The Battle of Kernstown

Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson led 3,500 Confederates out of Mount Jackson in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on March 22. Their mission was to confront the nearly 9,000 Federals under Brigadier General James Shields near Winchester. This was part of the larger mission to keep Shields’s force from moving east and joining the main Federal offensive on the Virginia Peninsula to the east.

At 6:50 on the cold, cloudy morning of the 23rd, Jackson notified his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, “With the blessing of an ever-kind Providence I hope to be in the vicinity of Winchester this evening.” But 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.

Both Shields and his commander, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, assumed that “Jackson could not be tempted to hazard himself so far away from his main support.” In fact, Shields was so confident that Jackson would not attack that he had shifted one of his brigades north, away from the Confederate advance. Shields himself had been wounded in a skirmish with Ashby’s cavalry on the 22nd, so he was temporarily replaced by Colonel Nathan Kimball.

Col Nathan Kimball | Image Credit:

The Federals were just north of Kernstown, a village on the Valley Turnpike about three miles south of Winchester. Not only did the Federals outnumber the Confederates by 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 skirmishing surged back and forth until around 11 a.m., when Kimball sent in more Federals and Ashby’s troopers 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 the pious 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 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 the force was small in front of them, most likely the Federal rear guard. Jackson scouted enemy positions and, taking Ashby’s word, decided to attack immediately. Jackson would feint against the Federals on level ground near the turnpike while his main force moved west 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.

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

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 the vulnerability of his right flank 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 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 exploited. They rushed through and forced 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, the hard-driving 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 Confederates had been heavily outnumbered, but they 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.

Kimball opted not to pursue: “My men, though filled with spirited determination, were almost physically exhausted from the fatigue and exertions of the day, and they had not had any food or drink since the earliest hour of the morning; had been on the field and under arms since the day before. I therefore determined to halt, give the men and animals food and rest until morning.”

The Federals had won a tactical victory, but Jackson had gained the strategic initiative, and that was much more important. The aggressive Confederate assault convinced the Federal high command that he must have more men than they had supposed, and therefore more Federals were needed to successfully defend the Valley. As such, Banks would not be able to send reinforcements to the Peninsula. He recalled Brigadier General Alpheus Williams’s division, which was on its way to Centreville, and Shields called for more men of his own.

Meanwhile, Jackson began gaining more local recruits to his small but growing army. He directed his men to fall back to the Mount Jackson area the next day, and the Federals’ lack of pursuit gave 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.


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