March 23, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 3,500-man Confederate army attacked 9,000 Federals south of Winchester in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This marked an inauspicious start to what became a legendary campaign.
Jackson’s Confederates, after marching 25 miles on the 22nd, covered another 15 miles the next day. Their mission was to assault the Federal force south of Winchester, which was part of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s corps stationed in the Valley. Jackson hoped to keep Banks’s men occupied so they could not send reinforcements to the main Federal offensive on the Virginia Peninsula to the east.
However, Jackson did not know that an entire Federal division was stationed outside Winchester. According to Colonel Turner Ashby, Jackson’s cavalry commander, there were only four regiments (or roughly 4,000 Federals) in the area.
Brigadier General James Shields, commanding the Federal division, was so confident that Jackson would not attack that he had shifted one brigade north, away from the Confederate advance. The rest of Shields’s force (now under Colonel Nathan Kimball after Shields had been wounded in the previous day’s skirmish) was just north of Kernstown, a village on the Valley Turnpike about three miles south of Winchester. Not only did the Federals outnumber the Confederates nearly three-to-one, but they commanded the high ground.
Before Jackson’s infantry arrived, Ashby took up positions atop Pritchard’s Hill, where he placed artillery and deployed skirmishers on either side of the turnpike leading to Winchester. Kimball responded by deploying skirmishers of his own and training 10 guns on a potential enemy advance.
The fighting surged back and forth until Kimball committed more men around 11 a.m. Ashby’s troopers then began giving ground. Kimball also recalled the brigade that Shields had sent north to reinforce the other two on the pike. Jackson’s three infantry brigades began arriving on the Valley Turnpike around 1 p.m.
The 23rd was a Sunday, so Jackson planned to rest his men, especially after two days of hard marching. About a quarter of his force had fallen behind during the march, so stopping for a day would give the stragglers time to catch up. Ordering no reconnaissance, Jackson moved his men west and began planning to attack the Federals the next day.
However, Ashby assured Jackson that just a small force opposed them, most likely the Federal rear guard. Jackson scouted enemy positions and, taking Ashby’s word, resolved to attack immediately. Jackson planned to feint against the Federals on level ground near the turnpike while his main force moved westward and attacked the Federal right flank and rear on the high ground at Sandy Ridge. From there they would rout the enemy and retake Winchester.
Without briefing any of his subordinates on his strategy or enemy strength, Jackson deployed Brigadier General Richard Garnett’s Stonewall Brigade and two regiments from Colonel Samuel V. Fulkerson’s brigade to the Federal right around 4 p.m. They arrived at a stone wall and knocked the Federals back with a volley. Fighting surged back and forth for the next 90 minutes. Meanwhile, Ashby’s troopers joined the feint against the Federal left.
Kimball quickly saw that his right flank lay vulnerable and began transferring troops from Colonel Erastus B. Tyler’s brigade from the left to the north end of the Sandy Ridge. Garnett countered by shifting more Confederates from the Confederate right to the left, where the fighting was heaviest.
The Federals’ unexpected strength confused the Confederates, and when a scout reported that there were three times more enemy troops than originally estimated, Jackson concluded that “we are in for it.” Adding to the confusion was Jackson’s refusal to issue orders or divulge any details of his plan.
Disaster loomed for Jackson when Garnett’s brigade began running out of ammunition. As Jackson called up his reserve brigade to join the action, Garnett lost hope of breaking the Federal line and ordered a withdrawal. This created a gap in the line that the Federals rushed through, forcing the regiments of Fulkerson’s brigade to follow Garnett.
Jackson, unaware of this withdrawal, hurried the reinforcements forward with the 5th Virginia in the lead, waving his hat and shouting, “Cheer the reinforcements!” He ordered the 5th to “reinforce the infantry engaged.” But by this time, the infantry had disengaged and were falling back in the opposite direction of the 5th. The reserves could not arrive fast enough to make a difference.
Enraged by the Stonewall Brigade’s withdrawal, Jackson confronted Garnett: “Why have you not rallied your men? Halt and rally.” Jackson then shouted to the retreating Confederates to “go back and give them they bayonet!” But the men would not rally, and Garnett instead directed the 5th Virginia to cover the army’s retreat. The 5th held the Federals off as Jackson’s men conducted an orderly withdrawal.
The outnumbered Confederates had fought hard before pulling back five miles south to Newton for the night. They collected their wounded as they left, along with some artillery and wagons. Shields reported that “such was their gallantry and high state of discipline, that at no time during the battle or pursuit did they give way to panic.” The Confederates sustained 718 casualties (80 killed, 375 wounded, and 263 missing), or 21 percent of their force. The Federals lost 590 (118 killed, 450 wounded, and 22 missing), or less than 7 percent.
The Federals won a tactical victory, but Jackson succeeded in his mission to prevent Banks from sending reinforcements to the Virginia Peninsula. Upon learning of this battle, Banks recalled General Alpheus Williams’s division headed for Centreville as Shields called for more men of his own. Meanwhile, Jackson began gaining many local recruits to his small but growing army.
Jackson directed his men to fall back to the Mount Jackson area the next day. The Federals did not pursue, giving him time to develop a long-term strategy to keep them occupied in the Valley. Jackson appointed mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss to captain on his staff with instructions:
“I want you to make me a map of the Valley, from Harpers Ferry to Lexington, showing all the points of offense and defense. Mr. Pendleton (Jackson’s aide-de-camp) will give you orders for whatever outfit you want.”
Hotchkiss would be invaluable in supplying Jackson with detailed maps of the Valley for his upcoming campaign.
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 150; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (23 Mar 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66, 71, 82; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 145; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 270-71; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 126; Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 415; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 187-88; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 425; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677