I 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: