The Mistakes of the Federal Commanders at Cross Keys and Port Republic

Stonewall Jackson

by Joshua Horn
from Conquering the Valley by Robert Krick

On June 8th, 1862, the Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley, commanded by Stonewall Jackson, was camped near Port Republic, a small village near the convergence of South River and North River into the South Fork of the Shenandoah. Two Federal armies commanded by Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont and Maj. Gen. James Shields respectively were converging on Jackson from two different directions. Richard Ewell, Jackson's second in command, faced Fremont north of Port Republic, near a small crossroads called Cross Keys, and Shield's army was preparing to move toward Jackson at Port Republic from the east. In the next two days, June 8th and 9th, the Confederates fought and won two battles. If the Confederates had lost these battles, Richmond would have been captured, and the war would have been over. These victories were won primarily because of the mistakes that the Union Generals made. We will now look at those mistakes in detail.

On June 8th the Federal army under Fremont moved out to attack Ewell, whose troops were placed in a strong position on a wooded hill overlooking a stream. General Trimble, commanding the brigade on the right, obtained permission from Ewell to advance his troops to a strong position across the creek. Soon after he moved there, they saw a single Union regiment, the 8th New York, moving toward them across the field. The Federals advanced and drove in the Confederate skirmishers. Skirmishers are a thin line of men in front of a larger body, to alert the main body of any enemies that are ahead. As the Federals marched across the field, suddenly the hidden Confederates jumped up from behind a wooden fence and poured in a volley. The 8th NY was destroyed. They suffered more than 250 casualties, making that volley one of the deadliest in the entire war. This regiment suffered these loses because of a simple mistake that their commanding officer made. He should have sent ahead two or more companies as skirmishers. If the 8th NY would have done this, they would have been alerted of the presence of Confederates ahead, and would not have suffered these terrible casualties.

On the center and left, after heavy artillery duel, two Union brigades moved forward and engaged in a firefight with the Confederates. By this time Fremont's left was being driven back by repeated attacks by Trimble, and he decided to stop the attack after a short time. This was virtually the end of the battle of Cross Keys. Fremont attacked the left and center very badly. There was no chance that the Unions could take the Confederate's strong position on the ridge by simply marching up to it and opening fire. Fremont was too cautious in his attack. He should have attempted a flanking movement, or at least charged the Confederate line vigorously. He did nether, and consequently lost the battle of Cross Keys.

A Civil War Battle

On the night of June 7/8, Jackson decided to pull Ewell from in front of the defeated Fremont, and concentrate his entire army on the advance force of Shield's army, under the command of General Erastus B. Tyler. On the morning of June 8th, Jackson's army began to move slowly across a rickety wagon bridge built during the night. The soldiers could only cross in single file, and so the troops were very slow in crossing. As soon as the Stonewall Brigade crossed the bridge, Jackson sent them forward. Tyler had placed his cannons in a very good position on a hill called the Coaling. There they could sweep the plain below across which the Confederates were advancing. Jackson split the Stonewall Brigade into two groups, sending half to capture the Coaling, and half to make a feint on the plain. Tyler therefore moved his troops into position between the Coaling and the Shenandoah River. This was a mistake. Instead of positioning his troops to resist the Confederate feint, he should have put many more troops to guard the Coaling.

The next problem is that Tyler used his reserves, the 84th and 110th Pennsylvania, unwisely. As the Confederates attacked different portions of the line, he moved the reserves to the threatened part of his line. But when the reinforcements reached the threatened part, the crisis was already over. Therefore when the Confederates attacked the Coaling in strength, the reserves were on the other side of the battlefield. If the 84th and 110th PA had been on the scene, the Confederates would probably have lost the battle. Tyler did not realize that the Coaling was the key to the location, and so he did not focus his reserves on that area.

The last mistake that the Union generals made at the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic was Fremont's. After Jackson pulled back Ewell's troops from in front of Fremont, he pursued very slowly. The troops and officers even had time to make breakfast. They did not march the five miles to Port Republic until noon, and by then the Confederates had burned the bridge over the North River, which meant that Fremont was stranded on the other side within sight of Tyler's retreated army. If Fremont had pursued vigorously, the Federals could have easily destroyed Jackson's army, which was having trouble enough with just Tyler. This one mistake of not pursuing cost the Unions the battle.

We have just examined five of the Union commander's mistakes at the battles of Port Republic and Cross Keys. These are that the 8th New York Regiment moved toward the Confederate position without skirmishers, that Fremont did not attack Ewell's center vigorously, that General Tyler did not put enough troops on the Coaling, misused his reserves, and finally Fremont pursued the Confederates slowly. These mistakes resulted in the defeat of the Federal armies, which greatly outnumbered Jackson. This defeat had great implications on the war. At this time as Jackson was fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. George B. McClellan was sieging Lee at Richmond. If Jackson had been defeated at Port Republic, he could not have reinforced Lee and defeated McClellan during the Seven Day's battle. If Fremont and Tyler had defeated Jackson, the war would have ended much sooner. The battles of Port Republic and Cross Keys are great examples of how little things can have great impact.

1 Krick, Robert K. Conquering the Valley (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2002) p. 179


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