May 8, 1862
Fought on May 8, 1862, the Battle of McDowell was the second engagement and first Confederate victory of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
In the spring of 1862, Major General George 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 valley, and Banks chose not to pursue him. Jackson 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. Toward the end of the month, Jackson became concerned about potential threats to his supply base at the town of Staunton near the southern end of the valley. Banks had slowly moved up the valley (southward) as far as Harrisonburg, just thirty miles from Staunton. Simultaneously, General Robert H. Milroy's brigade, from Major General John Frémont's Army of the Mountain Department, was approaching Staunton from the west. Jackson determined to defeat each army in separately before they could unite against him and capture the vital transportation hub at Staunton. In early May, Jackson misled the Federals by marching his army east across the Blue Ridge Mountains to Charlottesville, as if headed for Richmond, then reversing his course and returning to Staunton by rail. West of there, he joined forces with three thousand Confederate soldiers commanded by Brigadier-General Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, who had been skirmishing with Frémont's troops for months.
On May 7, Jackson marched his force of nearly nine thousand men westward along the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike to confront Milroy. By that afternoon, Jackson's vanguard encountered Union pickets, who hastily withdrew to the crest of Shenandoah Mountain. Jackson and Johnson then split their force into two columns to envelope the Federals on the mountain. Facing the possibility of being trapped between the two Rebel columns, Milroy withdrew that night and concentrated his men farther west toward the village of McDowell.
On the morning of May 8, Johnson advanced unopposed to the base of Sitlington's Hill. At that point, his command left the road and drove away Union skirmishers to occupy the top of the hill. Jackson ordered Johnson to hold the hill, while his own men searched for a way to flank the Federals.
Near 10 a.m., Brigadier-General Robert Schenck reinforced Milroy with nearly 1,500 soldiers and took command of the combined Union force. Fearing that Jackson was bringing artillery to the top of Sitlington's Hill, which would make the Federal position at McDowell untenable, Schenck and Milroy decided to strike first. At 3 p.m., Schenck personally led approximately 2,300 up the western face of the hill. For the next four hours, the battle raged with close-quarter fighting, but the Confederate line held. As darkness overtook the battlefield, the Federals withdrew and melted back into the western Virginia mountains overnight.
Although the Rebels prevailed at the Battle of McDowell, they suffered more casualties than the Federals. The Confederacy lost 420 soldiers (116 killed, three hundred wounded, and four missing), while the Union lost 259 men (thirty-four killed, 220 wounded, and five missing). Nonetheless, Frémont's retreat from the Shenandoah Valley enabled Jackson to turn his undivided attention to Banks's army, which had moved south through the valley to the vicinity of Strasburg.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of McDowell included:
12th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
25th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
32nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
73rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
75th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
82nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
9th Ohio Independent Battery of Ohio Volunteer Artillery