Who does fortune favor?
He didn’t want to do it—fight on a Sunday, that is—but nonetheless on Sunday, May 25 the very religious Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson attacks Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ harried Federals at Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson was forever invoking God’s mercy as he rode into battle and, before this day was over, he must have concluded he had been graced with it this time. Outnumbering the Union soldiers 2 to 1, Jackson’s Confederates deliver a smashing blow, killing, wounding, or capturing a fourth of the 8,019 bluecoats and capturing a rich trove of supplies. But as Banks’ men retreat through the streets of Winchester and flee towards Harpers Ferry, two other Union armies—one under Frémont, coming from the west, the other under McDowell, coming from the east—are hoping to cut off Jackson.
By Thursday, May 29, Jackson is near Harpers Ferry, where Bank’s 5,000 men wait. Behind Jackson, however, are John Charles Frémont’s 15,000 men and Irvin McDowell’s 20,000. Is Jackson trapped? Not likely. Once again demonstrating the quickness that is making him famous. Jackson slips away. In pouring rain on Saturday, May 31, he escapes the looming entrapment, slipping southward between Irvin McDowell and Frémont before the Federal forces could converge.
“First Winchester” (as the battle is known because of later engagements in the same place), is a major strategic victory for the Confederates. It forced the Union to divert McDowell from reinforcing McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula, and keep him positioned so he could defend Washington if Jackson turned in that direction.
In his Peninsula Campaign, on Saturday, May 31, McClellan finally gets into a battle, without asking for it. He splits his force, putting three of his five corps north of the Chickahominy River—supposedly to unite with McDowell. Needed to defend Washington, McDowell, of course, is going to do no such thing. Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston thinks he sees his chance to attack a weakened McClellan, so he attacks the two Union army remaining on the south side of the river. This is the battle known as Seven Pines or Fair Oaks. After some initial success, the Confederate attack fails and, worst of all, Johnston is seriously wounded and must leave his command.
To replace Johnston, CSA President Jefferson Davis dispatches his own military adviser, a relatively unknown Virginia gentleman named Robert E. Lee—and the rest is history…at least in the Eastern Theater.
In the Western Theater, meanwhile, events have been moving towards a conclusion of Halleck’s glacial advance on Corinth, Mississippi. On Sunday, May 25, Halleck’s combined force is within two miles of Corinth’s defenses, close enough to begin pounding the Confederate base into submission by artillery fire. Halleck starts moving his big guns into position, while deadly skirmishing continues in the no man’s land between the Union and Confederate
Confederate commander P.G.T. Beauregard knows the jig is up and he must save his army. Thanks to poor water and unhealthy living conditions, many of his men are sick and his defenses are weak. Throughout Thursday night, May 29-30, trains rush in and out of Corinth, carrying away the Confederates to Tupelo, about 50 miles south.
As each train arrives, the Confederates cheer, leading some on the Union side to think Corinth is being reinforced. But then, deep, rumbling explosions are heard. The Confederates are blowing up their ammunition dumps. (Pictured above) On Saturday morning, May 30, Union soldiers cautiously enter Corinth and find it deserted. Halleck’s advance has ended successfully—for Halleck—but much of the glory has been lost because of the slowness of his advance.
What Halleck does next, however, will be far worse. In the days to come, he will throw away one of the war’s greatest opportunities. Stonewall Jackson already as shown how fortune favors the bold. Halleck will demonstrate how little caution can favor the Union.
IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3 years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
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