The Shenandoah Valley stretches nearly 200 miles, starting at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia down through Virginia to Roanoke. Lying between the Allegheny Mountains to the west and Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, the Shenandoah River was fairly well protected. In the northern part of the valley between Edinburg and Strasburg lies Massanutten Mountain, also known as the Massanutten Massif, which during the time of the Civil War was an impassable barrier over the mountain. The Shenandoah River divided and flowed around both sides of the Massanutten Massif. From there the Shenandoah River continued to flow north out of the valley where it met the Potomac River which flowed on towards Washington DC.
The southern part of the Shenandoah Valley was controlled by the Confederates while the Union forces controlled the northern part of the valley. Confederate General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson set his sights on taking the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley away from the Union forces and in early 1862 began his march northward. One of the main reasons for Jackson’s desire to take the Shenandoah Valley was that the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had been pretty much contained on the James Peninsula by the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George McClellan. If Jackson could take the northern Shenandoah Valley, it would give him a northern route to the Union capital in Washington DC which could give the Confederates the victory of the entire Civil War.
On May 23, 1862, Jackson’s Confederate forces attacked a 1,000-man Union force at Front Royal, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. The Union forces were commanded by Colonel John R. Kenly. The Confederate attack took Kenly’s troops by surprise, forcing them to retreat northward to Camp Hill, then Guard Hill, then to Cedarville and eventually to Strasburg where they joined the forces of Union General Nathaniel Banks. Together, banks and Kenly retreated further north to Winchester.
On May 25, 1862, Jackson’s Confederate forces attacked Bank’s Union forces at the First Battle of Winchester. Jackson’s victory of Banks was decisive. Banks lost around 2,000 troops killed, wounded and captured compared to only 400 casualties for Jackson’s Confederate forces.
When news of Jackson’s victory at Winchester reached Washington DC, a mere 75 miles away, Lincoln commanded Union Generals and McClellan to move some of their forces east towards the Union capital to prevent it from falling to the forces of Stonewall Jackson. He also ordered Banks to regroup and drive south to stop Jackson. Union General Irwin McDowell was ordered to take his army and engage Jackson from the east. Union General John C. Fremont was ordered to take his army and engage Jackson from the West. It was hoped that the three prong stand would stop Jackson’s advance.
In response, Jackson did move south, but not as a retreat. He strategically led Union forces on a chase that would eventually give Jackson another chance to defeat them and drive them out of the Shenandoah Valley. He stopped at Port Republic where an important bridge crossing the Shenandoah River was located. It was that bridge that the Union forces needed to cross over and join forces. Jackson kept the bulk of his forces at Port Republic. He then dispatched General Richard C. Ewell with his 5,000 troops to Cross Keys.
On this day, June 8, 1862, Union General Fremont moved against Ewell’s forces at Cross Keys. For some reason, Fremont only dispatched 5 of his 24 regiments to root out the Confederates at Cross Keys. It turned out to be a gross mistake on the part of Fremont as it was Ewell’s troops that drove back the Union forces.
Ewell had taken up position above Mill Creek at Cross Keys, named for a local tavern. Their elevated position gave them a clear view of anyone approaching the area. Part of his forces under the command of General Isaac Ridgeway Trimble, took up positions behind an elevated fencerow which was completely covered with vegetation. It gave Trimble’s regiments, one each from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, a perfect camouflaged position to hide behind while at the same time allowing them visibility to easily see any Union forces trying to approach.
Trimble’s strategy proved to be effective when Union General Julius Stahel’s brigade of New York and Pennsylvania troops advanced directly towards Trimble’s position. When the Union troops were close enough, the Confederates open fired at close range, slaughtering many of the Union soldiers.
The Confederate troops then surged forward right through the Union lines, forcing Fremont to hastily withdraw from Cross Keys. Ewell had accomplished his mission of protecting Jackson from any attack from the direction of Cross Keys.
The Battle at Cross Keys left Fremont with 684 men killed or wounded while Ewell suffered only 288 dead or wounded.
Sources for the above includes: Cross Keys; Maps of Cross Keys, Virginia (1862); Confederates Score Victory at the Battle of Cross Keys; Cross Keys (8 June 1862); American Civil War: Battle of Cross Keys; Battle of Cross Keys; The Shenandoah Battles: The Battle of Cross Keys, Between Fremont and Jackson; Map of the Shenandoah Valley; Front Royal; Today, May 25, 1862: Confederate Victory at First Battle of Winchester.