Go to the main Civil War touring page.

On The Trail of Stonewall Jackson

By James Conaway
Sunday, March 8, 1992; Page W23
© The Washington Post

Washington is a mere hundred miles from the most spectacular Civil War terrain. Forget Antietam, Gettysburg and the siege of Richmond: For physical beauty and sheer audacity in battle, nothing equals the Shenandoah Valley campaign of Stonewall Jackson, the "pious blue-eyed killer" who pushed his men so hard in the spring of 1862 that their shoes fell apart. His was a masterful, bloody blitz of such cunning that it has been studied ever since by tacticians, among them Rommel and Patton.

I wondered what it would be like to follow the route taken by the most famous lemon-sucker ever to be a general. Jackson's little army snaked its way through riverine country with some epicurean possibilities, a great advantage then and now, since battlefields alone don't quite do it for me. Camp-following requires some concomitant good eating, or fly-fishing, and the Shenandoah offers both, as well as the usual distractions of hiking, canoeing, 'rooming (collecting mushrooms) and searching for overpriced objects in A-word shops.

I figured such a trip could probably be done in a long weekend. The original Shenandoah campaign lasted more than a month, with scholars disagreeing over the actual dates. Some say it began immediately after the battle of Kernstown, just below Winchester, Va., in late March 1862, when Jackson suffered a tactical defeat at the hands of Gen. Nathaniel Banks's larger forces and moved his ragged troops south toward New Market, determined to try again. Others say it began a bit later, after Jackson slipped eastward out of the Shenandoah on May 2 -- a feint toward Richmond meant to deceive his adversaries -- then put his weary men on railway cars and shipped them back into the valley two days later.

Whenever it started, the "valley campaign" would take on the qualities of a holy war. Thomas Jonathan Jackson would rise in the estimation of his 17,000 troops from a strange, brooding near-incompetent -- "Old Tom Fool" -- to a charismatic genius protected by divine grace from Union bullets.

I leave home with a No.6 Graphite fly rod, lots of flies and woolly boogers favored by smallmouth bass, a sleeping bag and copies of James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" and the Conservation Fund's "The Civil War Battlefield Guide." To these volumes I will add John Bowers's "Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier," Henry Kyd Douglas's "I Rode With Stonewall" and, yes, Volume One of Shelby Foote's "The Civil War: A Narrative."

On May 4, 1862, Jackson's troops boarded the train at Mechum's River Station, near Charlottesville, for the trip west over the Blue Ridge. I intend to avoid superhighways but relent and take Interstate 64 for the first leg of the journey, from Charlottesville to Staunton. My rations are Bojangles' Cajun Spicy fried chicken, an advantage the Rebs did not enjoy, since their fare leaned heavily toward grits. But Jackson's men would eventually stumble upon Yankee foie gras and champagne, a good omen.

The highway bulls its way west, straight through the mountains. The soldiers would no doubt have seen the redbud and wild dogwood in bloom, and the opening up of a broad, vernal valley. The Alleghenies sit like sugar loafs on the horizon. The citizens of Staunton cheered the Confederates. They thought their town had been abandoned to the bluecoats. Bowers describes the jubilant mood: "Plenty of girls around here, and liquor, too." The troops were joined by a contingent of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where Jackson had taught before joining the secessionists; they paraded down Staunton's main street.

Generally, things were not going well for the South in the war. The Mississippi Valley was controlled by the Union, and the Confederate capital of Richmond was under attack by Gen. George McClellan, with Gen. Irvin McDowell's corps set to reinforce McClellan. Robert E. Lee had conceived of an action in the Shenandoah to deflect McDowell from Richmond, but no one knew if Stonewall was capable of defeating superior Union forces sent against him, even though he was fighting on his own turf.

His nickname had come out of the battle of First Manassas the previous July. Gen. Barnard Bee of South Carolina pointed to Jackson's troops, and shouted either, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall," or "Look at Jackson standing there like a damned stone wall." One construction makes him a hero, the other a dolt. Stonewall's troops fought well at Manassas, but had spent the winter marching around the icy mountains for no apparent purpose; the verdict on his abilities as a general was still out when Stonewall launched the valley campaign.

