Fought on June 8, 1862, the Battle of Cross Keys was the fifth engagement and fourth 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 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 loss of Jackson's career as a commanding officer—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, 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 17,000 men. By May 22, Jackson had marched his soldiers to within ten miles of a Union garrison of approximately one thousand men protecting Banks's supply line at the village of Front Royal. On the next day, Jackson's soldiers overwhelmed Colonel J.R. Kenly’s small Union command and threatened to isolate or flank Banks's main army at Strasburg, thus forcing the Federal general to retreat north toward the town of Winchester.
As Banks's army withdrew down the Shenandoah 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 divided his men, approaching Winchester from two directions early on May 25. The Confederates 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, D.C., 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 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, then to move south, and to converge with Frémont to crush Jackson's army.
Lincoln's plan began unraveling almost immediately. Frémont's advance was delayed by bad weather and poor roads. 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 he then refused to budge until he was reinforced by a second division, commanded by Major General Edward O. C. Ord, of McDowell's corps. Meanwhile, Banks was still rebuilding his shattered army and could not be persuaded to move until June 10. By the time each of the Federal armies were poised to complete their assigned tasks, Jackson had escaped.
While the Federals were mobilizing, Jackson moved south and rested his weary army at Port Republic, near where the confluence of the North and South Rivers forms the South Branch of the Shenandoah River. As Frémont and Shields converged upon Jackson from the northwest and northeast, the Confederate general determined to defeat each Union force in detail, before they could unite and overwhelm him.
To deal with Frémont, Jackson stationed the 5,800 soldiers of General Richard Ewell's division near Cross Creek Tavern, approximately five miles west of Jackson's main army at Port Republic. Ewell positioned his men in a line above Mill Creek, which afforded him an excellent view of Frémont's advance route along the Port Republic Road. On the right (east) end of Ewell's line, Brigadier-General Isaac Ridgeway Trimble pushed forward and concealed his brigade behind a fencerow.
Frémont believed that the right side of the Confederate line was the most vulnerable. Accordingly, he ordered Brigadier-General Julius Stahel's brigade on the Union left to advance first. Stahel shared Frémont's belief that the bulk of the Rebels were concentrated near the center of their line. Thus, he failed to take proper precautions as he moved forward toward Trimble's ambush. When the Federals came within fifty or sixty yards of the concealed Confederates, Trimble's men poured a withering torrent of searing lead into the unsuspecting Yankees. Stahel's men turned and fled, with Trimble in hot pursuit for nearly one mile. When Ewell refused Trimble's request to continue his pursuit, Trimble went directly to Jackson, who sided with Ewell.
As the Union left was collapsing, the brigades of Robert H. Milroy and Robert C. Schenck, were making some progress against the Confederate center and right. Ewell, however, reinforced those positions with troops commanded by Brigadier-General Richard Taylor and Colonel John Patton. Erroneously believing that he was facing Jackson's entire army, Frémont called off the assault and withdrew.
The victory at the Battle of Cross Keys cost the Confederacy 287 soldiers, including forty-two killed, 230 wounded, and fifteen missing. Union losses totaled 664, including 114 killed, 443 wounded, and 127 missing. In addition to inflicting much higher casualties on his opponent, Ewell accomplished his mission of preventing Frémont from uniting with Shields. On the next day, Ewell left Trimble and Patton's brigades behind to hold Frémont at bay, while he returned with the bulk of his force to Port Republic and helped Jackson dispose of the threat from Shields.
Ohio units that fought in the Battle of Cross Keys included:
32nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
55th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
60th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
73rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
75th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
82nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
Battery I, 1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery
Battery K, 1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery
12th Ohio Independent Battery of Ohio Volunteer Artillery
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"Battle of Cross Keys," Ohio Civil War Central, 2020, Ohio Civil War Central. 8 Apr 2020 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=961>
"Battle of Cross Keys." (2020) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved April 8, 2020, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=961