McDowell’s Honored Dead

Tomb of unknown

Marker for the Unknown Soldiers at McDowell, Virginia

General Thomas Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate troops had spent the last several days slogging through the mud on their way to Port Republic while General Richard Ewell’s division had slipped over the Blue Ridge Mountains through Swift Run Gap to take Jackson’s place at Conrad’s Store. Jackson would then cross the Blue Ridge at Brown’s Gap with his army on his way to the Meacham River Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. Stonewall would spend May 4th, riding horseback to Staunton, while his troops followed by train or on foot.  He would setup his headquarters at the Virginia Hotel in town.

With the army reinforced by nearly three thousand troops from General Edward Allegheny Johnson’s Army of the Northwest, Jackson’s army would now number some nine thousand men.  From his camp at West View, which is about five miles west of Staunton, Johnson’s men were staged to act as the vanguard in the coming campaign. Johnson’s men were very familiar with the terrain, having spent the winter defending it.

Jackson’s men were up early on May 7th marching to the northwest along the Parkersburg Turnpike. A short time after their departure they ran into a contingent of General Robert Milroy’s Union Soldiers. Milroy’s force numbered about two thousand men. Sensing he was outnumbered, Milroy decided to retreat back to the town of McDowell, on the West side of Bull Pasture Mountain. He immediately sent an urgent message to Union forces at Franklin pleading for reinforcements.

About 10 a.m. on May 8th, General Robert Schenck arrived with supports, increasing the number of Union troops to about six thousand. As Schenck was senior to Milroy, he assumed overall command of the Federal force. The Union commander established his headquarters in town at the Hull House and then deployed his artillery, consisting of eighteen guns, onto Cemetery Hill. Next, he positioned his infantry in a line, about eight hundred yards in length, south along Bull Pasture River. Schenck placed one regiment, the 2nd West Virginia, on Hull’s Hill, east of the river, overlooking the Parkersburg Pike. Three companies of cavalry covered the left flank along the road on the north side of the village.

Meanwhile, on the top of Sitlington’s Hill, which overlooked the town of McDowell, Jackson had begun to assemble Edward Johnson’s troops along the crest. Not expecting to fight a battle so late in the day, he ordered Johnson to position his troops and then began to make plans to launch a flank attack the following morning.

Union Troops had a different idea on how the coming battle would unfold, however. Milroy got permission from Schenck to mount an attack on Sitlington’s Hill before the Confederates could position their artillery on the crest. Milroy assembled some twenty-three hundred troops along the river at the base of the hill and ordered his troops onward and upwards.

As Milroy’s men assaulted Sitlington’s Hill they began to exchange fire with the rebels under General Johnson. The fighting became intense. Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s mapmaker, recorded that “from 4:30 to 8:30 the firing was terrific.” Union troops would discharge their rifled muskets into the Rebel troops situated on the high ground, perfectly silhouetted with their backs to the setting sun. The rebels would defend their position with smoothbore muskets accurate out to about one hundred yards.

McDowell Map1

Map made by Jedediah Hotchkiss for the May 8th, 1862, Battle of McDowell.

Casualties in the brief fight were significant. Union forces lost thirty-four killed, two hundred and twenty wounded, and five missing. Confederate losses were much greater with one hundred and sixteen killed, and some three hundred wounded. Four were missing. It was one of the few instances in the war where the attackers experienced significantly fewer casualties than the defenders.

The question then is what would have happened to the dead and mortally wounded? According to General Milroy his men wanted to continue the battle and were “anxious to hold on and sent for more ammunition.” Milroy, instead, decided to “draw them down to camp, which was done in good order, bringing off all of our dead and wounded.” According to official casualty reports, however, five infantrymen were still reported as missing.

