Generally considered the second full scale engagement of Jackson's brilliant Valley Campaign, the Battle of McDowell took place May 8, 1862 on the slopes of Sitlington's Hill, a spur of Bullpasture Mt. lying above the village of the same name. It was here that 2000 Federal troops under Robert Milroy & Robert Schenck attacked an advanced force of Confederates under Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, who had already occupied the hill. Johnson's troops were reinforced by the brigades of Taliaferro and Campbell (under Jackson), and the Federal attacks were successfully repelled. Nevertheless, the battle furnished enough time for the remaining 4000 Federal troops to retire beyond McDowell, where they were joined by the attacking force at dark. Jackson's army, numbering nearly 10,000, took up the pursuit the next day, leaving behind a detachment of cavalry and the VMI Cadet Battalion to guard Federal prisoners (mostly wounded). The remainder of Jackson's troops chased the Federals through Monterey, and down the South Branch valley to just south of Franklin, West Virginia, where they turned back.
In many ways the battle could be considered a lopsided, "Pyrrhic" Southern victory, as the Confederates suffered 498 casualties vs. the Federals' 256. Milroy had boldly attacked Jackson's advanced guard and the courage of the Federal troops had staved off a potential Union disaster. Nevertheless, the battle accomplished several important objectives for Jackson. It immobilized the major portion of Union General Fremont's Army, isolating them well beyond the imposing barrier of Shenandoah Mountain, and intimidated Fremont himself from any further deployment for nearly a month. It also convinced Nathaniel Banks, overall commander of the Valley Region, that Jackson had much greater strength than he actually possessed, a suspicion which Banks had held since the Battle of Kernstown. Finally, it provided Jackson's troops, especially the men of his second (Campbell's) and third (Taliaferro's) brigades, with a much needed victory, boosting their lagging morale and convincing them of their ability to win. The hard marching and fighting of the McDowell action, often with little or no rest, soon resulted in their referring to themselves as Jackson's "foot cavalry".
APRIL 6 (Sunday) - Federals under Milroy reach Monterey after marching in bad weather (icy roads) and stay 14 days
APRIL 16 (Wednesday) - Skirmish with Confederate cavalry
END APRIL - Milroy's Federal troops advance to McDowell and establish camp. Has difficulty finding subsistence. Foraging parties scour the valleys; one waylaid near Williamsville (about 10 miles south of McDowell) by Bath Cavalry with a train (wagon train?) captured and burned; 1 man wounded and cared for.
MAY 4 (Sunday) - Stonewall Jackson and troops arrive in Staunton, 30 miles west of McDowell
MAY 6 (Tuesday) - Skirmishing between Confederate Johnson and Federal Milroy between Staunton and McDowell
MAY 7 (Wednesday) - Confederates moving toward McDowell; Confederate headquarters at John Wilson's on the Cowpasture 5 miles west of McDowell
MAY 8 (Thursday) - BATTLE OF McDOWELL
Three hundred thousand bullets were used with 1 in 400 striking a man. Casualties: US 256; CS 498 including 75 Confederates killed in woods east of pike on Sitlington Hill. Prisoners: US 4; CS few. Federals left greater share of their dead at the Presbyterian Church; others at houses in town. Buried at low bluff west of town. Federals burned commissary store on the west end of town and dumped ammunition in Crab Run. In the morning, Confederate troops entered McDowell, halted, and received rations at the Felix Hull house where Stonewall Jackson established his headquarters.
MAY 9 (Friday) - "Local residents were glad the Confederates had punished the enemy. They had been victimized by
burnings and harrasment. Headquarters was placed at Mrs. [Felix] Hull's house in
Mcdowell. Confederate dead were buried in a bend in the road." - Schildt
Stonewall Jackson's mapmaker Jedidiah Hotchkiss remarks, "Old Mr. Robert Sitlington met us, in the turnpike, in the morning as we rode forward towards McDowell, very much excited. He said: 'I thank God that you have so punished the insolent foe that has been tyrranizing over us.' The [enemy] burned several houses as they left said to have contained stores and some of them dead men."
MAY 10 (Saturday) - Hotchkiss remarks, "On the road from McDowell today we met many citizens going to look after friends and relatives who had been in the battle."
