The weather in March improved, and military actions on land and sea began to increase with the coming of the spring campaigns. On March 11, Union troops under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks advanced on Winchester in overwhelming numbers, forcing the 4,600 Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to evacuate the town and withdraw south.
That night, Jackson held a council of war with his subordinate commanders, to consider attacking the cautiously advancing Federals in a rare night attack. He learned that his commanders not only opposed the attack but that the Confederates had marched too far south to make the attack possible. A frustrated Gen. Jackson said, “That is the last council of war I will ever hold.” Gen. Banks’s troops occupied Winchester the next day.
Federal troops also on March 11 occupied the abandoned Confederate positions at Manassas and Centreville. In Washington, President Lincoln, in his War Order No. 3, officially relieved Maj. Gen. McClellan of his post as general-in-chief of all Federal armies, but retained him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. In eastern North Carolina, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s command of 11,000 men embarked from Roanoke Island to meet Union gunboats at Hatteras Inlet for an expedition against New Berne.
The fleet sailed up the Neuse River and disembarked the infantry to approach the Confederate defenses at New Berne commanded by Brig. Gen. Lawrence Branch. On March 14, Federal troops attacked along the railroad there and after four hours of fighting, drove the Confederates out of their fortifications. The Federals captured nine forts and 41 heavy artillery pieces, and occupied a base they would hold until the end of the war.
Out in the west, Federals under Maj. Gen. John Pope captured Confederate-held New Madrid, Mo. Most of the Southerners there fled to Island No. 10, in the Mississippi River, previously fortified by Confederate troops as a means of keeping the waterway open and fortifying eastern Tennessee.
In St. Louis, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck exonerated Maj. Gen. Grant of the superficial charges leveled against him following the capture of Fort Donelson. Gen. Grant was restored to field command of the forces in Tennessee when a freak injury incapacitated Gen. Charles Smith, who had earlier replaced him. Gen. Smith was stepping out of a small boat and abraded his shin, which later became infected. Gen. Smith died of the infection a month later. Had it not been for the leg injury, the world might never have heard of Ulysses S. Grant.
On Monday, March 17, Gen. McClellan at Alexandria began embarking his huge Army of the Potomac onto transports and headed south to the James and York Rivers, from which point he would launch what would become known as the Peninsula Campaign against the Confederate capital. He was ordered to leave sufficient forces in northern Virginia to guard Washington from an attack by Gen. Johnston’s army, now north of Fredericksburg.
Changes to President Jefferson Davis’s cabinet in Richmond took place on March 18. Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, criticized for his management of the War Department, was appointed Secretary of State; he replaced the resigned R. M. T. Hunter, who went to the Confederate Senate. George W. Randolph became Secretary of War. Attorney General Thomas Bragg was replaced by Thomas H. Watts of Alabama in the Justice Department. The next day, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks was ordered to move most of his men from Winchester to protect Washington. Some of Banks’s command left for the capital, and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates moved down the valley from Strasburg towards Winchester on March 19 to pursue the withdrawing Federals.
At Ship Island in the Gulf off the coast of Mississippi on March 20, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler assumed command of the Department of the Gulf, continuing the buildup of Federal forces planning an attack on New Orleans. In Norfolk, The Day Book, a local newspaper, on Friday, March 21, editorially complained about increased drinking, particularly among Confederate officers, who were said to imbibe “in quantities which would astonish the nerves of a cast-iron lamp-post, and a quality which would destroy the digestive organs of an ostrich.” And in the New Mexico Territory, the Confederate Army of New Mexico was in Santa Fe; Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley was preparing to move north towards Union troops occupying Fort Union.