The lyric above, taken from a 2nd South Carolina String Band song fittingly describes the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862. Acting on an erroneous report, Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson attacked what he thought was an outnumbered Union rearguard approximately five miles below Winchester, Virginia. This rearguard, commanded by Colonel Nathan Kimball, actually outnumbered Jackson’s command by two to one and caused Jackson to retreat, which led to a sticky situation in the Confederate general corps.
Jackson’s command had been ordered to protect General Joseph Johnston’s left flank as that command began preparations to retreat from the Manassas Junction lines to a line south of the Rappahannock. In addition, Jackson received further instructions to either strike and keep Union troops occupied in the Shenandoah Valley or come east. He chose to strike.
That faulty report was sent back by the Confederate cavalry commanded by Turner Ashby. On March 22, Ashby’s cavalry had skirmished with Union soldiers around Kernstown and reported Union strength at only 3,400 men. Jackson’s command numbered a little over 3,000 soldiers, and Jackson and he saw the opportunity to strike. The attack would come the next morning, even though that was a Sunday and Jackson had hoped to observe the Sabbath.
On the morning of March 23, Colonel Kimball was ordered by his division commander, General James Shields, to remove the Confederate cavalry that was thought to be just shadowing the Union force. Shields had been wounded by a shell fragment that broke his left arm. A secessionist lad in Winchester thought it would have been better if the shell fragment had “struck him through his damned head.”
Kimball advanced in the morning with his brigade, and in the process uncovered Pritchard’s Hill, which would play a prominent role in the ensuing battle. Ashby, with a few companies of infantry, retreated and waited for Jackson to arrive.
As the rest of the Confederate infantry arrived; Jackson was briefed by Ashby, who convinced the commanding general that the Union force on Pritchard’s Hill was small and that other enemy troops in the area did not pose a serious threat. Jackson failed to do his own personal reconnaissance of enemy troop dispositions and relied on Ashby’s report entirely. Jackson quickly planned to flank the Union line on the hill.
Jackson’s infantry, choking on the dust as they rapidly marched up the Valley Turnpike, was led by General Samuel Fulkerson’s brigade, which turned off the road, wheeled left, and headed for the woods that skirted Pritchard’s Hill. Union artillery saw the move and began bombarding the Confederate troops. Jackson grabbed the next regiment he saw, the 33rd Virginia of General Richard B. Garnett’s brigade and ordered them after Fulkerson’s regiments. Garnett hurried to carry out the order and while in the process of moving the one regiment, Jackson changed his mind and order up the entire brigade. With two sets of orders that completely confused him, Garnett went to find Jackson to seek clarification. In the meantime, the regiments of the brigade became disoriented with the stop-and-start movement and two of the confused regiments wandered off toward the fighting
As the Confederate commanders sorted themselves out, Kimball, realizing the Confederate intentions to turn his flank, ordered in his reserves.
Down the hill toward Opequon Creek, on the Union right flank, was a stone wall–an ideal position for Northern soldiers to repulse their Southern counterparts. Unfortunately for the blue-clad soldiers, the Confederates also recognized it as an ideal defensive structure and beat them to it. The Union launched an assault against the wall, failed, and then tried again. The Confederates beat back the second assault.
A soldier in the 8th Ohio, Sergeant Frank Nickerson, after watching a comrade get killed during one of these charges, sincerely expected to be the next casualty,
“I saw a man in gray standing in a path …and I was standing in the same path, loading my gun, and he aimed dead for my chest. I was green and didn’t jump to one side, as we learned to do afterward, but thought I was gone sure. Just then my ramrod slipped from my hand, and I stooped quick and caught it.”
Dropping the ramrod save Sgt. Nickerson’s life, “as I rose up I saw my enemy’s gun smoking in his hand, and he staring at me in amazement.” Nickerson’s overcoat bore a bullet hole at the back of the neck that tore a whole down the center, upon inspection.
