Banks’ Fort or Folly

By early April of 1862, shortly after the First Battle of Kernstown, General Nathaniel Banks was finally of the opinion that his army was ready to go on the offensive against his opponent, Stonewall Jackson. Banks was a very cautious man, a lot like his boss General George McClellan. During this interim period supplies had been scarce and his men had been forced to live on half rations. Many of his soldiers had not even been supplied with proper shoes. Conditions had steadily improved, however, and the Union commander finally felt he was ready to move his twenty-thousand-man army up the Shenandoah Valley in pursuit of his foe.

Nathaniel Banks

Major General Nathaniel Banks

In his elevated state of cautiousness General Banks continued to stress over the idea of being able to make a strong defense if necessitated by circumstance. The further Banks advanced into the Shenandoah Valley the more he pondered the idea of having a strong fallback position should his offensive fail. Fortunate or not, there were other people on his staff who were feeding his caution.

While Banks was headquartered at the Hupp House in Strasburg, Captain Edward B. Hunt, who was an engineer in Banks command, informed Banks that it was his “opinion that a strong defense would be appropriate as well.” Hunt explained that he had examined maps of the Shenandoah Valley and that “only two positions need to be occupied by defenses, viz, the hill north of Strasburg and the most eligible point northwest of Front Royal.” These were just the things the general wanted to hear.

Hunt went further to state: “The hill north of Strasburg has so effective a command over the roads, the railroad, and town, and would afford so much security to a depot of supplies, &c., at Strasburg, that I have staked out the lines of a field fort on it, and have indicated to Captain Mason and to Mr. Douglass (who is engaged to report to you for its construction) all the essentials for making it what is needed.” The construction at Strasburg, of what would be known as Banks’ Fort, was soon begun.

Hupp House

The George Hupp House at Strasburg.

A copy of the layout of the fort, and associated defenses, exists and is in safekeeping at the Strasburg Museum at 440 East King Street. The museum does not open for the season until May 1, but is well worth a visit to see these plans, as well as their many other exhibits. In lieu of a copy of the actual plans, the best description of Banks’ Fort comes from the Official Records. “The earthworks rose between a creek and road due north of Strasburg, one thousand feet west of the Valley Pike. Directly across the east side of the pike from Banks Fort were General Banks’s quarters at the George Hupp house.”

The Hupp house had been built about 1755, and was the home of one of the first settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. The limestone structure had been used as a fortress against Indian attacks early on in its history. The one-hundred-year-old house would serve as military headquarters several times during the Civil War housing such leaders as Stonewall Jackson, James Shields, Philip Sheridan, and, of course, Nathaniel Banks. Portions of the original structure still stand today.

It had taken him twenty-five days, but by April 17 General Banks and his army were ready to begin their offensive in earnest. Banks’ army had reached Mount Jackson by seven AM that morning and in a matter of hours, they had captured the town and the bridge over the Shenandoah. Soon his troops had crossed the river and were formed into line, preparing to assault General Jackson’s Army who were entrenched along Rude’s Hill. About noon he advanced his men only to find that Jackson had abandoned the position without a fight.

Banks Advance

Banks Advance to Mount Jackson Through April 17, 1862.

General Banks continued his slow advance to Harrisonburg while Jackson withdrew his army south and then east. Stonewall crossed the South Fork of the Shenandoah along the bridge at Conrad’s Store and then continued on to Swift Run Gap. Here he dug in. With his back to the pass over the mountain, he was able to maintain a strong defensive position while at the same time protecting an emergency escape route.

Banks would remain at New Market for five days. By the 19th he had sent a notification to Secretary Stanton stating “Jackson had left the valley.” He reported he had left “by way of the mountain, from Harrisonburg toward Stanardsville and Orange Court-house, and Gordonsville” all of which was confirmed by his scouts and prisoners.

Banks at Harrisonburg

Map Showing Banks and Jackson’s Positions on April 23, 1862.

