Cross Keys

8 June 1862

The Shenandoah Valley of Virgina


The 74th’s first battle was that of Cross Keys.  In the early Summer of 1862, the Union Army was hoping to capture Con. Gen. Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley.  The 74th was part of General Bohlen’s brigade, General Blenker’s Division, ultimately under the command of politician and explorer General Fremont.  The regiment was under the command of Lt. Col. Hamm and had approximately 400 men present.  As the Union forces pressed southward past Harrisonburg, their supply line was extended from the Potomac down into the Shenandoah Valley.  However, Army Commander General McClellan felt the risk worthwhile if the Union could either capture Jackson, or the valley – possibly both.


The valley floor is undulating hills with high steep mountains that gradually rise from the valley and then steepened towards the summit.  With the forested hills, they were impassable by large scale forces, and difficult to cross over by just a few individuals.  The valley was served by a main road that was predominately used by wagon’s – the river being the predominate feature.  The valley was vital to the Confederacy – it was the “breadbasket” of Virginia.  However, Fremont’s forces were holding strong points in the valley, and Jackson relied upon surprise and “quick strikes” to shift the balance of power in the valley. 


In late May, at Front Royal, Jackson’s forces routed Colonel Kenly’s soldiers and Jackson then began efforts to dislodge the rest of the Union Army.  General Banks began a retreat of his forces to Winchester, and Jackson hit  his flank hard at Newtown – causing significant casualties, but more importantly unnerving Banks , in the process.  Fremont seeing a potential opportunity in light of Banks’ retreat from the Valley back to the Potomac, put his 12,000 men in motion leaving their defenses at Franklin and moving “up the valley” (south) hoping to trap Jackson therein.  Fremont was quick on Jackson’s heels – at times just a few short hours behind the legendary Confederate general.  General Shields was ordered to rendezvous with General Fremont and Jackson was aware of the fact that the possibility of a trap was a reality he had to address.  Wet weather made the river too difficult to ford, and Jackson ordered the bridges burned at Port Republic and other locations. 


On the 8th of June 1862, the small village of Cross Keys were keenly aware of the presence of the two armies…20,000 men were in and about the village of only a few hundred souls.  Cross Keys was a small village with a church, tavern called “The Cross Keys”, and farm houses in and about the junction of the Staunton road and the Port Republic Road.  It was Sunday, the weather in the past week had been wet, filling the river and the creeks with spring rains while helping the wheat reach its maturity.  Colonel Cluseret’s advance guard consisting of the 60th Ohio, 8th West Virginian and 39th New York had begun the slow process associated with moving a larger number of men across the rolling hillside of the valley. 


At 8:30 a.m., Cluseret’s Brigade came into contact with the Confederate Army of Gen. Jackson.  What Cluseret didn’t know at the start was that the 15th Alabama was the far right of Con. Gen. Ewell’s Division.  With the battle begun, additional forces were thrown into the battle.  By late morning, Stahel’s Brigade had taken position on the edge of a rolling hill north east by a few hundred yards of the Haugh Farm.  As they pushed forward, the 8th NY ran into Trimble’s men and were hit hard.  So hard, that as they fell back into position, seriously mauled.  As the morning progressed, additional Confederate forces advanced and Bohlen’s Brigade was ordered forward.


Bohlen’s Brigade (74th and 75th PA, 54th and 58th NY, Battery I of the 1st NY Artillery, and a portion of the 13th PA Reserves) were waiting in the fields now to the east of the junction of VA 708 and VA 659.  In the background of the farm land and forests, the men could see Massanutten Peak, the dominate landscape feature in the area sticking high above the rolling hills. 


As the men came into position as the far left of the Union line, the heat in the middle was getting more intense as the Confederate forces began pushing on Stahel’s wounded brigade.  Bohlen’s forces took positions on a relatively rolling piece of ground in and about the Ever’s Farm. 


The rolling terrain is such that even today, one can quickly see how regiments were not easily seen.  Trees were more common in the region than today and the small creeks that cut through the landscape provided cover for moving troops.  At 2:30 p.m., the Colonel Hamm’s men were formed into a line of battle by Gen. Bohlen.  As that took place, General Blenker decided to take a very acute interest in the manner in which the brigade and the regiments therein were to proceed.  Rather than focusing on the overall strategy of his division, Blenker at about 2:40 p.m. detailed companies A & G to act as skirmishers without reserves and then specifically ordered the men to protect the wounded of the 8th NY that were believed by Blenker to be coming towards this part of the line. 


From the position near this turkey breeding farm, the regiments moved towards the left of the photograph.  The 8th NY was in about the center of the picture where woods can still be found today.  As the regiment began to slowly advance behind it’s skirmishers, the 13th Virginia under Col. James Walker began its advance as well.  Soon the 13th VA, 25th VA, 15th AL and 21st GA began pushing through the creek beds and forests towards the wheat fields that the 74th and the 75th PA began to enter.  The Confederate forces were able to use the terrain and woods to their advantage advancing within 400 yards of the two Pennsylvania regiments.  To Trimble the battery of Union cannon on the heights became an item of fixation and angst. 