Stonewall's demeanor did not reassure those around him. The faded VMI cadet's cap with a broken visor and oversize boots gave him a decidedly slovenly air. He prayed a lot, ate mostly crackers and stale bread, and thought the use of pepper on any food made his left leg ache. The famous lemons, sucked for his dyspepsia, were obtained with herculean efforts by Jackson's profane but resourceful quartermaster. The intensity of Jackson's gaze -- "Old Blue Light" -- led many to pronounce him crazy. No one doubted his willingness to march, however.

Jackson believed in the efficacy of speed, attacking the enemy at his weakest point, avoiding pitched battles he didn't think he could win. He is reported to have said, "Always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy." In that way he thought a small army could demoralize and defeat a larger one.

The Staunton railway station now houses shops -- Railway Express Liquidators, Depot Grill and Freight Depot Antiques, as well as the Amtrak office. The White Star Mill restaurant [Note: now the Mill Street Grill] next door comes recommended, but it is too late for lunch, and I take U.S. 250, the westerly route to McDowell, the scene of the first battle of the Shenandoah campaign. I pass through Staunton's ragtag suburbs, and suddenly the Alleghenies are very close; 30 miles from here, beyond those ridges, sat a contingent of Union troops half the size of Jackson's, part of the larger force of 25,000 men under Union commander John C. Fremont in West Virginia.

How Jackson found the enemy is a mystery. The country is rugged, and west of Churchville it is increasingly beautiful, hazy in the sunlight, the surrounding wilderness preserved in the George Washington National Forest. Yellow forsythia blooms on the banks of little "drafts" running clear under the road. A Rebel flag hangs from the eaves of a clapboard shack and another is planted in a fence post. But there are American flags too, out in front of the Shenandoah Mountain Inn ("35 doubles, 20 singles"). So close to the Virginia-West Virginia line, people still take their affiliations seriously.

The road loops past a "scenic overlook" and breastworks attributed to the 12th Georgia Regiment. The fighting, a rear-guard action, was not done here but a few miles farther west, beyond Head Waters, on the far side of Bullpasture Mountain. A roadside marker just east of McDowell offers little explanation of what was a complicated engagement that took many lives on both sides. The land is private, but trails have been beaten into the woods by determined Civil War students pursuing the events of May 8.

The Union troops were surprised in camp. Outnumbered, they fought well but were finally routed in the steep, difficult terrain. Jackson chased them north toward Monterey, being keen on pursuit. (He once told a colleague who suggested that fleeing soldiers should be spared, "Kill them all.") The white Presbyterian church in McDowell that served as a hospital still stands on the far side of the Bullpasture River, facing, appropriately, a small cemetery where both Yankees and Confederates are buried.

Visitors today can drive back over the corkscrew road toward Churchville and sleep at the Buckhorn Inn. I drive south along the Cowpasture River to the house of friends with a view of lively sheep in the meadow. I am fed vegetable curry and homemade beer and directed to a stream flowing out of the national forest, where I catch a wild brook trout. Before releasing him, I marvel at the golden skin with its tiny blue highlights, looking electric in the dusk, older than Civil War relics and any human history in this secluded place.

The next morning, White Way Lunch on U.S. 250 west of Churchville shatters a personal record for the biggest breakfast, previously set in 1974 in Forsyth, Mont. The White Way's menu is also the most elaborate, offering not just the fine apple pancakes and accompanying stack of sausage patties but also scrapple, home fries and Ultraburgers, all served on quilted tablecloths. "If your table rocks," reads a note attached to the menu, "fold a napkin and put it under one leg. Caution -- do not use creamer packets because we just take them out and put them back and use them in your coffee!!"

Jackson's men marched back east and then north in the neighborhood of Virginia Route 42, through today's hardscrabble farm country, near the Natural Chimneys Recreational Area. At Bridgewater they were held up by a swollen river now spanned by concrete. The road passes some pretty Colonial brick facades: This was the pike to Harrisonburg, which had already been abandoned by the enemy. Banks had retreated to Strasburg, near the northern end of the valley, with two divisions of his 38,000 men and was digging in for what he assumed would be a direct southerly assault by the Confederates. But Stonewall had other plans.

