Frederick County, VA
Marker Text: On the hills to the west, Stonewall Jackson, late in the afternoon of March 23, 1862, attacked the Union Force under Shields holding Winchester, after a fierce action, Jackson, who was greatly outnumbered, withdrew southward, leaving his dead on the field. These were buried next day by citizens of Winchester.
Location: West of U.S. Route 11 (Valley Pike), at the end of Opequon Church Lane, 5.3 miles north of Stephens City and just south of Winchester. Follow street signs for Opequon Presbyterian Church. Erected by Conservation & Development Commission in 1932.
State historical marker is grouped with three other markers related to both first and second battles of Kernstown. Background in photo is where main action of First Battle of Kernstown occurred. Click any photo to enlarge.
Yesterday was the 150th Anniversary of the First Battle of Kernstown, which is south of the city of Winchester, VA. The First Battle of Kernstown is connected to the Peninsula Campaign that Union Maj. General George B. McClellan was beginning in the area around Newport News, Yorktown and Williamsburg, VA in his attempt to capture Richmond, VA the Confederate capital. Confederate General Johnston moved his troops closer to Richmond for its defense and knowing that he would likely be outnumbered in comparison to the number of Union soldiers attacking Richmond, he needed to prevent additional Union troops from coming to assist McClellan's army. Johnston instructed Confederate Maj. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, to develop plans to keep as many Union troops occupied in the Shenandoah Valley.
Pritchard Farm in behind the marker in center of photo.
The First Battle of Kernstown was fought on Sunday, March 23, 1862, in what would become the first battle of General Jackson's Valley Campaign of 1862 and the only battle he would lose as a commander during the Civil War. The devoutly religious Jackson preferred to avoid battles on the Sabbath, but throughout the Civil War he did not hesitate when military advantage could be gained. He later wrote to his wife:
“I felt it my duty to [attack], in consideration of the ruinous effects that might result from postponing the battle until the morning. So far as I can see, my course was a wise one; the best that I could do under the circumstances, though very distasteful to my feelings; I hope and pray to our Heavenly Father that I may never again be circumstanced as on that day. I believe that so far as our troops were concerned, necessity and mercy both called for the battle.”
One marker in the group is a map of the First Battle of Kernstown.
During the winter of 1861-62, General Joseph E. Johnston's army held camp in the Centreville-Manassas area and Jackson had his headquarters in Winchester, VA. In February, General McClellan began to move his army to the Peninsula on the James River in order to stage an attack on Richmond. Once Johnston realized what McClellan was doing, he needed to move his army to defend Richmond. Jackson's division began to withdraw from Winchester and moved south along the Blue Ridge Mountains to Mount Jackson about 42 miles south to cover the flank of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army, withdrawing from the Centreville–Manassas area to protect Richmond. Without this protective movement, the Federal army under the command of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks might strike at Johnston through passes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
By March 12, 1862, Banks occupied Winchester just after Jackson had withdrawn from Winchester. On March 21, Jackson received word that Banks was splitting his force, with two divisions (under Brig. Gens. John Sedgwick and Alpheus S. Williams) returning to the immediate vicinity of Washington, D.C., in order to free up other Union troops to participate with Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign against Richmond. The remaining division, under Brig. Gen. James Shields, was stationed at Strasburg south of Kernstown to guard the lower (northeastern) Valley, and intelligence indicated that it was withdrawing toward Winchester. Banks made preparations to leave the Valley personally on March 23.
Jackson's orders from Johnston were to prevent Banks forces from leaving the Valley, which it appeared they were now doing. Jackson turned his men around and, in one of the more grueling marches of the war, moved northeast 25 miles on March 22 and another 15 miles to Kernstown on the morning of March 23.
Marker Text: General James Shields with 7,000 Federals defeated Stonewall Jackson with 3,500 Confederates. Jackson's object was to create a diversion which would prevent troops being sent to McClellan for the attack on Richmond. He arrived south of Kernstown in early afternoon Sunday, March 23, and attempted to turn the Federal right flank. To counter this, Colonel N. Kimball who succeeded to command after Shields was wounded March 22nd, advanced Colonel E.B. Tyler's brigade. Savage fighting followed for possession of the stone wall separating Jackson's and Tyler's troops. Seeing that Tyler was hard-pressed, Kimball rushed reinforcements from his and Sullivan's brigades. The Federals turned the Confederate right, and General R.B. Garnett with his ammunition running short fell back without Jackson's orders, exposing Colonel S.V. Fulkerson and forcing his withdrawal. Colonel J.S. Burks reached the field in time to check the Federal attack and cover the Confederate retreat from the field. This was Jackson's only defeat. Erected 1964 by Virginia Civil War Commission.
