In the early morning hours of May 21, 1862, Lieutenant James K. Boswell was ordered to climb to the top of Signal Knob, at the northern end of Massanutten Mountain, to determine General Nathaniel Banks troop strength at Strasburg. Boswell would spend several hours there counting Union soldiers. Unfortunately, arithmetic was not one of Boswell’s strengths. The numbers he provided would inflate Union troop strength to nearly double what they actually were. Boswell’s ineptness would directly impact the Valley Campaign and force General Jackson to reevaluate his overall strategy.
In spite of the information provided by Boswell, Stonewall determined he would continue with his plan to attack the force General Banks had assigned to protect his own left flank at Front Royal. Fortunately, Jackson had been accurately informed that the Federal detachment located there numbered a little more than a thousand men, in addition to two artillery pieces. The Commander, Colonel John R. Kenley, and his 1st Maryland Volunteer Infantry, were to be his first mark.
Jackson’s vanguard spent the night at Bentonville, about twelve miles south of Front Royal. General Richard Ewell’s Division had camped there and had been given orders to begin their march at five AM. Company H of the Sixth Virginia Cavalry would lead the column, with General Jackson and General Ewell trailing immediately behind. Marching four abreast the procession extended more than ten miles, stretching all the way back to Luray.
Route Taken by Turner Ashby’s Cavalry Can Be Traced in Red from McCoy’s Ford, Bottom, to Buckton Station in the Upper Left of the Map. (Map: Jedediah Hotchkiss)
In an effort to protect his own flank, and cut communications between the two Union commanders, Jackson detached a cavalry force under Colonel Turner Ashby. He assigned Ashby the mission of crossing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and attacking Buckton Station. Buckton was located on the Manassas Gap Railroad, midway between Front Royal and Strasburg. The Strasburg – Front Royal Road crossed the rail line there in two places, once on the east side and once on the west side of Passage Creek. This small stream then emptied directly into the North Fork of the Shenandoah River just a few yards to the north.
Map showing the Location of Buckton Station Relative to Strasburg and Front Royal and the Movements of Opposing Forces on March 23.
The small Union force assigned the task of guarding the depot and the railroad bridge at Buckton Station was under the command of Captain William Hubbard of the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry. His detachment consisted of approximately one hundred and fifty soldiers, including Company G of his own 3rd Wisconsin, and Company B of the 27th Indiana. Company G protected the west side of the railroad bridge while Company B covered the east side, including the depot.
Colonel Ashby crossed McCoy’s Ford on the South Fork about mid-morning and proceeded north on the road to Waterlick Station, which was located about a mile west of Buckton. With him were fewer than three hundred Virginia cavalrymen selected from five companies of his own 7th Virginia Cavalry. His remaining troopers were scattered all about the Shenandoah Valley on detached duty.
When Ashby’s force arrived at Bell’s Mill, he detailed Sergeant Marcus Richardson and four other men to scout the road leading to Strasburg. Richardson, who was a native of Front Royal, was very familiar with the area surrounding Buckton Station. It would be his job to intercept and delay any Union troops sent to relieve the outpost.
The next chore was to reconnoiter the area around the depot. Once again Ashby selected a local boy. Sergeant John Jenkins had literally grown up in in the shadow of Buckton Station. His family actually owned the home adjacent to the depot. Certainly, there was nobody more qualified to coach Colonel Ashby.
Ashby and Jenkins advanced to the boundary of a dense wood thicket. From the edge of the copse of trees they viewed an expansive wheat field directly to their front. On the far edge was an elevated train track where Union forces appeared dug in. In the direction of the depot a number of tents had been setup to accommodate the troops. The depot building itself appeared to have been reinforced with sandbags and had “loopholes through the depot walls.” Except for the creek, which divided the field, it was a perfect defensive position. The element of surprise would be critical, though, if Ashby’s troopers were to have any success in securing the position.
Map of the Battle of Buckton Station Taken from Blue and Grey Magazine.
