On June 6th, Stonewall Jackson marched his army southeast from Harrisonburg and crossed the North River Bridge into Port Republic. He established his headquarters on a knoll above the southwestern edge of the village at the Madison Hall estate of Dr. George Whitfield Kemper. Jackson’s supply train of wagons was parked immediately south of Madison Hall on a road that led to the Confederate supply center in Staunton. Despite the natural defensive strength of Jackson’s surroundings, the great majority of his forces were encamped on the left bank of North River in between Mill Creek and Port Republic.
Jackson rose on the morning of Sunday, June 8th with the anticipation of celebrating the Sabbath. At approximately 8:30 AM, a Union artillery shell broke the morning silence as Union cavalry splashed across South River and into the streets of Port Republic. Jackson narrowly escaped capture as he galloped down Main Street and across the North River Bridge. The Union raiders advanced toward the southwest corner of the village in order to capture the Confederate supply train, but a small band of infantrymen and the newly formed Charlottesville Artillery made a brief stand until Jackson rallied troops to retake the bridge and drive the raiders back across the South River.
Just as Jackson regained control of the village, cannon boomed to the west as the Union Army of John C. Fremont attacked the Confederate rearguard near Cross Keys. With Jackson preoccupied with the defense of the village, General Richard Ewell took command at Cross Keys and positioned the Confederate troops across the Port Republic Road on a wooded hillside that overlooked Mill Creek. Fremont remained cautious in advancing toward the Confederates because he believed that he was facing Jackson’s entire army of 17,000 men. In reality, Ewell was in command of just three brigades, numbering only 4,500 men. In addition to greatly overestimating his enemy’s strength, General Fremont also failed to realize that the Confederate left flank was exposed and could easily be turned by marching down the Keezletown Road (presently Cross Keys Road). General Fremont instead decided to attack the Confederate right flank that was commanded by General Isaac Ridgeway Trimble.
Isaac Trimble was a feisty and obstinate old man that often struggled with accepting the authority of superiors many years his junior. Without orders, General Trimble boldly moved his men across Mill Creek, advanced past the Widow Pence Farm, and took position at a fence that stood just behind the crest of the hill. Realizing the value of their position, the eager Confederates crowded the line and staggered two-deep in some places. Infantrymen further masked their position by gathering leaves to pile into the lower planks of the fence. They men also amplified their firepower by jamming solid rounds as well as buckshot down the muzzle of their outdated smooth-bore muskets (a practice known as firing with “buck and ball”).
Tragically, Union General Julius Stahel that advanced toward the fence line failed to send out skirmishers in order to scout the enemy position, and he sent his men into a perfect deadfall. The 8th New York regiment had the unfortunate duty of leading this blind advance toward the concealed Confederates. An Alabamian lying behind the fence recalled, “They advanced with such precision, keeping the step, and their line was so well dressed that it was a matter of comment afterwards among our officers, but poor fellows, they did not know what was in store for them behind that fence.”
Trimble’s men first saw the tips of Union bayonets appear on the horizon as the 8th New York gradually started to crest the gentle slope of the hillside (pictured below). The Confederates held their fire as their enemy slowly came into focus. The advancing Federals got within 40 yards when a sheet of fire erupted from the bottom of the fence. A singular volley of gunfire killed or wounded over 300 men in just mere seconds. A young Georgian recalled, “The dead and wounded Yankees [were] lying on the field as thick as black birds.” General Trimble later boasted that the “deadly fire…dropp[ed] the deluded victims of Northern fanaticism and misrule by the score.” However, like many of his men, Trimble also admitted that his opponent’s “gallantry deserved a better fate.”
The Confederates eagerly pursued the fleeing Union soldiers as they fell back from the fence. General Trimble advanced on them for another mile before he fell back to his original position. The Union retreat forced General Fremont to call back his other regiments in order to maintain his overall line of defense. This turn of events completely sank the Union initiative, and the battle lingered on with only brief bouts of artillery fire. When General Ewell declined Trimble’s request to launch a counter-offensive, the stubborn old man requested to ride to Port Republic in order to take the matter before Stonewall Jackson. Trimble plead his case, but Jackson coolly reminded him of the chain of command and encouraged him to “consult General Ewell and be guided by him." Jackson's plans for following day would move the army in the opposite direction toward Port Republic in order to attack the Union Army of James Shields.
Video - Author Bob Krick discusses the ambush of the 8th New York Regiment