Fought on June 9, 1862, the Battle of Port Republic was the sixth engagement and fifth 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. In addition to McClellan's primary command, three Union armies 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 rolled into action, 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 20,000 soldiers) across the Potomac River near Harper's Ferry and into Virginia. On March 23, a division of Banks's army, commanded by Colonel Nathan Kimball, defeated Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown I.
Following the defeat at Kernstown—the only one of Jackson's career—the Confederate general retreated south to the central valley and spent the next several weeks reinforcing and reorganizing his Army of the Valley. In mid-April, General Robert E. Lee, serving as military advisor to Confederate 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 valley. Jackson's victory at McDowell enabled him to turn his undivided attention to Banks's army, which had moved south through the valley to the vicinity of Strasburg.
As Jackson headed down the 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 17,000 men. By May 22, Jackson had marched his soldiers to within ten miles of a Union garrison of roughly one thousand men, assigned to protect Banks's supply line at the village of Front Royal. On the next day, Jackson's soldiers overwhelmed Colonel J.R. Kenly’s small command and threatened to isolate or flank Banks's main army at Strasburg, thus forcing the Union general to retreat north toward the town of Winchester.
As Banks's army withdrew down the valley (northward), Jackson's troops harassed them throughout the day of May 24. During the retreat, the Rebels captured so many Union supplies that they later referred to the Federal commander as "Commissary Banks." As night approached, Banks stopped just south of Winchester to reorganize his army and to slow Jackson's pursuit. Allowing his troops only a few hours of rest, Jackson approached Winchester from two directions early on May 25, and dealt Banks a sound defeat that sent the Yankees fleeing back across the Potomac River.
Jackson's victory at the Battle of Winchester I created a great deal of angst in Washington, especially with President Lincoln. Weary of Federal defeats in the Shenandoah Valley, Lincoln personally devised a complicated plan to stop Jackson's escapades. The president ordered Frémont to re-enter the Shenandoah Valley from the west near Strasburg and then to drive south to disrupt Jackson's supply lines near Harrisonburg. Lincoln also instructed Banks to re-cross the Potomac and to drive Jackson up the valley (southward). Finally, the president directed McDowell to send a large detachment, commanded by Major General James Shields, into the Shenandoah Valley from the east and then to move south to converge with Frémont to crush Jackson's army.
Lincoln's plan began unraveling almost immediately. Bad weather and poor roads delayed Frémont's advance. McDowell, who still harbored designs of moving against Richmond, reluctantly sent Shields's division back to the Shenandoah Valley. Shields managed to re-occupy Front Royal on May 30, but then refused to budge until he was reinforced by a second division of McDowell's corps, commanded by Major General Edward O. C. Ord. Meanwhile, Banks was still rebuilding his shattered army and could not be persuaded to move until June 10.
While the Federals were mobilizing, Jackson moved south and rested his weary army at Port Republic, where the confluence of the North and South Rivers forms the South Branch of the Shenandoah River. As Frémont and Shields converged upon him from the northwest and northeast, Jackson determined to defeat each Union force independently, before they could unite and overwhelm him.
On June 8, General Richard Ewell's division defeated Frémont's army at the Battle of Cross Creek, approximately five miles west of Port Republic. Following the Confederate victory, Ewell headed east to join Jackson's expedition to defeat Shields. Ewell left behind two brigades, commanded by Brigadier-General Isaac Ridgeway Trimble and Colonel John Patton, to forestall any attempts by Frémont to assist Shields.
Jackson's plan was audacious. He intended to cross the South fork of the Shenandoah River on the morning of June 9, to overwhelm Shields's command, and then to re-cross the river and dispose of the remnants of Frémont's army on the same day. As events turned out, the dual goals were overly ambitious.
Jackson's plan hinged on getting a large number of troops and their artillery across the South River and into the field to confront Shields’s force, which was commanded by Brigadier General Erastus B. Tyler. To accomplish that task, Jackson ordered his engineers to construct a bridge made from wagons during the pre-dawn hours. The engineers successfully spanned the river, but the bridge could accommodate only a single file of traffic, forcing Jackson to deploy his troops piecemeal throughout the day. First across the river was Brigadier General Charles S. Winder, commanding the famous Stonewall Brigade, which General Jackson accompanied.
On the Union side, Tyler deployed the two brigades under his command in a north-south line running from Lewis's Mill, on the east bank of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, to a hill known as the Coaling. Tyler had artillery situated on top of the Coaling, and he fired on Winder's brigade as soon as they came into view. Winder split his brigade and attacked the Union line on two fronts without success. The Federals began pushing the lone Rebel brigade back toward the river.
By that time, Confederate General Richard Taylor's brigade had crossed the river. Upon hearing the firing, Taylor rushed his men forward and sought to silence the guns atop the Coaling. When the Federals' attention shifted to Taylor, Winder attempted an unsuccessful counterattack and was pinned down and forced to retreat. At that point, Jackson abandoned his goal of defeating Shields and Frémont on the same day. Needing all of the reinforcements he could muster, Jackson sent word for the two brigades left at Cross Creek to march to Port Republic, to cross the North River using the North Bridge, and then to burn the bridge behind them.
As the Yankees were pushing Winder's men back toward the river, Richard Ewell came forward with another brigade. Ewell flanked the Federals and brought the Rebel retreat to a halt. When Tyler was forced to move men from the Coaling to deal with Ewell's brigade, Taylor launched a successful attack on the Coaling and took control of five Union guns. Tyler responded by rushing his reserves forward and retaking the hill following a fierce hand-to-hand engagement. Taylor then ordered a counterattack, taking the hill a second time and then turned the captured guns against Tyler's troops. With the Rebels in possession of the hill and the Union artillery, Tyler was forced to withdraw at 10:30 a.m. By that time, Jackson had his entire army across both rivers. The Confederates pursued the beaten Yankees for about five miles, taking several hundred prisoners.
By the time Jackson called off the Confederate pursuit, Frémont's army arrived at the west bank of the rain-swollen river but was unable to cross. Frémont harassed Jackson with some artillery fire from across the river, forcing Jackson to move out of range and ending the engagement.
Jackson's victory at the Battle of Port Republic cost him an estimated 816 of the six thousand men he brought into combat. Of those, eighty-eight were killed, 535 were wounded, and thirty-four were missing or taken prisoner. The Union lost 1,002 of the three thousand soldiers engaged, including sixty-seven killed, 361 wounded, and 574missing or captured.
After the battle, Jackson prepared for Frémont to cross the river and to attack him the next day, but the Union commander instead withdrew toward Harrisonburg. Shields also chose to withdraw to the north, leaving Jackson in control of the upper Shenandoah Valley. A few days later, Jackson received orders to move by rail to Richmond and to join Robert E. Lee for the Confederate counteroffensive on the Peninsula, thus ending the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Port Republic included:
5th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
29th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
66th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Battery H, 1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery
Battery L, 1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery
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"Battle of Port Republic," Ohio Civil War Central, 2020, Ohio Civil War Central. 19 Sep 2020 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=953>
"Battle of Port Republic." (2020) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 19, 2020, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=953