Our panel of Civil War experts returns to A House Divided to mull more questions during the war’s 150th anniversary. Our latest question: What is the most important but overlooked story of the Civil War?
Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s only loss of the Civil War is not the overlooked story. Nor is his defeat the most important outcome between Bull Run and Shiloh. Yet his retreat from a hill and hamlet just south of Winchester in the Valley of Virginia altered destiny. Most significant was its effect upon Union war strategy and the salvation of Richmond.
“On to Richmond” was the ceaseless cry of the impatient Northern newspapers even after the debacle of Bull Run. Lincoln gave up his hopes for a 90-day war, but he clung to the Napoleonic notion that he could whip the Rebels into submission simply by taking the Confederate capital. To achieve this happy outcome, he hired George McClellan to organize, discipline and train the largest army ever assembled in North America. The president counted upon McClellan to devise the winning plan.
“The Young Napoleon” envisioned a route to Richmond via the peninsula between the James and York Rivers. Lincoln didn’t like it. Washington would be unprotected in case of a Confederate counter-advance. Particularly onerous to the President was the Shenandoah Valley--pointed like a dagger into the Yankee heartland, with the tip of the blade geographically north of Washington. By Lincoln’s map, the Confederates could use the Valley to approach and cut off the capital from the north.
McClellan than devised a solution to Lincoln’s worries — station troops in the Valley as a blockade. The president accepted this compromise, though with hesitation. Subsequently, the last week of February 1862 witnessed 20,000 bluecoats invading the Valley at Harpers Ferry, whence they moved unimpeded to Winchester.
Stonewall Jackson abruptly abandoned his Winchester winter headquarters. Outnumbered seven to one, he withdrew deep into the Valley, where Union authorities believed he was hibernating. Jackson remained dormant, as did the Federals, for nearly a month. Since the Confederate force appeared small and inactive, McClellan asked that the troops be transferred to his more active sector. Lincoln acquiesced, considering the Valley front no danger.
Then Stonewall sprang! As the Yankees were leaving the Valley, Jackson pounced at Kernstown. The fight did not go well for the Rebel commander, as poor intelligence deceived him, and he encountered a force much larger than expected. A tactical defeat, however, turned into a stunning strategic victory.
Jackson’s attack captured Lincoln’s attention. A Confederate threat remained in the Valley. Lincoln demanded the Shenandoah not be abandoned; it must, in fact, be reinforced.
McClellan’s plea for more troops was denied. Over and again, it was denied. Lincoln feared for Washington’s safety, and Stonewall in the Valley presented his nearest, most immediate danger.
Jackson’s presence in the Valley petrified the Union government. Lincoln’s refusal to reinforce McClellan ultimately brought paralysis to “Little Mac” as he approached Richmond.
The Battle of Kernstown altered Northern strategy and helped save Richmond from an early demise.
Dennis Frye is the chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Read more from The Washington Post’s Civil War special section