Virginia Civil War Battle of Cross Keys

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Battle of Cross Keys
Virginia Civil War History

Virginia Civil War History
Battle of Cross Keys

County: Rockingham, Virginia

General Location: South of rtes. 659 and 276, crossroads of Cross Keys, including the village of Port Republic

Campaign: Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign (1862)

Principal Commanders: [c] Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, Brig. Gen. Richard Ewell, Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble; [u] Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont

Forces Engaged: [c] Three of four brigades of Ewell's division (Trimble, Elzey, Steuart) and Patton's brigade, about 8,500 engaged; [u] Blenker's infantry division (three brigades), three attached brigades (Cluseret, Milroy, Schenck), Bayard's cavalry, and nine batteries, about 11,500 men

Total Casualties: [c] 287 (42k/230w/15m); [u] 664 (114k/443w/127m)

Significance: The battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic were the decisive victories of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. ``Stonewall'' Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign. At Cross Keys, one of Jackson's divisions beat back the army of Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont approaching from Harrisonburg, while elements of a second division held back the vanguard of Brig. Gen. James Shields' division advancing toward Port Republic on the Luray Road. During the night of 8-9 June, Jackson withdrew from in front of Fremont and at dawn attacked two of Shields's four brigades (commanded by Brig. Gen. E. B. Tyler), precipitating the battle of Port Republic. Fremont reached the vicinity too late to aid Tyler, who was badly beaten. With the retreat of both US armies, Jackson was freed to join the CS army commanded by General Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days Battles against McClellan's army before Richmond.

In addition to its importance in Jackson's overall strategy of defeating two separated armies in detail, Cross Keys provides interesting lessons at the tactical level. By deft maneuver and clever use of the terrain, Confederate Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble shattered a larger US force and stalled Fremont's attack. The ground where this tactical action occurred is pristine and enables understanding of this phase of the conflict.

Virginia Civil War Battle Map
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Virginia Civil War Battlefield Map

Description of the Battle

Prelude: The hamlet of Port Republic lies on a neck of land between the North and South rivers at the point where they conjoin. On 6-7 June 1862, the army of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, numbering about 16,000, bivouacked north of Port Republic, Ewell's division along the banks of Mill Creek near Goods Mill, and Winder's division on the north bank of North River near the bridge. One regiment (15AL) was left to block the roads at Union Church. Jackson's headquarters were in Madison Hall, the home of Dr. Kemper, at Port Republic. The army trains were parked nearby.

Two US columns converged on Jackson's position. The army of Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont, about 15,000 strong, moved south on the Valley Pike and reached the vicinity of Harrisonburg on 6 June. The division of General Shields, about 10,000 strong, advanced south from Front Royal in the Luray (Page) Valley, but was badly strung out because of the muddy Luray Road. At Port Republic, Jackson possessed the last intact bridge on the North River and the fords on the South River by which Fremont and Shields could unite. Jackson determined to check Fremont's advance at Mill Creek, while meeting Shields on the east bank of the North Fork. A CS signal station on Massanutten monitored US progress.

Skirmishing at Cross Keys Tavern: Late in the day on 7 June, Fremont's advance guard encountered Jackson's pickets near Cross Keys Tavern. A few shots were fired and the US cavalry fell back onto their main body, which was approaching. Darkness prevented further developments.

Battle of Cross Keys Map
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Civil War Cross Keys Battlefield Map

Surprise Raid on Port Republic: Colonel Samuel Carroll at the head of a regiment of cavalry, supported by a battery and a brigade of infantry, was sent ahead by Shields to secure the North River Bridge at Port Republic. Shortly after dawn (8 June), Carroll scattered the CS pickets, forded the South River, and dashed into Port Republic. Jackson and his staff raced down the main street from headquarters and across the bridge, narrowly eluding capture (two members of his staff were captured). Carroll deployed one gun aimed at the bridge and brought up another. Jackson directed the defense, ordering Poague's battery to unlimber on the north bank. Carrington brought up a gun from the vicinity of Madison Hall to rake the Main St. The 37VA Infantry charged across the bridge to drive the US cavalry out of the town. Carroll retreated in confusion, losing his two guns, before his infantry could come within range. Three CS batteries unlimbered on the bluffs east of Port Republic on the north bank of the South Fork and fired on the retreating Federals. Carroll retired several miles north on the Luray Road. Jackson stationed Taliaferro's brigade in Port Republic and positioned the Stonewall Brigade near Bogota with the artillery to prevent any further surprises.