In 1832, McDowell was known as Sugar Tree Grove. Name changed to Crab Run in 1844 and then to McDowell in 1860 to honor a Virginia governor who visited the town. The stage arrived every other day from Staunton. Old US 250 was the Staunton-to-Parkersburg Pike. The county seat is Monterey, about 10 miles west of McDowell.
Buildings from the War era still standing include the homes of the prominent Hull family (The George Hull House will be used as Hq. by the Federal Provost Marshall) and the Presbyterian Church (1856) At the time of the War, McDowell was a small town. Other buildings standing at the time included a log schoolhouse, tavern, store, sawmill, blacksmith shop, other dwellings. Slaveholders lived on the river bottoms. Commercial outlets were eastward. Social and industrial contact with the North was slight. Prominent local families were the Hulls and the Sitlingtons.
Pre-war sentiment characterized as "Unionist from the Southern viewpoint." George Hull, state delegate, opposed secession until Lincoln called on Virginia for 2,700 volunteers and "the mass of the Highland people sided with the action of their state. But as elsewhere along the border line, there were some persons of undecided convictions. There were some who could not bring themselves to uphold secession and either kept out of the military service or went within the Federal lines. The former class supplied some deserters who passed from one army to the other."
Local legend says that most villagers left McDowell during the Federal occupation, taking their property and hiding in Davis Run. It is said that two families remained behind.
Very little information is available about the citizens' actions during the Battle of McDowell. Likely, many of them left the area or remained closeted in their homes. However, citizens must have interacted with Federal troops who occupied the county for a month before the battle. Federal troops were encamped in Monterey as of April 6th and in McDowell as of the end of April. Certainly, they also interacted with the Confederate troops after the battle including those of the 25th Virginia in which some local men fought.
Population was nine-tenths white. Free labor was more common than slave labor. In 1850 there were 651 families in the county, averaging 6.5 persons per family. 42% were under age 20. Average age of groom was 25; bride was 21. In 1860 the white population of the county was 3,890.
The population of McDowell and surrounding areas of Highland County in 1860 was primarily agricultural. A quick analysis of the census data for 1860 provided by Joyce deMatteis follows:
"The census reports 439 people in the McDowell post office area in 65 households. Among the occupations mentioned for men were farmer, gentleman, mason, student of medicine, farmhand, wagonmaker and his apprentice, cooper, physician (2), carpenter, preacher, merchant, mechanic, blacksmith, weaver, plasterer, miller. The majority were farmers or farmhands. For women, occupations included housekeeper, house attendant (including teenagers), houseservant (1). There was one 30 year old male idiot and two male paupers over age 80.
In special categories, 95 reported having attended school in the last year; 2 were married within the last year. There was high literacy rate - only 12 were reported as unable to read or write."
More than 500 men from Highland County were enlisted soldiers, almost exclusively Confederate. Of these, 101 were killed, some of whom were killed at the Battle of McDowell. Residents enlisted in 25th, 31st, 62nd Virginia, 38th and 51st Virginia infantry units; McClanahan, Carpenter, Shumate Batteris; and 11th, 14th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 26th Virginia cavalry units. One enlisted in the Navy. Battles in which the 25th Virginia participated included: Phillipi, Camp Allegheny, and McDowell. The Highland Company was mustered at Monterey on May 18, 1861, with Felix Hull as captain; in 1862 attached to 31st Virginia with S. A. Gilmor as Captain. In 1861, before the Battle of Cheat Mountain and Elkwater, GeneralRobert E. Lee stayed in Monterey with his headquarters in the house opposite the Methodist Church.
Confederate Commander Edward Johnson established a winter camp (Camp Allegheny) about 1 mile west of the Highland County border to guard the thoroughfare.
The Presbyterian Church was built in 1856 on land donated by the Sitlington family. It was used as a hospital during the McDowell battle and during previous nearby engagements. The young minister was Rev. William Price. A circuit rider, he warned the Confederate cavalry at Shaw's Fork and Ft. Johnson on Shenandoah Mountain of Union Army movements and their encampment in McDowell. (During the event, there will be lots of activity in and around the church including spectator-oriented lectures, demonstrations, and camp for civilians. It is a good place for living history scenarios to take place as it is a likely place to take refuge during unsettled times. Note the graffiti carved in the bricks on the front of the church from soldiers and returning veterans. Also, on the east side of the church, legend says a cannon ball caused damage. On the hill behind the church where a cemetery is now located, Federal artillery was placed during the battle. East of the church rises Sitlington's Hill on which Confederate infantry was posted and much fighting occurred. Some units from Highland County were engaged in this battle and some local men were casualties including Colonel Smith and Major Higgenbothem who were wounded.)
