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Thus you see two generals, whose united force is near 46,000 troops already organized for three years or the war, opposed to our little force here. But I do not feel discouraged. Let me have what force you can. . . I am delighted to hear you say that Virginia is resolved to concentrate all her resources, if necessary, to the defence of herself. Now we may look for war in earnest. . . I have only to say this—that if this valley is lost Virginia is lost.”
His design, it will be seen, was to check the Federal advance whilst his “reorganization was going on.” Those brief words touched on a dangerous and difficult subject. A large portion of the Confederate forces had volunteered for twelve months only, with the expectation that the war would terminate before the expiration of that period. This hope was disappointed, a year had passed away and hostilities were about to recommence with new vigor. The Confederacy was threatened with an attack still more dangerous, at the momemt when her soldiers claimed the letter of the contract—the right to disband—leaving the country defenceless. To prevent this disastrous result, Congress retained the troops in the field, passing several acts, however, permitting the men to change their arm of the service, to elect new officers, and reorganize throughout the army. It was this “reorganization” in the face of the enemy—throwing all into confusion and rendering the camps so many scenes of electioneering for commissions—that Jackson was fearful of at the beginning of March. While the “Carnival of Misrule” was reigning throughout his army, and every cabin of logs and mud in the winter quarters around Winchester, was the scene of merrymaking over sly canteens of whiskey, smuggled in by the candidate who was anxious to serve his country with braid on his sleeves, while the men felt their power to dethrone their present officers, and those officers unconsciously relaxed in discipline on that account—in the midst of all this confusion the enemy might at any moment advance. To prevent this advance by assuming a bold front, and waiting patiently for the reorganization to be completed, was the object of Jackson in the first days of March.
The roads rapidly dried, and were now firm to the tread, and hard enough to bear the heaviest artillery; but the reënforcements expected by Jackson did not arrive. With his army, reduced by sickness, and leaves of absence—and before the new organization was accomplished—he was called upon to meet the enemy. They numbered, according to Jackson's estimate, about 46,000, while his own force was in all about 4,000; but among these were the men of the Stonewall Brigade, and many gallant regiments formerly commanded by General Loring. With this little force he determined to make as obstinate a resistance as possible. The collision soon came. On the day that the above letter was written by Jackson, the 3d of March, General Banks left a portion of his army at Charlestown, and marched with his main body to Martinsburg, from which an excellent turnpike road led to Winchester. Colonel Ashby, whose cavalry remained in front watching the enemy, reported these movements to General Jackson, and preparations were made to receive their attack. The Confederate commander had no thought of retiring without a fight, and his small force was soon ready to meet the Federal attack, which speedily followed. On the 10th of March General Banks moved toward his adversary, and on the 11th the columns from Martinsburg and Charlestown were united at a point about six miles from Winchester. About two o'clock in the afternoon, Ashby's cavalry picket, about four miles from the town, was attacked in force and the cavalry compelled to fall back. Rečnforcements were speedily despatched to the scene of action, but these were also obliged to retire; and Jackson promptly threw forward his whole force and offered battle. This determined front, as afterwards at Kernstown, must have persuaded the Federal general that his adversary's force was larger than it had been represented. He did not accept the proffered battle, and made no further advance at the time, waiting for his main body to arrive. Jackson still occupied his position in advance of the town with the determination not to retire before the enemy without engaging them, when late in the afternoon he received an order from Richmond directing him to evacuate Winchester, and fall back up the valley. This was a bitter disappointment to him. All his dreams of defending Winchester were at once dispelled; and with a heavy heart he prepared to obey. There was nothing in his orders, however, which forbade him to fight as he fell back, and he resolved that before retiring he would attack his adversary. An incident related of him on this occasion conveys an accurate idea of his feelings and intentions. On the night of the 11th of March he visited the family of the Rev. Mr. Graham, a Presbyterian clergyman of the town, with whom he was intimate, and the whole family were struck with the unusual buoyancy of his bearing. His manner was