When West Virginia Got the Best of Old Jack

stonewall-jackson

During the American Civil War, the picturesque Shenandoah Valley was one of the most vital locations for both the state of Virginia and the Confederacy. Nestled neatly between the wall of Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the imposing Allegheny Mountains on the west, the roughly 200 mile long valley famously grew a plethora of crops – barley, beans, flax, apples, corn, rye, oats, and especially wheat. The Shenandoah exported so many crops that it became known as the Breadbasket of the Confederacy. The northeast/southwest orientation of the valley also benefitted the Confederacy. Because the eastern Blue Ridge Mountains form the spine of Virginia, the mountain range shielded the movements of the Southern army during the war from the eyes of the nearby Union areas of Maryland and Washington, D.C. The Southern army thus relied on this geographic camouflage during its invasion campaigns above the Mason-Dixon Line. The loss of the Shenandoah would inevitably usher in the death of the Confederacy.

The combined strategic and agricultural value of the Shenandoah rendered it crucial to the existence of the Confederacy, so its protection was obviously a major tenet of the Southern strategy. When Confederate officer Thomas Jonathan Jackson, better known by his nickname of Stonewall, received his promotion to Major General on October 7, 1861, he was immediately assigned command over the Valley District with its headquarters in Winchester, Virginia. Upon his promotion, Jackson had about 5,000 men under his control – 2,000 in his famous Stonewall Brigade, 500 cavalry under Colonel Turner Ashby, and 2,500 men he inherited or recruited.[1] Around the same time in October, it happened that a force of 7,000 Federal troops overtook the town of Romney, VA (now in West Virginia), located about 35 miles west of Winchester in the Allegheny Mountains. While the town of Romney itself was not a necessary possession for the Confederacy, it was the location of the town that caused Jackson great concern, for it essentially opened the door for a Federal invasion of the Shenandoah. It is estimated that 16,000 Union troops were stationed only 50 miles north in Frederick, MD and an additional 22,000 troops were spread throughout the western mountains (now West Virginia).[2]

Jackson arrived at his military headquarters in Winchester by early November 1861, and two weeks later wrote to Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin with a plan to retake Romney by way of a winter campaign. Jackson believed that regaining control over Romney would protect Winchester and the upper Shenandoah region from a Union invasion. As part of his Romney plan, Jackson requested additional troops from Brigadier General William W. Loring, a lifetime military man and a one-armed amputee, stationed in nearby McDowell. Loring commanded three brigades of infantry, each led by Colonels William B Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) (I know), Samuel V. Fulkerson, and William Gilham. Jackson knew the challenges of such a campaign, “I know that what I have proposed will be an arduous undertaking and cannot be accomplished without the sacrifice of much personal comfort, but I feel that the troops will be prepared to make this sacrifice.”[3] Loring also understood the necessity and severity of the situation – at least on paper – for the Allegheny Mountains were steep and snowy during the winter months. On November 29, he wrote to Secretary Benjamin:

I consider a winter campaign practicable if the means of transportation sufficient to move this army can be obtained, and especially in a country where supplies are abundant, which I am informed is the case in that section of Western Virginia where it is proposed to operate… With warm clothing, good tents, and proper attention by the regimental and company officers, there need be no suffering from the climate in that region.[4]

Loring promised that his men would arrive in Winchester in a few weeks time. But Loring’s men did not arrive in a few weeks; instead, it took nearly a month for all three brigades to arrive. This delay understandably frustrated Jackson, who was eager to wrest Romney from its Federal grip, so he wrote to Secretary Benjamin asking him to force the brigadier general to move his troops more quickly because “If General Loring is not here speedily my command may be a retreating instead of a victorious one.”[5] On December 27, the last of Loring’s troops finally staggered into Winchester.

On January 1, 1862, Jackson and his 11,000 men left Winchester on the famous Romney Expedition. Jackson’s plan was to march north to the town of Bath (present-day Berkeley Springs, WV) and retake it from Union forces; the extra troops in his expanded army were to prove protection on his rear and flank. Then from Bath, the Confederates were to march southwest to Romney and retake the town, which would remove the immediate Union threat from the Shenandoah Valley. The day the men departed was unseasonably warm, giving them false hope of an easy expedition. As the day wore on, the temperature steadily dropped to around 32 degrees that evening, and the rugged terrain meant that the supply train fell terribly behind. The men spent the first night of the expedition, and many more, without proper food, clothing, or shelter.

