This Most Inglorious Retreat: The 1st Michigan Evacuates the Shenandoah Valley

     The humiliation of General Nathaniel P. Banks’ army in May 1862 could not have been more complete. In the span of a few days of rapid and fierce fighting, Stonewall Jackson’s army had smashed the Federal army holding the Lower Shenandoah Valley at Front Royal, Middletown, and at Winchester. “Commissary” Banks’ force left behind mountains of much-needed military supplies which Jackson’s men quickly put to use. Federal casualties topped 3,500 men out of Banks’ army of 9,000, and more importantly, the loss of the Valley sent official Washington into a panic.

    Among the survivors of Banks’ retreat was a soldier from Co. M of the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Writing home to his parents from Williamsport, Maryland, the Wolverine confessed “the fact is we were driven out and what is worse, whipped badly besides.” He then proceeded to recount the adventures of the past few days which reads much like scenes from a nightmare. 

Williamsport, Maryland

May 30, 1862

          Here I am safe and sound, once more in a loyal state, but not of my own accord I can assure you. The fact is we were driven out and what is worse, whipped badly besides. But it might have been worse. In Co. M, several are missing, one is supposed to be killed and three wounded.

          We received orders to march about 1 o’clock Friday night but did not get away until 10 o’clock Saturday morning. After going about six miles, we met the enemy’s cavalry whom we drove back after a sharp skirmish and proceeded to Winchester, reaching there about 5 o’clock the same day. Our baggage train, which was in our rear, was attacked by the enemy after we had passed, causing a panic among the drivers and our whole train was lost. All the officers lost their baggage, together with our tents, company property, etc. What was not taken by the enemy was burned.

Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks

          At Winchester, we were ordered out about midnight Saturday night. At daylight Sunday morning [May 25th] the fight had commenced in earnest. Our regiment was sent out on our right flank to support a battery of artillery and some infantry. The Rebels soon made their appearance in large numbers. In a short time, they had driven our artillery and infantry from the field, and our regiment was ordered to hold them in check and charge them if we could in safety. We formed in line of battle and the Rebels did the same. They had a force of about six regiments of infantry and we had only three companies of cavalry, and there we stood facing that number, only about 12 rods between us for six or eight minutes. Of course, it would have been folly to have charged that force, and our major in command ordered us to retire.

The troops confronting the 1st Michigan were General Richard Taylor's Louisiana brigade. Under heavy Federal artillery fire, Taylor's men started to duck and shy away which threw Taylor into a towering fury. "What the hell are you dodging for? If there is anymore of it, you will be halted under this fire for an hour!" Stonewall Jackson overheard Taylor and quietly told him "I am afraid you are a wicked fellow," but then rode off to another part of the line.

The enemy opened on us such a fire of musketry as I never saw before. I do not believe troops in this war have ever stood up under as heavy a fire as we were for those few minutes. It is almost a miracle that any of us were left to tell the tale. I cannot help but believe that some all-wise Providence stretched forth His saving hand at that time. Our regiment was the means of saving a large portion of our army for during the time we held the enemy in check, it gave our troops time to retire.

Colonel Thornton Broadhead
1st Michigan Cavalry

It was at this time that Co. M lost their men. I never shall forget with what an imploring look Daniel Knight turned to me when we were going off the field and said, “I am wounded and cannot ride farther.” I had him taken to a private house. I had a rather narrow escape at this time. While I was thus occupied, the Rebels were advancing, and I got away by the skin of my teeth. The people fired at us from their houses when we were retreating through town.

"My retreating column suffered serious loss in the streets of Winchester. Males and females vied with each other in increasing the number of their victims by firing from the houses, throwing hand grenades, hot water, and missiles of every description. The hellish spirit of murder was carried on by the enemy's cavalry who followed to butcher and who struck down with saber and pistol the hapless soldier." ~Colonel George H. Gordon, 2nd Massachusetts

We arrived three miles from this place about 12 o’clock Sunday night, having marched 31 miles that day. That night we slept standing, holding our horses and the next morning were ordered to remain there on picket duty where we remained until Thursday morning. We had a hard time, our horses remaining saddled for 84 hours, and during that time we had but four meals and hardly any sleep. We are all right now, having had a good night’s rest, that meaning I slept in a good bed and all that,  but that we were permitted to occupy a man’s grove and I had a nice smooth stone for a pillow and an overcoat to put over me.

Tools of a well-equipped cavalryman included a bit for the horse, a yellow-trimmed woolen shell jacket, calf-high riding boots, bugle, canteen, .44 caliber six-shot Colt Army revolver (the smaller .36 caliber Colt Navy was felt to be handier in close quarters combat), leather accouterments including belt with cap pouch and cartridge box, and an M1860 Light Cavalry Saber or M1840 Heavy Dragoon Saber. One Michigan trooper commented that "pistols are useless. At a charge, the saber is the weapon."

The Potomac River here is about 600 feet wide and there being no means of crossing, except a one-horse ferry, our regiment was obliged to ford it. In doing so, a number of horses were drowned besides about 150-200 mules attached to the trains. Such a scene as that was, I never saw; everything was confusion and each one for himself. Had the enemy come upon us at this time, they would either have captured our whole force or driven us into the river. This ended this most inglorious retreat.

That we were badly whipped cannot be denied, yet we got out of it under the circumstances first rate. Our whole force did not number 6,000 men while that of the enemy could not have been less than 20,000 and perhaps more. However, we are not discouraged by any means and look forward with pleasure to the day when we shall have an opportunity of redeeming our good name.


Lieutenant Robert G.. McKay, Co. H, 1st Michigan Cavalry


Letter from unknown soldier in Co. M, 1st Michigan Volunteer Cavalry, Cass County Republican (Michigan), June 12, 1862, pg. 2

Martin, David G. Jackson's Valley Campaign: November 1861-June 1862. New York: Gallery Books, 1988


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