Jonas Slaton, M.D. is a local Winchester, VA doctor when the Civil War begins. Because of its proximity to Washington D.C. and its many productive farms, the Shenandoah Valley is of vital importance to both the North and South and will be fought over many times during the conflict.
In May 1862, the Union Army under General Banks occupies Winchester but Stonewall Jackson's Valley Army remains intact, fully expected to attempt to retake the town. Preparing for the first Battle of Winchester, Dr. Jonas Slaton invites a number of people to stay in the safety of his house for the duration, including the new storekeeper's sister, Elaine, whose spell he instantly falls under...
The shabby, ragged men poured down off the ridge like a turgid brown and gray stream, moving at a high trot, almost running, rifles held across their chests, bayonets winking in the May sunshine. They were silent until they hit the first streets of Front Royal, Virginia, and then from three hundred and fifty throats poured that awful, hair-raising rebel yell.
General Stonewall Jackson's plan was to secure the bridges that crossed the two forks of the Shenandoah west of the town. That would allow him to move his army on up the side of Massanutten Mountain to Winchester, twenty miles away where Union General Banks had his headquarters. Jackson was determined to push the Yankees back across the Potomac and threaten Washington D.C.
The word came along with the first Yankee artillery shells: "The regiment facing us is the Union 1st Maryland." A growl went through the trotting ranks, for the Confederate soldiers entering Front Royal were also from the state of Maryland. The Confederate 1st Maryland Infantry Regiment was about to attack the Federal 1st Maryland Infantry Regiment, perhaps brother against brother. The true cruelty of a civil--uncivil--war was about to unfold.
North of the courthouse square on a knob called Richardson's Hill, Union Colonel John Kenly had positioned his 1st Maryland infantry around two artillery pieces, which began to fire as they saw the charging Confederates. Explosive shells lit among the Southern troops, but the men did not stop; they swept on through the town as happy civilians came to meet them, trying to hand them food and drink. The streets were quickly cleared of Yankee skirmishers, and the Confederate Marylanders, now reinforced by the Major Wheat's Louisiana Tigers, streamed on into the wheat fields north of town.
Musket balls were filling the air as the men from Maryland and Louisiana charged the dug in Yankees on Richardson Hill. But the fire was too hot to continue the charge, and the cannon were spewing grapeshot, so they dropped to the ground behind what shelter they could find and waited.
Confederate Colonel Johnson's Marylanders were now pinned down, and he sorely needed artillery support, but it was slow in coming. The Yankees were so well dug in that a continued frontal assault would mean the loss of most of his men, so they hugged the ground. The Union artillery from Richardson's Hill began to pound the Confederate position, with Yankee skirmishers pouring in rifle fire from behind every stone wall and large tree.
With great care, Johnson sent some of his Marylanders crawling back to a depression in the ground, and then on their feet along the sunken bed of Happy Creek to set up a flank attack on the Federal troops from the east.
General Taylor finally brought his entire Louisiana Brigade up to join Wheat's Tigers, and Jackson saw his chance. He directed Taylor to send three regiments to support Johnson, and one regiment around Richardson's Hill to flank the Yankees from the west.
Just when nearly all of the Confederate forces were in position, the infantry was saved from a further attack by Colonel Flourney's cavalry. After tearing up railroad tracks and ripping down telegraph wires west of Front Royal, Flourney rode up to the battle at two p.m. from the south. When Union Colonel Kenly saw the cavalry regiment headed to cut off his escape, he moved his command back north across the river to new positions and dug in again.
To delay the Confederates from crossing the south fork of the Shenandoah, the Yankees set fire to the bridge, but General Taylor saw what was happening and sent the 8th Louisiana to put the fire out. The Union gunners were dropping shells all around, but Colonel Kelly, the 8th's commander was not to be denied. Leading his men with a shout, he crossed the railroad span and headed for the burning bridge. Under an intense artillery and musket barrage, the men managed to put the fire out and save the bridge, even though a large hole had been burned in the center. As Taylor's brigade crossed the river in single file around the hole, they saw the Yankees withdrawing north down the Valley.
Jackson didn't want the Union troops to escape, and he sent Flourney's cavalrymen in pursuit, accompanying them himself, catching the fleeing Yankees at Cedarville. Kenly quickly deployed his men behind fences and brick walls, and set his two artillery pieces on the road facing the attack. Rather than wait for infantry to come up, the Confederate cavalry charged the Union line. There were only 250 men in Flourney's command, but they fought like ten times that many.
In making a last stand, General Kenly was badly wounded and dropped down out of the fight. As if that were a signal, the men of his command began to run back toward Winchester, the southern cavalry in hot pursuit. Finally, as the day waned into darkness, the victory was complete, and the Confederate soldiers rounded up prisoners, and quickly fell on captured supplies of food and clothing.
May 23rd, 1862 came to an end. The stage was set, and the First Battle of Winchester, Virginia was about to begin.
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