Jackson's cavalry, under the command of Colonel Turner Ashby, skirmished with the Union troops on March 22. During this engagement General James Shields was wounded with a broken arm from an artillery shell fragment. Despite his injury, Shields sent part of his division south of Winchester and one brigade marching to the north, seemingly abandoning the area, but in fact halting nearby to remain in reserve. He then turned over tactical command of his division to Col. Nathan Kimball, although throughout the battle to come, he sent numerous messages and orders to Kimball.
Photo of the Prichard Farm taken from behind the marker.
Confederate loyalists in Winchester mistakenly informed Turner Ashby that Shields had left only four regiments and a few guns (about 3,000 men) and that these remaining troops had orders to march for Harpers Ferry in the morning. Ashby did not verify the civilian reports and passed this information on to Jackson. Jackson marched aggressively north with his 3,000-man division, reduced from its peak as stragglers fell out of the column, unaware that he was soon to be attacking almost 9,000 men.
Jackson performed no personal reconnaissance before he sent Turner Ashby cavalry against Kimball's position on the Valley Turnpike while Jackson's sent the Stonewall Brigades commanded by of Col. Samuel Fulkerson and Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett to attack the Union artillery position on Pritchard Hill. The lead brigade under Fulkerson was repulsed, so Jackson decided to move around the Union right flank, about 2 miles west on Sandy Ridge, which appeared to be unoccupied. If this was successful, he thought his men could move down the spine of the ridge and get into the Union rear, blocking their escape route to Winchester. Kimball countered the maneuver by moving his brigade under Col. Erastus B. Tyler to the west, but Fulkerson's men reached a stone wall facing a clearing on the ridge before the Union men could. Jackson's aide, Sandie Pendleton, obtained a clear view from the ridge of the Union forces arrayed against them and he estimated that there were 10,000. He reported this to Jackson, who replied, "Say nothing about it. We are in for it."
Jackson, finally realizing the strength of the force opposing him, sent out Col. Jesse Burks's brigade, which had been held in reserve, but by the time they arrived around 6 p.m., Garnett's Stonewall Brigade had run out of ammunition and he pulled them back, leaving Fulkerson's right flank exposed. Panic set in among the Confederates, and as Burks's brigade arrived, it was caught in the fleeing mob and forced to retreat. Jackson tried in vain to rally his troops. He called out to a soldier "Where are you going, man?" The soldier replied that he was out of ammunition. "Then go back and give them the bayonet!" Jackson said. However, the soldier ignored him and kept running. Kimball organized no effective pursuit. Following The Battle of Kernstown, Union casualties were 590 (118 killed, 450 wounded, 22 captured or missing) and Confederate casualties were 718 (80 killed, 375 wounded, 263 captured or missing).
Even though The Battle of Kernstown was a Confederate tactical defeat, the battle did succeed in its intended overall strategic goal by preventing the Union from transferring forces from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce the Peninsula Campaign against the Confederate capital in Richmond. This battle being the start of Jackson's Valley campaign, during the next few months, would contribute to making Jackson one of the most celebrated Confederate generals.
Opequon Presbyterian Church is in the background and the church cemetery is on the left. Eleven American Revolutionary War veterans are buried in the cemetery.
The Kernstown Battle marker is located on the south end of the battlefield area and in front of the Opequon Presbyterian Church at the end of the road leading to the marker. The Opequon church is the oldest Presbyterian church in this area and this year they are celebrating their 275th Anniversary. Since the first and second battles of Kernstown were fought near and around the church, and the buildings and cemeteries were badly damaged. Worship services were discontinued in 1863, and the ruined structure was used as a stable for horses. Following the war, and after a partial restoration, the church building was destroyed by fire in 1873. Several years later the present older section of the church was rebuilt on the original site. For information about the church's history and nearby marker check the Historical Markers Database.
For more information and photos about The First and Second Battles of Kernstown visit the web site for the Kernstown Battlefield on the Prichard-Grim Farms.