Colonel Ashby went about organizing his cavalrymen along the edge of the woods. It was about two o’clock when Ashby felt satisfied with their dispositions and shouted the order to charge. Edwin Bryant of the 3rd Wisconsin remembered how the Rebel cavalry “charged across the wheat field, with a whoop and yell, two or three officers in front swinging their sabers, toward the camp of the companies.”
Union troops were completely surprised. Most of the Federal pickets were scooped up. The rest hurried back to their lines trying their best to avoid capture. “Hubbard with his Company G, and the brave Indianans did not flinch. It might well shake the nerve of veterans to see so solid a column of cavalry bearing down upon them in the momentum of full gallop; but the Indiana boys gave the advancing host a volley.”
Captain George Sheetz of Company F of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, himself a native of Indiana, attempted to capture one of the Union pickets by himself. Corporal Henry Pittman, who had been out on guard duty, was currently doing his best to get back to the safety of his own lines. Captain Sheetz rode abreast of Pittman and ordered him to surrender. Sheetz “must have imagined that Pittman’s gun was empty.” When Captain Sheetz “was quite near, Pittman shot him dead.” Pittman then seized the officer’s horse and galloped back to his company.
Captain George Sheetz
Ashby’s cavalrymen pushed their charge to the edge of the rail line all the while shooting at the Union infantrymen. The force of the attack soon ebbed, though, due to their “preoccupation with herding prisoners.” Ashby subsequently ordered his men to withdraw to the protection of the woods. While Ashby reformed his men for a second charge Captain Hubbard ordered the Indiana company to fall back to the West side of Passage Creek, joining with the Wisconsin Company.
Ashby now ordered a second charge. This time, however, the enemy was ready for them. On the east side of Passage Creek Captain John Winfield’s company quickly closed in on the depot, which was occupied by a lesser number of Indiana soldiers who were holed up inside.
A rifle shot, emanating from one of the loopholes in the building, took down Winfield’s horse, throwing its rider to the ground. Winfield quickly regained his footing and ordered his men to dismount. Winfield then yelled: “Come on boys.” John quickly “gathered a squad and hacked into the Union fort.” A few minutes passed with “room-by-room fighting and he emerged with a federal banner wound around his arm.” Winfield was able to set fire to the depot and cut the telegraph line. What was left of the 27th Indiana quickly escaped to the west side of Passage Creek taking cover behind the railroad embankment.
There was real anxiety as to whether the Confederates might get in behind the two units and attack them in the flank. As a result the Indiana company took position between the railroad and the Shenandoah River, thus refusing their flank. With the elevated rail line “forming a good breast work, and with the river so close in the rear of our men, the enemy was obliged to make a front attack, if at all, over ground mostly open.”
As the left of Ashby’s attack approached the railroad embankment on the west side of the creek, the 3rd Wisconsin infantrymen stood up and fired a volley at the approaching rebel cavalry. Captain John Fletcher was shot in the arm but still managed to lead his company to the edge of the rail line. Fletcher then received a second wound, this time mortal, and quickly toppled from his horse onto rails. With the momentum of the charge weakened the horsemen retreated, once again, to the safety of the woods.
The 3rd Wisconsin boys remembered:“Both companies then got behind a fill in the railroad, and when the still advancing cavalry came within 100 yards gave them a volley well directed which threw them into confusion, emptying many saddles. Horses fell; others riderless ran in all directions; two or three of the cavalry charged up to the fill or embankment, but were killed before they got back.”
Trestle Which was the Left of the Union Line on the West Side of Passage Creek
Ashby’s second charge had nearly breached the Federal line. Several of the soldiers began to fear a third attack might be successful. If effected, capture was a real possibility. Though the incident we now report might appear comical in retrospect, several of the Wisconsin soldiers took their current situation much more seriously. Several remembered that hidden away in their pockets was what might be considered a serious threat to their health and safety.