The second morning of the expedition saw the men resume their march in blowing wind and snow, the temperature at about twenty-degrees. All day the men were forced to travel in those fierce winter conditions, never stopping once for food or rest. When Jackson stopped marching that evening, he learned that Loring allowed his men to stop and set up camp a few miles back. Furious, because he planned on attacking Bath the following day, Jackson immediately sent work to Loring instructing him to promptly resume march. The brigadier general, already angry over the mismanagement of the supply train and Jackson’s failure to inform his officers of his plan, burst into a rage: “By God, sir! This is the damnedest outrage ever perpetrated in the annals of history, keeping my men out here in the cold without food!”[6] Ultimately, Loring’s nearly mutinous brigades reached Jackson later than night.

The temperature on January 3, the third day of the expedition, hovered around eighteen degrees. The first skirmish of the expedition occurred on this day, the brigade under Col. Gillham met with another small Federal unit late in the afternoon. Due to the darkness of the evening and the fatigue of his men, Gillham allowed his brigade to set up camp behind the rest of Jackson’s unit. Knowing again that one of his colonels failed to follow orders, Jackson furiously sent word to Gillham to march forward immediately. Gillham obviously refused, and Loring supported that decision and canceled Jackson’s orders. At this point, Jackson rode down to meet his officers and got into a heated argument with Loring. Jackson gave up the march into Bath for the day.

Gillham again caused Jackson grief on the fourth day. On their way into Bath, Gillham’s brigade engaged with another small Union force, and, as the previous day, halted his men instead of marching into Bath. The brigade general failed to communicate these actions to Jackson, who was still expecting the brigade to reunite with the rest of the men for the attack on Bath. Jackson later brought charges against Gillham for his errors, though he never court-martialed his officer. Gillham wound up on an indefinite furlough and was sent back to VMI. Nevertheless, the Federal troops occupying Bath fled the town as the Southerners filed in later in the afternoon. Jackson allowed his men to stay overnight before departing the next morning, the Stonewall Brigade remaining in Bath while Jackson, Turner’s cavalry, and Loring’s men advanced to Hancock, Maryland.

Jackson marched his men through the day and reached Hancock at dusk. Gillham earned another black spot from Jackson when he failed to attack some Federal troops that he surprised at the train depot at St. John’s Run. Instead, Gillham set up camp for the night and allowed the Union units to escape. Jackson, on the other hand, cannonaded Hancock from 6pm to 11pm in retaliation for the Federals shelling an unoccupied Shepherdstown, VA (now WV) a year before.[7] Jackson kept his troops in Hancock through January 6th, shelling the town again, but never gaining a foothold against the Federal occupation.

January 7-14th proved to be the worst seven days for the men of the Romney Expedition. On the morning of the 7th, the men set out in a blowing wind and sub-zero temperatures. The roads were covered in sheets of ice and six inches of snow; men and horses fell, causing injuries, deaths, and delays. The conditions were so bad that John Worsham of the 21st Virginia wrote that, “Men were frozen to death… Others were frozen so badly they never recovered, and rheumatism contracted by many was never ridden of. Large numbers were barefooted, having burned their shoes while trying to warm their feet at fires.”[8] It was also discovered during this week that many of the men had severe lice infestations. And for the first time in nearly two weeks, Jackson allowed his men to bathe.

Shortly after the Confederates left Bath, Jackson sent his cavalry unit straight to Romney to scope it out. The day before Jackson entered Romney, he received word that the 7,000 Federal troops in the town had evacuated and the cavalry now occupied it. That news offered his suffering men some slight reprieve. On January 14, Jackson finally marched his men into the town of Romney for their winter quarters. What the men saw appalled them: a saturated landscape with muddy, sewage filled streets and a courthouse full of rotting meat. “Of all the miserable holes in creation, Romney takes the lead.”[9] The Stonewall Brigade claimed the better lodging in the town, whereas Loring’s brigades were forced to “cut pine brush, pile them up over the water and mud, and then get on top to make our bed” because “[t]he mountains were full of wet-weather springs.”[10] One of Loring’s officers, Colonel Samuel Fulkerson, wrote to his mother from Romney and said,

[W]e are very uncomfortably situated here. Our camp ground is an exceedingly wet one, and wood is very hard to get. We are now getting some plank from the old Yankee encampment, with which we can, partially at least, floor our tents. I have not had a plank in my tent since I have been in the services, but have slept on the ground the whole time. When it is not too wet I like it. You speak of winter quarters. We do not expect to get any.[11]

Jackson stayed in Romney for the next eight days, destroying nearby railroad bridges and causing other mischief, and then departed to Winchester for the winter with his Stonewall Brigade. Loring’s men were to remain in Romney to keep it occupied. This move left only 5,000 Confederate men to protect the town of Romney against the nearly 11,000 Federal forces in the surrounding area. Many men and officers felt wronged by such a decision, including Loring himself and two of his officers. Fed up by their filthy winter quarters, these men devised a plan to improve their situation. On the same day that the Stonewall Brigade rode out of Romney for Winchester, forgoing any military protocol or personal consideration – of which Loring’s men received none from Jackson – Col. Samuel Fulkerson wrote a letter to his friends in the Virginia Congress, Walter R. Staples and Walter Preston, explaining that,

This place is of no importance in a strategic point of view; the country around it has been exhausted by the enemy, and its proximity to the enemy and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad wear us away (already greatly reduced) by heavy picket and guard duty. Besides this, there is no suitable ground and not sufficient wood here upon and by which men can be made comfortable. We have not been in as uncomfortable a place since we entered the service.

