The Running Fight/The Battle of Middletown - May 24, 1862

Although Jackson was pleased with the May 23, 1862 victory at Front Royal, he was faced with a difficult decision the next day. “In the event of Banks leaving Strasburg he might escape toward the Potomac,” he wrote later, “or if we moved directly to Winchester he might move via Front Royal toward Washington City.” In order then to determine Union General Nathaniel Banks’s intentions, Jackson had to send troops towards both Winchester and Strasburg.

The morning of May 24, 1862, Jackson ordered General George Steuart’s Virginia cavalry to Newtown (now Stephen’s City), about ten miles north of Banks’s base at Strasburg, to see what he could find. What Steuart found was an endless line of Union supply wagons heading north on the Valley Pike to Winchester. Confederate troopers smashed into this line of wagons, the teamsters fled, but strangely enough, the Confederates did not burn the wagons, a move that would have blocked the Pike. Steuart then led his men south towards Middletown.As Steuart’s cavalry rode south from Newtown, they ran into Union infantry – this was Banks’s main force - which scattered the Confederate troopers, and the Federal retreat withdrawal north continued. Among this Union column was most of Banks’s infantry, some of his artillery, and Banks himself.

Hearing about what Steuart’s men had found, Jackson decided to further split his command; he sent orders to General Richard Ewell to advance tentatively on the Cedarville Road towards Winchester, while ordering General Richard Taylor to take his Louisiana brigade, with some cavalry and artillery, west on the Chapel Road to Middletown. Around 3:30 p.m., as Taylor’s column neared the Valley Pike north of the town, more of the Union wagon train moving north came into view. Taylor ordered his artillery to unlimber and fire at the Federal wagons. Again, the damage to the Union wagon train was terrific, and most of the teamsters fled. When Jackson arrived about a half hour later, while pleased with the destruction, he was more interested in locating the Yankee infantry. To determine this, he ordered Taylor south, into Middletown, to see if Banks’s main force was marching north from Strasburg.

As Taylor’s men moved through Middletown, many of them looted the abandoned wagons, but upon approaching the southern end of town, the Louisianans received enemy fire. “As we jumped over the stonewall into the pike, a vicious volley of bullets whistled through our disordered ranks, splintering the rails of the neighboring fence and wounded several of my comrades,” Private Henry Handerson of the 9th Louisiana remembered, “and looking down the road towards Strasburg, I saw a company of Zouaves firing vigorously upon our advance.”

Those Zouaves were members of Colonel Charles H.T. Collis’s Zouaves d’Afrique, a company of about one hundred soldiers who formed General Banks’s headquarters guard. Although Banks had already ridden north, he had ordered Collis to stay behind with the rearguard, see that the rest of the wagon train got out of Strasburg, and that anything of military value left behind be destroyed.

Collis led his men to a stonewall perpendicular to and along the right side of the Valley Pike at the southern end of Middletown, and as the Louisianans approached, Collis’s men opened fire. Oddly enough, many of these Confederates were also attired in Zouave uniforms; they were members of Major Roberdeau Wheat’s special Louisiana Battalion, better known as the Louisiana “Tigers."

Collis’s men fired three volleys, then fell back to a ridge about a half mile south, across the pike from the Belle Grove Plantation, taking position to the right of Captain R.B. Hampton’s Battery F, Pennsylvania Light Artillery (Hampton had four 10-pound Parrotts, rifled pieces). Soon joining Collis and Hampton were five companies of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, and a bit later, six companies of the 5th New York Cavalry. Taylor’s Louisianans tested the Federals from a distance, but did not seriously challenge them, allowing the Union force there to pull back south across Cedar Creek, and up Hupp’s Hill, one mile shy of Strasburg, where they expected to be attacked. Collis and the rest of the rearguard would eventually move west, then north, in an attempt to re-unite with the rest of Banks’s command. That they could not do, so they continued all the way to the Potomac River, reaching Hancock, Maryland, around 2 p.m. on May 26th. They had marched over 140 miles in less than two days.