The general it seemed had been deceived. None of what Banks was describing was true. It was Jackson’s intent to remain at Conrad’s Store and thereby threaten Banks’ left flank. If his army should continue to push up the valley toward Staunton Jackson could easily attack him in the rear. In keeping with his cautious nature, Banks decided holding his current position at Harrisonburg was his best option.

General Banks spent the next several days making himself comfortable at Harrisonburg. On April 27, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent a message to the Major General asserting concern that his army was “pushed too far in advance of your support, so as to receive a surprise or sudden blow.” General Banks advance was at Mount Crawford which was a few miles north of Staunton. At the time of the communication Banks had two brigades posted at Harrisonburg in addition to six hundred cavalry and two artillery batteries.

While Jackson had secured his army across a pass in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Swift Run Gap, General Banks was of the opinion that he was “waiting for reinforcements and planned to make a stand there.” In reality Jackson was devoting his time to resolving disciplinary issues with his cavalry commander, Turner Ashby, and trying to determine what his army should do next. It was always Jackson’s aim to assume the offensive.

On the following day Secretary Stanton transmitted a second message to General Banks. He asked him to “consider whether you are not already making too wide a separation between the body of troops under your immediate command and your supporting force. It is possible that events may make it necessary to transfer the command of General James Shields to the Department of the Rappahannock.” At the time of the communiqué General Shields’ division was located about half way between Harrisonburg and New Market. His division was positioned so as to protect the army’s rear should the Confederates attempt to press through New Market Gap, thereby cutting the Union army’s supply lines and avenue of retreat.

General Banks had posted two infantry regiments and roughly one hundred cavalry along the road to Conrad’s Store to act as scouts. General John Hatch, Banks’ cavalry commander, utilized this force in an attempted reconnaissance in force in that direction on the 27th. This “resulted in obtaining a complete and satisfactory view of the enemy’s position. Two of our own men were wounded by accident, one mortally. Five of the enemy were killed and 5 wounded in the skirmish.”

On the 28th of April Banks notified Stanton that the “enemy is in no condition for offensive movements and nothing can prevent our troops from joining the main body in safety if attacked.” Further, “a negro employed in Jackson’s tent came in this morning, and reports preparation for retreat of Jackson today.” “You need have no apprehensions for our safety.”

In a second message sent that very same day General Banks informed Stanton: “If Jackson retreats from his present position there is no reason for our remaining longer in this valley. If he does not we can compel his retreat or destroy him.” “If no force is in the valley except at Strasburg the enemy will not return. The whole of my command can move from New Market to Madison by the mountain road, which is the best turnpike in Virginia, at three days notice, from which we can occupy Culpeper Courthouse, Orange Courthouse, or Gordonsville, joined by General Abercrombie. The enemy will then be expelled from the whole of this region.”

Early on the morning of the 30th Colonel Turner Ashby, himself, led an advance on the Union army at Harrisonburg. Ashby’s movement included “infantry, cavalry, and artillery.” From an observation post high above the Shenandoah Valley on Massanutten Mountain Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s famed map maker, watched Ashby’s advance and noted: “We saw plainly the enemy’s encampments around and below Harrisonburg but no movement was made to meet our advance.”

On the same day as Ashby’s reconnaissance Banks expressed the opinion, based on consultation with his officers, that “there is nothing more to be done by us in the valley. Nothing this side of Strasburg requires our presence. Fortifications, now finished, were planned by Captain John Hunt to protect our lines below with a small force.” The movement there “will enable you to concentrate our forces there whenever you desire.” “I am now satisfied that it is the most safe and effective disposition possible for our corps.” Banks’ Fort at Strasburg had been completed.

Nathaniel Banks was also certain the situation in Jackson’s army was extremely desperate. He told Stanton that rebel forces at Gordonsville “were far less than represented in newspapers – not more than 20,000 at outside. Jackson’s army reduced, demoralized, on half rations. They are all concentrating for Richmond.” This intelligence was also incorrect and, as such, would have a major impact on Jackson’s Valley Campaign and upon the Union Army itself.

