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American Civil War: First Battle of Kernstown

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American Civil War: First Battle of Kernstown

Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, CSA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

First Battle of Kernstown - Conflict & Date:

The First Battle of Kernstown was fought March 23, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

  • Colonel Nathan Kimball
  • 6,352-9,000 men

    Confederate

  • Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson
  • 2,990-4,200 men

  • First Battle of Kernstown - Background:

    In early March 1862, Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson began evacuating Winchester, VA, and withdrawing up (moving southwest) the Shenandoah Valley. Though not directly threatened by Union forces, this shift was intended to cover the flank of General Joseph E. Johnston's army as it moved south from Manassas. Alerted to Jackson's retreat, Major General Nathaniel Banks advanced up the valley and occupied the town on March 12. Nine days later, Jackson received intelligence that Banks was sending two divisions back to Washington, DC in order to release troops there for Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in southeast Virginia. Leading these troops from the Valley, Banks left a division, led by Brigadier General James Shields, at Strasburg to guard the region.

    With the bulk of Union troops on the march to Washington, Shields began falling back to Winchester. To the south, Jackson received orders to prevent the departure of Union troops from the Valley as Johnston wished to prevent them being used against Richmond. Responding, Jackson reversed course and in a series of long marches raced north. On March 22, his cavalry force, led by Colonel Turner Ashby, began engaging Union forces near Kernstown. In the fighting, Shields was hit by shrapnel which broke his arm and he turned command of the division over to Colonel Nathan Kimball. Canvassing the area, Ashby was informed by locals that Shields possessed only four regiments and was intending to retreat to Harpers Ferry.

    First Battle of Kernstown - Setting the Stage:

    Failing to confirm this information, Ashby passed it on to Jackson. This proved costly as Shields possessed around 9,000 men. Seeking to engage what he believed to be a similarly-sized force, Jackson reached Kernstown around 11:00 AM the next day. Assessing the field, he found Union forces in a position astride the Valley Turnpike. In forming his men, Kimball had placed his brigade and artillery on Prichard's Hill, while deploying Colonel Jeremiah C. Sullivan's brigade east of the Turnpike. With these forces blocking the road, he held Colonel Erastus B. Tyler's brigade in reserve to the north. Neglecting to personally scout the field, Jackson ordered Ashby to feint against Sullivan's position while directing Colonel Samuel Fulkerson and Brigadier General Richard Garnett to attack Pritchard's Hill with their brigades (Map).

    First Battle of Kernstown - Jackson Held:

    Charging forward against the hill, Fulkerson came under heavy fire and was turned back. Seeing that the pressing the attack would be futile, Jackson instead directed Fulkerson and Garnett to move west onto Sandy Ridge with the goal of flanking Kimball's position and possibly cutting off his line of retreat to Winchester. Spotting the Confederate movements, Kimball ordered Tyler to take the ridge first. In the ensuing race, Fulkerson's men achieved the ridge first. Joined by Garnett, they took a position behind a stone wall facing a large clearing. On the ridge, Tyler was in position to attack around 4:00 PM.

    Rather than mount a traditional attack, the Union commander deployed his men in close column of divisions which saw his brigade advance with a front of two companies and the remaining forty-eight lined up in twenty-four rows of two to their rear. Moving forward, the mass of Union troops was initially halted by determined Confederate fire from behind the wall. Tyler's assault was supported by Kimball's brigade which attacked west from Pritchard's Hill. Around this time, Jackson's aide, Lieutenant Sandie Pendleton climbed the ridge and from his vantage point was able to gain an accurate assessment of the enemy's numbers. Though he informed Jackson that Union forces numbered around 10,000, the Confederate commander did not flinch and stated "Say no more of it. We are in for it."

    First Battle of Kernstown - The Stonewall Shattered:

    Finally grasping the severity of the situation, Jackson sent orders for Colonel Jesse Burks' brigade, which had been in reserve, to come to the aid of Fulkerson and Garnett. Along the stone wall, fighting was furious and it changed hands several times. Around 6:00 PM, the battle turned when Garnett's brigade, the famed "Stonewall Brigade" which Jackson had previously commanded, ran out of ammunition. This, coupled with Union cavalry beginning to work around the Confederate right, led Garnett to order his men to fall back. Moving north with Burks' men, Jackson was soon engulfed by the disorganized remnants of Garnett's command as it retreated south. Finding Garnett, Jackson and his subordinate attempted to rally the men with calls of "give them the bayonet" but to no avail. Unsupported and with their flank exposed by Garnett's retreat, Fulkerson's men soon abandoned their position and joined the retreat.

    First Battle of Kernstown - Aftermath:

    With his lines shattered, Jackson withdrew his men south along the Valley Turnpike to Newtown. In the fighting at Kernstown, Jackson incurred 80 killed, 375 wounded, and 263 captured/missing, while Union losses totaled 118 killed, 450 wounded, and 22 captured/missing. After the fighting, Kimball's units were sufficiently disorganized that he was unable to mount an effective pursuit. In recognition of his victory over Jackson, Kimball was promoted to brigadier general the following month. Though a Union victory, the fighting at Kernstown proved a strategic triumph for the Confederacy. Unwilling to believe that Jackson would have attacked if outnumbered, the Union leadership, including President Abraham Lincoln, concluded that the Confederate leader must have had superior numbers. As a result, Banks was ordered to return to the Valley with his men and an additional 40,000 men were stripped from McClellan's army to assist in protecting Washington.

    In addition, a division was sent to reinforce Major General John C. Frémont in western Virginia. When McClellan's Peninsula Campaign failed that summer, he cited the loss of these forces as a key reason why he was unable to take Richmond. Angered by the defeat, Jackson placed full blame on Garnett and had him arrested on charges of neglect of duty. Though a court-martial began in August, it was halted due to the Second Battle of Manassas. The following month, General Robert E. Lee ordered the charges dropped. Though somewhat disgraced, Garnett assumed command of brigade in Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps and was killed at Gettysburg the following year while taking part in Pickett's Charge. Despite the defeat at Kernstown, Jackson recovered and embarked on his famed Valley Campaign which saw him win numerous victories over Union forces through May and June.

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