For ten hours on March 23, 1862, 10,000 Americans from North and South battled each other on the rolling terrain three miles south of Winchester at Kernstown. That struggle, on the first Sunday in spring, marked the first military contest ever waged in the Shenandoah Valley.
Stationed in the Shenandoah Valley with headquarters in Winchester since November of 1861, Jackson’s command—an independent division in Maj. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Department of Northern Virginia—numbered 10,000 soldiers on New Year’s Day of 1862. Illnesses, re-assignments, and furloughs reduced Jackson’s ranks below 4,000 effectives by the first days of March. As Union divisions closed in on Winchester from the north and east, Jackson was forced to retreat from Winchester on March 11, pulling his division back nearly forty miles to the hamlet of Mount Jackson.
Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, leading the Fifth Corps of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, seized Winchester on March 12 and made the city his base of operations for the two divisions—nearly 20,000 troops—that comprised his command. Four days later Banks received orders from the U.S. War Department in Washington to send one of his divisions out of the Shenandoah Valley to provide support for McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. Banks remained in Winchester with the Second Division of the Fifth Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. James Shields, a former U.S. Senator and Mexican War veteran who camped most of his command two miles north of the town. Banks’ First Division slowly departed from Winchester’s environs on March 21, heading east toward Snicker’s Gap in the Blue Ridge.
Valley residents loyal to the Confederacy discerned the eastward movement of half of the Fifth Corps and—not seeing Shields’ division—erroneously believed that Banks was evacuating the Valley. These citizens relayed this faulty intelligence to Stonewall Jackson who on March 21 had already begun to march his small division northward on the Valley Pike, a ninety-mile long and twenty-two foot wide macadamized turnpike connecting Winchester in the lower Valley with Staunton in the upper Valley. Jackson moved to comply with instructions from Gen. Johnston to keep Union troops in the Valley to prevent them from reinforcing McClellan. By the close of March 22 Jackson bivouacked near Cedar Creek, fifteen miles south of Winchester.
Late on the afternoon of March 22 a skirmish was fought on the southern outskirts of Winchester when Jackson’s cavalry and horse artillery, commanded by Col. Turner Ashby, charged northward on the Valley Pike against a Union outpost near a section of mills. Shields quickly moved artillery and infantry against Ashby’s 290 horse soldiers and three-gun battery, driving him away within an hour while suffering just two casualties—one killed and another wounded. The wounded soldier was Shields, who suffered a broken arm and injured side by shrapnel from a Confederate shell. Driven back to Newtown (present-day Stephens City), Ashby continued to believe that only a few Union regiments remained at Winchester and sent a courier back to Jackson for reinforcements to overtake the town.
Around 7 a.m. the following morning Jackson marched his Valley Army from Cedar Creek north to Winchester. He provided Ashby with four companies of infantry from the Stonewall Brigade. Ashby, waiting half way between Jackson and Winchester, received the infantry companies and also moved toward Winchester. Sighting Union troops on the heights near the Valley Pike hamlet of Kernstown, Ashby ordered his horse artillery to unlimber in the tiny village where they fired at the blue-clad infantry at 9 a.m. on Sunday, March 23, 1862—the first shot fired at the Battle of Kernstown.
For five hours the opposing artilleries dueled while Ashby’s 450 cavalry, infantry, and artillery attempted to advance toward Winchester from the eastern side of the Valley Pike. Within ninety minutes, realizing he was outmanned by a larger Union force concentrated between Kernstown and Winchester, Ashby retreated south of Kernstown. The force was commanded by Col. Nathan Kimball, the leader of Shields’ First Brigade who also handled division duties while Shields lay incapacitated in the Seevers’ house in Winchester. In order to drive Ashby back, Kimball ordered the Second Brigade, four available regiments commanded by Col. Jeremiah C. Sullivan, supported by several companies from three regiments of his own brigade and a two-gun section of Battery B, 1st Virginia (U.S.), which had unlimbered on the Valley Pike, to oppose the three cannon of Confederate horse artillery.
Col. Kimball established his headquarters atop Pritchard’s Hill, a triangular-peaked knoll north of Kernstown and immediately west of the Valley Pike. By 10:30 a.m., sixteen Union cannon from three batteries crowned the military crest of the hill, supported by approximately 800 infantrymen available from three regiments. Instructed twice via dispatches from the incapacitated Shields to give up the high ground and chase down the Confederate cavalry, Kimball ignored both messages, ostensibly believing more Southern infantry was close behind the foot soldiers already with Ashby. If this was his reason, it was a wise one, for shortly after noon he could discern the movements of more Confederate soldiers arriving from the south and into an expanse of leafless woods two miles in front of Pritchard’s Hill.
These reinforcing Confederates were the remainder of Jackson’s division, escorted by Stonewall himself. Jackson decided to press the fight, believing the previously received misinformation that Winchester was held by a very small force. He conducted a too-brief reconnaissance to fortify this erroneous belief. Kimball had deployed two of his three brigades against Ashby in the morning, a total of 4,000 infantry and artillerymen—a force already larger than the 3,700 soldiers Jackson would deploy on the contested field. Another Union brigade was advancing south through Winchester at noon, but was more than an hour away from adding its strength to Kimball’s Pritchard’s Hill defense.
