Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Stonewall in the Valley (5): Overnight Decisions.

As the warm May afternoon sun sank slowly towards the western mountains, all seemed tranquil in the small Virginia settlement of Front Royal.  The earlier scare of the Confederate approach had died down. The road south, up the South Fork valley, remained, so far as Colonel  Knipe (USA) was concerned, untrod by rebel feet.

Daybreak - or shortly after - 21 May 1862.  Michigan cavalry
and a flying battery cover the Union retreat.
It was, then, something of a surprise to hear, just on 4 o'clock an ominous rumbling coming from the direction of the Strasburg road.  As innocent as the blue sky was of storm clouds, that could mean but one thing: gunfire.  It continued on, as well.  Clearly, some kind of encounter was occurring somewhere along that  road.
Union wagons lead Gordon's Brigade, which is in turn
followed by Donnelly's.  

What to do?  At this time, the good Colonel knew that General Shields's command would be marching through the Blue Ridge Mountains via  Chester Gap, but would not be arriving until early the following forenoon.  Dare he leave Front Royal ungarrisoned, and march for the guns?  Should he wait for some clarification before deciding.  After all his orders were to hold this village.  Maybe he ought to wait until morning - even for General Shields.  

Colonel Knipe's command comprised:
- 46th Pennsylvania Infantry  (27 figures)
- 3d Wisconsin Infantry (27 figures)
- 1st Maine Cavalry (15 figures)
- Bty M/ 1st New York Artillery (4 figures and a smoothbore Napoleon cannon) 

This decision I subjected to a die roll, and, as it transpired, Col Knipe didn't shally-shally about.  His superior officer was probably in trouble, he would help if he could, even though he would  barely have crossed the South Fork river bridge by dark.  He would resume the march at once the following day.  Meanwhile he would send a courier to Shields stating the case.

Donnelly's brigade on the march - but for how much longer?
For his part, General Shields was too distant to hear the gunfire, and, though through the Blue Ridge, was still well over an hour short of Front Royal when darkness called a halt to the day's march.  He did receive Knipe's message, however, and, in consequence, also found himself faced with a decision. In some ways it was more likely that he would follow Knipe's lead the following day (though it would be not until noon that he could contact Jackson's army).  Would he wait for further information?  Perhaps he should detach a force to guard McCoy's ford?
Confederates in hot pursuit, the cavalry and elements of
Trimble's Brigade leading.  The Michigan cavalry
hurl verbal defiance...

General Nathaniel P. Banks was not altogether displeased with his troops' fight against the redoubtable 'Stonewall' Jackson, but his situation was not a comfortable one.  The day's encounter had been quite unexpected when it happened, and it was clear that the Confederates heavily outnumbered his own.  Could he expect help from his subordinate, Col Knipes?  His message to him carried no instructions to meet him half way, but rather to wait, and try to hold Front Royal if attacked.  General Shields could not be far short of that place by this time, but reliance upon his intervention might be more problematic.  He could not be up before noon, that was plain.  It was one thing to sustain a two-hour fight at two to one odds.  Accepting the task for six hours was a whole other matter.  Delaying action, then?  To gain time for... what?  For whom?

Cavalry action!  The outcome you will have to wait for until
next time...
Retreat, then.  Very well: at once, or wait until dawn?  To retreat at once would gain a little time (I allow an overnight  move of 1 hex only to retire from a battlefield or to break contact.  It is not much of a start when the enemy are faster moving, but it is something!).  But any stragglers as yet uncollected would have to be abandoned (a matter of 8 figures the Union would not get back overnight from the days' losses). The alternative would be to wait until morning, and hope to fight of the pursuit that the Confederate 'foot cavalry' could be trusted to mount (I set the decision at these options, giving equal weight to the three).  The General stared into the flames of his campfire as he quietly issued his orders.  His little army must be ready to march at dawn.

To be continued...


  1. I've been following along with interest, just haven't had any thoughts worth expressing yet except perhaps, a belated "Merry Christmas".

    1. ...and a Happy New Year to you, Ross. I think some of the decision making could use more 'stapid mistukes' as possibilities. Mind you, Jackson didn't historically, and I would not have done neither, taken the McCoy's Ford road... :-)

  2. Great report , looking forward to the next installment.

  3. I am enjoying your campaign, especially your Airfix armies with supply wagons. It is truly inspirational.

    1. Thank you! You know, I have had some of these figures for over 40 years. Not all my Union army are Airfix - or ACW figures. I have a brigade of ESCI figures (3 regiments) and another of Airfix French Foreign Legion that I have done, somewhat unhistorically letting them keep their havelocks...

    2. I have a further reason to thank you for your comment: I have now discovered your blog spot. I have (I hope) added it to my reading list.