150 Years Ago This Week: The battle of Front Royal

May 1862

On Friday, May 16, the day following his infamous “Woman Order,” General Order No. 28, which declared that any woman in New Orleans who showed any disrespect to the flag or soldiers of the United States would be treated as common prostitutes, Gen. Benjamin Butler shut down publication of the New Orleans Bee and assumed control of the New Orleans Delta. Moreover, he ordered city banks to stop dealing in Confederate currency or face shutdown.

On the Peninsula in Virginia, Gen. McClellan established his headquarters at White House, Va., one of the properties owned by the family of Robert E. Lee. In the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Nathaniel Banks, acting under orders from War Secretary Stanton, sent his largest regiment, the 1st Maryland Infantry under Col. John Kenly, to Front Royal. Gen. Banks complained that in doing so, he was weakening his force at Strasburg.

Gen. Irwin McDowell’s Federal troops on the Rappahannock River on May 17 received orders from Washington to march on Richmond from the northwest, in cooperation with Gen. McClellan’s army approaching from the southeast. Near Corinth, Miss., Gen. Henry Halleck’s Federal troops remained in front of Gen. Beauregard’s Confederates, and engaged in minor skirmishing in front of the town. The next day, skirmishing took place near Woodstock, as Gen. Thomas Jackson’s troops were testing the strength of Gen. Banks’ forces. On the Mississippi River, Admiral David Farragut’s naval forces arrived at Vicksburg, Miss., and demanded the city to surrender. Confederate Brig. Gen. Martin. L. Smith, in charge of Vicksburg’s defenses, refused.

Of the threat on Richmond, a concerned Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to his absent wife, Varina, on May 19: “We are uncertain of everything except that a battle must be near at hand.” President Lincoln disavowed the emancipation proclamation previously issued by Maj. Gen. David Hunter, saying that it was up to the President to issue such a proclamation; he appealed for his policy of the states to adopt gradual, compensated emancipation. The next day, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, granting a free plot of 160 acres on public lands to actual settlers who would occupy and improve the land for five years.

Gen. Jackson’s troops in the Shenandoah Valley marched north on May 21 to New Market, then suddenly turned east, crossed the Massanutten Mountain and entered the Luray Valley. At Luray, the Confederates turned north again and marched along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River towards Front Royal, intending to surprise Col. Kenly’s force there, and outflank Gen. Banks’ Federals at Strasburg. At Luray, Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell’s troops joined Gen. Jackson’s, giving the Army of the Valley a force of 16,000 men and 48 guns. Southwest of Richmond, on the Peninsula, there was more skirmishing.

On May 22, Gen. Jackson’s army continued their march north through Page County towards Front Royal as Gen. McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac along the Chickahominy River on the outskirts of Richmond. At Fredericksburg, President Lincoln met with Gen. McDowell to urge him to move on Richmond and join Gen. McClellan.

The next day, Friday, May 23, aided by information provided by Belle Boyd, Gen. Jackson’s troops attacked Col. Kenly’s 800 Federals at Front Royal. There was sharp fighting as Jackson’s men drove the Federals through the streets of Front Royal, pitting the 1st Maryland Infantry, U.S., against the 1st Maryland Infantry, C.S. After fighting at the Shenandoah River bridges north of Front Royal, the Confederate victory was completed at Cedarville, just beyond the northern limits of Front Royal.

Gen. Jackson’s “foot-cavalry” then moved north to prevent Gen. Banks’ troops from reaching Winchester and, if possible, destroy the Union forces. In Washington, Jackson’s rapid movements and lightning attacks caused fear of a major advance on the capital. This alone prevented additional Union troops from being sent to reinforce Gen. McClellan on the Peninsula in the drive on Richmond.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.