By 5:45 p.m. of the 24th, Jackson realized that his men only faced a rearguard, and he ordered Taylor to turn around and head north. He also sent word to Ewell, still on the Cedarville Road, to do the same. It now remained to be seen whether Jackson could catch Banks’s main column before the Federals reached the hills south of Winchester.

They could not catch up with Banks’s men. Although they passed dozens and dozens of captured or abandoned wagons – “the streets were lighted up by the burning of a commissary train, especially the flames from the burning bacon and from wagonloads of rice,” one Confederate recalled – they couldn’t bring Banks’s infantry to bay. Forming the Union rearguard were the 2nd Massachusetts, 27th Indiana, and 28th New York Infantry Regiments, and they held the Confederates off as the retreat to Winchester continued.

When the men of both armies neared Winchester, the Federals occupied positions on the hills south of town, and the Confederates stopped just north of Kernstown, some units not reaching those destinations until the early morning hours of May 25th. But for all present, whether wearing blue or gray, they collapsed from exhaustion. The game was not up, though; it would be continued later that day.

 

Zouaves d’Afrique (114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry) & Wheat’s Special Louisiana Battalion

Before the Civil War, there were numerous militia units, some of which outfitted themselves in a uniform similar to those worn by French troops from Northern Africa. These Zouave militia

units became quite the rage in the late 1850’s, partially due to the efforts of Elmer Ellsworth, who formed his Zouave Cadets and took them on tour. When the war began, Ellsworth’s Zouaves would become the 11th New York; he would actually be the first Union officer killed in the war, shot to death by an Alexandria, Virginia inn owner after Ellsworth took down the Confederate flag flying from his inn.

Quite a few Zouave regiments would be formed in the North, among them the 5th New York (“Duryea’s Zouaves”), the 72nd Pennsylvania (“Baxter’s Zouaves”), the 23rd Pennsylvania (“Birney’s Zouaves”), and of course, the Zouaves d’Afrique, later the 114th Pennsylvania (“Collis’s Zouaves”).

 
Battle scene
Painting of 114th Pennsylvania at Battle of Fredericksburg by Carl Rochling

The uniform Collis’s Zouaves d’Afrique - and the 114th - wore included a red fez; a short, open blue jacket with red trim; a sash; baggy red pantaloons; and white leggings. Collis recruited his men from Philadelphia, and it was this company of some one hundred soldiers that served as Banks’s headquarters guard and fought in the Battle of Middletown. In the summer of 1862 Collis returned to Philadelphia to recruit the rest of what would become the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. By the fall of that year he was leading that regiment, and they would see their first battle at Fredericksburg, where they received great praise from their brigade commander, General John Robinson.

The 114th also saw heavy action at Chancellorsville in May 1863, and on July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1864, the 114th was named headquarters guard for General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and would continue in that role almost until the end of the war, when they participated in the final assault on Petersburg on April 2, 1865.

 
Soldiers in field near house
Tiger Rifles - Wheat's Special Battalion 1861 by Don Troiani

Wheat’s 1st Special Battalion, Louisiana Volunteers was raised in New Orleans by Roberdeau Wheat in 1861, and like Collis’s Zouaves d’Afrique, the men were provided with a Zouave uniform, its main difference being the color of the jacket and the striped pantaloons. The “Tigers,” as they were called, gained quite a reputation; tough in battle, but completely undisciplined otherwise. It was said that only two men could control them – their commander, Wheat, and their brigade commander, Richard Taylor.

No one could dispute their prowess in battle, however. Unfortunately for them, this cost them, as the “Tigers” suffered heavily. And after Wheat was killed at the Battle of Gaines Mill on June 27, 1862, and as their numbers declined, so did their effectiveness. They still were a factor, but eventually there were so few of them remaining that the battalion was consolidated with another Louisiana regiment. Also, the “Tiger” title soon became used universally for all the Louisiana troops in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Last updated: August 22, 2020

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