During the Civil War, the church was known as the Central Union Church. The name was not changed to "McDowell Presbyterian Church" until 1870.
George Hull House and the Hull Family: In 1860, there were two brick houses belonging to Felix and Elizabeth (Eliza) Hull and George and Sarah Hull in McDowell. (The Felix Hull house is located a block or so east of the Sugar Tree Country Store and is now owned by Mrs. Lott. It is surrounded by an iron fence and is off-limits.) The George Hull house is located next to the Sugar Tree Country Store and is owned by the Highland Historical Society. It houses the Highland County Museum and orientation center for the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. The Provost Marshall will have his headquarters on the porch and grounds of this house.) This house was used as a hospital during the war. A VMI cadet recalled seeing a wounded soldier on the piano and another on the dining table; he some of the dead under a maple tree. A third house owned by Peter and Rachel Hull is also standing in McDowell (it too is currently occupied). The Hulls owned 1,500 acres of land, everything north of the road and to the top of Hull's Hill from which Federal troops fought during the battle.
Felix, George, and their father Peter Hull were all dead by the time of the battle, leaving behind widows and children. Peter's will mentioned 10 slaves: Silas, Andrews, Darkie, Mary, Eliza, Ennis or Eunis, Jane and her child Martha, Fannie and John. Felix owned 8 slaves and a racehorse in addition to other property. He died in November 1861 from typhoid fever at age 37 leaving behind 4 children, the oldest who was 14 years old. Eliza had to deal with the death of her husband in November, a public auction of his property in December, and Union occupation in April. George died in April 1862 at age 45 from typhoid fever.
Another prominent McDowell family, the Sitlingtons lived south of town within walking distance.
The following description is from an April 1864 court document asking the Secretary of War to not conscript men between the ages of 17 and 18 and 45 and 50. Although it was written two years after the McDowell battle, it gives a glimpse of the county's population and agriculture. It is not clear when the destruction noted occurred.
"Whereas, all the men of said county between the ages of 18 and 45 years have been, since early in the first year of the war, in the military service of the Confederate States of America, and whereas, the number of slaves in said county, being very small at the commencement of the war, has been very much diminished by escaping and being enticed away by the common enemy, -- there are not more than ten or fifteen able bodied male slaves in said county, -- that labor has become extremely scarce, and whereas, the enemy by frequent raids into and through the county, and remaining for a time, by robbing, plundering, and wantonly destroying personal property, and carrying away negroes, horses, cattle, and sheep, and almost everything essential to human existence, and injuring human habitations, and laying waste the land and destroying fences and all other improvements, -- and whereas, detachments of the Confederate cavalry are continually amongst the people without adequate means of transportation of supplies from a distance, under the plea of necessity impressing and taking not only what a citizen may have as a surplus, but the necessary support of families, --and whereas, the said county is not well adapted generally to grain raising on the account of cold climate and short summer seasons, but is peculiarly adapted to grazing and raising stock, which latter business has been almost entirely abandoned on account of the temporary presence and continued proximity of the enemy, together with the impossibility of procuring supplies beyond the limits of the county with the present depreciated currency of the country, has placed the said county in a condition almost upon a point of suffering.."
Highland Historical Society (event sponsors)
Highland County Chamber of Commerce (event sponsors)
Highland County, VA USGenWeb (genealogy site) has lists of early settlers, residents in 1848, etc
Valley of the Shadow Project University of Virginia online research project containing large amounts of information (original newspaper scans, etc) for neighboring Augusta County.
Books and Periodicals:
History of Highland County, Virginia, by Oren F. Morton, published by B. L. Regional Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1972 (first published in 1911)
Make Me a Map of the Valley: The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson's Topographer, by Jedidiah Hotchkiss.
Stonewall Jackson Day by Day by John Schildt.
Civil War Battle Alters Lives of McDowell Families from "The Recorder" newspaper, April 30, 1999.
Website artwork based on Bradley Schmehl's painting, "Reconnaissance at McDowell, with the kind permission of the artist.