In an earlier post I briefly pondered the question of whether Cross Keys should be labeled an engagement, a battle or some other designation. In today’s post I ask whether Cross Keys was a victory, and if so, for whom? This also leads to an examination of some media coverage and contemporary “spin” of the battle.
Cross Keys shares this distinction with the much more famous battle of Antietam. Antietam, of course, resulted in McClellan’s Federal army battling Lee’s Confederate army to a standstill. The Federals did not exactly “win” the battle. At the risk of starting a firestorm of comment criticisms, I suggest that McClellan won the field simply because Lee left Sharpsburg to recross the Potomac. And that is where Antietam intersects Cross Keys. A Federal force battles a Confederate force, arguably making some gains, and the Confederate force holding the field with the river at its back.
At Antietam, this leads to a game of manuevers across Virginia. At Cross Keys, the Confederate withdrawal leads to victory at Port Republic as Fremont and Shields cannot unite their forces against Jackson. Who won at Antietam? We can generally agree that the strategic victory goes to the Federals, while it was, at best, a tactical draw. At Cross Keys, I would consider it a tactical draw or even a Federal victory. Strategically, Cross Keys was a Federal failure and Confederate victory.
For media coverage, I turn to a June 16, 1862, article in the New York Times, filed by “our special correspondent”, a man known by the initials C.H.W. It’s a rather poetic, perhaps philosophical, article and worth reading (before your ten free articles for the month run out, that is). The title quote for today’s post comes from the second paragraph and describes where casualties of the 8th New York Infantry (a future 11th Corps regiment, but one which mustered out before Chancellorsville) fell. Some quotes follow—
“Two Germans have just told me how the latter came during the night, covered them over with blankets, brought them water, and in some cases washed their wounds. What I have here witnessed, entirely dispels any faint faith I ever had in what is commonly termed “rebel barbarity.”
“When the news came of Ashby’s death [at the battle of Harrisonburg which occurred prior to Cross Keys], one of our officers cried like a child — he was wounded on some field, and Ashby, he said, came and sat by him all the night through, taking as tender care of him as though he were a brother. I am especially pleased to have learned the truth in this case from the lips of the wounded soldiers themselves, for one of the scouts came into camp a while ago saying that he had been over the field, and the wounded told him the rebels came down and teased them all night long, taking away their canteens and rifting their pockets.”
“Of nearly every prisoner taken within the past week the question has been asked: How about that courier of ours you blew away from the mouth of a cannon, Yesterday a Louisiana Tiger replied to his interlocutor: Why, you Northern men are as big fools as the Virginians we tell such stories as these about you to them, but didn’t expect to find you believing them!”
“With all his [Jackson’s] preponderance of numbers he was actually afraid to give us a fight. Our men were footsore and worn down by much marching, little sleep and few rations. But I really believe we came very near whipping his whole force.”
“The enemy had every advantage of position, numbers, knowledge of the country, and of compelling us to become the attacking party. Our superiority in artillery was the only thing that went to place us on anything approaching equal terms, if not a victory on our part, it at least was not a defeat.”
“The correspondents of some papers claim it as a victory, and telegraphed that we occupied the battle-ground. These gentlemen, whose feelings and sympathies so influence them that they cannot record faithfully, will have a long account to settle with history some day.”
“But the policy adopted by Gen. Fremont was the wisest and the best; disaster was guarded against, and only an indisposition on the part of the enemy to continue the battle brought it to an end, without any actual result being obtained.”
“Some day the public will learn how small the force actually is with which we have been chasing Jackson down this valley, and then it will [???] wonder that he did not turn and tend us.”
This is just a sampling of the writing in this article. What makes it so interesting to share is that the headline inclines to “The Field won by the Superior Fighting of Our Troops.”, whereas the article itself shies away from stating that. I wonder how many readers of the New York Times in June 1862 were headline readers or article readers. I wonder how many are today.