The Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley


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THE BATTLE OF FIRST KERNSTOWN (23 March 1862)
Stonewall Jackson's Only Defeat on the Battlefield


Sketch of the First Battle of Kernstown

General Location: A few miles south of Winchester and west of US 11 (Valley Pike) and north of Hoge Run. Route 37 (4-lane bypass) bisects the area of heaviest fighting along Sand Ridge.

Principal Commanders: Confederate Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson; Union Colonel Nathan Kimball, in temporary command Brigadier General James Shields' division.

Forces Engaged: Confederate forces consisted of Jackson's infantry division whcih contained three brigades, those of Brigadier Generals Garnett, Burks, and Fulkerson, 27 pieces of artillery, and a cavalry contingent under Col. Turner Ashby; total strength did not exceed about 3,600-3,800, of which most were engaged.

Union forces consisted of Shield's infantry division also consisting of three brigades under Colonels Kimball, Sullivan, and Tyler. Federal artillery consisted of 24 guns, and 16 companies of cavalry under Broadhead; total force between 8,500 and 9,000, three-fourths of which were brought into action.

Casualties: Confederates: 718 (80killed/375wounded/263missing or captured); Union: 590 (118killed/450wounded/22missing or captured).

Significance: This battle is considered by many historians as the opening conflict of the famous Valley Campaign of 1862. It was the only battle recorded as "lost" by Stonewall Jackson, but in many ways he gained as much by losing as by winning. After the battle, President Lincoln was disturbed by Jackson's potential threat to Washington and redirected more than 35,000 men to defend approaches from the Valley before the campaign was finished. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's army was deprived of these reinforcements, which he claimed would have enabled him to take Richmond during his Peninsular campaign. Because of this redeployment of Federal troops, First Kernstown is considered one of the decisive engagements of 1862.

Description of the Battle

Prelude: Acting on faulty intelligence from Colonel Turner Ashby that suggested that his small army outnumbered the Federal forces at Winchester, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson moved to strike his opponents and prevent US reinforcements from leaving the Valley to aid McClellan's army on the Peninsula. The division of Brig. Gen. James Shields in fact outnumbered Jackson more than two-to-one. On the afternoon of 22 March, Ashby's cavalry and horse artillery skirmished with US forces near Kernstown. General Shields was wounded in this affair, his arm broken by a shell fragment, and divisional command devolved to Col. Nathan Kimball.

Phase One. Skirmishing at Kernstown: At dawn Kimball moved against Ashby's advance on the Valley Pike north of Kernstown. Sullivan's and a portion of Kimball's US brigades advanced, straddling the pike, and pushed Ashby south of Hoge's Run, taking possession of Pritchard's Hill. Ashby's troopers formed a new defensive line, which was later supported by infantry and maintained throughout the battle. Jenks' US battery unlimbered on Pritchard's Hill and responded to Ashby's artillery in position near the Opequon Church. About 1100 hours, Jackson's infantry began to concentrate south of Kernstown. It was soon evident to Kimball that Jackson's army was arriving on the field. Kimball consolidated his position and awaited reinforcements.

Phase Two. CS Flank Movement: By 1400 hours, Jackson's infantry was on the field, massed south of Kernstown. Jackson launched a feint toward Kimball's main position along the Pike with a portion of Burks' brigade, but this was to disguise a flanking movement to his left along Sand Ridge on the west. Jackson directed Fulkerson's and Garnett's brigades to the ridge, leaving Burks to support Ashby. Confederate artillery (3 batteries) were positioned on the eastern face of the ridge and engaged US batteries on Pritchard's Hill. Fulkerson advanced under fire on the left, and managed to seize a stone fence running generally east-west on the Glass farm. This gave the Confederates covoer and an excellent firing position. Garnett came up on Fulkerson's right, extending the CS battle line from Opequon Creek east across the front of the ridge, then bending back south to cover the artillery. A regiment was deployed across the Middle Road to maintain a connection between the Confederates flanks.

Recognizing the threat to his right, Kimball moved Tyler's brigade forward from its reserve position near the toll gate at the intersection of the Valley Pike and Cedar Creek Grade to confront Fulkerson and Garnett. As the artillery duel continued, skirmishers closed and the fighting began to heat up.

Phase Three. US Assault on Sand Ridge: At 1600 hours, Tyler deployed his five regiments (about 3,000 men) and attacked the rebel position on Sand Ridge, supported by his batteries on Pritchard's Hill and a small cavalry force on his far right flank. Several attempts to turn the Confederate left flank were repulsed with heavy casualties. Tyler now focused his attention on the CS center on the crest of the ridge. Recognizing that Ashby's activity on the Valley Pike was a demonstration only, Colonel Kimball marched his brigade and part of Sullivan's (about 3,000) to the right, joining with Tyler to assault the CS center and right on Sand Ridge. Garnett's outnumbered brigade lacked the protection of a stone fence like Fulkerson's and , running low on ammunition, soon began to fall back. Jackson dispatched two regiments to the support of Garnett but before they arrived, Garnett ordered a withdrawal, believing his position untenable. This order to withdraw later resulted in his arrest and ultimately diminished what would have been a brilliant career for General Garnett.

This movement opened Fulkerson's right flank to a heavy fire and he too retired. The retreat soon became badly disorganized. The CS artillery kept US forces in the open ground east of Sand Ridge at bay, firing canister, but no fire could be brought to bear along the wooded ridge itself. The Union advance along the crest forced the guns to retire.

Phase Four. Rear Guard Action: Jackson deployed two regiments 5VA and 42VA) across the ridge to slow the US advance. Several regiment-sized attacks were repulsed, and for a brief time fighting was fierce and hand-to-hand. According to Henderson, an early biographer of Jackson, colors of the 5th Ohio changed hands six times. A body of US cavalry advanced south along the road (rte.621), but were checked by Oliver Funston's cavalry. Darkness ended the fighting.

Phase Five. CS Retreat: Jackson withdrew along "Stone Lane" past the Magill House and south along the Valley Pike. Ashby remained with the cavalry at Bartonsville, while the infantry went on to Newtown (Stephens City). Jackson reportedly slept in the corner of a rail fence near Bartonsville. US forces did not pursue.

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