Several of the 3rd Wisconsin combatants recalled the Confederate government had made it known that any Federal soldier having “imitation money in possession upon capture, would be treated not as a prisoner of war, but as a counterfeiter, and sent to state’s prison.” There had even been threats of execution for this crime. “It happened that the Company G men had their pockets crammed with this paper when the rebels were charging upon them. While waiting between charges, they so gallantly repulsed, the men buried their money in the bank. Every vestige of it was hidden. They meant not to be captured, but they had no notion of wearing stripes in the Virginia prison. They called it ‘putting their money in the bank.’”
Most of these fake Confederate notes had been produced by a man named Samuel Curtis Upham. The bills actually had a notice printed on them stating “Fac-simile Confederate Note – Sold wholesale and retail by S.C. Upham 403 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.” The problem, however, was several cotton smugglers in the south had begun “buying Upham’s novelty notes, trimming off the notice at the bottom and flooding the Confederate economy with the bogus bills.”
The Congress of the Confederacy responded to this deluge of counterfeit bills by legislating a death sentence on convicted counterfeiters. Samuel Upham would later brag “the Confederacy put a $10,000 reward on his capture, dead or alive.” He later wrote: “During the publication of those facsimile notes I was the ‘best abused man’ in the Union. Senator Foote, in a speech before the rebel Congress, at Richmond, in 1862, said I had done more to injure the Confederate cause than General McClellan and his army…”
While the Wisconsin soldiers were dealing with their crisis, Colonel Ashby was dealing with his. Having been repulsed twice, the colonel was still not ready to quit. Ashby rode to the front on his men and yelled “Forward boys.” “We will get every mother’s son of them.” Once again, the attack was renewed.
Hubbard responded by ordering his infantrymen to stand and fire another volley into the Rebel echelons. The Federals “poured a galling fire into the ranks of Ashby’s Cavalry.” Not a single cavalryman reached the railroad embankment. Those still able turned their horses around and, once again, galloped back to the safety of the woods.
Ashby now pondered a fourth charge. Turner rode forward to a slight rise in the wheat field which was in plain sight of the enemy and within range of their muskets. Several Federals fired potshots at Ashby while he sat on his horse. One of the missiles tore though the ear of his horse, narrowly missing its rider.
Ashby, stubborn as always, hesitated. Finally realizing “the federal troops occupied too strong a position,” Ashby called off a fourth attack and “gave the order to return to Front Royal.” Quickly gathering up his prisoners and his troopers he turned east, trotting along the railroad tracks in the direction of the town. Behind he left a small force to disrupt any Union advance.
Captain Hubbard, “after this repulse, called for volunteers to swim the Shenandoah and take a dispatch to Banks. Two men volunteered, ran to Strasburg, and Col. Ruger, with his regiment, at once marched to the succor of the brave outpost. Never was reinforcement more welcome.” Colonel Ruger and his regiment would be ordered back to Strasburg the following morning.
Colonel Ashby’s repeated charges proved costly. Ashby lost two of his best company commanders, Captains George Sheetz and John Fletcher. Thirteen other men were wounded and many more horses were killed or disabled. Ashby would find no further combat for his men that day. He would, however, be embroiled in a skirmish at Middletown on the 24th.
The Battlefield at Buckton Station is unmarked and seldom visited. I always make it a point while giving one of my Jackson’s Valley Campaign tours to stop by. True, there were not a lot of casualties there, but it has always been my belief that as one soldier is remembered so are they all. This is, afterall, hallowed ground. The next time you travel the Strasburg-Front Royal Road take a moment. Stop by and enjoy the peace of the battlefield. Remember, too, all of those rare, counterfeit Confederate paper bills are long gone.
A Member of Company C. The Twenty-Seventh Indiana Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion. 1861-1865. 1899.
Armstrong, Richard. 7th Virginia Cavalry. H. E. Howard, Inc. Lynchburg, Va. 1992.
Bryant, Edwin E. History of The Third Regiment of Wisconsin Veteran Volunteer Infantry: 1861 – 1865. Veteran Association of the Regiment. Madison, Wisconsin. 1891.
Ecelbarger, Gary. Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma. 2008
Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. University of North Caroline Press. Chapel Hill, N.C. 2008.
Tanner, Robert G. Stonewall in the Valley: Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Spring 1862. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, N. Y. 1976.