The Battle of McDowell

Sun over McDowell woodsI can hardly imagine the boom of cannons echoing off the mountains. Stonewall Jackson had perched atop the peaks southeast of town and dared Federal forces under Robert Milroy to attack him. Milroy, fanned across the valley below, gave it his best shot, but the terrain worked against him from the beginning. Why he thought it was a smart idea to attack uphill—up very steep, narrow, inhospitable hills—was a good idea, I don’t know. And standing at the tip-top of the battlefield, it’s hard to even imagine.

Five hardy Ohio regiments, and one Western Virginia regiment, made a go of it, though, and they battered the Virginians and Georgians on the hilltop, although the Confederates held on—stubbornly, as I said—and carried the day. In the end, Milroy’s inability to resupply his men, and his inability to bring any sort of artillery pressure to bear on Jackson’s position, ultimately decided the matter. Milroy withdrew as night fell, and he retreated back toward western Virginia.

Of the 6,000 Confederates and 6,500 Federals engaged, Confederates got the worst of the day with nearly twice the casualties: 256 Federals compared to 498 Confederates, including Confederate division commander Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, wounded in the foot.

Jackson pursued Milroy, hoping for a chance to crush him decisively, but with other Federal forces beginning to converge on him elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley, he chose to reverse direction and head back to Staunton. From there, he’d launch his forces northward for a string of victories that would help define his legacy.

Some people consider Jackson’s March 23 loss at Kernstown to be the first battle in vaunted Valley Campaign, although I’ve always looked at that fight more as a prelude. It happens a month and a half before the rest of the action. I don’t say that dismiss Kernstown as some Jackson partisans try to (because of his loss there.) However, it’s the compressed nature of the fights at McDowell, Front Royal, Winchester, Strasburg, Cross Keys, and Port Republic—as well as the marching and skirmishing in between—that defines the Valley campaign as such an impressive feat.

The hike to the top of the McDowell battlefield follows a steep one-mile trail that’s up and up and up. Just when I thought maybe I could see the top, there was more hill and more trail. I had hoped for a wide-open vista at the top, but a screen of trees blocked the view. After all the effort to reach the top, I was, I admit, disappointed. That disappointment was soon replaced by surprised delight, though, because my 3-year-son, walking with his mother, made the hike all the way to the top, too. (My 20-year-old son, Jackson, also made the walk.) In all, it was a satisfying family accomplishment.

I want to give a final shout-out to the preservation groups who’ve save more than 580 acres, ensuring a pristine battlefield. I also want to give a shout-out to Civil War Trails, whose signs provided vital interpretation.

For more of a look around, check out the ECW YouTube page:



11 Responses to The Battle of McDowell

  1. This post evokes memories on several levels. I had the privilege of being on a tour of the battlefield with Mr. Ed Bearss and Mr. Wil Greene years ago and I remember trying to keep up with Ed on the march up that hill; he won! Wil did a great job of demonstrating the challenge of the boys in blue trying to win the hill and how shooting downhill caused much of the Confederate fire to pass over their heads; perhaps a factor in the disparity in casualties. Lastly, I am a McDowell descendant through my dads mother (an Eagan) and aware of the rich contribution of McDowell’s in the history of the area. Wishing I could make another hike up that hill!

    1. I meant to add that I live within a few miles of General Milroy’s gravesite…and of all places…in the Olympia, WA area. Following the war he must have seen the promise of new frontiers opening up out West.

      1. Chance for a new start! (Maybe he was following the path west opened up by his former commander, John “The Pathfinder” Fremont….)

      2. Chris, I turns out he headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs…and is remembered fondly by the Yakama tribe for protecting their right to much of their ancestral lands.

    2. Cool stories, Dale. Thanks for sharing.

      Yeah, I could see how the angle would cause overshooting.

  2. Chris: Thanks for posting this. Sitlington Hill is an interesting site where attackers forced to attack uphill actually had a tactical advantage. McDowell is also another example showing that from a tactical (as opposed to operational) perspective, there’s a fair mix of myth with fact regarding how masterful Jackson’s Valley Campaign actually was. See also First Kernstown and Port Republic.

    1. Oh, I agree whole-heartedly about the Valley Campaign. As Kris White recently said of Jackson, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and for Jackson, the Valley Campaign illustrates that on several occasions (Strasburg and Cross Keys are great examples).

      After walking that ground the other day, I’m not convinced the Federals had much of a tactical advantage at McDowell beyond the fact that the hills were so steep, Confederates couldn’t effectively depress their barrels. Dale’s point, above, about overshooting is a good one. I wonder, though, if that was offset by the narrow fronts many of the Federal attacks were funneled into because of the ravines they used for some of their assaults. Neither side could get any artillery into the fight. However, I guess the fact that Johnson came off worse than MIlroy does say something!

      1. Solid points, including the tactical issues. If I recall correctly, the angle of the Sun was an issue for the defenders, as well. The Gray Eagle might have a better reputation if it wasn’t for that June 1863 debacle at Winchester.

  3. I spent 10 days with a fellow Civil War enthusiast, the EarDoc, as we went up and down and up and down the Shenandoah Valley , in the footsteps of Stonewall Jackson. We did both the Winter campaign and the Spring Campaign.

    You have to be retired in order to do this tour, and in chronological order.

    The highlight was finding a Jackson HQ, a HQ that Bud Robertson had never visited.

    Sitlington’s Hill…one mile up and one mile down!!

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