Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Friday, January 6, 2012

The OTHER Romney Campaign...

While much of our national attention is currently devoted to the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency, on this January 6th it is another Romney Campaign which comes to mind. No, not the campaign of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to win the presidency; this Romney Campaign occurred 150 years ago. It was Major General Stonewall Jackson’s attempt to secure the lower (northern) end of the Shenandoah Valley by driving away Federal troops from Romney, Virginia (now West Virginia).

Jackson assumed command of the Shenandoah Valley District in early November, 1861. He was sent to western Virginia to protect and defend the Shenandoah Valley, a crucial piece of real estate for the Confederacy. The Shenandoah was not as pro-secessionist as other parts of the state, yet the people of the Valley supported their state and the southern cause. Running south to north, the Valley stretched 150 miles from Lexington, Virginia, to Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River. The resources of the Shenandoah were crucial for Confederate forces if they were to sustain a war against the more populous and powerful northern states. While it did not lead directly to Richmond, should a Federal army get into the Valley, significant damage could be done to Confederate transportation, supplies, and morale, deep in the heart of Virginia.

Upon arriving in Winchester in 1861, Jackson took stock of his situation. Sitting at the lower end of the valley, Winchester was key to keeping Federal armies at bay. However, in late 1861, Federal forces were scattered all over northwestern Virginia. Additionally, in Western Maryland, Major General Nathaniel Banks commanded a force of several thousand; however, Major General George B. McClellan’s hesitation to move and overestimation of Confederate forces around Manassas, Virginia which kept Banks at bay. Thus, Jackson’s more pressing concern was the town of Romney, sitting 43 miles to the west of Winchester and occupied by 4,000 Federal troops commanded by Union General Benjamin Franklin Kelley. After requesting several thousand additional troops commanded by Brigadier General William W. Loring, Jackson proposed to drive Kelley’s Federal troops out of Romney, thus removing a threat to Winchester and the Shenandoah. In late December, Jackson sent smaller forces to attempt to destroy Dam Number 5 on the C & O Canal, a few miles north of Williamsport, Maryland. These smaller raids were preliminary movements to disturb Federal operations in the area until Jackson decided to move against Romney. As the new year of 1862 dawned, Jackson was ready to strike.

For the first several days of January, Jackson’s men moved north and east from Winchester, advancing toward Bath, VA (now Berkeley Springs, WV), and Hancock, MD, instead of moving directly on Romney. On January 5th, Jackson’s men reached the Potomac River banks opposite of Hancock. After driving away a small Federal force on the Virginia side of the river, Jackson sent Colonel Turner Ashby across the Potomac and into Hancock under a flag of truce, requesting the surrender of Federal forces so as to keep the civilians of the town from experiencing harm. Ashby notified Union General F.W. Lander that he had two hours to evacuate the civilians of Hancock before Jackson would open fire, to which Lander replied, “Colonel Ashby, give my regards to General Jackson and tell him to bombard and be damned! If he opens his batteries on this town he will injure more of his friends than he will of the enemy, for this is a damned sesech place anyhow!”[1] The colonel of the 84th Pennsylvania recalled Lander also telling Ashby, “As for destroying property, you will have to be responsible for that; and if you cross the river you will have to run your own risk. I have some men here who are determined to fight until the last man falls.”[2] After writing out a more formal response to Jackson, Lander sent Ashby back to the Virginia side of the Potomac.

At 2:00 in the afternoon, Jackson’s guns opened fire on Hancock, MD. The artillery duel across the Potomac was mostly harmless, as General William Taliaferro noted, “It is a fact that the enemy literally snowballed us, for the missiles from their guns scattered in the hard snow and hurled the fragments upon us, almost as uncomfortable to us as the splinters from their shells.” During the back and forth, Jackson sent out raiding parties to again damage Dam No. 5 near Williamsport. The firing fell quiet at dark as a heavy snow set in, but resumed the next day, January 6th.

On the 7th, having seen his artillery barrage and attempts at crossing the river rebuffed in an easy fashion, Jackson decided to leave Hancock, and turned his army south toward his intended target of Romney. That day was extremely brutal for Jackson’s men. Freezing temperatures and blustery winds made the march difficult even for those who had proper clothes and footwear. Many of the army’s horses were not properly prepared for the march, lacking horseshoes and other equipment. As horses fell out of the line, either dead or dying, soldiers themselves were forced to pull harnesses to get wagons, caissons, and artillery pieces up mountain roads moving toward Romney. Even Jackson himself lent a hand in this harrowing undertaking. Upon reaching Unger’s Store, VA, with men and horses sick and dying from the demanding marches and brutal weather, Jackson had no choice but to rest for a few days to properly supply his army.

While Jackson rested his men and worried about the danger his absence posed for the safety of Winchester, he was unaware of developments in Romney. On January 9th, General Frederick Lander arrived in Romney with orders from McClellan telling him to fall back from the town to avoid being captured by Jackson’s force. Lander was furious with McClellan, believing he could easily best Jackson’s men given the weather and terrain: “The country wants folly, asks for folly… A demoralized enemy, starving and fearful, believing we are in force, a dark night, a snowy road, I would have stampeded the whole rearguard and burned his wagons.”[3] By January 10th, Lander was moving a 7,000 man Federal force out of Romney and towards the Potomac River and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. On January 13th, after Jackson learned of the Federal evacuation of Romney, he resumed his march towards the town, now certain of an easy victory. Upon reaching the town, Jackson’s men found a worn out area, not fit for healthy living. Many buildings were infested with lice and disease, and camps which were formed around the town were little better. After a few more raids and marches to destroy various bridges and transportation avenues in the region, Jackson decided to pull the bulk of his force back to Winchester in mid-January, leaving three brigades under the command of William Loring as a garrison at Romney.

While not one of the grand campaigns of the war, Jackson’s Romney campaign was significant for his forces in the Valley District. Many Confederate soldiers realized that their new commander was fierce, unrelenting, and at times ruthless. Jackson’s aggressive movements had pushed away Federal resistance at several crucial strategic points which had threatened the lower Shenandoah Valley. They had also exacted a terrible price of suffering among his men and horses. The marches which his men undertook in the first weeks of January 1862 were among the most difficult that any soldiers were asked to make in the entire war. Mountain roads, snow, ice, and freezing winds were more of an enemy for Jackson’s men than were Union forces in the area.

Once Jackson had returned to Winchester, worries over the safety of the garrison left behind at Romney emanated through the ranks of both Jackson’s officers and the Confederate war department. Secretary of War Judah Benjamin ordered Jackson to bring the Confederate garrison at Romney back to Winchester out of concern for their security. Jackson found such meddling in his command unacceptable, and offered his resignation to Richmond in response. Through the help of Alexander Boteler, the Valley District representative in the Confederate Congress, Jefferson Davis and Judah Benjamin were able to cool Jackson’s anger. They sent Boteler to meet with Jackson in Winchester, so as to soothe his ruffled feathers. Jackson lamented to Boteler that Benjamin’s order undid all that his Romney Campaign had accomplished, giving the Federals a strong foothold from which to launch an attack on the Shenandoah Valley once the spring campaign had begun. Boteler reminded Jackson that his native state of Virginia still required his services, and accordingly he could not resign. Jackson agreed, and though he was still smarting over Benjamin’s orders, he continued on with his Confederate service, much to the benefit of the Confederacy. Thus, by the end of the month, Romney was once again free of Confederate troops.

[1] Peter Cozzens, Shenandoah 1862 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 80.
[2] Ibid., 81.
[3] Ibid., 91.

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