah Valley as Lee, Longstreet, and Stuart kept an eye on the Army of the Potomac and its new commander, General Burnside. By late November, enough of Burnside’s plan was clear, Lee ordered Jackson and his approximately 32,000 men to join the rest of the force at Fredericksburg. In Henry K. Douglas’s narrative: “He [Jackson] left Winchester for another, and his last, trip over the Valley pick the last week of November. With long and rapid marches he passed Strasburg, Woodstock, to New Market, then turning east over the Massanutton[sp] and the Shenandoah to Lurary Valley, then into the Blue Ridge and over it at Fisher’s Gap to a different country of Virginia…”

On November 23, 1862, Jackson and his staff camped somewhere at the top of Massanutten Mountain, probably not far from the road. The following morning his staff officers admired the view of the valleys, probably sipping coffee and getting ready for the day’s ride.

Much to their astonishment, the general emerged from his tent wearing a new coat, new hat, and recently acquired sword. Somewhat legendary for his mismatched attire and worn clothing, Jackson had been the beneficiary of some good friends. Cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart had made a present of the new coat. Mapmaker and staff member Jed Hotchkiss had purchased the new hat, and the sword had been captured and presented by another cavalryman.

While the staff officers stared, Jackson proclaimed: “Young gentlemen, this is no longer the headquarters of the Army of the Valley, but the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.”

New Market Gap, as seen from the Shenandoah Valley looking east

It was a transformative moment in Confederate military history (new uniforms aside). Jackson had fought for, attempted to resign, and constantly kept watch on his military autonomy. He wanted free reign to battle and campaign in ways that he saw best. The Army of the Valley was his. He had gone to aid in the Seven Days Battles and had campaigned with Lee and Longstreet during the late summer and autumn months. There New Market Gap, Jackson verbalized a transition.

The Confederate Congress had authorized General Robert E. Lee to officially divide his army – Army of Northern Virginia – into two corps. The special act had passed on November 6, 1862, and news would have reached Jackson shortly after. In some ways, the new system only formalized the generic organization which had already existed and had been used in previous campaigns, but it also allowed for better military control, structure, and supply. However, in the process, Jackson “lost command” of the Army of the Valley. He still commanded the same troops, but the name had changed. He had been taking orders from Lee and working with him for months, but now it was officialized in the organization patterns. Jackson’s Army of the Valley gave up some of their perceived autonomy and came directly under Lee’s command, also moving their center of operations from the Valley and mostly to the Central Virginia area. Jackson commanded the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, and he was fine – possibly even proud – of the position.

Certainly, Jackson had been taking orders from Lee and plotting campaigns with him for the majority of the year. In some ways, not much had changed. Lee had allowed Jackson much freedom while requiring him to work with other Confederate operations. Perhaps Jackson sensed that even as his troops merged official into the Army of Northern Virginia, he would still have his say as a commander. Jackson respected Lee, and their military relationship had been forged on the battlefields that year – building trust for both of them.

It had been a long year already for Jackson from the Romney Campaign, threatened resignation, the Valley Campaign, Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, and the Antietam Campaign. Now, he merged his fighting army under the leadership of Robert E. Lee as a corps and would fight two more battles before his death. One of those battles loomed just weeks away: Battle of Fredericksburg.

Jackson, his staff, and corps had been on the road for days already. For them, the road to Fredericksburg had already begun, even though they had a delayed started compared to other units. However, perhaps it can be reasoned that at the top of New Market Gap, Jackson made a declaration that would set the course: they were marching to join Lee. They were the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. Officially on paper. Officially in Jackson’s mind.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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