First Battle of Kernstown – March 23, 1862
General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, commander of Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, faced a dilemma in early March 1862. Ordered by his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, to prevent Union forces in the Valley from moving east, and reinforcing General George B. McClellan’s offensive against Richmond, Jackson could count on barely 4,000 under his command at Winchester, hardly enough to counter the some 20,000 troops under Union General Nathaniel Banks. Thus, when Banks advanced south towards Winchester, on March 11, 1862 Jackson led his outnumbered command south to Mount Jackson.
With Jackson’s retreat and the northern Valley apparently secure, Banks was ordered to send one of his divisions east to join with McClellan. On March 22nd, Colonel Turner Ashby, commander of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, skirmished with Federal outposts south of Winchester, and reported back to Jackson that most of Banks’s force was leaving the Valley and that only a small number of Federal troops remained in Winchester. Realizing the opportunity to strike back, regain control of Winchester, and potentially accomplish what General Johnston had ordered – to keep Union forces in the Valley – Jackson immediately started his division back north. Ashby’s information was wrong, however; still present in Winchester was General James Shields’s division of nearly 8,000 Union soldiers
Sunday, March 23, 1862, broke cold and raw in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia; recently fallen snow still lay in patches on the ground. South of Winchester, near the small hamlet of Kernstown, Federal outposts watched as Ashby’s 7th Virginia Cavalry approached again, accompanied by an artillery battery and four companies of the 2nd Virginia Infantry. The Confederate guns unlimbered, and around 9 a.m., open fired – the first shots of the Battle of Kernstown.
In command of the Federal troops facing Ashby was Colonel Nathan Kimball. Kimball had taken charge of Shields’s division after Shields had been wounded during the previous day’s action. Kimball brought more troops into the action, and placed ten rifled artillery pieces on Pritchard’s Hill, a dominant position just west of the Valley Pike. Ashby’s attempts to outflank the Union forces were unsuccessful, and he had to pull back in the face of heavy artillery fire.
While Kimball and Ashby sparred, Jackson was leading the rest of his command north from Strasburg, nearly twenty miles to the south. This Confederate force began to arrive around 2 p.m., and as his men rested following an exhausting march, Jackson reconnoitered the Union position. He determined that an attack against Pritchard’s Hill would not be advisable, so ordered some of his artillery and two of his three brigades, those of Brigadier General Richard Garnett, who commanded the Stonewall Brigade, and Colonel Samuel Fulkerson, to march west, across the Middle Road to Sandy Ridge, and from there, to outflank the Yankee position on Pritchard’s Hill. As those Confederates reached Sandy Ridge, they took position behind a stonewall that stretched across the width of the ridge.
Observing this from the rear, Jackson had staff officer Sandie Pendleton ride to Sandy Ridge, to further reconnoiter the Union position on Pritchard’s Hill. When Pendleton returned to report his findings, the news was grim – he told Jackson he believed they were facing as many as 10,000 enemy troops. “Say nothing about it,” Jackson told Pendleton. “We are in for it.” Indeed they were.
Seeing the Confederate advance to Sandy Ridge, Kimball soon countered his opponent’s move by ordering Colonel Erastus Tyler’s brigade to attack the Confederates there. Instead of advancing his brigade in one line of battle, with his regiments lined up side by side, Tyler had them advance one behind the other. This meant that only the leading regiment could fire on the Confederates behind the stonewall, and that the Federals would have to form their battle line while under fire. This formation almost proved disastrous for the Union, and only reinforcements sent over by Kimball, and the heavy artillery fire from Pritchard’s Hill saved Tyler.
Eventually, despite taking heavy casualties, Tyler finally got his five regiments into one long line of battle, and together with the reinforcements sent by Kimball, the disparity in numbers began to tell. After several hours of battle, the Confederates started to run low on ammunition, and although no orders arrived from Jackson to do so, Garnett ordered a retreat from Sandy Ridge.
Jackson was furious with Garnett for doing this, and later would bring Garnett up for charges (see below on Garnett), but it was the right decision, and as evening fell, the Confederates withdrew south on the Valley Pike. For Jackson it had been a costly day – nearly 740 killed, wounded and captured, over 22 % of his force of some 3,700 engaged. Federal losses came to about 575, just over 8 % of the 7,200 engaged. Despite the tactical defeat, however, Jackson had achieved a strategic victory.