Kimball brought his own brigade into the action against Fulkerson’s Confederates. Likewise, Garnett brought Confederate reinforcements, and the wall became the focal point of the battle, with the wall being won and lost as the afternoon wore on. Although the troops were green-a few Union soldiers remember comrades noticing rabbits and chasing after them in the middle of a charge-the fight boiled down to a stand-up firefight. Other soldiers remember hearing commands of “forward” and “Charge!” as common soldiers took matters into their own hands.
Meanwhile, an ominous report was delivered to Jackson by one of his subordinates: the Union forces numbered more than the 3,000 men reported. The officer put the Union number at approximately 10,000 (which was closer to its actual number of 9,000 men). Jackson’s reply: “Say no more, we are in for it!”
The Confederates were “In for it” indeed. By 6 p.m., the Confederates were running low on ammunition and they had a report of Union cavalry threatening their right flank. Garnett, unable to confer with Jackson, who was in the rear organizing reinforcements to decide the fight, held out as long as he thought he could.
Garnett wrote that the men under his command had endured all they could and only left the line because of “exhaustion, and others because they had expended their ammunition”
Then, thinking Jackson would concur, Garnett ordered a retreat.
The regiment that Jackson was organizing to throw into the attack, the 5th Virginia, was instead used to cover the retreat. This allowed for the last of Jackson’s three brigades to move in and solidify the Southern rearguard. The Confederates retreated back to the Valley Turnpike and camped a few miles down the road, while Jackson camped in a fence-corner five miles from the battlefield.
Union forces were too worn out and disorganized to follow-up the retreating Confederates. However, beginning that night and continuing for the rest of his days, General James Shield’s whose division did the fighting would boast he was the only Union general to ever defeat “Stonewall” Jackson!
The Battle of Kernstown, the first of two in the area, resulted in 118 Union soldiers killed, 450 wounded, and 22 missing or captured and 80 Confederate dead, 375 wounded, and 263 missing or captured.
The casualty rate suffered by the Confederates of nearly 20% shows the severity of the fire they received from the enemy. Secondly, the high rate of loss shows the predicament that Jackson’s men were in and then couple that with a lack of ammunition Garnett’s decision seems prudent. Unfortunately for Garnett this was not the case.
There was one more casualty and that was Richard Garnett. Garnett had done what he thought was needed—and appropriately so. His men had no more ammunition. He held on as long as his men could before retreating. Garnett thought Jackson would see the wisdom of his decision and concur, but quite the opposite occurred. Jackson was furious at Garnett and ordered him arrested for ordering the retreat. Court-martial proceedings actually got started later in the year, but only Jackson, because of the active campaigning of the Confederate army during the summer of 1862, able to testify. Garnett would not command in the Valley again but would resurface as a brigade commander in General George Pickett’s division and would perish in Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Jackson’s view of the battle is evident from a conversation he had near a campfire that night. A young artillerist informed Jackson that the general “cut off more tobacco today than you could chew.” “Stonewall” Jackson’s reply, “Oh, I think we did very well.”
The Battle of Kernstown was a confusing affair–and, with its limited numbers, was very destructive, too. The fall-out of the engagement, however, was even bigger. Prior to the battle, Union military leadership, with President Abraham Lincoln’s consent, had begun to pull troops out of the Shenandoah Valley and back to Washington D.C. to be sent as reinforcements to General George McClellan’s army, which was beginning its Peninsula Campaign. The Union commander in the Shenandoah Valley, General Nathanael Banks, had begun to comply after assuring his superiors that Jackson was doing likewise and quitting the Valley. After the attack at Kernstown, though, the North did exactly what the South wanted it to do. The Lincoln administration panicked, kept reinforcements from McClellan’s army, and in turn ordered Union forces in the area to focus on Jackson’s command. What would ensue would be the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862, thrusting “Stonewall” Jackson into hero status in the South through his brilliant 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign.
As the beginning of the lyric says, “At Kernstown there he picked a fight and gave “Ol’ Abe a fearsome fright.” Jackson had just begun giving “Ol Abe a fearsome fright.”
Stonewall in the Valley by Robert Tanner
Shenadoah, 1862 by Peter Cozzens