According to Alvid Lee of the 82nd Ohio, however, not all of the deceased were recovered. Lee stated “the wounded had all been retrieved but there lay the dead, and it seemed too bad to leave them behind. So, two of us picked up one of the bodies and endeavored to bear it away with the retreating line.” “The slain soldier was a young German that had been shot in the head and was left behind.” Finding themselves too exhausted to carry him down the mountain, they had left him “by the stump of a tree, his face upturned to the moonlight.”

Colonel Thomas Williamson, of Jackson’s staff, seems to corroborate this report when he indicated he had observed “only one dead federal when riding over the battlefield the next morning, a boy of fifteen or sixteen years of age.” This could easily have been the “young German” referred to by Mr. Lee.

Jedediah Hotchkiss, on the other hand, indicated that he had revisited the battleground “to examine and sketch the battle-field on Sitlington’s Hill.” He visited the spot where their “men were posted during the engagement, cut into splinters by the bullets of the enemy, a good many of whose dead were still lying about.” It sounds like some soldiers were found near the crest of the hill would have been some distance from where the “young German” was found.

Jed Hotchkiss

Post War Photo of Jedediah Hotchkiss

A Union council of war was held shortly after the battle ended and, within six hours, Schenck’s force was on the move, retreating back to Franklin. The question regarding the removal of the dead is, therefore, somewhat indeterminate. With the battle ending in darkness it seems as though gathering the dead would have been problematic considering the proximity of the enemy. Schenck’s soldiers would have had a great deal of work to accomplish in order to prepare for their retreat and very little time to do it.

So, undoubtedly, several Union dead that were left behind, as mentioned by Hotchkiss, probably finding their final resting place at the cemetery in the center of town. The question is what was the final resting spot for the one hundred and sixteen Confederate dead? Hotchkiss noted that all of the Confederate dead “had been carried down to the turnpike at the mouth of the ravine by which we had gone up and been laid in a row along a grassy place beside the road.” This must have been a temporary resting place as the spot he mentions can be easily visited and there is no indication that it is a current grave site. Certainly, the spot would have been honored by a marker of some sort.

On May 10th, while riding along the road from McDowell to Churchville, Jedediah Hotchkiss noted that he “met many citizens going to look for friends and relatives who had been in the battle.” Additionally, on May 12th, just four days after the fight, while Hotchkiss was riding through the village of Mossy Creek, he took note that the townspeople were “burying the remains of Frank Eruitt and of Harmon who were killed at McDowell.”

Temporary burial duties on the battlefield would have undoubtedly been the responsibility of the Corps of Black Pioneers. These men would have been under the command of Jackson’s staff engineer, Captain Claiborne Maison. Backing them up were four companies of VMI cadets, about two hundred in number, who, in addition to the guarding of prisoners, would have been responsible for supervision of the burial of bodies. They were definitely not employed in combat roles.

It seems as though local citizens were helping with the dispositions of bodies. As with combat casualties, some of the dead would be identifiable and some would have been so badly mangled that their identity could not be determined. Perhaps these are the Confederate soldiers that are buried with the Union Dead in McDowell.

Except for a young “German boy”, the identities of the Union soldiers buried here are unknown. Union and Confederate troops, mortal enemies, are entombed together. The size of the lot is small, maybe four hundred square feet, so there are certainly not hundreds of soldiers buried there, but there could be a dozen or more. Maybe it is just those men who were pronounced as missing. Nevertheless, the spot in this peaceful cemetery is the tomb of the unknown soldiers. The identities of the men buried there are, as far as I can determine, unknown. The hints we find are just that; hints. Still, the burial site is a must see at McDowell. As we gaze upon this hallowed ground we are reminded that though these unidentified combatants are gone, they are not forgotten in their common ossuary.

The battle of McDowell was fought on May 8, 1862. It was the second battle in General Thomas Stonewall Jackson’s famous Valley Campaign and it would register as his first victory.

 

Sources:

Official Records of the Civil War.

McDonald, Archie P., Make Me a Map of the Valley: The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss. Dallas, Tx. 1973.

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