The battle of Cross Keys was fought on June 8, 1862. Today’s post will be a combination of fact and interpretation. I think Cross Keys is a good topic to look at in both ways. After all, even the National Park Service, in my opinion, has difficulty being definitive about what happened that day.
Readers will recall that the 11th Corps did not fight at Cross Keys; it couldn’t have, simply because it did not exist. But many of the units that eventually made up the corps were part of this battle and their experiences at Cross Keys helped forge the corps’ identity. Like so many details about the 11th Corps history, things are never quite as simple as they first appear.
Even a casual “Civil War buff” may recognize Cross Keys as part of the culmination of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign. However, that may be the extent of his (or her) knowledge—name recognition. Cross Keys was a decisive battle in the sense that it prevented two Federal forces from linking southeast of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and, in combination, attacking Jackson. After Cross Keys (and its sister battle, Port Republic), no Federal forces would again harass Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. The National Park Service, as part of its incredibly useful American Battlefield Protection Program, has a good bit of information online on various battlefields including Cross Keys (http://www.nps.gov/hps/abpp/shenandoah/svs3-5.html). However, the NPS, in their analysis of the significance of Cross Keys, gets somewhat carried away. “At Cross Keys, one of Jackson’s divisions beat back the army of Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont approaching from Harrisonburg.” This statement can’t be argued with (it is factually true and accurate), but at the risk of offending Jackson fans, I think it furthers the Jackson mythology of his troops beating overwhelming odds.
After all, one division won a victory over an army! Let’s check some details… the NPS states that, at Cross Keys, the Confederate forces numbered around 8,500 and the Federal forces numbered approximately… 11,500. Fremont’s “army” was 35% bigger than the combined Confederate forces (which were 3/4th of Ewell’s division), but first impressions on hearing that one division beat a whole army don’t hold up when one finds out the army in question totaled 11,500. In comparison, at Port Republic, fought the next day and likely the more famous of the two battles, Jackson had about 6,000 opposed to Shields’ 3,500. This simply goes to show that, in looking at battles, one must not solely rely on the name of the military units engaged (regiments, brigades, divisions, etc…) but the actual number of men engaged. Speaking of numbers, Encyclopedia Virginia (http://encyclopediavirginia.org/Cross_Keys_Battle_of) states that 5,800 Confederates were engaged at Cross Keys. Is this number flipping accidental or is there a real discrepancy about the number of Confederates engaged? A little more research will be necessary.
Next time, we’ll begin looking at what happened at the battle (which, by the way, Encyclopedia Virginia states Cross Keys is not). We’ll meet again our comrades in the 54th New York as well as Brigadier General Julius Stahel and even Virginians who fought in blue.