Jackson detached all of his batteries from their respective brigades and held them in reserve on the Valley Pike, one mile south of Kernstown, where they were supported by three of his available infantry regiments. He ordered the remaining six regiments north through the woods to the junction of the tree line and a road that ran westward in front of the woods, 1,200 yards southwest of the Union artillery on Pritchard’s Hill. There, Jackson ordered Col. Samuel V. Fulkerson to “turn a battery” on the hill with his two regiments, apparently meaning to flank the Union artillery to force a reorientation of their position. Shortly after Fulkerson crossed the road and marched his 600 Virginia infantry toward the hill, Jackson sent orders for the next brigade commander to support Fulkerson’s movements. This was Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett, the Stonewall Brigade commander, who had four of the five regiments at his disposal. Garnett ordered the 33rd Virginia forward, following behind Fulkerson’s two regiments (the 23rd and 37th Virginia), while the other regiments of the Stonewall Brigade stayed in the woods to await orders.
The Union artillery, primarily ten-pound Parrott Rifles, unleashed a fusillade against the Virginia column marching toward them and inflicted approximately eighty casualties before Fulkerson and Garnett changed their course and headed west across the Middle Road and onto the eastern base of Sandy Ridge—a dominant ridge line one mile west of Pritchard’s Hill—where they subsequently hid in a locust grove. At the same time, between 2:00-2:30 p.m., Jackson feigned with Ashby’s cavalry upon the left flank of the Union infantry east of the Valley Pike, while he personally escorted fifteen cannon across marshy ground to the southwestern base of Sandy Ridge. From there, Jackson advanced to the military crest of the hill, deployed the artillery and supported it with two regiments of infantry. Shortly past 3 p.m., Jackson’s artillery opened fire and quickly suppressed the Union cannon on Pritchard’s Hill.
Jackson could do little else until his infantry concentrated, for they were strung out over four miles: two regiments on the hill, three more down the slope on the eastern base, two others in the woods with a battalion on the low ground, and the remaining two in reserve on the Valley Pike. Ashby had already split his force, sending 140 cavalrymen to the western side of Sandy Ridge and out of view. Colonel Kimball’s force was more concentrated, but locked in place on Pritchard’s Hill west of the Valley Pike and on the level ground east of that road. Col. Erastus B. Tyler’s Third Brigade, 2,300 strong, joined Kimball’s two active brigades. Kimball’s available infantry, 6,300 officers and men, was much reduced from the nearly 10,000 available foot soldiers reported six days earlier due to rampant illness and detachments guarding Federal-occupied towns in the northern Valley. Kimball sent Tyler’s entire brigade, more than one-third of his available force, on a mission to scale the northern wooded base of Sandy Ridge and capture Jackson’s artillery from behind.
Happenstance thwarted the mission at 4 p.m. when Tyler’s marching column clashed with the 27th Virginia infantry, 200 rank and file soldiers ordered by Jackson from their artillery supports to capture Union cannon. This skirmish broadened in the next half hour to a full-scale infantry fight as Tyler’s men worked themselves out of their precarious marching column and more and more Confederate infantry regiments reached the 27th Virginia—anchored behind a shoulder-high stone wall that ran east to west for 400 yards across the northern third of the ridge. Tyler’s best opportunity for success was thwarted when the 1st Virginia (U.S.) lost a race for the stone wall to Fulkerson’s two regiments who beat them to this fence and wrecked the Union regiment with a blistering volley from sixty yards.
By 4:45 p.m. Garnett controlled the Sandy Ridge infantry line with 1,800 soldiers lined three deep behind the wall. Those numbers matched Tyler’s attacking force below it, a brigade reduced in strength by casualties and cowardice. Kimball stripped away his Pritchard’s Hill protection by ordering another thirty-four companies of infantry available from five First and Second Brigade regiments to descend from Pritchard’s Hill and storm Sandy Ridge from the east. Although these 1,600 fresh soldiers still failed to provide the numerical strength necessary to dislodge an ensconced defense on high ground with artillery support, the Union regiments unintentionally reached the height as if ordered en echelon, bending Garnett’s thinned right flank southward as Union infantry attacked Confederate artillery directly for the first time in the battle.
The Confederates ran low on their ammunition with no reserve supply at hand. Union troops continued to apply overwhelming pressure on the right and rear of Garnett’s line. Near sunset at 6 p.m., Garnett called for his men to retreat, just as the 14th Indiana Infantry followed by the 13th Indiana, swarmed over a second wall near Confederate artillery, capturing two cannon and threatening the retreat route. Over the next hour Union cavalry and infantry chased down fleeing Confederates, their momentum stalled by two Confederate regiments protected by a third stone wall on Sandy Ridge.
The Battle of Kernstown ended ten hours after it began. Stonewall Jackson lost his first and only battle as an independent commander, twenty-two percent of his command—733 officers and men killed, wounded and captured. Kimball took 575 casualties in his victory. The Confederates received an unexpected and unplanned benefit within days of the battle when the U.S. War Department overreacted to Jackson’s presence in the lower Valley and reassigned 20,000 troops that had originally been earmarked to join McClellan on the Peninsula. Most of these men were sent into the Shenandoah Valley, sparking a springtime string of battles and Confederate victories in one of the most famous campaigns in modern military history.
About the Author:
Gary Ecelbarger is a charter member of the Kernstown Battlefield Association. He authored “We are in for it!”: The First Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862, and co-wrote Shenandoah 1862 for Time Life Books’ Voices of the Civil War. His new book on the 1862 Shenandoah Campaign, Shenandoah Shockwaves, will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, “If this Valley is lost, Virginia is lost!”: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.