Jackson’s shining hour
ADRIAN J. O’CONNOR
WINCHESTER — There are some battles, though not as many as one might think, in which dominance in strategy as well as in tactics is achieved so that total victory is accorded the triumphant army. Or, to put it more simply, no decisive turning points changed the course of the outcome. From the beginning, one side seemed bound to win.
The First Battle of Winchester, Stonewall Jackson’s shining hour, was one of these battles.
Neatly summarized, force concentration was brought to bear largely through the efforts of Brig. Gen. Richard Taylor and his Louisiana brigade — the famed Louisiana Tigers included — which rolled up the right flank of Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ outmanned army and chased the Federals through Winchester into Martinsburg and eventually across the Potomac into Maryland.
Banks’ 6,000-man contingent lost 2,019 in casualties, a whopping 1,714 missing or captured. Jackson’s army, numbering 16,000, suffered but 397 losses.
A battle in which a Union defeat seemed imminent from the git-go, Jackson pounded Banks’ advance guard at Front Royal, forcing the Union general to fall back toward Winchester. Along the way, Jackson’s hard-charging albeit increasingly weary “foot cavalry” closed steadily in, harrying Banks’ forces first at Middletown and then at Newtown (Stephens City) before the latter stumbled back behind the lines at Winchester — but not before giving full credence to his nickname “Commissary Banks.” Empty Confederate larders seemed to be restored whenever Banks was in the neighborhood.
Banks did make it back to Winchester in time to position his troops in hopes of staving off Jackson. He deployed his right along Bower’s Hill (to the southwest of present-day Handley High School), his cavalry anchored the center along Camp Hill, while a brigade formed a crescent across the Millwood and Front Royal pikes.
To no avail. When Taylor and his “Tigers” overlapped the Union right, three brigades stared Union Col. George Henry Gordon in the face while another three stood just off to the right. Force concentration, to be sure.
With the taciturn Jackson showing unusual enthusiasm for the fray — “Order forward the whole line; the battle’s won,” he screamed, followed by “Very good, now let’s holler” and the Rebel yell resounded — Gordon bid a hasty retreat, his soldiers streaming back to Winchester. And far beyond.
Jackson succeeded in his mission and would continue doing so for the rest of the spring and early summer. The thrashing he gave Banks convinced the Union brass they needed to divert troops, intended for Gen. George McClellan’s attack on Richmond, to the Valley, to keep an eye on the Confederacy’s burgeoning legend.