A Current Civil War Campaign
The Battle of Thornton Gap
May 15, 1862
General French's Report on Union Forces at Thornton Gap
May 15, 1862
At General Hooker's instruction my command and that of General Burnsides endeavored to force passage through Thornton Gap and interrupt what appeared to be a massive movement of Confederate Forces up the Shenandoah toward Front Royal. Our early morning assault held great potential but due to the extended nature of our forces, General Hooker had cautioned against excessive casualties, especially in Burnsides' Army. I therefore emphasized maneuver in my plan. My division led the attack with the main effort through a forested approach on the center-left. Confederate movements on our right appeared to be a feint but they pushed so far forward as to require a response and therefore a diversion of troops. About mid morning General Burnside arrived with his main body and he assumed command. Events thereafter took on their own course.
Our opportunity to crush this blocking force seemed great, but it was also apparent that the Confederates had no intention to retreat so it seemed likely they had called reinforcements. This became reality in late morning with the arrival of troops from another enemy division, and in early afternoon with those from a third one. Rather than serve as an exploiting force following my breakthrough as envisioned by Gen. Hooker, Burnsides determined that his whole army would be needed to break the Confederates. What had started as a quick thrust at the enemy's flank now degenerated into a battle of attrition. Success seemed within the Union's grasp when the Army of West Virginia succeeded in seizing commanding heights on the right-center and placing artillery there. On our left, my division reinforced by elements from Burnsides had nearly turned the flank, but the arrival of the third Confederate division indicated both of these advances were spent. Casualties which had been substantially in our favor through the morning now swung the other way as our assault met a determined (desperate?) Confederate line. Burnsides left the field shortly after noon, ostensibly to obtain reinforcements in the rear, and his subordinate was left to decide in mid-afternoon that our cost had been too high. We withdrew at about 4:00 p.m.
The loss of several thousand Federal troops is indeed unfortunate, and we cannot claim success in destroying a vulnerable advance, but the Confederate artillery took another great blow at Thornton's Gap, there can be no doubt that the Rebels' ability to exploit northward has been significantly impaired by this battle. In hindsight, it is clear that Burnsides' gamble in moving his Army away from its primary area of operation within the Valley was a failure.
BG William French,
Commander, 3rd Division, II Corps