McDowell Battlefield Historical Markers and Hiking Trail
Located just west of Staunton, these historical markers and an adjacent hiking trail help to share the history of the Battle of McDowell. The two-mile hiking trail offers a unique perspective of the rugged terrain that Civil War soldiers faced as they marched through the Shenandoah Valley and concludes with a steep incline that takes visitors to the top of the Sitlington’s Hill where the Confederate soldiers under the leadership of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson launched their attack on May 8, 1862. The trail offers several signs related to troop movements and the battle that saw Jackson's men decimated but still forced Union forces to withdraw.
Backstory and Context
Before giving his approval to McClellan's Peninsula Campaign that sought to approach Richmond by landing troops to the South, Abraham Lincoln insisted that General McClellan would leave behind a sizable contingent of troops in the Shenandoah Valley under General Irvin McDowell for the protection of Washington D.C. These men could not only defend the Capitol, but also aid McClellan's offensive by striking Richmond from the north.
Above all, Lincoln feared that an unchecked Confederate force in the Shenandoah Valley led by Stonewall Jackson was a serious threat to Washington D.C. Jackson's force was not as large as the Union leadership assumed, but he led his troops on such a vigorous campaign of maneuver known collectively as the Shenandoah Valley Campaign that Union forces were convinced that the Confederacy represented a more substantial military force than they had previously assumed.
Stonewall Jackson was tasked with preventing McDowell from reaching McClellan with reinforcements. Meanwhile, Lincoln ordered McDowell to prevent Jackson from attacking Washington while also supporting the Union's overall offensive aimed at capturing Richmond. The first battle in the region occurred in Kernstown when Jackson attacked a much larger force and ended up retreating in defeat. Jackson then created a diversion, by pretending to march east towards Richmond, but instead loaded his troops onto the Virginia Central Railroad and sent them back west to Staunton where they began their march west in preparation for another attack.
On May 6, 1882, Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, a veteran of the Mexican War, marched his troops west from Staunton. He was followed by Jackson who had deployed a cavalry to distract the Union forces. When the Union forces learned of the advance to the west, they concentrated their forces at McDowell. On May 8, Confederate forces scouted Sitlington’s Hill, a rocky spur overlooking the Union camp and Jackson decided that would be a good location from which to attack. Union forces found themselves cornered and being attacked from the position above so they decided that their only course of action was a frontal assault on Sitlington’s Hill. As the Union soldiers made their ascent, they were protected by the ravines and heavy woods. The Confederate soldiers held a slight numerical advantage, but they did not realize that they were easy targets with the sun setting behind them. As night fell, the battle turned once again, this time in favor of the Confederate forces. With Union forces exhausted after hours of fighting, they retreated to the west in the middle of the night leaving the field of battle for the Confederates to claim victory even though they had lost more men.
The Battle of McDowell saw the Confederates suffer heavier casualties, but the Union army did not drive the Confederates from their position. Strategically, the withdrawal of the Union army was an important victory for the Confederates as subsequent Confederate victories reduced the chances of success for the Union in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. These victories allowed Jackson to go east to help defend Richmond during the Seven Days’ Battles that saw the successful defense of Richmond and the end of the Peninsula Campaign. The Battle also cemented the legacy of Allegheny Johnson as a fearless leader for the Confederate Army and marked the start of Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862.
The Civil War Trust has purchased 583 acres of the battlefield, and today it features hiking trails and interpretive signs about the battle. The dead from the battle are buried in the McDowell town cemetery. Several of the buildings that stood and were used during the battle, including the Hull House, still stand today. For more information about the Battle of McDowell, there is the Highland County Historical Society and Museum located in McDowell, VA.
The interpretive hiking trail is easily accessed from Staunton, VA on VA Rt 250. The hike itself is an intermediate hike, which includes some steep and grueling climbing. Some of the terrain has lose rocks, so proper footwear is recommended. It is also recommended to hike in pairs, as there is no cell coverage, and there are also bears in the area.
Wright, Catherine. Battle of McDowell, Encyclopedia Virginia. May 11th 2011. Accessed March 5th 2020. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/McDowell_Battle_of.
Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Mechanicsburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 2001.
McDowell, Sitlington's Hill, American Battlefield Trust. Accessed March 5th 2020. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/mcdowell.