With the benefit of a short furlough for the men, I am satisfied that at Winchester I could have enlisted 500 of my regiment for the war. With the present prospect before them, I do not know that I could get a single man.[12]

He added the memorable description that the exposure from this campaign has “emaciated the force almost to a skeleton.” Fulkerson implored his Congressional friends to persuade Secretary Benjamin and President Davis to release Loring’s men from Jackson’s command. Taliaferro added a footnote to Fulkerson’s letter in which he stated, “My Dear Staples: I take the liberty with an old friend, which I know you will pardon, to state that every word and every idea conveyed by Colonel F. in his letter to you is strictly and most unfortunately true. The best army I ever saw of its strength has been destroyed by bad marches and bad management… it will be suicidal in the Government to keep this command here.”[13]

Next, Taliaferro formally petitioned Loring to make an appeal to the War Department:

Instead of finding, as expected, a little repose during midwinter, we are ordered to remain at this place. Our position at and near Romney is one of the most disagreeable and unfavorable that could be imagined. We can only get an encampment upon the worst of wet, spouty land, much of which it rains is naught but one sheet of water and a consequent corresponding depth of mud, and this, too, without the advantage of sufficient wood, the men having to drag that indispensible article down from high up on the mountain side.

Another consideration we would endeavor to impress upon your mind: All must be profoundly impressed with the paramount importance of raising any army for the next summer’s campaign. When we left Winchester, a very large proportion of your army, with the benefit of a short furlough, would have enlisted for the war, but now, with the present prospect before them, we doubt if a single man would re-enlist. But if they are yet removed to a position where their spirits could be revived, many, we think, will go for the war.[14]

Both Fulkerson and Taliaferro and six other regimental commanders signed Loring’s petition. Ironically enough, Loring sent this petition to Benjamin by way of Jackson. Jackson reportedly read the document and included a four-word addendum: “Respectfully forwarded, but disapproved.”[15]

Many of the officers in Romney, including the two behind this scheme, took a furlough and traveled to Richmond to lobby their requests. Taliaferro was the most successful with his appeals in Richmond. He somehow succeeded in meeting with both President Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens. Taliaferro convinced Davis to circumvent all military protocol and instructed Secretary Davis to release Loring’s men from Romney without consulting with Jackson. Shortly thereafter on January 30, Jackson received a telegram from Secretary Benjamin in Richmond that read: “Our news indicates that a movement is being made to cut off General Loring’s command. Order him back to Winchester immediately.”[16] This news caught Jackson by complete surprise. He was shocked over this new development, as he believed the Romney Expedition made great advances into eliminating threat of Union invasion from the Shenandoah Valley. Not to be outdone, Jackson responded to Benjamin within the hour:

Your order requiring me to direct General Loring to return to his command to Winchester immediately has been received and promptly complied with.

With such interference in my command I cannot expect to be of much service in the field; and accordingly respectfully request to be ordered to report for duty to the Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington; as has been done in the case of other Professors. Should this application not be granted, I respectfully request that the President will accept my resignation from the Army.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant, T.J. Jackson

Jackson also sent a similar letter to Virginia Governor John Letcher and his Congressman friend Alexander Boteler.

It’s easy to imagine the storm of emotions that Jackson felt after such a turn of events. His hard sought occupation of Romney was dismantled by a few strokes of the pen, Loring’s men filed out of the town in the first few days of February. The Romney Expedition was a failure. He clearly felt betrayed and undermined by these actions of his subordinates; and luckily for him, his friends in Richmond felt the same way. Upon reading his letter, Boteler also felt incised at the news and stormed into Benjamin’s office letter in hand, setting in motion the corrective measures needed to make Jackson change his mind:

“In consequence of your order, Jackson has sent in his resignation,” Boteler informed Benjamin.

“What! Jackson resigned! Are you sure of your information?” Benjamin blurted out in spite of his astonishment.

Boteler responded, “As sure as I can be of anything, for I have it here directly from himself, under his own hand and seal.”

