The Battle of Kernstown

McClellan        In the spring of 1862 the Union was ready for its big push to capture Richmond and bring the war to a victorious conclusion. Major General George B. McClellan, who had achieved success in saving West Virginia for the Union, had succeeded the unfortunate Irvin McDowell in command of the Army of the Potomac. Reorganizing the Federal forces after their defeat at the First Battle of Manassas, McClellan had whipped them into the best equipped and motivated army that had ever been seen on the American continent. Part of his overall strategy included the advancing of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks across the Potomac to dislodge Jackson at Winchester. Banks, who had been elevated to his position by virtue of having been governor of Massachusetts and speaker of the United States House of Representatives, had an army of about 23,000 men, including 3,000 cavalry.

        Upon the approach of Banks to Winchester, Jackson withdrew southward up the Shenandoah Valley. It should be recalled that since the river flows north, when one goes south, he is going up the valley. General James Shields, who commanded a division in the Union army, pursued as far as Woodstock, whereupon, believing that Jackson had fled from the Valley, he marched back to Winchester. Banks, supposing he had accomplished his objective by expelling Jackson, left Shields in Winchester and took the remainder of his force east of the Blue Ridge in order to aid McClellan’s attempt to capture Richmond. Since Jackson’s objective was to immobilize as many Union troops as he could and thus relieve pressure on Richmond, the Confederate leader was determined to act.

Battle of Kernstown        Learning from his chief cavalry officer, General Turner Ashby, what was taking place in the Lower Valley, Jackson marched rapidly northward. Ashby reported the presence of only a small part of Shields’ Division. He based his information on a skirmish and reports from some Winchester residents. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Shields had concealed the remainder of his troops from enemy observation and his force was more than twice the size of Jackson’s. The General replied with a long, hard march by his little corps which was to acquire a legendary legs; some regiments made twenty-seven miles the first day and sixteen the second. Thinking he was facing only the Federal rear guard, Jackson launched an attack on March 23 which resulted in the Battle of Kernstown. Things proceeded according to plan at first. With the Stonewall Brigade spearheading the advance and his supporting regiments going into position, the Confederate commander seemed about to turn the Union right flank. Suddenly the situation changed. The Confederate infantrymen found themselves exposed to a withering fire that continued to grow in intensity. At the same time their own fire slackened because they were running out of ammunition. When the remainder of Shields’ troops became engaged and Garnett’s men were in danger of being overwhelmed, he gave the order to retire. In spite of desperate rallying efforts by Jackson, who was opposed to the withdrawal, the men continued to fall back. Jackson had thirty artillery pieces in action and was forming a flank attack. He threw in the reserves but the enemy line did not waiver. Some of his men began to stumble backward from one position to another and Jackson heard somebody shout out «ammunition giving out.» The General shouted, «Go back and give’em the bayonet,» but he could not stop the retreat. Jackson galloped to Garnett ordering a halt to the withdrawal, but had to watch as two hundred men of his rear guard and a couple of guns were captured by the enemy. The line of retreat continued to fall back slowly until after dark. After retreating southward for about four miles, they bivouacked at Newtown (Stephens City), where their wagon train was parked. Although the victorious Federals did not pursue very far, Shields had gained an honor that he enjoyed the remainder of his life – he defeated Stonewall Jackson in a battle.

General Garnett        Jackson wrote to his wife: «Yesterday important considerations, in my opinion, rendered it necessary to attack the enemy near Winchester...Our men fought bravely but superior numbers of the enemy repulsed me. God has been my shield...». Jackson’s thoughts of his defeat in his first valley battle plagued him. Within a couple of days he accused General Garnett with a long list of failures at Kernstown, removed him from command and put him under arrest. The army was stunned, and most officers openly rebelled. General Garnett was a brave, aggressive officer who did not deserve Jackson’s charges. In fact, General Taylor wrote: «I have never met an officer or soldier, present at Kernstown, who failed to condemn the harsh treatment of Garnett after that action.» It was almost as if Jackson was unable to bear the defeat and needed a scape goat. Richmond agreed with the troops, for Jackson was ordered to release Garnett from arrest and assign him to duty. Jackson was uncompromising and refused to reinstate General Garnett. (Garnett eventually returned to duty and died later in the war, leading a brigade in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, just weeks after he had been a pallbearer at Jackson’s funeral.) Jackson also wrestled with his conscience on whether he had properly attacked the enemy on Sunday, the Sabbath, rather than on Monday.

        Although Jackson sustained a tactical defeat at Kernstown, he won a strategic victory. His daring in attacking Shields convinced that officer that he must have been expecting reinforcements. Consequently, the Union general so informed Banks, who had left to aid McClellan. Banks returned to the Valley with his other division and, joined by Shields, proceeded to Strasburg to await supplies. Other results of the Battle of Kernstown were more far-reaching, however. President Lincoln was so concerned about the defense of Washington that he withdrew Blenker’s Division from McClellan so as to reinforce the Union general in West Virginia, John C. Fremont. The Federal commander-in-chief also decided to withhold McDowell’s corps of 40,000 from the movement against Richmond just in case additional troops were needed to combat Jackson.

        Besides these changes, Lincoln completely reorganized his territorial commands. He left McClellan in charge of operations south of the Rappahannock River, but appointed other generals to head different theatres of war. The department of the Rappahannock, which included the defense of Washington, was entrusted to McDowell, while the department of the Shenandoah was given to Banks. The Mountain Department, including West Virginia and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, was turned over to Fremont. These commanders who reported directly to Washington, were entirely independent of each other. Such unity of command that existed was placed in the hands of the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, whose “contempt for all sound principles and usages of war appears to have been exceeded only by his ignorance of them”.

The Battle of Kernstown, Va. - Reports of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson

Report of Col. Nathan Kimball, Fourteenth Indiana Infantry, commanding First Brigade, of the Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862

Report of Capt. R. C. Shriber, Aide-de-Camp, U.S. Army, of the Battle at Kernstown

Report of Col. Turner Ashby, 7th Virginia Cavalry, of the Battle of Kernstown

The Battle of Kernstown - from the Richmond Daily Dispatch  

Kernstown by G.F.R. Henderson

The Battle of Kernstown by Thomas A. Ashby

The Battle of Kernstown by John E. Cooke

Fighting Jackson at Kernstown - by Nathan Kimball, Brevet Major General, U.S.V.

The Battle of Kernstown (map)

Another Map of the Battle of Kernstown

The Opposing Forces at Kernstown

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