Marching to Stonewall Jackson’s Tune

Civil War

Marching to Stonewall Jackson’s Tune

Although Stonewall Jackson lost 400 men fighting from Front Royal to Winchester, he lost thousands to straggling in the retreat from the Potomac to Strasburg.

Although Stonewall Jackson lost 400 men fighting from Front Royal to Winchester, he lost thousands to straggling in the retreat from the Potomac to Strasburg.

by Brooke C. Stoddard

Even as early in the campaign as the march from Staunton to McDowell, soldiers were feeling desperate. One Confederate Army private, despairing the weight of his pistol, offered it to anyone who would take it. No one would. He threw it into the bushes. He offered his sword, again no takers, and again the discard into the bushes. No one wanted his blanket either, and so the side of the trail reaped that as well. Thrown away were all the trappings of magisterial war that the soldiers earlier had believed would be theirs: high hats and uniform finery. The valley soldier was soon stripped to nothing but the essentials.

Straggling was always a problem, not so much owing to morale as mere exhaustion or physical breakdown. One Alabamian wrote,

“My feet were blistered all over, on top as well as on the bottom. I was never so tired and sleepy.”

Richard Taylor Had it Right

Richard Taylor’s Louisianians did better than most. Taylor had told his men to bathe their feet at the end of each day, instructed them on treating sores and how to pick boots, of which he wanted each soldier to have two pairs. On the march Taylor remained at the rear of his command to discourage straggling; so did his junior officers.

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But Taylor’s hopes of two pairs of boots per man could hardly be achieved, especially after the beginnings of the trials of the campaign. Shoes were soon held together with twine, or abandoned altogether. Hundreds of men marched barefoot.

Stonewall Jackson’s Hard March

The retreat from Harper’s Ferry was especially devastating. Although Jackson lost 400 casualties in the fighting from Front Royal to Winchester, he lost thousands to straggling in the retreat from the Potomac back to Strasburg. Captain James Edmondson of the 27th Virginia Regiment, part of the Stonewall Brigade, observed: “I never saw a Brigade so completely broken down.… [It] has lost at least 1,000 men broken down, left on the way and captured.” The 27th began with 418 men and finished with 150 ready for duty. Only half of the Stonewall Brigade arrived in Strasburg at the same time as its commander, Charles Winder; the rest was strung out up the Pike. Those who could not catch up were captured or had to make their way through back ways and woods to rejoin the valley army.

During some hard marches, cavalry and infantry temporarily relaxed their rivalry and jibes. Cavalrymen offered to sling rifles for the foot soldiers, or let them mount, or allowed soldiers to hold onto stirrups. It was said that one man found a hot meal but fell asleep before he could eat it. At a rest period, men often fell right to the ground and were instantly asleep.

For all this exhaustion and misery, the Southern soldiers knew they were part of great deeds. Richmond newspapers hailed their achievements in the valley as heroic, and soon European observers were extolling the campaign’s brilliance. The valley soldiers marched in misery but marched also into immortality.

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