"Parade Ground" Banks seems in retrospect the perfect adversary for the abstemious, slovenly Jackson. Short, preening, more politician than soldier, Banks loved the well-cut uniform and the tasty morsel and had lavishly provisioned his army. It greatly outnumbered Jackson's, but Banks wasn't eager for combat in Stonewall country -- wheat fields, orchards, stands of oak and mountains that the Confederates knew so well.

Rocks still protrude from the fields near Harrisonburg like bones through tight green skin, but today's abrupt industrial welter couldn't be further from the bucolic splendor of the last century. Then I pass a black, horse-drawn Mennonite buggy with a triangular red caution sign on the back. To the north, the country opens up again -- wooded swales under racing clouds. Jackson's troops had already traveled 100 miles, some of it by rail, and fought a battle in just two weeks; their equipment was a wreck. Most of the men lived somewhere in the valley, and the long vistas suggested home. Jackson had some problems with desertion, but he also recruited as he went.

His next stop was New Market, without all those antiques shops then and, unfortunately for Old Blue Light, without Southern Kitchen, the restaurant that today has the best peanut soup in the county. There he joined his forces with those of Richard B. Ewell, "Old Baldy," another celebrated Rebel eccentric who cursed with a lisp and ate hulled wheat boiled in milk for his ulcer. Reading about these and other leaders, I am convinced that during the Civil War thousands labored at arms under generals who were periodically nuts, including Grant and Lee.

Jackson now had about 15,000 men, and he sent the cavalry under the flamboyant and fast-moving Turner Ashby 30 miles north to harass Banks in Strasburg, making Banks think the Rebels were coming that way. But instead of marching straight north along the North Fork of the Shenandoah River toward the enemy, Jackson headed east, toward a wall of rock known as Massanutten Mountain, with a notch in it that now contains U.S. 211. He had enlisted the help of an amateur cartographer named Jedediah Hotchkiss, whose inspired maps enabled Jackson to plot maneuvers that surprised everyone, including his own men.

I ascend the switchback and head down the other side of the Massanutten toward Luray -- a jaunt that further incensed Jackson's troops. I would like to eat fried catfish at the Wooden Lamb [Note: as of July 1996, no longer open], on the bank of the South Fork of the Shenandoah (take a right on the dirt road that runs along the river, just past the bridge) and then sit in a rocker on the porch, but am prevented by that Brobdingnagian breakfast.

Next Jackson marched his men north along the South Fork (U.S. 340). On sweltering May 23 they engaged an astonished clutch of Federal troops at Front Royal and soon overran the town. I stop at the Confederate monument next to the Warren County Courthouse, looking for the house of Belle Boyd, the comely Confederate spy who brought information to Jackson just before the charge. Past the Rebel Tattoo Studio and the Palace Cafe -- checked tablecloths, baskets on the wall -- and around the corner on Chester Street, I find the house, as well as the Chester House Inn, a bed-and-breakfast with lush formal gardens; the Confederate Museum; and the Warren Heritage Society.

Retreating Federal troops offered Jackson a perfect opportunity for artillery, but he didn't have any. I ask the white-haired woman behind the desk of the Heritage Society about the route Jackson took out of Front Royal; she says, "Cross the river and turn left between the veterinarian's and the Cedarville grocery. It's a nice country road."

It is Reliance Road, which bisects U.S. 340 north of Interstate 66 and crosses farmland toward the outskirts of Strasburg. There Banks, alarmed by the news of Jackson's easterly approach, took his famous provisions and headed north for Winchester. Jackson's men fell on the Federals and turned the valley pike (U.S. 11) into an early version of the Kuwait City-Basra highway. They captured masses of supplies that included guns, mustache curlers and various comestibles. Some of Ashby's men sat down and got drunk on the spot; others lit out for their nearby homes with booty loaded onto fine Yankee horseflesh. Jackson, according to one of his officers, Henry Kyd Douglas, retrieved a single dirty cracker from the spoils of an overturned wagon, the only thing he had eaten since morning.

I sit down to lunch at the Wayside Inn in Middletown, where Douglas bushwhacked a Union cavalry regiment and Ashby cut the stragglers down with his saber. Hatchery-raised trout and a Beck's beer substitute for Banks's foie gras and champagne, served by a waitress in a colonial-style dress and lace bonnet. Ye olde generic cuisine does not please the diner at the next table; of his fried chicken, he says, "Kind of tough -- like Stonewall Jackson's boot," and the waitress gives him a free dessert.