Still proceeding cautiously, and following the order not to fire at men in front of them with the expectation that any such men would be the wounded of the 8th NY, the skirmishers advanced through the wheat field.


The wheat field would have been in this lowed area – still used for such crops today.  The farmer informed us that the ground isn’t the greatest for crops due to the amount of rock in it.  The skirmishers would have advanced from the high point on the left down towards the position where a clump of trees and a fence can be found today.  This location is a few hundred feet south of the junction of VA 708 and VA 674.  We stopped and talked with the farmer about the fields, our connection to his farm, and his endeavors.  He was very gracious, as well as pleased that we stopped to ask him if we could walk on his property.  PLEASE DO NOT GO ON PRIVATE PROPERTY WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE OWNER. 


Lt. Brandenstein, an aide of Blenker’s, accompanied the skirmishers and when the skirmishers encountered forces in front of them – they were told to cease their fire.  The presumption being the men in front of them were the wounded of the 8th NY.  However, that error would prove the undoing of Lt. Brandenstein.   A series of quick and deadly volleys came from the edge of the wheat field where a fence was catching the skirmishers and Brandenstein.  The Union skirmishers returned fire and followed the Confederate skirmishers back into the woods at a position approximately left of the trees in this picture on the left side of the fence. 


At a point of some sixty feet (20 paces), the 74th skirmishers found themselves starring into the face of the Confederate regiments attempting to flank this part of the Union line.  Major Blessing ordered the men to fall back to their left – towards the present day road.  The ground rises out of this small hollow as one can see in these pictures.  The men had retreated about sixty feet to another fence while receiving “torrents of musket-balls.”  Bret and I suspect that this second fence could be in the location of the fence seen in these three pictures…the initial fence possibly being on the other side of the small creek that is barely visable to the left of the fence (above and to the left).  Seeing the predicament of the 74th, the 75th sent forward companies to assist as Captain Wiedrich’s three pieces began to load canister. 

By this point, Walker’s Confederates had come within four hundred yards of the battery and on its flank.  Walker noted that the 25th VA got raked by heavy fire from a its left (the 74th) as it proceeded towards the battery.  As an opening was created, from the slight knoll above the men and near the Ever’s farm, Weidrich’s battery began belching forth shot and canister into the Confederate regiments.  Walker’s men reorganized and continued their advance toward’s Weidrich’s battery, eventually falling to the ground and continue to fire at such a consistency as to drive men from the guns.  Both sides continued their rain of lead into their opponents as the afternoon progressed.  The 74th having moved to the left of the line and formed a battle line behind the Ever’s farm (probably near the location of the turkey sheds seen above).  They firing was described as “galling” by Walker, who was forced to move further to along the Union flank and back into the woods for some cover. 

While holding their position, the Union’s commander gave the order to fall back, and the regiment began an orderly retreat “without confusion” as Lt. Col. Hamm described it.  Eventually the forces would pull back to the area about Union Church and the Tavern of Cross Keys.  The regiment lost six men, and had 14 wounded.  The Union’s performance here and at Port Republic would ultimately lead to the removal of Fremont from command of the forces. 


The 74th didn’t participate in Port Republic.  With the bridges burned, the brigade could only watch across the river and witness what occurred there.  The currents of the river being much too fast to try to ford the river.



Bret here is contemplating the place where the initial exchange of skirmishers occurred on that June day.  There is little in the way of development or significant change to this part of the battle field.








The right side of the Union’s line fought to the west/rear of the marker and old school house.  Owned by Tim Strickland, the building is on a knoll that was used by Trimble’s forces at the start of the battle.  Mr. Strickland has provided an easement on his property where interpretative panels and signs have been installed





Here are the examples of the signage that has been put in place for the benefit of travelers.  The work to preserve the battlefield is discussed at this website and at this one.  The Shenandoah Valley Battle Fields foundation has worked in various ways with land owners to preserve what is relatively undeveloped land. 

Any one planning a trip to the battlefield should spend time studying the Shenandoah At War website.  Packed with a lot of great information, this site truly is an example of how history, conservation, and tourism promotion can be brought together in a truly remarkable and professional manner. 


Also worth having if you plan to visit is the map packet created by Mark Collier for the Battle of Cross Keys.  Through the use of a printed Mylar slide and three topographical maps printed with troop positions, this map set is a great bargain for less than $10.  The packet includes a brief description of the battle, an order of battle, and most importantly THE MAPS.  Highly recommend this map set to anyone.


Also, be sure to read through Lt. Col. Hamm’s report on the battle and have a copy of it with you if you visit.  Again, don’t walk on private property without permission of the owners. 





*    Battle of Cross Keys – Mark C. Collier, 1996.

*    Battlefield – Peter Svenson, Faber & Faber, Boston, 1992.  [It should be noted that Tim Strickland felt that a bit of license was taken by Mr. Svenson with specific regard to the descripton of Tim’s father who sold Peter the tractor talked about in the book. ]

*    The Battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic – Darrell L. Collins, H.E. Howard, Lynchburg, 1993.

*    The Valley of the Shadow - John D Imboden, "Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah," Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II, pages 282-298.

*    Research notes of Bret Coulson, Washington DC.