The Lincoln administration, always sensitive about the safety of the Federal capital, and hearing that Jackson’s command was much larger than it was, worried that the Confederate general might intend invading Maryland. As a result, Lincoln ordered substantial reinforcements, troops originally meant to support McClellan’s campaign against Richmond, sent back to the Valley. Thus Jackson’s defeat at Kernstown actually accomplished what General Johnston wanted.
Kernstown would end up being Jackson’s only defeat during his two years of service in the Confederate army, and the battle marked the first of his remarkable 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Order of Battle
(Approximately 8500 men)
Brigadier General James Shields (wounded)
Colonel Nathan Kimball, Commandeering
FIRST BRIGADE, Colonel Nathan Kimball
SECOND BRIGADE, Colonel Jeremiah C. Sullivan
THIRD BRIGADE, Colonel Erastus B. Tyler
1st (West) Virginia
CAVALRY, Colonel Thornton F. Brodhead
1st squad Pennsylvania
Independent Companies Maryland
1st (West) Virginia (Battalion)
1st Ohio (Co. A, D)
1st Michigan (Battalion)
ARTILLERY, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Daum
(West) Virginia Artillery - A Battery
(West) Virginia Artillery - B Battery
4th United States Artillery -E Battery
1st Ohio Artillery - H Battery*
1st Ohio -L Battery
(Approximately 3500 men)
Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, Commanding
GARNETT'S BRIGADE, Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett
West Augusta Artillery
Carpenter's Virginia Battery
BURKS' BRIGADE, Colonel Jesse S. Burks
1st Virginia (Irish) Battalion
Pleasant's Virginia Battery*
FULKERSON'S BRIGADE, Col. Samuel V. Fulkerson
CAVALRY, Colonel Turner Ashby
Chew's Virginia Battery
Richard Brooke Garnett- Born on November 21, 1817, in Essex County, Virginia. Both he and his brother, Robert S. Garnett, who would also serve as a Confederate general during the Civil War, graduated from West Point in 1841. Richard Garnett stayed in the U.S. Army until the outbreak of the war, resigning his commission on May 17, 1861, then returning to Virginia to fight for his state and the Confederacy.
Promoted to brigadier general in November of that year, Garnett was given command of the “Stonewall Brigade,” in the Valley District, where General “Stonewall” Jackson was in overall command.
During the Battle of Kernstown, Garnett directed the Confederate defense of Sandy Ridge, and as his men began to run low on ammunition – and facing a much larger enemy force – he ordered a retreat from that position. Jackson accused Garnett of disobeying orders - although Jackson had provided no guidance or issued any orders - had Garnett arrested for “neglect of duty,” and on April 1st, relieved Garnett of command of the brigade.
Garnett hoped to have his day in court, but had to wait until August 1862, when his court martial began. The proceedings were suspended, however, with the advent of military operations.
General Robert E. Lee, realizing the need for capable officers, ordered Jackson to release Garnett from arrest, and in September 1862, assigned Garnett to take command of George E. Pickett’s brigade, Pickett still recovering from a wound suffered at Gaines Mill. Garnett led that brigade ably during the September 1862 Maryland Campaign.
When Pickett returned to the Army of Northern Virginia in late November 1862, he was given command of a division, and Garnett assumed permanent command of the brigade.
Ironically, following “Stonewall” Jackson’s death on May 10, 1863, Garnett served as one of the pallbearers at the funeral (other pallbearers included James Longstreet and Richard Ewell).
At Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, during “Pickett’s Charge,” Garnett’s Virginians were in the front line of Pickett’s division. Although ill with a high fever, and suffering from a leg injury - the result of being thrown from his horse - Garnett insisted on leading his men forward while mounted. Within yards of the Union position at the “Angle,” Garnett was shot down. For some reason Garnett’s body was never identified after the battle, but it’s believed that in 1872, when the Confederate dead were recovered from the battlefield, that Garnett’s body was taken back to Richmond and re-interred in Hollywood Cemetery.
Last updated: July 23, 2020