"Ah! Rene, the experience of that long, sixty-mile march and the deaths and wounds which a few hours brought under my notice seems now as a great and horrible nightmare dream."

Rebels assail a Yankee Wagon Train, May 26, 1862

      What came to be known as the "Great Skedaddle" had begun. The shattered Union forces raced to outrun Jackson's triumphant rebels. While Williams got the bulk of his trains through, other commands were not so fortunate earning the army's commander, Nathaniel Banks, the sobriquet of "Jackson's Commissary". How would I feel, I thought when reading through this whole sorry episode, if I joined to save the Union and found myself under the command of a Newt Gingrich or a Thomas Foley.

      Banks, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, had gained his position by political connection and would be frequently absent leaving Williams in command of the Corps. It would become an oft repeated scenario for Williams in the first years of the war, serving under incompetent commanders and then having to pick up after their mess when they became absent.

      The weary comedy of this chaotic retreat is again wonderfully described by Williams. He had managed to bring some order to the retreat when...


"The rest of the command halted an hour or more at Martinsburg and then resumed the march toward Williamsport, where it was supposed the river was fordable for men.

      Our whole train (nearly 500 wagons) had preceded us to the river and I began to congratulate myself that we were well out of a bad scrape and that I should get a sound sleep in Williamsport that night. Judge of my disgust, then, when within three or four miles of the river I came upon the rear of our train and was told that the river was not fordable except for horse-teams and horsemen, that it was between four and five feet deep and of great rapidity. With a heavy heart and weary limbs I began to work my way to the ferry through the jam of teams and wagons and guns and caissons and forges, intermingled with straggling cavalry and mounted men. It was already dark and the road, which winds through gullies and descends a series of steep hills to the river for miles, it seemed to me, was not easily followed with my poor eyesight, but after hard labor and a great deal of swearing, I fear, I reached the plateau by the river.

      Here it seemed as if all the wagons of the army were in "corral," that is, drawn up in close lines and packed together almost in mass, covering acres of ground. I worked my way to the ferry and found the single scow-boat (by means of which with my brigade alone I was three nights and days in crossing over in March) busy at work taking over the sick and wounded. I was cheered, however, by hearing that my personal baggage had arrived early and was across the river. Hoping to get some relief by the prospect at the ford, I worked through the crowd of mules and vehicles down to the point where the river is entered. Big fires had been built upon both sides to guide the crossing, and horsemen and horse-teams were struggling in the river to get across. The river here is over 300 feet wide and the current exceedingly rapid, especially where the water is the deepest.

      The descent into the river from the bank is very muddy and each wagon, as it went in, stalled on the start and then the poor animals would struggle and flounder in the rapid stream, which reached nearly to their backs, till many a horse and scores of mules were drowned. I saw it was a desperate chance for getting our teams over, and as for men, who were busily building large fires along the hillsides and cooking their suppers, I felt most sadly for them, for not one could possibly pass through that fierce current of a broad and gloomy river.

      The poor devils had been without anything to eat, as the fight began in the morning before they had cooked breakfast, and they had marched thirty-five miles without an ounce to eat in their haversacks. I thought of the desperate confusion of horses and wagons and men should we be strongly attacked after it was known that at least five to one were after us; of the demoralized condition of our troops, consequent upon a march of sixty miles (with but one meal) in two days and an almost constant succession of combats and one heavy battle; of the probabilities that we should be followed to the river and attacked, at least by day light, before a tithe of our men could be crossed and while all our immense train was parked ready to deepen the awful confusion that must follow.

      I saw I had another sleepless night before me, and as I had been fast all day my appetite, as well as my philosophy, prompted me to seek sustenance without delay. So I made for a small house, which I found full of sick and wounded, and the surgeons were actually dressing a horrible arm mutilated by a shell, while others were waiting to be cared for. But the horrible and the careless are strangely mingled in war. A private soldier recognized me as I entered and said he had just made some coffee which he would cheerfully share with me. We sat down to the same table. I found bread and sugar, while he drew from his kit butter and his sugar rations, remarking that he always took care of the subsistence; that while he had enough to eat he could march forever."

      The endless day continued. Jammed against the Potomac, it seemed that there was no escape. Fortunately, Jackson's troops were too tired and over extended and Jackson pulled them back and disappeared up the Valley having successfully checked to large columns and liberating the Valley.

      "All Sunday night I walked from the ferry to the ford and then to Gen. Banks' quarters-in wagons by the way-to see what could be done to hasten the safe transportation of our men. Fortunately we had dragged back two pontoon boats which were launched, and a scow was found, and we began about 2 o'clock the morning of Monday to get our men rapidly over. The wagons, too, were getting slowly over the ford, but some wagons stalled and mules drowned and the white-covered boxes stood in the river, some times three and four together, as monuments of danger to those who followed.

      The men all dropped to sleep as if dead. The campfires, which blazed briskly on our first arrival, died out. Nothing was heard but the braying of mules and the rolling of wagons moving toward the ford and the occasional obstreperous cursing of some wagon-master at the unruly conduct of his team. We had pushed forward towards the rear a section of artillery and some infantry and cavalry to watch the approach of the Rebels, but so convinced were our men of the vastly superior force of the enemy that they were poorly prepared to resist an attack. I waited impatiently, and yet mostly anxiously, for daylight. The regiments not on duty were brought down to the front and stood quietly waiting their turns to cross.

      Then down came the cavalry to try the ford. With all my fatigue, I could not but laugh at the scene. The strong current would take some away down stream. Others would ride fearlessly over and with little trouble. Several got so confused that they lost the ford and swam away down the river in the middle of the stream. Each horse seemed to have some peculiarity. Now and then a rider would be thrown and would disappear, floundering in the water. Some would run against the stalled wagons, and altogether the scene was most confused, and in spite of its real seriousness and danger was in fact laughable.

      But the enemy came not, and after a while, what with fixing the ford entrance and what with improvised facilities of transportation, matters began to be more hopeful and cheerful. At 9 o'clock or so, being satisfied all was safe, I crossed on the ferry. Most of the men were then over, and the wagons were getting along rapidly. I hoped to get some rest, but on this side I found so many things to attend to that it was hours before I could throw myself on a bed. After three days and nights of incessant fatigue and without sleep, you may be assured I slept soundly, and yet awoke unrefreshed.

      To sum up, Rene, we have marched sixty-odd miles in two days, with nearly 500 wagons and have brought them all in with the exception of perhaps 50; have fought numerous combats and one severe fight, in the face, and in spite of the best efforts of from 15,000 to 20,000 Rebels. A successful retreat is often more meritorious than a decided victory. We were certainly very successful in our defeat, for which I think "good luck" should have the main praise. We have got off in pretty good order, but if you were a politician I could tell you how easily all this could have been avoided and how, instead of being a defeated and dispirited army, we ought now to be in Staunton or beyond, with Jackson and Ewell defeated fugitives and the whole Rebel crew driven back far beyond the line of Richmond. A singular blunder, a division of our forces and a neglect to send to us troops which were there in this valley has led to all this disaster and unhappy loss of life, property, and territory."

      Williams' first venture into the Shenandoah ended up where it began. Now he would refit and reenter Virginia two weeks later to begin another more dangerous and eventful mission would lead to the turning point of the Civil War.

      While Williams' forces recuperated, Jackson's were not resting. They would next smash two more Yankee columns in the upper valley, before exiting the valley to join Lee in the Seven Days Battle about Richmond.

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