As the northern General was penning this dispatch, however, General Jackson’s army had been tasked with a mission and could be found slogging through the mud on their way to Port Republic. Their final destination, however, was known to only one man, and that was Stonewall Jackson himself. Jedediah Hotchkiss recorded in his diary that the “rain was falling in torrents and the mud was very deep.” “Many of the army wagons, following them, mired in the mud and quicksands.” There was nothing that could deter Jackson when he had decided on a course of action, not even bottomless roads of mud.

General Banks opinions apparently carried some weight. On May 1, he received instructions, communicated through Edwin Stanton, that “the president directs that you fall back with the force under your immediate command to Strasburg, or such other point near there as will be convenient for supplies and enable you to hold the passage along the valley of the Shenandoah. General Shields will receive orders within a day or two to pass with his division into the Department of the Rappahannock.”

By May 4, Banks had been made aware that General Jackson was moving his army in the direction of Port Republic. He was a full four days late in this discovery though. They believed his destination to be either Staunton or Waynesboro. Banks assumed if Jackson was headed to Staunton then his plan was to join General Edward Johnson and attack Milroy. In this assumption he was exactly correct. One is left to wonder, however, why he did not take the opportunity to attack his outnumbered opponent.

The following day Banks began to have second thoughts about dividing his army. He wrote: “I do not think it possible to divide our force at this time with safety. The enemy is largely re-enforced by Ewell’s division. He has three brigades of infantry and one of cavalry, estimated at 12,700. It is probably less, but still a very material increase. He is near the bridge; Jackson 5 miles above, near Port Republic.”

On May 6, General Banks withdrew his army to New Market. Banks had received information that General Ewell was moving his army north on the east side of Massanutten Mountain to attack Columbia Bridge. Banks noted he had taken precautions to prevent that movement.

On the day after Jackson’s victory at McDowell, May 9, General Banks received a reminder from Secretary Stanton that his position at New Market was not compatible with the orders he had received. “New Market seems somewhat distant to fall within the meaning of the order.”

General Banks lingered at New Market for several more days. On May 10, he reported to Secretary Stanton that he was going to remain at New Market until the twelfth. General Shields, who had been ordered to join General McDowell, had requested the army remain united until he was ready to march. Banks did say he would “reach Strasburg Tuesday morning, or immediately if required.” Both of the commanders believed there was safety in numbers.

Union army forces divided on the morning of the twelfth. General Shields’s division departed for Catlett’s Station, while Banks, with the remaining force, departed for Strasburg. By the end of the day Banks had reached Woodstock. At the time he very accurately estimated that Jackson’s army, when combined with General Richard Ewell’s Division, would number about seventeen thousand combatants. He was wrong, though, in reporting that Jackson was at Stanton. Jackson was actually at McDowell, having called off his pursuit of General Milroy’s forces following his victory there.

By nine P.M. on May 13, Banks was convinced Jackson was at Harrisonburg. Jackson would not actually reach that location until six days later. The intelligence Banks was in receipt of was obviously inaccurate. Still, the general would reach Strasburg on this very morning and slide into his prepared defensive position. Banks had left his rear guard at Woodstock to watch for the anticipated advance of Jackson’s Army.

Banks Fort Map

Map showing Position of Banks’ Fort at Strasburg.

Confederate forces began to press on the Federal Army’s rear almost immediately. Turner Ashby reported on May 16 that he had three companies below Mount Jackson. In a communication written that day he “thought it best not to leave this road until I had followed down their column as far as Strasburg, so as to cause them to believe you were behind them upon this road.” This would give General Banks the impression that Jackson intended to attack Strasburg directly along the Valley Pike. In actuality no firm decision had been made as to when or where he would attack.

