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
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
his flank hard at Newtown
– causing significant casualties, but more importantly unnerving Banks , in the
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Battle of Cross Keys
– Mark C. Collier, 1996.
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.