July 24, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates defeated Federal forces under Brigadier General George Crook and drove them out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Crook had led his Army of West Virginia (or VIII Corps) south from Winchester to clear Confederates out of the Valley. When Early learned that a large Federal force had stopped pursuing him, he led his Confederates out of Strasburg to confront Crook to the north. Early’s Army of the Valley numbered about 14,000 men, while Crook had about 8,500. Crook believed that Early’s infantry had returned to the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg and therefore expected to only encounter cavalry, which he was confident he could disperse.
The armies met at Kernstown, site of a battle during “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley campaign of 1862. As the opposing cavalries skirmished to open the fight, Crook formed his infantry in a line facing south that consisted of Colonel (and future U.S. president) Rutherford B. Hayes’s brigade on the left (east), Colonel James Mulligan’s division holding Pritchard’s Hill in the center, and Colonel Joseph Thoburn’s division holding Sandy Ridge on the right.
The commanders saw the Confederates approach and quickly realized that they were not just cavalry as Crook supposed. They expressed reluctance to attack, but Crook insisted and the Federals advanced to meet the enemy around 12 p.m. Mulligan held firm under Major General John B. Gordon’s initial assault, but Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates moved around Hayes’s flank while hidden in a deep ravine and, when they suddenly emerged and fired, Hayes’s Federals broke and ran.
Thoburn did not advance with the rest of the army, thus opening a gap between his division and Mulligan’s. Gordon’s Confederates exploited the gap, and Mulligan found himself surrounded on three sides. He tried rallying his troops to prevent a rout but was mortally wounded. The panicked, demoralized Federals fled north toward Winchester. Colonel Thomas Harris, who succeeded Mulligan as division commander, later wrote:
“I gave the order to fall back, and used all the efforts in my power to preserve my line in doing so, but as we were very closely pursued by the enemy, before whose destructive fire we had to ascend a rather steep hill for 200 yards, my line was at once broken and the men became scattered and pressed quickly from under the control of their officers. Having become separated from my horse in our last advance, I was unable to keep pace with the larger portion of my command or to make myself heard by them, and it was not until after we had retreated more than a mile that I was able to rally a couple of hundred men around the flag of the Tenth (West Virginia).”
Meanwhile, Brigadier General William W. Averell’s Federal cavalry had been assigned to try moving around the Confederate right flank. Averell’s troopers were unexpectedly blocked by Confederate horsemen guarding the Front Royal Pike. The Federals were easily repulsed, and they withdrew to Martinsburg.
The Federal infantry raced through Winchester, abandoning or burning 72 wagons and 12 caissons. They continued north through Bunker Hill, eventually reaching Harpers Ferry and crossing the Potomac River to safety. Early now had complete control of the entire Valley.
This was yet another humiliating defeat for the Federals in the Shenandoah, as the Confederates routed the force assigned to destroy them. The Federals sustained 1,185 casualties, including 479 captured, while the Confederates lost about half the Federals’ total. This easy victory emboldened Early to launch another northern invasion, this time into Pennsylvania.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20439-49; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11299-309; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 545; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 415-16, 677-79