The Battle of Kernstown, by Thomas A. Ashby 

        In the spring of 1862 it was announced that Manassas would be evacuated by the Confederate army, and that the Federal attack would be made by way of the Peninsula. The Confederate forces were transferred to the Peninsula, with the advanced lines at Williamsburg, Va. After the evacuation of Manassas the hospitals in our village were closed, and all Government supplies were moved into the interior. Notice was given that our people would soon be within the enemy's lines.

        During the latter part of February General Banks, with an army of some 40,000 men, crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry and began the invasion of the Shenandoah Valley. The army at Manassas withdrew to Orange Court House on March 8, which left the Confederate lines in the Valley exposed, and made it necessary for General Jackson to withdraw to a higher position in the Valley.

        On March 11, 1862, Winchester was evacuated by the Confederates, and on the following day General Shields, with a division of 11,000 men, took possession of the place. Jackson then fell back to Strasburg and upon Shields' advance he retreated to Woodstock, twelve miles further south. The army under Banks consisted of three divisions, aggregating about 40,000 men. Two of these divisions had been sent to reinforce McClellan, leaving Shields, with over 15,000 men, to watch Jackson, with less than 5,000. Shields withdrew from Strasburg to Winchester and Jackson followed him as far as Kernstown, about five miles south of Winchester, where on March 23rd, he engaged Shields in battle.

        The battle of Kernstown was bitterly contested, Jackson, - having less than 4,000 men opposed to Shields' 9,000, - was forced to retire from the field, but he held his men in good order. The battle while a tactical defeat was a strategic victory for the Confederates, since it recalled to the Valley the troops sent to the aid of McClellan, and relieved the pressure that McClellan was making against the Confederate forces on the Peninsula. And Jackson, with his small force of some 4,000 men, kept some 40,000 Federal troops in the Valley, thus preventing a reënforcement of McClellan.

        For the next thirty days Jackson was busily manoeuvering with the Federal forces to hold them in the Valley. His army now numbered about 6,000 men, nearly one-half being cavalry. On April 30th he went from Elk Run Valley, leaving General Ewell, - who had recently joined him, - with 8,000 men, to watch the movements of the enemy, east of Harrisonburg, crossed over the Blue Ridge into eastern Virginia and then returned by rail to Staunton. After reaching Staunton by this indirect route Jackson united his forces with those of General Edward Johnson, who had about 2,800 men, and marched west along the pike leading from Staunton to McDowell, where the Federal forces under General Milroy had been concentrated. On May 8th Jackson attacked Milroy and soon won the victory of McDowell, driving the Federal forces back into the mountains of West Virginia.

        On May 12th Jackson returned to the Valley and took position on the pike between Staunton and Harrisonburg, where he organized that movement that soon went into history as the Valley Campaign, - the most brilliant achievement in the War between the States.

        I must now return to the narrative of events that took place in our village while the movements in the Valley were going on. The withdrawal of the Confederate forces from Winchester, and the retreat up the Valley placed our county within the Federal lines. The hopes of our people were greatly depressed and all fully realized the gravity of the situation. We were left to the invasion of the enemy and felt the apprehension that an enemy's presence is sure to create. Many of our people had shipped their most valuable horses, cattle, and other personal property within the Confederate lines, only keeping at home such stock as was needed for farming purposes. Stores and business houses were closed, but our farmers went on cultivating their crops with as much diligence as conditions would permit; for at this stage of the war we did not know what effect an invading army would have upon the lives and property of our people, - whether all rights would be swept away, or our old men, women, and children would be insulted, imprisoned, and maltreated, and our property confiscated. At that time some confidence was held in the humanity and justice of the Federal Government, which was believed to be conducting its war against men in arms and not against non-combatants. All knew that the war was for subjugation of the seceding States, a restoration of the Union, and the emancipation of the negro. However, the means by which these results would be brought about were not fully understood; for at that time the bitter experiences of civil war had not been tested.

