Cross Keys:  A Good Day for Richard Stoddert Ewell (Part 1)

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The Battle of Cross Keys:  A Synopsis 

The aftermath of Nathaniel Banks’ defeat at Winchester on May 25th, 1862, roused the Lincoln administration to action.  With Stonewall Jackson rampaging through the lower Shenandoah Valley to within a few miles of the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, half of Irwin McDowell’s corps marched west from Fredericksburg, threading its way through the Manassas Gap in the Blue Ridge mountains.   Meanwhile, John C. Fremont’s “Mountain Department” troops advanced eastward across the Alleghenies from Moorefield (West Virginia).  The two forces formed the jaws of a pincer designed to meet at Strasburg on the Valley Pike, cutting off Jackson’s Valley Army from its line of communications.  But a combination of poor mountain roads, poor intelligence, and Confederate resistance delayed the Yankees and enabled Jackson’s hard marching troops to escape south before the jaws could close.  Fremont gave chase via the Valley Pike, while James Shields’ division of McDowell’s corps moved up the less negotiable Luray Valley east of the Massanutten.

To keep open the option of crossing the Blue Ridge and joining Lee outside Richmond, Jackson turned southeast at Harrisonburg, Fremont nipping at his heels.  On June 7th most of the Valley Army camped west of Port Republic.  Jackson, his staff, and a small force occupied the little town itself, nestled between the North and South Rivers just upstream from where their confluence forms the Shenandoah South Fork.

The next day, June 8th, both Fremont and elements of Shields’ division caught up with their elusive foe.   Colonel Carroll with Shields’ cavalry vanguard launched an early morning raid on Port Republic, scattering Jackson’s staff and chasing  Stonewall himself across the North River bridge before the Rebs could rally and repulse the raiders.  More significantly, Carroll failed to burn the North River bridge while he had the chance.  Although he was likely following Shields’ orders, this omission allowed Jackson full use of “interior lines” both that day and the next.

Reacting to the raid, Jackson posted his own division plus Taylor’s brigade of Ewell’s division in and near Port Republic, leaving Ewell’s three other brigades to fend for themselves near Cross Keys several miles to the west.  Fremont’s seven brigades were at this moment moving upon Ewell.  However, with communication between the two Union forces difficult at best, Fremont assumed he faced Jackson’s entire army.

Fremont’s lead forces chased the 15th Alabama from the Union Church cemetery at Cross Keys to open the battle.  His two divisions then deployed facing the artillery-studded Confederate line along the steep bluffs on Mill Creek’s south bank (pictured here in my 2016 photo).

An artillery duel ensued.  It would last all day.  Fremont sent his left wing under Brig. General Julius Stahel forward, only to have Isaac Trimble’s brigade ambush the lead regiment, the 8th New York, which suffered over 40% casualties.  Trimble followed up his success by attacking, despite the Federal force outnumbering Ewell two to one.  Perhaps Trimble was aware of the depradations in which Blenker’s men had indulged as they marched across the Shenandoah Valley to join Fremont earlier that spring.  On the Union left Blenker eventually stopped Trimble, but the debacle seemed to confirm Fremont’s fear that he faced Jackson’s whole army. The modern site features Civil War Trust interpretive markers overlooking this part of the field, as shown in another of my 2016 photos.

Any further Union thrusts were left to the initiative of individual brigadiers  and suffered from the lack of coordination to be expected under such circumstances.

As the day wore on, Jackson reinforced Ewell, returning Richard Taylor’s brigade and then sending him John Patton’s small three-regiment brigade.  These additions ensured a successful defense.  By battle’s end Ewell had inflicted over twice as many casualties as he incurred.  Leaving Trimble’s brigade behind as a rearguard, he took the rest of his division across the North River bridge the next day to combine with Jackson versus Shields’ two lead brigades, which had arrived late on the 8th.  The ensuing Battle of Port Republic was hard-fought, but together with Cross Keys stands as an example of a numerically inferior force using interior lines to defeat a stronger but divided enemy.

Death Valley‘s “Cross Keys Historical Scenario”

The Cross Keys scenario in Death Valley benefits from its 1981 precursor, Jackson at the Crossroads, volume 5 of SPI’s GBACW series.  As in the original, success will encourage Fremont; defeat will discourage him.  His confidence is measured by the number of brigades he can place under Attack Orders during the Division Orders Phase.  Brigades under Advance Orders cannot move within three hexes and LOS of enemy infantry.  These scenario rules reflect “Fremont’s Caution”.

However, at the start of each turn one Union brigade can roll for “Individual Initiative”, whereby it can assign itself Attack Orders, in addition to any such orders Fremont can issue.  Chances of Individual Initiative can improve for a given brigade depending on the number of its previous attempts, its brigadier’s “profile”, and whether or not it is adjacent to a brigade already under Attack Orders.  Union brigadiers cannot use Brigade Orders Change to switch to Attack Orders.

Dick Ewell, on the other hand, enjoys full command capabilities despite Jackson’s absence,  reflecting his sterling performance in independent command that day.  After taking a look at the scenario’s set-up, the Confederate player will be thankful he can count on Ewell, as Fremont’s force can inspire a measure of alarm.

Due to the length of this article, most of my playtest AAR will appear in a second installment next week, but we’ll get things started with an account of the 1200 turn’s action.

1200:  The US automatically had initiative this turn.  Fremont chose to keep all brigades under Advance Orders so as to close with the enemy.  US Efficiency = 3; CS = 2, but Ewell’s +1 effectively made it 3.  By the end of the turn most of Fremont’s artillery was in place opposite Ewell’s Mill Creek line.  However, I probably erred in sending a battery into the woods with Stahel’s brigade on the Union left.  Trimble’s brigade refused Ewell’s flank, and John Koltes’ Union brigade entered under March Orders, moving up behind Blenker’s left.

To be continued…


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