The Battle Of Cross Keys

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Jackson's Valley Campaign
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The Battle of Cross Keys took place on June 8, 1862 between Richard Ewell’s Division and John C. Fremont’s. The battle took place about 7 miles west of Port Republic where Jackson’s main body was located. He had positioned Richard Ewell’s Division around Cross Keys Tavern to prevent Fremont’s Division from joining Shields’ Division. The two divisions had taken separate routes in an effort to crush Jackson’s force between them. Meanwhile, Jackson’s main body was in a strong position around the town of Port Republic.

Fremont’s Division numbered about 11,500 men. His six brigades had marched south from the vicinity of Harrisonburg led by Col. Gustave Cluseret’s Brigade. He deployed his right flank along the Keezletown Road near Union Church. One by one, the Union brigades came into line: Brig. Gen. Robert C. Schenck on Cluseret’s right, Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy on his left, and Brig. Gen. Julius H. Stahel on the far left, his left flank near Congers Creek. Brig. Gen. William H. C. Bohlen‘s and Col. John A. Koltes‘s brigades were held in reserve near the center of the line. A regiment of Union cavalry moved south on the road to secure the right flank. Batteries were brought to the front.

Battle of Cross Keys MapEwell deployed his division behind Mill Creek with Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble’s Brigade across the Port Republic Road and Brig. Gen. Arnold Elzey’s Brigade in the center along the high bluffs. The brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. George Steuart was on the Confederate left. He placed four batteries of artillery in the center of this position. His largest brigade that of Richard Taylor had been lent to Jackson for the day. Ewell had about 5,800 men on the field on this day.

As the Federal troops deployed Trimble moved his men about a quarter mile forward to Victory Hill and position an artillery battery supported by an infantry regiment on high ground.

Fremont determined that he could envelop the Confederate position with an elaborate right wheel. He assumed that the Confederates were still positioned behind Mill Creek. At about 10:00 AM he ordered Stahel’s Brigade to move forward followed by Milroy’s Brigade to his right and rear.  The Federal artillery advanced with the infantry and engaged the Confederate batteries south of Keezletown Road.

This was a strange decision since Stahel’s men were the farthest away. Schenck and Milroy’s Brigades were not only closer but they were also more experienced.

Stahel seemed to be unaware of Trimble’s advanced position. His brigade advanced into the valley, crossed the run and began to climb Victory Hill, still oblivious to Trimble’s troops. The Federals made the mistake of advancing without having their skirmishers out in front. At sixty paces the three regiments of the Confederate line stood as one and delivered a devastating volley into Stahel’s formation. The Federals took heavy losses, recoiled and retreated to high ground opposite Victory Hill. They made no effort to continue their assault.

Stahel brought up a battery but did not renew his attack. Trimble’s 15th Alabama  was able to outflank by moving up a ravine to their left. Trimble sent two additional regiments, the 16th Mississippi and 21st Georgia, forward from their positions on Victory Hill. The battery and its supporting infantry retreated after a melee. A Union regiment briefly counterattacked the Mississippians but retreated after some desperate fighting.

Trimble continued his advance up the ravine on the Confederate right, outflanking successive Union positions. Meanwhile, Milroy advanced on Stahel’s right, supported by artillery. Milroy’s line cameCross Keys Tavern within range of the Confederate center behind Mill Creek and opened fire. Union batteries continued to engage Confederate batteries in an artillery duel. Bohlen advanced on the far Union left to stiffen Stahel’s crumbling line. Milroy’s left flank was endangered by Stahel’s retreat so Frémont ordered him to withdraw.

Jackson brought Taylor’s brigade forward to support Ewell if needed, but Taylor remained in reserve on the Port Republic Road near the Dunker Church.

Fremont seemed paralyzed by destruction of Stahel’s Brigade. He seemed unable to regroup his force and mount a coordinated attack. He sent Schenck’s Brigade forward on the Confederate left but Ewell countered this attack by strengthening that part of his line with units from Elzey’s Brigade. After a brief fight the firing died down.

In this brief exchange both Elzey and Brig. Gen. George Steuart were wounded. Freemont withdrew his force to Keezletown Road and repositioned his artillery on the high ground to his rear.

Anticipating a Union night assault Trimble advanced his battle forward to within a quarter mile of the Union line at dusk. Other than one probe by a company from Schenck’s Brigade no other fighting ocurred and Ewelll ordered Trimble to pull his troops back. The agressive Trimble pressed Ewell hard for permission to attack but after Jackson backed his decision Ewell prevailed and Trimble withdrew.

Fremont’s Division suffered a total of 557 killed and wounded with 100 captured or missing. The Confederates sustained 288 casualties from all causes.

John C. Fremont lost the Battle of Cross Keys because even though he heavily outnumbered his opponent he was a poor battle manager. His attacks against the weaker Confederate line were disjointed and uncoordinated. Richard Ewell on the other had showed superior skill at managing his smaller force.

 

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