After reading Jackson’s letter, Benjamin immediately returned the document to Boteler and informed him to show it to President Davis. Davis reacted in a similar manner.

“I’ll not have it, sir!” he cried.

“I’m very glad to hear you say so,” Boteler agreed, “for I’m sure we cannot afford to lose him from the service. But you don’t know General Jackson. When he takes a stand in accordance with his own ideas of duty, he’s as firm as a rock.”

The next person Boteler approached with his news was Governor John Letcher who proved to be more proactive in the situation. When Letcher read Boteler’s letter, he reportedly reacted by swearing “a miscellaneous assortment of oaths.” The governor immediately contacted Davis and Benjamin with a request to postpone Jackson’s resignation until he could intervene.

Letcher decided to write Jackson a letter and had Boteler personally deliver it to Jackson’s residence in Winchester. On February 6, Boteler was politely invited inside the Jackson household, the major-general undoubtedly knowing the reason for this visit, and spent most of the afternoon catching up with the Jacksons. It was not until later in the evening when the two discussed the matter of Letcher’s letter, and Jackson reiterated to his guest that he “must resign, for my rule of life will not allow me to hold a position where I am no longer useful; and I am no longer useful here when what I do in the field is undone by the secretary of war. He ought to be made to understand at once that he cannot manage the details of a campaign sitting at his desk three hundred miles away.” Knowing how loyal Jackson was to his home state of Virginia, Boteler appealed to the general’s emotions: “It is Virginia herself, through the governor, who asks you to continue in her service. It is our old mother state who makes the appeal! Will you turn a deaf ear to her solicitations?” Finally, as Boteler made his leave from Jackson’s home, he asked what message he was to return to Richmond. Jackson thought for a moment and informed his guest that governor will have to do what he thinks best for the state.

On the same day that Boteler visited Winchester, Jackson formally withdrew his resignation and the military crisis was averted. The Virginia Congressman succeeded in soothing both Jackson’s ego and the Confederate government’s fears. But forgiveness did not come easy for those disrespected. Jackson immediately made a motion to press charges against Loring for neglect of duty and a list of other offences. Because of Loring’s past military contributions, Davis and Benjamin permanently relocated him to Southeast Virginia instead and gave Jackson most of his Virginia regiments – including those under Cols. Taliaferro and Fulkerson.

The Romney Expedition exemplified not only Jackson’s own strengths and weaknesses, but also those of the Confederacy. It can be argued that the Major General acted insensitively, and borderline inhumanely, when he forced 11,000 healthy soldiers to walk through the West Virginia Alleghenies in the middle of winter on a fruitless mission without proper food, shelter, or clothing. The fact that Jackson never stopped to consider the dangers of such a campaign – frostbite, hypothermia, broken bones, starvation – is absurd by modern standards though it made perfect sense to Jackson. He understood the importance of occupying the western region of the state, and that surprising the Union troops in the middle of winter would give them an advantage. While Jackson failed to comprehend the magnitude of his winter campaign and possessed unrealistic expectations for such, his men failed to understand the demand and protocol of real military service. The undermining actions of Jackson’s officers only demonstrated the naivety of these men in regards to the reality of war. Overall, the Romney Expedition was a black mark upon the record of Major General Stonewall Jackson, the mountainous state of West Virginia proved too difficult for even Old Jack to conquer, and an unnecessarily wasteful mission for the Confederacy.

[1] S.C. Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (New York: Scribner, 2014), 177.

[2] Ibid., 176-77.

[3] Peter Cozzens, Shenandoah, 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 53.

[4] Ibid., 55-56.

[5] Jennifer M. Murray, “Loring-Jackson Incident,” Encyclopedia Virginia, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Loring-Jackson_Incident (accessed November 13, 2016).

[6] James I. Robertson, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Legend, the Soldier (New York: Macmillan, 1997), 306, quoted in Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, 181.

[7] Cozzens, Shenandoah, 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, 78.

[8] John H. Worsham, One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry (New York: Neale Publishing, Co., 1912), 63, quoted in Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, 183.

[9] Cozzens, Shenandoah, 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, 94.

[10] Ibid., 94-95

[11] Historical Society of Washington County, VA, electronic records

[12] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, vol. 5, 1040-1041, quoted in Robert G. Tanner, Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862 (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1996), 81.

[13] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, vol. 5, 1041-1042, quoted in Gwynne, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, 185-6.

[14] Tanner, Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862, 80.

[15] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, vol. 5, 1046-1048, quoted in Robert G. Tanner, Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862 (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1996), 81.

[16] William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis, 562; Boetler, “Jackson’s Discontent,” quoted in Cozzens, Shenandoah, 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, 101.

©K. Martin-Gross 2016

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