Banks later wrote of the fighting that day, "My command had not suffered an attack and rout. It had accomplished a 'premeditated' march . . ." Everybody but Lincoln got a hoot out of that one. Gen. Jeb Stuart would tell Jackson never to complain about Banks: "It would be ungrateful if you did," Stuart said, "for he has been the best commissary and quartermaster you ever had!"

Parade Ground Banks had become Commissary Banks. Jackson insisted upon pursuing him through the night, and had to be prevailed upon to let his men sleep even two hours. Jackson himself stood guard. He had become an instant hero to his men, some of whom believed that he, and those near him, were impervious to flying lead. Early the next morning his combined force of approximately 15,000 fell on 6,000 of Banks's men at Winchester. The Union men were soon hightailing it north toward the Potomac River, terrorized by the ferocity of the fighting and the eerie Rebel yell that had become Jackson's signature in battle.

He set up headquarters in Winchester's old Taylor Hotel, now McCrory's five-and-dime on the downtown mall. Miller's Drugs dispensed to him just as it once dispensed to George Washington. A house on nearby Braddock Street served as Jackson's headquarters during the winter before the valley campaign. There, for $3.50, you can see an assortment of Stonewall memorabilia, including a piece of his coat and a lock of his hair, his field glasses, the flag he carried through the valley and his saber. Jackson's horse, Little Sorrel, is stuffed and on display at the VMI museum in Lexington.

"Jackson worked out with weights," adds the proprietor of the little museum that is administered by the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society. In an upstairs bedroom, he shows me a physical therapy contraption patented in 1860 and some idealized prints of Jackson for sale, one depicting him with his second wife, Anna, whom Jackson saw for the last time in Winchester. "The town changed hands 72 times during the Civil War, 13 times in one day. But Winchester's a very Southern town."

Jackson liked it, and praised its womenfolk, but domesticity was all behind him now. Lincoln sent new armies against him -- Gen. Fremont from the west, Gens. James Shields and McDowell from the east. Ever resourceful, Jackson marched northeast, in an apparent move on Harpers Ferry, but at Charles Town performed another arabesque, circling back south. He was almost twice as far from Strasburg as the two converging enemy forces. Shields had retaken Front Royal, and Fremont was sweeping out of the Alleghenies: Stonewall was to be crushed between Union hammer and anvil.

I drive back down U.S. 11, through Middletown and across the county line. Enlightened development policies have retained some of the rural beauty Shenandoah County must have offered Jackson's soldiers, sobered by the realization that they faced possible annihilation. They moved, as usual, with amazing speed, beating the enemy to Strasburg, which sits above the North Fork of the Shenandoah where it emerges from its dramatic oxbow loops. Jackson sent Ewell to strike at Fremont, to slow him down while the Confederates pushed on south.

A year earlier, Jackson had captured scores of B&O locomotives and cars in a raid at Martinsburg, W. Va., and had transferred them to Strasburg. The railway museum there is open from May through the summer [Note: the museum is closed for remodeling during the summer of 1996], and the Hotel Strasburg, a white Victorian establishment, is a good place to eat, with some of the best food between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies. The amenities weren't nearly so lush for Jackson's men, but at least they had beaten the Federals and were being praised throughout the Confederacy. I stay overnight at a bed-and-breakfast called the River'D Inn, after crossing a low bridge over the North Fork. If the river rises while I sleep, I'm river'd in, as they say, but it doesn't, and I wake up to glorious antebellum silence.

Some early morning fly-fishing brings a pickup sliding to a halt in the gravel, the driver mesmerized by the sight of a city slicker in waders angling for smallmouth and goggle-eyes. I would stay all day, but I have a campaign to follow.

Down the road, at Woodstock, I pass a formation of students -- young men and women -- at the Massanutten Military Academy, at parade rest, their blue-gray uniforms providing a nice symmetry. At Edinburg are long, lovely vistas through which the army hurried, nipped at by the Federals under Fremont who couldn't get up the courage to attack in force. Shields's army was paralleling Jackson's southward movement on the other side of the Massanutten, in the Luray Valley. Jackson moved through Mount Jackson and New Market. He skirted the base of the Massanutten near Harrisonburg and headed east. There were and still are caves to see, among them Endless and Massanutten caverns, but Jackson had deliverance on his mind, visible in the sprawl of the Blue Ridge.

