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Battle of Front Royal

May 23, 1862

Fought on May 23, 1862, the Battle of Front Royal was the third engagement and second Confederate victory of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.

In the spring of 1862, Major General George B. McClellan was preparing to launch his much-anticipated Peninsula Campaign against the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. In addition to McClellan's primary command, three Union forces to the northwest were poised to move south through the Shenandoah Valley to support the invasion. Opposing the three Federal armies was a small Confederate force of approximately 4,500 soldiers commanded by General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. As the Union plan to capture Richmond began, Jackson's instructions were to prevent the Federal armies in the Shenandoah area from reinforcing McClellan.

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 began on February 27, when Major General Nathaniel Banks, Union commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, led much of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac (over twenty thousand soldiers) across the Potomac River near Harper's Ferry and into Virginia. On March 23, a division, commanded by Colonel Nathan Kimball, of Banks's army defeated Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown I.

Following the defeat at Kernstown—the only loss of Jackson's career as a commanding officer—the Confederate general retreated south to the central portions of the Shenandoah Valley and spent the next several weeks reinforcing and reorganizing his Army of the Valley. In mid-April, General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, and General Joseph Johnston agreed to send Major General Richard Ewell's division into the Shenandoah Valley, increasing the size of Jackson's command by 8,500 soldiers. On May 8, Jackson defeated two brigades of Major General John C. Frémont's Mountain Department at the Battle of McDowell in the upper portions of the valley. Jackson's victory at McDowell enabled him to turn his undivided attention to Banks's army, which had moved south through the Shenandoah Valley to the vicinity of Strasburg.

As Jackson headed down the Shenandoah Valley (northward), he reunited with Ewell's division, which had been keeping tabs on Banks while Jackson was disposing of Frémont. The addition of Ewell's division swelled the size of Jackson's army to seventeen thousand men. By May 22, Jackson had marched his soldiers to within ten miles of the village of Front Royal, where the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River join. Colonel J.R. Kenly commanded approximately one thousand Union troops that Banks garrisoned there to protect his supply line along the Manassas Gap Railroad. Jackson determined to overwhelm Kenly's small garrison and to isolate Banks from Federal forces stationed at to the east.

Early on the morning of May 23, Jackson deployed Brigadier-General Richard Taylor's brigade on Prospect Hill and along a ridge east of Front Royal. At the same time, Jackson sent his cavalry, commanded by Colonel Turner Ashby, west to disrupt communication between Kenly and Banks's headquarters at Strasburg. Jackson then ordered Colonel Bradley T. Johnson's 1st Maryland Infantry and Major Roberdeau Wheat's Louisiana "Tigers" Battalion to advance on the Union garrison. As the Rebels entered the village, they found themselves facing members of the 1st Maryland Infantry of the U.S. Army. The Battle of Front Royal was the only engagement of the Civil War that pitted regiments from the same state with identical numerical designations against each other. During the fight, Confederate Captain William Goldsborough took his brother Charles prisoner. The battle was also distinctive because it was one of the few engagements of the Civil War that featured urban combat.

Unable to offer much resistance to Jackson's overwhelming numbers, the small Union garrison quickly retreated north toward the forks of the Shenandoah River. The Bluecoats unsuccessfully attempted to fire the bridges over the river as they fled. With Major Thomas Flournoy's cavalry in hot pursuit, the Yankees made two futile stands before capitulating. When Kenly fell wounded, more than seven hundred Federals surrendered.

The Battle of Front Royal was an undisputed Confederate victory. Union casualties totaled nearly nine hundred men, most of whom were prisoners. In addition, the Confederates commandeered Federal supplies worth in excess of 300,000 dollars. By comparison, the Confederacy lost fewer than fifty men. No exclusively Ohio units fought in this engagement.

Although the Battle of Front Royal was a minor engagement, it is difficult to over-exaggerate the impact it may have had on the outcome of the Civil War. Upon learning of Jackson's victory, and Banks's subsequent retreat, President Lincoln telegraphed McClellan on May 24, "In consequence of General Banks's critical position I have been compelled to suspend General McDowell's movements to you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper's Ferry, and we are trying to throw Frémont's force and part of McDowell's in their rear." Lincoln's decision to deploy twenty thousand men from McDowell's command to deal with Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley enabled Johnston to focus his attention on protecting Richmond from McClellan's main assault up the James River Peninsula. As McClellan's campaign unfolded, his soldiers reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital before the Southerners drove the Northerners back. What may have transpired if Lincoln had not interfered with McClellan's original plan to have McDowell move against Richmond from the north can only be left to conjecture.

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