By the 16th Jackson had communicated with Ewell. “It may be necessary for me to follow you through Luray and cross the Shenandoah at Front Royal, but this cannot be determined upon until we know what the enemy is doing. See whether you can get enough boats, &c., to build a bridge at Front Royal.” In Jackson’s characteristically secretive way, he told Ewell; “Do not breathe this plan to any one.”

Banks fort market

Marker at Strasburg Dedicated to Banks Fort.

On May 20th General John Freemont, whose army was located in the mountains west of the valley, notified Banks that Jackson had passed the “Shenandoah Mountain and is reported going toward your front.” In reality Jackson had reached Tenth Legion, south of New Market on the Valley Pike. He was currently in the process of combining two Rebel armies into one. His objective was not any particular town, but the destruction of Banks’s Army.

General Joseph Johnson notified General Ewell that “if Banks is fortifying near Strasburg the attack would be too hazardous. In such an event we must leave him in his works. General Jackson can observe him and you come eastward.” In fact, General Banks was spending his time at Strasburg improving his defenses. The cavalry activity in his front gave every indication that his position would soon be directly challenged. Very little thought was given to his other vulnerabilities.

Front Royal Battle

 

Situation on May 22, as Jackson was Poised to Attack Front Royal.

On May 22nd General Banks once again reported that he was aware that Jackson’s army numbered about sixteen thousand men. Banks himself had five thousand infantrymen, sixteen hundred horse soldiers, and sixteen cannons. Banks complained, “We are compelled to defend at two points, both equally accessible to the enemy.” One thousand of his men were at Front Royal, the first of the defense points, along with a few cavalry.  A few of his infantry battalions were scattered along the railroad between Front Royal and Strasburg. The bulk of his forces, however, were dug in at Banks Fort.

On the twenty-second, Banks informed Secretary Stanton he believed Jackson was closing in on him and was within twenty-five miles at New Market. He also maintained that General Ewell, however, was still at Swift Run Gap, nearly sixty miles from his Front Royal garrison. Banks would soon learn how erroneous his intelligence was.

Banks Fort.png

Post War Photo of Banks Fort

The daytime hours of May 23rd created a great deal of uncertainty in the Union commander’s mind. As early as 4:00 PM a rider from the 5th New York Cavalry had notified Banks at Strasburg of the ongoing action at Front Royal. At first Banks believed that the fighting there was a feint. He believed the main attack was yet to befall him at Strasburg.

By early evening, though, Banks had received information demonstrating that Colonel Kenly’s command at Front Royal had been destroyed. Indications were that General Jackson’s whole command had compromised his left flank. Banks had been outgeneraled and outflanked. He was left with no choice but to order a retreat to Winchester.

Banks’ retreat along the Valley Pike would be seriously contested by Jackson’s Army on May 24. Early on the morning of the 25th, though, following a brief fight on the outskirts of the town, the contest would go badly for the Union army. Union forces were soon retreating through the streets of Winchester and north along the Valley Pike toward Martinsburg. His fight at the First Battle of Winchester, and subsequent retreat, would cost General Banks more than one third of his command.

Banks had inhabited his fort for just ten days. Jackson’s attack on Front Royal had forced him to abandon Strasburg, and his garrison, without a fight. Though the defensive works there would be manned periodically by both Union and Confederate troops during the war, the stronghold would never witness any serious combat. One hundred and fifty-six plus years later close examination of the hill, however, still shows evidence of its construction. It must be stated though, its remains are a monument to General Nathaniel Banks’ caution and Stonewall Jackson’s superior tactics and aggression.

Modern Banks Fort

Current Photo Showing Hill Where Banks’ Fort was Positioned.

 

Sources:

 

Ecelbarger, Gary. Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester (Campaigns and Commanders Series) (p. 22). University of Oklahoma Press.

 

Hotchkiss, Jedediah. Make Me a Map of the Valley: The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer. Southern Methodist University Press. Dallas, Texas. 1988.

 

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. SERIES I—VOLUME XII—IN THEEE PARTS. PARIT III.-CORRESPONDENCE, ETC.

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