US Deployment: Meanwhile, Fremont, with Cluseret's brigade in the lead, renewed his advance from the vicinity of Harrisonburg. After driving away the CS skirmishers, Cluseret reached and deployed his right flank along the Keezletown Road near Union Church. One by one, the US brigades came into line: Schenck on Cluseret's right, Milroy on his left, and Stahel on the far left, his left flank near Congers Creek. Bohlen's and Koltes' brigades were held in reserve near the center of the line. A regiment of US cavalry moved south on the road to secure the right flank. Batteries were brought to the front.

Virginia Civil War History Map
Virginia Civil War History Map.jpg
Civil War Virginia Battlefield Map

CS Deployment: Gen. Richard Ewell deployed his infantry division (CS) behind Mill Creek, Trimble's brigade on the right across the Port Republic Road, Elzey's in the center along the high bluffs. Ewell concentrated his artillery (4 batteries) at the center of the line. As US troops deployed along Keezletown Road, Trimble advanced his brigade a quarter of a mile to Victory Hill and deployed Courtenay's (Latimer's) battery on a hill to his left supported by the 21NC Regiment. The 15AL, which had been skirmishing near Union Church, rejoined the brigade. Trimble held his regiments out of sight behind the crest of the hill.

US Attack and Repulse: Fremont determined to advance his battle line with the evident intention of developing the CS position, assumed to be behind Mill Creek. This maneuver required an elaborate right wheel. Stahel's brigade on the far left had the farthest distance to cover and advanced first. Milroy moved forward on Stahel's right and rear. US batteries were advanced with infantry lines south of Keezletown Road and engaged CS batteries. Stahel appeared oblivious to Trimble's advanced position. His battle line passed down into the valley, crossed the run, and began climbing Victory Hill. At a distance of ``sixty paces,'' Trimble's infantry stood up and delivered a devastating volley. Stahel's brigade recoiled in confusion with heavy casualties. The Union brigade regrouped on the height opposite Victory Hill but made no effort to renew their assault.

Trimble's Flanking Attacks: Stahel did not renew his attack but brought up a battery (Buell's) to support his position. Trimble moved the 15AL by the right flank and up a ravine to get on the battery's left. In the meantime, Ewell sent two regiments (13VA and 25VA) along the ridge to Trimble's right, attracting a severe fire from the US battery. With a shout, the 15AL emerged from their ravine and began to climb the hill toward the battery, precipitating a fight. Trimble advanced his other two regiments (16MS on left and 21GA on right) from their position on Victory Hill, forcing back the US line. The US battery limbered hastily and withdrew, saving its guns. A US regiment counter-attacked briefly striking the left flank of the 16MS but was forced back in desperate fighting.

Virginia Civil War History Map
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Civil War Virginia Battles

Virginia Civil War Battle of Cross Keys
Virginia Civil War Battle of Cross Keys.jpg
Forbes, Edwin, artist, June 7, 1862.

US Withdrawal to Keezletown Road: Trimble continued advancing up the ravine on the CS right, outflanking successive US positions. In the meantime, Milroy advanced on Stahel's right supported by artillery. Milroy's line came within rifle-musket range of the CS center behind Mill Creek and opened fire. US batteries continued to engage CS batteries in an artillery duel. Bohlen advanced on the far US left to stiffen Stahel's crumbling defense. Milroy's left flank was endangered by Stahel's retreat, and Fremont ordered him to withdraw. Jackson brought Taylor's brigade forward to support Ewell if needed, but Taylor remained in reserve on the Port Republic Road near the Dunker Church.

US Attacks on the Right: Seemingly paralyzed by the decimation of Stahel's brigade on his left, Fremont was unable to mount a coordinated attack. He ordered Schenck's brigade forward to find the CS left flank south of Union Church. Ewell reinforced his left with elements of Elzey's brigade. Severe firing erupted along the line but quickly died down. CS brigadiers Elzey and Steuart were wounded in this exchange. Fremont withdrew his force to Keezletown Road, placing his artillery on the heights to his rear (Oak Ridge). Artillery firing continued. At dusk, Trimble pushed his battle line forward to within a quarter mile of the US position, anticipating a night assault. CS accounts describe the US soldiers going into camp, lighting fires and making coffee. Ewell ordered Trimble to withdraw without making the attack.

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Sources: National Park Service; Civil War Trust; Library of Congress.

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