My Line was at Once Broken and the Men Became Scattered – Union Defeat at Kernstown

July 24, 1864 (Sunday)

“On the reception of the foregoing information, I determined to attack the enemy at once; and early on the morning of the 24th, my whole force was put in motion for Winchester. The enemy, under [George] Crook, consisting of the ‘Army of West Virginia,’ […] was found in position at Kernstown, on the same ground occupied by Shields, at the time of General Jackson’s fight with him on the 22d of March, 1862.”

Union General George Crook had been informed by scouts that Jubal Early’s Confederates were marching en mass toward Winchester. He believed, however, that they were only cavalry; that the Rebel infantry had left the Shenandoah Valley. He was mistaken.

George Crook and his amazing facial hair.
George Crook and his amazing facial hair.

Nevertheless, Crook advanced a division under Joseph Thoburn, leaving his two other divisions in camp north of Kernstown. They were fronted by Alfred Duffie’s cavalry, who took up positions on either side of the road leading south toward Strasburg. It was not long before the infantry arrived, taking Duffie’s place, while his cavalry covered the left and right flanks of the division. Thoburn’s infantry had been called forward the day previous, but nothing came of it, and as they lay in the woods, occupying the same breastworks, they hoped this day would turn out like the last. They too were mistaken.

Well to the front, the skirmishing erupted as the Federal cavalry was driven back toward the main line. An entire brigade of Union cavalry was now hotly engaged, and the sounds echoed back into the Federal camps. With that, another division (though hardly larger than a brigade), this helmed by James Mulligan, came forward, taking up a position upon Pritchard’s Hill, anchoring the Federal line on the left flank, with Thoburn on his right. Mulligan’s left was soon augmented by Rutherford B. Hayes’ brigade from Isaac Duvall’s Division.

With Early’s infantry concealed behind the shade of woodlots, and Crook’s lying in wait, the cavalries skirmished and the hours slipped away. With most of the Federal infantry now arrayed, Mulligan took it upon himself to advance half of his small division to a stone wall well forward of his position on Pritchard’s Hill.

“I went forward at once,” wrote brigade commander Col. Thomas Harris, “and reached the fence without opposition, but from this position was able to see the enemy very strong in my front, and at the same time massing a heavy force in a wood on my right, from which he could readily turn my right flank. I at once deployed two companies across the woods on my right, and sent information to the colonel commanding [Mulligan] of the position, strength, and movement of the enemy, which rendered my position untenable, as there was at that time no force on the field to extend our line on my right.”

James Mulligan (RIP)
James Mulligan (RIP)

Time was moving quickly, as both sides’ infantry remained otherwise stagnant. Mulligan replied that Harris was to do whatever he thought best. With that, Harris first fell back about 300 yards, and then another hundred when he discovered that he would be hit in the flank should the Rebels open fire. This was a better position. And with his men behind another fence, Harris could see Thoburn’s division falling in on his right. but to his front, his own skirmish line was now taking a beating.

Harris once again fell back to another stone wall, this time linking with Thoburn’s division. For a time, all felt safe. His skirmishers were no longer receiving hell, and while his right flank was covered, his front was now square with the enemy. This relief could not last long under Col. Mulligan’s command.

Harris’ position apparently sat ill with Mulligan, who decided to advance his other brigade and ordered Harris’ own to move with it on its right. Together (more or less) they stepped forward until Harris was once more behind one of the stone walls he had abandoned. There they stood for some time until he realized that their sister brigade had retreated leaving his left exposed to the finally advancing lines of the enemy’s infantry.

“I fell back in good order to my old position,” wrote Harris, probably forgetting which old position he was talking about, “from which I opened a brisk fire on the enemy’s now rapidly advancing line, and was here joined by Colonel Mulligan, who commended me in the warmest terms for the good order in which I had gotten my command back and the spirit with which it was holding its positions, but we were hindered by the colonel from inflicting punishment upon the enemy to the full extent of our ability, twice ceasing our fire for a short interval by his command on account of uncertainty in his mind, as I understood it, as to the character of the line advancing in front of the right of my command, most of the men being dressed in the Federal uniform.”


It all happened so quickly. The entire Union line was to advance, but only Mulligan and Hayes on his left came forward. Thoburn, on the right, hardly made the attempt. The ground around Pritchard’s Hill blocked his view of Mulligan, but little effort was made to correct that. Hayes, too, met with an overwhelming force, and was taken in the flank.

Between Mulligan’s division and Thoburn’s troops a gap had developed. Into poured the Rebels. With Hayes out of the picture, the enemy filled the spaces, until Mulligan was boxed in on three sides.

Mulligan ordered the division to fall back, and came to the 23rd Illinois of Harris’ Brigade to rally them on. This had been his old regiment and the men knew him well. It was fitting, then, that here, of all places, he would fall, mortally wounded.

Leaderless, the retreat was easy. “I gave the order to fall back,” continued Harris, “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].”

Thomas Harris , the King of Run-on Sentences
Thomas Harris , the King of Run-on Sentences

With the Federal infantry running as fast as horses for the rear, Jubal Early ordered a general advance, “and the rout of the enemy became complete. He was pursued, by the infantry and artillery, through and beyond Winchester; and the pursuit was continued by [Robert] Rodes’ division to Stephenson’s depot, six miles from Winchester – this division having marched twenty-seven miles from its position west of Strasburg.”

The only regret that Early had was that he had been unable to capture any of the enemy’s wagons or artillery. It was an amazing (though hardly surprising) victory. Early’s Confederates had killed 100 Federals, wounded 600 more and captured as many as 500. All this was accomplished while suffering “only” 22 killed and 150 wounded.

Two days later, Crook’s Army of West Virginia would cross the Potomac near Williamsport, leaving the entire Shenandoah Valley to the Rebels. With so much room to stretch his legs, Early would soon turn his eyes upon Pennsylvania.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 1, p316-317, 323; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss; Shenandoah Summer by Scott Patchan; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
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My Line was at Once Broken and the Men Became Scattered – Union Defeat at Kernstown by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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