In late May, 1862, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his Army of the Valley came barreling down the Shenandoah Valley. Numbering over 16,000 men, his mission was to tie down the separate Union commands scattered around the Valley and prevent them from uniting with each other or leaving the Valley to join Federal forces moving on Richmond. As they marched northward, one of the obstacles in their way was the small US garrison at Front Royal.
Front Royal occupies a strategic position as one of the best gateways into the Shenandoah Valley, and as Jackson approached it was up to Colonel John Kenly to hold the town. The Baltimore native commanded the small US garrison in Front Royal, numbering around 1,000 men. The bulk of the soldiers were from Kenly’s own 1st Maryland Volunteer Infantry (US), with a handful of Pennsylvania and New York cavalry men. Colonel Kenly was an experienced military man, having commanded troops in the Mexican War, and he realized that the odds against him were long. However, he was determined to slow the Confederates down as well as he could. With the bulk of his forces and what little artillery he had on hand, Kenly and the blue-clad Marylanders took up a defensive position on Richards’ Hill, near the confluence of the North and South Branches of the Shenandoah.
Opposite Kenly, the Confederate forces halted outside of Front Royal to prepare their assault. Among Jackson’s force was the 1st Maryland Infantry (CS), a regiment made up of men who fled south across the Potomac to join the rebels. Throughout the previous weeks, there had been a great deal of dissension within the ranks of the 1st Maryland (CS). Many of the men had enlisted for 12 months and their enlistments had expired, while others in the regiment had enlisted for the duration of the war. Conflict over the expired enlistments had led to open mutiny, with many men refusing to fight. Colonel Bradley Johnson, the commander of the mutinous Marylanders, saw an opportunity to rally his men for the coming fight.
Colonel Johnson rode before his discontented men and addressed them with an appeal to their honor:
“You have heard this personal order from General Jackson and you are in a pretty condition to obey. You are the sole hope of Maryland. You carry with you her honor and her pride. Shame on you—shame on you. I shall return this order to General Jackson with the endorsement, ‘The First Maryland refuses to the face the enemy’, for I will not trust the honor of the glorious old State to discontented, dissatisfied men. I won’t lead me who have no heart. Every man who is discontented must fall out of ranks—step to the rear and march with the guard. If I can get ten good men, I’ll take the Maryland colors with them and will stand for home and honor; but never again call yourselves Marylanders!“
Johnson’s appeal was met with wild enthusiasm, and the rebel Marylanders formed and moved to the front. They would be the vanguard of the Confederate assault, at the head of over 3,000 veteran troops ready to capture Front Royal. Johnson’s Marylanders were particularly excited to test their mettle against their Unionist counterparts in Kenly’s regiment.
As the Confederates advanced into Front Royal, they quickly drove the Federal pickets through the streets of town. According to one account, one young lady of the town called to the advancing Confederates “Go it, boys! Maryland, whip Maryland!” Kenly’s position on Richards’ Hill held for some time, but he was gradually forced to abandon the hill when Confederate cavalry slipped around behind him and threatened to cut him off. The 1st Maryland (US) crossed the South and North Branches, and attempted to burn the bridges as they went. Sergeant William Taylor of Baltimore received his first Medal of Honor citation for his role in firing the bridges that afternoon.
Colonel Kenly and his men took up another defensive position north of town on Guard Hill, as the rebels attempted to put out the burning bridges. It was clear to the veteran commander that his garrison was hopelessly outnumbered, and soon the Confederates were advancing once again.
Kenly found his position at Guard Hill was now under threat of being over run, as Confederate cavalry again pressed around his flanks. The Union Marylanders fell back once again, heading north up the pike towards Winchester (modern Rt. 522). They turned to make another stand near the Thomas McKay house, where high ground straddled both sides of the road. Unfortunately for Kenly the strength of the position was more than offset by the sheer numbers of the Confederate forces. Once again, the rebels pushed around the Federals, and Colonel Kenly desperately tried to hold the line. In the ensuing struggle, Colonel Kenly fell with a severe wound as he was extolling his men to “Rally round the flag!” Chaos ensued, and when the firing finally stopped nearly 700 Union troops were captured.
Participants in the battle recorded the unusual nature of the aftermath. Kenly’s 1st Maryland (US) was largely raised in the city of Baltimore, and Johnson’s 1st Maryland (CS) included a large number of Baltimore men as well. Many had come from the same neighborhoods and even the same families. The oft repeated phrase of “brother against brother” was literally true that day as Confederate officer William Goldsboro was surprised to see his brother, Charles, among the Union prisoners. The rebel Goldsboro later recalled how “nearly all recognized old friends and acquaintances, whom they greeted cordially, and divided with them the rations which had just changed hands.”
The fall of Front Royal opened the road for Jackson’s advance further down the Valley. In the next few weeks he was able to drive most of the forces opposing him back across the Potomac and even threaten the Federal position at Harper’s Ferry. His campaign in the Valley solidified his reputation as one on the Confederacy’s most active and enterprising officers. For the men of the two 1st Maryland Infantry Regiments, the Battle of Front Royal was always remembered for the intimate connection between the combatants. Today that legacy is remembered by the 115th Infantry Regiment of the Maryland National Guard, who carry the motto “Rally Round the Flag” in honor of the orders shouted by Colonel Kenly at Front Royal.