American Battlefield Trust’s map of the Battle of Second Kernstown
In July 1864, under the false impression that Confederate General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley was in the process of withdrawing from the Shenandoah Valley, Union General Horatio G. Wright withdrew the Union forces under his command from the valley in order to return to the Siege of Petersburg. This left only three Union divisions, making up General George Crook’s Army of West Virginia, in the region.
Early’s task in the valley was to assist Lee in Petersburg by diverting Union troops from Petersburg. On July 23, he learned from prisoners caught in a skirmish outside Kernstown that Wright had withdrawn. This meant that Union forces in the valley were vulnerable. By attacking them, Early could score a victory and keep Wright from returning to Petersburg and bolstering the forces against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On July 24, 1864, Early marched towards Crook’s force, carefully concealing his infantry so as to lure the Union forces into attacking a superior foe. After repelling the Federal attack, Early’s men hit Crook’s left flank, sending the Union forces into retreat. Crook’s army retreated into Maryland, allowing Early’s forces to make a raid north of the Potomac, during which they burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In response to these setbacks, Grant was forced to return Wright to the valley. He also sent General Philip Sheridan to assume overall command of Union forces in the region, who would conduct the bloody Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the months to come.