Welcome back guest author Kyle Rothemich.
After the Battle of Rutherford’s Farm on July 20th, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley was located south of Strasburg near Fisher’s Hill. With Union forces defeating Stephen D. Ramseur’s forces at Rutherford’s Farm on July 20th, Union command was convinced Early was in full retreat. This rise in confidence causes the Union 6th Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright to be ordered out of the Shenandoah Valley. This corps headed back to reinforce Grant around Richmond. This left the only Union forces in the Valley under the command of Brig. Gen. George Crook. Crooks Army of West Virginia consisted of roughly 12,000 men and was located south of Winchester in the vicinity of Kernstown.
Early was concerned. He was ordered by Gen. Robert E. Lee to keep Union forces occupied in the Shenandoah Valley and prevent them from getting back towards Richmond. Therefore, when he heard news of the fleeing 6th Corps, he had to act in an attempt to keep them in the Valley. Prior to the battle on July 24th, Early sent out numerous cavalry parties to skirmish with Union soldiers at Kernstown. Many of the Union commanders viewed this as a screen, protecting Early’s retreat. Crook himself believed Early’s time in the Valley was complete and he was withdrawing back towards Richmond.
On the morning of July 24th, Early decided to move his forces north from Fishers Hill in an effort to dislodge Crook at Kernstown. 16,000 Confederate veterans filed into positions as they marched along, and on each side of the Valley Turnpike. Early’s line stretched from the Back Road to the west towards the Front Royal Road to the east. The importance of this however is that all three roads led north towards Winchester.
By the 10:00 o’clock hour Confederate soldiers had arrived on the battlefield. Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s division was ordered to deploy on the west side of the Valley Turnpike south of the Opequon Church in Kernstown. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s division marched along the Back Road and positioned themselves along Sandy Ridge anchoring on Gordon’s left. Crook’s force of nearly 12,000 men were not expecting the bulk of Early’s force to arrive near Kernstown that morning. Many men were attending church services in camp this Sunday in July. When Crook saw the deployment of the Confederate lines and thought it was once again another screen by Early protecting his retreat south.
Crook decided to drive off Early once and for all. His command was made up of three small divisions of infantry and two divisions of cavalry. He ordered his artillery, under Capt. Henry DuPont to be place on the high ground of Pritchard’s Hill. Union artillerist used this same technique to defeat Stonewall Jackson two years prior at the First Battle of Kernstown. He then ordered one division of infantry under Col. James Mulligan to move down Pritchard’s Hill, and engage Gordon’s men.
Early’s plan was to keep Mulligan and the Union infantry tied down around the Opequon Church in his front. At the same time, Ramseur would move his North Carolinians and Virginians out the woods and attack the Union right flank. To oppose Ramseur, Crook ordered Col. Joseph Thoburn’s division towards the sound of battle. As Mulligan faced fierce fire he gave up ground back towards the Pritchard House. At this time in the battle a Confederate recalled, “It was evident in the minds of the Confederates, as soon as the skirmishing began, that aggressive leadership was lacking in the ranks of the enemy, and that victory would be easy.” Crook then ordered another division under Col. Rutherford B. Hayes to his left to aid in Mulligan’s defense. Altogether, Mulligan and Hayes numbered only 3,000 men. Early’s plan was well underway. But his second in command saw a better opportunity to strike.
John C. Breckenridge was Early’s chief subordinate. He approached Early with a bold maneuver. He saw Crooks left flank, anchored by Hayes’s command unprotected and presented itself as an easy target. He suggested to Early, that he lead Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton’s division through a ravine to the east. This ravine would conceal his movements and place this command directly on Crooks flank. Early abided to the plan and Breckenridge personally led Wharton’s division.
By 3:00 Wharton’s Virginians were in position. They revealed themselves and launched a deadly volley into Haye’s unprotected flank. 2,500 Confederates opened fire onto the isolated 36th and 23rd Ohio. These men quickly broke and fled towards safety. Maj. Jewett Palmer of the 36th Ohio simply recalled, “We were cut down by the score…Enlisted men went down as I never saw them fall.” As hundreds of Ohioans fled for safety a Cleveland man remembered that the Confederates, “pressed forward yelling like demons and poured volley after volley into our flank, which we could not return.” Breckenridge’s plan worked brilliantly. Crook’s line was beginning to waver. With his left collapsing, his center under Mulligan moved back to their last position along Pritchard’s lane.
As Mulligan’s men rallied along a stone wall, he was hit by a bullet and fell to the ground. Mulligan, a flamboyant Irishman was beloved by his men. As a result, when he fell, numerous people gathered around him to help him. One of the men who surrounded him was his nephew Lt. James Nugent. All of this attracted Confederate sharpshooters and Nugent was shot dead. Mulligan, after seeing his beloved nephew shot, gave his men one final order, “Lay me down and save the flags. Now you can do me no good. Save your colors!” Mulligan would die days after the battle inside of the Pritchard House.
With Mulligan now lying mortally wounded, his line broke to the rear. The fleeing Union soldiers streamed through the streets of Winchester to its outer defenses.
When the shelling by the pursuing Confederates was complete, Crook’s command found themselves a full 15 miles north of Kernstown near Bunker Hill. This was the most convincing victory by Early’s command in the summer of 1864. A Virginian, John Worsham said it plainly when speaking of this engagement as, “the most easily won battle of the war.”
Early’s victory at the Second Battle of Kernstown was the pinnacle of the Confederacy’s success in the Valley in 1864. Early’s Army of the Valley suffered only 200 casualties when the day was done. Crook on the other hand suffered nearly 1,200, with a majority captured during the Union retreat. Crook later simply reported, “I repulsed their force twice, and was driving them when they partially turned my left and threw it in some confusion.” With this victory, Early once again controlled the Shenandoah Valley. He saw another opportunity to strike north of the Potomac.
On July 30th, Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. John McCausland burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania to the ground. These actions forced Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to take a closer look at the Shenandoah Valley. The Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley needed to end once and for all. Three Union commanders, Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, Maj. Gen. David Hunter and now Brig. Gen. George Crook could not regain the Valley of Virginia. With Abraham Lincoln’s election looming, Grant could not afford more Confederate raids across the Potomac or even worse, back to Washington D.C. To prevent this from happening again, Grant made a bold move in early August, 1864.
To commemorate these events, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park will be conducting special “On This Day” Battlefield Tours. These tours will occur exactly 150 years after certain actions took place in the Valley. Tours include The Battle of Cool Spring on July 18th, Battle of Rutherford’s Farm on July 20th and the Battle of Second Kernstown on July 24th. All of these tours are free and we encourage visitors to walk in the footsteps of these soldiers some 150 years later. For more information, visit our website at www.nps.gov/cebe. Or call us at 540-869-3051. Also, like our Facebook page at, https://www.facebook.com/CedarCreekNPS.
Author Bio: A senior at James Madison University studying History and Public History, Kyle Rothemich is entering his third year as an interpretive Park Ranger at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove, NHP. Kyle has developed numerous interpretive programs on the history of the Shenandoah Valley, the Civil War in the Valley, and the Battle of Cedar Creek; he has also aided in the development of interpretative exhibits now displayed in the park’s new visitor contact station. Currently, Kyle is working on a B.A. Honor Thesis researching the presentation and interpretation of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. Kyle also maintains a blog chronicling his journey as a Park Ranger and a history student known as “A Historian in Training.” http://prospectivehistorian.wordpress.com/