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Kernstown

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March 23, 1862

The Battle of Kernstown

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 is generally associated with Confederate victories under the leadership of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. However, the first major engagement of that campaign turned into a disaster for Jackson's forces. On March 23, 1862, for the first of two times during the Civil War, the fields outside of Kernstown, Virginia were stained with the blood of Union and Confederate soldiers.

Jackson’s time as a commander in the Shenandoah began inauspiciously. After assuming command in the area in November, 1861, he marched his men up and down the Valley, barely holding back Union thrusts southward. By early 1862, Union forces under General Nathaniel P. Banks were poised to deliver a devastating blow to the Confederates in the Valley, as another Corps of the Union Army prepared to attack Richmond from the north via Fredericksburg, and the main body of the Army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan landed on the Virginia Peninsula.

Jackson learned that the Federals in the area of Winchester were potentially split, and disorganized. He forced marched his men down the Valley, covering 40 miles in two days. Thinking that the Federals outside of Kernstown was a small detachment, he prepared an assault. In actuality, the Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General James Shields consisted of a full division. Jackson was moving in to attack a Federal force more than twice his size.

On March 22nd, 1862, Jackson’s cavalry under Colonel Turner Ashby skirmished with Federal troops. Brig. Gen Shields was wounded in the action and turned over command of the division to Col. Nathan Kimball. Jackson continued north, and the next day, Sunday, March 23rd, engaged the Federal troops at the First Battle of Kernstown.

The battle opened on the Confederate right flank, where Ashby’s cavalrymen were driven back by Union skirmishers. On the left, Jackson positioned his Virginia infantry regiments atop Sandy Ridge. Kimball noticed this Confederate movement and deployed the brigade of Col. Tyler to counter the Rebels. The two Confederate brigades, the Stonewall Brigade, under Brigadier General Richard Garnett, and another brigade of Virginians under Col. Samuel Fulkerson reached the top of the ridge first and positioned themselves behind a stone wall. Unexpectedly, Tyler moved his brigade forward towards the Confederates in a column of divisions. Instead of having his five regiments formed in lines one next to each other, he stacked them one behind the other, forming a massive blue column to break through the Confederates. At this time the Confederates realized just how outnumbered they were, but chose to stick it out with the Federals.

Tyler advanced his brigade towards the Confederates, but was temporarily checked by accurate fire from behind the stone wall. However, the Virginians soon began to run out of ammunition, and with the advance of another brigade of Ohioans and Pennsylvanians, Jackson's men finally broke. General Garnett gave the order for his exhausted and outnumbered Stonewall Brigade to retreat, a decision for which General Jackson later reprimanded him and relieved him of command. Garnett would take the shame of Jackson’s actions with him until finally attempting to redeem himself at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Jackson, seeing his line demolished by the Union attacks, ordered a retreat. With 590 Union casualties, and 718 Confederates casualties, the first fight of the Valley Campaign of 1862 was over. While the Confederates under Stonewall Jackson were beaten, there were many more battles to come.  Despite Jackson's tactical defeat, the boldness of his attack drew Union reinforcements into the Shenandoah Valley and away from Richmond, helping to ensure the survival of the Confederate capital.