        Soon after the Confederate forces were withdrawn from our village, we were surprised on the afternoon of March 27th by a raid of Federal cavalry, consisting of one company, commanded by Captain David Strother, a Virginian by birth, better known under the nom de plume, "Porte Crayon."

        The company dashed into the village, halted in front of the hotel in the Public Square for some fifteen minutes, and after asking a few questions, seeming satisfied with their investigation, they turned their backs on the crowd that had assembled to see the men who wore the blue.

        Looking back over these stormy days of war, I recall the fact that there were several Union men in our county who took no part in the great civil strife, but who used their influence to defend our people, - who respected their opinions because they were conscientious and honest, - against the cruel spirit of our Northern invaders. They were known to the Northern army as Union sympathizers, but as non-combatants; and on all occasions they were ready to assist our people in the recovery of property that had been taken by the Union army or to intercede for those who had been unjustly imprisoned. The services of these Union men were invaluable.

        In one instance some negroes belonging to one of our prominent citizens ran away in the night and took with them a wagon and four horses. They were traced to the Federal lines, and their owner, taking with him one of these Union sympathizers, went to the camp, made claim to the horses and wagon, and secured their return from General Milroy, the officer in command. The negroes were left to their freedom, for they were an untrustworthy, unreliable, and sorry crowd. In justice I must say that no Union man in our community was either spy or renegade, but sought to live peacefully with both sides engaged in a fratricidal strife, knowing full well that the passions of men engaged in civil war could only be subdued by the survival of the strongest. War has no respect for the individual. It has no sympathy for the weak. It seeks only to advance the interests of the strong. Those who appeal to its decision must accept its results.

        After this first visit of Federal cavalry our people soon became accustomed to the sight of the Federal troops. From day to day small bodies of soldiers or raiding parties came to the village. The place became a stamping-ground for the men of both armies. One day the Confederates came to see us, and the next day the Federals. Between the two we were kept in a state of constant excitement, bordering sometimes on anxiety, sometimes on hope.

        During these months the domestic life of the community was filled with innumerable disturbances; anxiety, fear, joy, and sorrow found place in every heart. There was not a family that did not have a father, brother, son or some other relative in the Confederate army, - relatives who had enlisted in different commands located in Virginia or in the Western army. All these men were exposed to the dangers and casualties of war; and though there was a constant communication by letter between the loved ones at home and the absent soldier, the mails were irregular and uncertain; days frequently passed before the results of a battle were known.

        The Richmond newspapers were sought eagerly, but items of news were often unsatisfactory. The progress of the war was so uncertain, - apparently so hopeless, - that the success of our arms seemed clouded in doubt. We were now in the enemy's territory; our lives and property were exposed to death and confiscation, our homes were open to the insults and cruelty of an invading army that was seeking to trample upon our liberties and destroy our institutions. The only hope that animated our people was the belief that everyone had in the justice of our cause, and in the patriotism and valor of our armies. Those unable to take part in the military service, - our old men, our women, and the children of tender age, - remained firm in spirit and daring in purpose. Willing to endure every privation, to make every sacrifice, they sent words of love and encouragement to their kindred in arms, inspiring them to deeds of valor and heroism. Our old men and boys were busy in the fields with their crops, sowing seed which would bear crops for the enemy to gather or destroy. Our women, young and old, were busy with the loom, spinning-wheel, and needle, making their own apparel or that of their friends in the army. All attempts at ornamentation were abandoned: our men were clothed in the plainest woolen or cotton fabric, our women, in homespun dresses dyed with the bark or root of trees. In food, as in raiment, there was simplicity and temperance.

        As the war continued from year to year these methods adopted in 1862 were enforced with greater rigidity.

Taken from: The Valley Campaigns Being the Reminiscences of a Non-Combatant While Between the Lines in the Shenandoah Valley During the War of the States, by Thomas A. Ashby.

Recommended Books on Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson and his campaigns

          cover          cover

              

 

X