animated; his countenance smiling, almost gay; and he came in with a rapid and elastic tread which indicated high spirits. As the hour for evening prayers had arrived, he asked permission to read a chapter in the Bible and offer a prayer, as he frequently did; and every one took notice of the eloquence and feeling in his voice. When the family rose from their knees, Jackson remained for a moment silent, and then said: “My good friends, I can tell you what I am going to do to-night. I shall attack the enemy, and defeat him.” After a few more words he left the house, but, to their great surprise, returned toward midnight, looking haggard and dispirited. He came in slowly, almost dragging himself along, and said, in accents of the greatest depression: “I have come to tell you that I must leave you, and to say farewell.” His head sank as he spoke, and he seemed to fall into a gloomy reverie. From this he suddenly roused himself, and starting to his feet with flushed cheeks and flashing eyes, he half drew his sword from the scabbard and exclaimed: “I will never leave Winchester without a fight!—never, never !” He stood looking at the astonished auditors for some moments without uttering another word, and then his excitement disappeared. His sword was driven back with a ringing clash into the scabbard, and in tones of profound discouragement he said: “No 1 I cannot sacrifice my men. I intended to attack the enemy on the Martinsburg road, but they are approaching on the flanks too, and would surround me. I cannot sacrifice my men; I must fall back.” He then bade his friends farewell, and left the house.” On the same night he recalled his troops from their position in front of the enemy, left the cavalry to guard his rear, and silently evacuated Winchester. He had remained in person until the last moment, to see that no stores of any description were left. Even the useless telegraph wire was directed to be brought off, and he entrusted this duty to Major Harman, the chief quartermaster, with the statement that he was “in no hurry to leave Winchester.” Every thing in the shape of public stores had been already removed. The cars and engines from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had all been sent to the rear, and the men had been greeted with the unique spectacle of one huge railroad engine rolling along the valley turnpike, drawn by forty-two horses. Nothing was thus left, and Jackson doggedly retired. On the next morning a column of eight thousand Federal troops entered the town and took possession. Colonel Ashby, commanding the cavalry, which composed the rear-guard of the army, remained behind his men, alone, in Winchester, until the enemy had swarmed into the ancient town, and were within two hundred yards of his position. An incident very characteristic of Ashby followed. The enemy had observed the daring cavalier, who thus persistently sat his horse, watching their entrance, and two men were sent to make a circuit, and by striking the valley turnpike in his rear, intercept him and cut off his retreat. If Ashby saw this he did not pay any attention to the circumstance. He waited until the Federal column was nearly upon him, and then waving his sword around his head, uttered a cheer and galloped off. At the edge of the town he found himself confronted by the men sent to intercept him; and those acquainted with the daring eharacter of Ashby will easily believe that this opportunity of venting his spleen at being compelled to retreat was not unacceptable. Without attending to the loud “halt!” he levelled his pistol as he came on, and fired at one of the cavalry men, who fell. Ashby then caught the other by the throat, dragged him from the saddle, and carried him off at full gallop. This incident took place exactly as here narrated. It can only be explained by the statement that Ashby was the best rider in the Southern army. Jackson continued to fall back, and Ashby's cavalry, supported by Chew's battery of horse artillery, held the rear, disputing every inch of ground with the enemy, who pursued closely. The crack of the cavalry carbines is described as having been incessant, and the roar of the artillery was “the lullaby and reveille” of the little army.
* The scene here related is given on the authority of a highly respectable gentleman of Winchester, who received the incident from the family of the Rev. Mr. Graham, who witnessed it, and bear testimony to its truth.
JACKSON's retreat on this occasion was sullen and deliberate, and the forces assailing his rear gained no advantage over Colonel Ashby, who confronted them with his cavalry everywhere, and obstinately sustained their attack. At Newtown he met and repulsed a column under General Shields which made a furious assault upon the Confederate rear-guard, and the army continued its march. Reaching Cedar Creek, near Strasburg, on the evening of the first day, Jackson continued to retreat until he arrived at the little town of Mount Jackson, nearly opposite Luray, and about forty-five miles from Winchester. Here his weary troops went into camp, the enemy having ceased the pursuit.