On June 6, 1862, three days before the last great battle of the Shenandoah campaign, Ashby was killed skirmishing with Fremont's troops advancing out of Harrisonburg, a damaging blow to Jackson's entire army. I take U.S. 33 east from Harrisonburg, then a right on Virginia Route 276 through tiny Cross Keys to Port Republic. Port Republic is a pretty hamlet between two of the headwaters of the South Fork of the Shenandoah; there Jackson stayed in the house of a doctor, George Kemper. The billboard across from the post office, explaining the main battle, offers no directions to the house, and so I follow the map in my Battlefield Guide: right at the South River bridge, past renovated old homes and a meadow full of black-muzzled sheep and gravestones inside an iron filigree. Then I go left on the county road. Jackson most likely stayed in the white clapboard farmhouse in the bend, with a porch and an ancient Chevy pickup in the shed.

I'm not sure, and so I drive to the post office to ask. Inside, an old man taps his cigarette ash into the pocket of his overalls while thinking. He says, "They call that house Madison Hall."

"Wait a minute," says the postmaster. "I think during the Civil War it was the Kemper house."

On June 8 back at Cross Keys, Ewell engaged Fremont's army. The plan was to keep those Federals occupied and, the following day, for Jackson to defeat Shields and then turn and assist Ewell. Together they would wipe out Fremont, achieving a double victory.

Meanwhile, Jackson wanted to pray, it being Sunday. Instead he was almost captured when an advance guard of Union cavalry rode unexpectedly into Port Republic from the north. Jackson mounted Little Sorrel, and he and his officers fled back across the North River bridge; the major under Jackson who had planned to deliver the Sunday sermon ended up defending the Confederate wagon train at the Kemper house, with only a handful of troops.

The Confederates recaptured Port Republic, but another desperate day in the course of a year spent marching and fighting up and down the Shenandoah had apparently taken its toll on Jackson. Douglas writes that his commander behaved oddly, ordering campfires set and rations cooked in the midst of danger. Jackson prayed, staring at the ground, and spoke in a childlike way of the will of God. Jackson's subordinates were "used to this kind of aberration," according to Douglas.

The next morning Jackson was up before dawn, moving against Shields, just across the river. "He sent the Stonewall Brigade . . . through some ripening wheat," Bowers writes in "Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier," ". . . while the Federals zeroed in and began scything down wheat and men with heavy ammunition." I turn left on the first road on the east side of the South River bridge (County Road 955), and sure enough, there are wheat fields bright in the sun. Fighting went on all over this little plain that rang with Rebel yells and Union cheers, charge and countercharge; as usual, Jackson rode through the haze of bullets without being harmed.

I turn left on U.S. 340 and go less than a mile. At the junction with County Road 708 was "the coaling," a hill where charcoal was made and where the Federals set up artillery, pounding the Confederates. The hill changed hands a couple of times and finally was captured by the Confederates and the guns turned on Shields's men, who broke and fled north. Meanwhile, Ewell burned the bridges behind him, preventing Fremont from coming to the rescue but not defeating him.

A brass plaque in front of the Grace Memorial Episcopal Church near "the coaling" marks the spot of Jackson's final victory in the valley campaign. In a little more than a month, Stonewall had covered some 250 miles and defeated parts of four different Union armies. Escaping destruction, he had not only proved his own strategic brilliance but also diverted Union forces from Richmond, as Lee intended, and given heart to the faltering Confederate cause.

By the end of my three-day, two-night weekend, I have traveled more than 600 miles, and I head for home through Swift Run Gap, on U.S. 33, mindful that Stonewall Jackson died a year after Port Republic, shot by his own men, who mistook him for the enemy in the fighting at Chancellorsville. That tragic irony concluded the career of the Civil War's most eccentric general, one of the best, an inspired country boy who pursued his partisan cause through some of the most beautiful country anywhere.

James Conaway is a Washington writer.

© The Washington Post Co.

Back to top