Battle of Kernstown I (March 23, 1862)

Updated: August 30, 2012

Fought on March 23, the Battle of Kernstown I was the first engagement of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. The battle was also Stonewall Jackson's only defeat as commander of a large force during the Civil War.

On February 27, 1862, Major General Nathaniel Banks, Union commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, led much of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac (over twenty thousand soldiers) across the Potomac River near Harper's Ferry and into Virginia. Banks's aim was to move south, up the Shenandoah Valley, toward Richmond, to support Major General George B. McClellan's much-anticipated offensive against the Confederate capital.

The sole obstacle in Banks's path was a small Confederate force commanded by General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Comprising the left wing of General Joseph Johnston's Confederate Army of the Potomac (soon to become the famed Army of Northern Virginia), Jackson reported the size of his command the day after Banks's invasion as 4,297 infantry, 369 artillery, and 601 cavalry. Jackson was headquartered at Winchester, roughly thirty miles south of Harpers Ferry. Jackson's instructions were to keep Banks from reinforcing McClellan, but facing such overwhelming odds, the Confederate general had no choice but to withdraw in the face of Banks's approaching army. Jackson abandoned Winchester on March 11, and Union forces occupied the town unopposed on the following day.

Following Jackson's withdrawal, Union strategists ordered Banks to divide his command and to send two of his three divisions east to replace troops preparing to support McClellan's offensive. Brigadier-General James Shields, commanding Banks's 2nd Division, remained in the Shenandoah Valley to deal with Jackson.

On March 21, Jackson received erroneous information that Shields's division, which was encamped near Winchester, consisted of just three thousand men. Believing the odds now to be more even, Jackson ordered two grueling forced marches back toward Winchester, mindful of General Johnston's orders to get as "near as prudence will permit" to keep Banks's army in the Valley.

On March 22, Jackson's cavalry, led by Colonel Turner Ashby, engaged Union pickets in the area of Winchester. When General Shields rode out to assess the situation, a Confederate shell exploded nearby, wounding his chest and shoulder. Shields traveled to a hospital near Winchester and field command of the division passed to Colonel Nathan Kimball.

Kimball quickly identified the force to his front as Jackson's cavalry and correctly surmised that Jackson was moving north toward Winchester. He countered by establishing a line across the Valley Turnpike near the village of Kernstown, three miles south of Winchester. Kimball located his field headquarters and artillery batteries on Pritichard's Hill, a small elevation just to the right of the road. From that vantage point, Kimball had an excellent view of troop movements near the turnpike.

On March 23, Ashby probed the Confederate line throughout the morning. Jackson arrived on the scene at approximately 1 p.m. and deployed his artillery on Sandy Ridge, an elevation west of the Union headquarters. When Jackson visited the site later in the afternoon, his view disclosed that he was facing a federal division of approximately 8,500 men, rather than the three thousand Yankees whom he expected. Purportedly, Jackson remarked, "We are in for it." Events later in the day proved him to be correct.

Upon learning that Northerners outmanned his command, Jackson called off his planned assault. Instead, he deployed his troops in a defensive position along Sandy Ridge and began shelling the Union headquarters on Pritchard Hill. The Rebel bombardment prompted Kimball to order an assault on Sandy Ridge. The Confederates held the better ground, being deployed behind a stone wall. The Federals, however, had more men. The Rebels held their position until nearly 6 p.m. when they began to run out of ammunition. Faced with the possibility of being overrun, Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett ordered his men to abandon the ridge. As Garnett's men fell back, other Confederates joined the withdrawal, and the retreat became a rout. The fighting ended when night fell.

Upon learning of the Union victory, General Banks rushed to the scene and took charge the next day. Banks ordered a token pursuit of the fleeing Confederates, but he failed to press the issue, enabling Jackson to escape. Jackson retreated up the valley (southward) as far as Mount Jackson near New Market. Jackson arrested Garnett for ordering the retreat at Sandy Ridge without Jackson's authorization. The charges eventually went before a court martial, but the court never rendered a decision. Robert E. Lee restored Garnett to duty prior to the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). Despite his arrest, Garnett harbored no ill-will toward Jackson. After Jackson was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), Garnett served as a pallbearer at Jackson's funeral. Garnett was killed less than two months later at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

The Confederate loss at the Battle of Kernstown was Stonewall Jackson's only defeat as commander of a large force during the Civil War. Rebel losses were 718 (eighty killed, 375 wounded, and 263 missing or captured, compared with Union casualties totaling 590 (118 killed, 450 wounded, and twenty-two missing or captured. After the battle, officials promoted Kimball to the rank of brigadier-general. Nonetheless, his victory turned out to be a strategic success for the Confederacy. Overly concerned about the possibility of Jackson launching an assault upon the nation's capital, President Lincoln ordered Union troops back into the Shenandoah Valley. Thus, Jackson achieved his goal of keeping Banks's army from supporting the Union offensive against Richmond.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Kernstown I included:

Infantry units:

4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

5th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

29th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

62nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

67th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Cavalry units:

1st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry (Companies A and C)

Artillery units:

Battery H, 1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery

Battery L, 1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Kernstown I," Ohio Civil War Central, 2018, Ohio Civil War Central. 19 Aug 2018 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=954>

APA Style

"Battle of Kernstown I." (2018) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 19, 2018, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=954

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