The Deceptive Little Skirmish Before Kernstown

March 22, 1862 (Saturday)

Rebels captured in the Shenandoah Valley

After the few days’ reconnaissance and tangling with what he, at first, believed was Stonewall Jackson’s entire force, General Shields could relax. He had taken his division south from Winchester, chasing the retreating Rebels, had exchanged shots with Turner Ashby’s cavalry and had determined that Jackson was staying put near Mount Jackson, forty miles south. Shields had returned the previous night, through heavy rains and soggy roads.

But today was a new day. Rather than occupying the town of Winchester itself, he decided to move his headquarters two miles north. Since his was now the only division inside the Shenandoah Valley, he encamped his men near, and north of, his headquarters. Inside and south of town, he placed the Ringgold and Michigan Cavalry as skirmishers.

The division of General Williams had been called to cover Centreville (and thus Washington) while General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac steamed down its namesake river for the Virginia Peninsula. Williams’ First Brigade moved out the previous day, as Shields was trudging north, and his remaining two were stepping off on this date. 1

Abandoned Rebel position at Manassas, soon to be occupied by Williams Division.

Meanwhile, at Camp Buchanan, near Mount Jackson, General Jackson was already on the march north. He had received word that the Union forces forty miles north were pulling out of the Valley to reinforce McClellan. Less of the enemy to his front meant more of the enemy before Richmond, and so he had to keep as many Yankees busy for as long as possible.

Though the information he received from Turner Ashby was correct, nobody knew exactly how many Federals were waiting at Winchester. The captured Yankees claimed to have 20,000, but Ashby (and thus Jackson) believed they were lying, that there were no more than 10,000 Union troops to their front. While this was a closer figure, it was still an over-estimation, as Shields’ had roughly 7,000 men, all told.2

Riding well in front of Jackson’s command, Turner Ashby’s Cavalry, here, only about 290-strong, nipped at the heels of General Shields’ Division. By early afternoon, they found themselves pushing in the Union pickets south of Winchester. Now, just north of Kernstown, a few miles south of Winchester, Ashby discovered the bulk of Union supplies, sitting in wagons on the edge of town.

He unlimbered his three guns and sent shells tearing through the mass. Guarding the wagon were a few companies of Pennsylvania troops. As the wagons were sent back, they pushed Ashby’s men in the other direction. Soon, word was sent to General Shields that Rebel Cavalry were attacking south of town. Shields paid the message no mind.

As a full regiment of Union infantry began to engage Ashby, another message went to Shields. Finally, the division commander ordered a brigade forward and rode to the south end of town, but could see no enemy. The outnumbered Rebels had been pushed back.

Shields doubted that a few hundred cavaliers could cause so much commotion, and rode out with a few officers to investigate. Ashby’s artillery spotted the group and, finding their range, fired upon them. A shell burst in the air above, sending bits of iron into General Shields’ left arm, shoulder and chest, throwing him several feet from his horse.

General Shields

As more Rebel shells burst around them, killing a few horses and wounding a few artillerymen, an ambulance was called for. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Shields ordered that his wounding be kept secret from the men, that it would be dressed and he would return to the saddle shortly.3

The Union command, now under Col. Nathan Kimball, pushed Ashby completely out of the picture. Seeing that it was futile, Ashby returned south, to Jackson’s main body, near Strasburg.

That night, the commanding officers of both forces were gravely mistaken. General Nathaniel Banks, Fifth Corps Commander, was preparing to leave Winchester for Centreville, following Williams’ division, which was already out of town. He dismissed all reports that Jackson’s entire force was about to hit them. Only Col. Kimball’s Brigade was south of town.

At Strasburg, Ashby informed Jackson that only four regiments remained in Winchester, and that they were soon leaving for Harpers Ferry. This was an incredibly unbelievable falsehood. Yet, both Ashby and Jackson trusted the news. Still resolved to hit the Yankees before they could leave the Valley, and hoping to draw more into it, Jackson’s plan was unaltered. He would attack the next day.4


Union Commanders in New Mexico: With Friends Like This, Who Needs Enemies?

Col. Edward Canby, commander of the divided Union force in New Mexico, was determined to protect his supply line at Fort Union, just north of Las Vegas. The Rebels, 2,500-strong, under General Henry Sibley, just now moving out of Albuquerque, were determined to destroy each column of Federals in turn, before they could be united.

Fort Union

There was, however, a difference of opinions within the Union ranks. Col. Canby, at Fort Craig, over 225 miles south of Fort Union, had ordered that Fort Union be held, even stating the “all other points are of no importance.” Though Fort Craig, to the south, had to be held, Canby resolved to take his 1,800 troops northward at the last possible moment. “Do not move from Fort Union to meet me,” he told his subordinate, “until I advise you of the route and point of junction.”5

The problem was that Col. John Potts Slough was new to command. He outranked the fort’s previous commander, Col. Gabriel Paul, by a few weeks. While Slough had zero military training, Paul was a West Point graduate. The issue with Canby’s order was one of interpretation.

And so began the passing of letters between Slough and Paul, each addressed to the other at Fort Union. Paul, taking Canby’s order not to leave the fort quite literally, refused to leave the fort with his troops. Slough, who had already determined that he wanted to move his force closer to Santa Fe, disagreed. Taking an advanced position, he thought, would still cover the fort and would honor the spirit of Canby’s order. If the occasion arose, he could even attack and best the Rebels. Also, since he outranked Paul, he ordered Paul’s troops (but not Paul) to come along.

Fort Union, circa 1859.

Paul was not yet conceding defeat. He unequivocally stated that Slough should not have been placed in charge and that attacking the Rebels was an obvious violation of Canby’s order. “With due deference to your superior judgment” replied Paul, probably unable to keep a straight face, “I must insist that your plans … must inevitably result in disaster to us all.” He formally protested against the move, as he “believed it in direct disobedience of the orders of Colonel Canby.”

That afternoon, Col. Slough and most of Col. Paul’s troops departed Fort Union 1,400-strong, leaving Paul with “a feeble garrison and no suitable artillery for the defense of the principal and most important post in the Territory.”6

Col. Slough’s march of questionable legality reached the village of Loma by nightfall. According to one of the Colorado officers, many of the soldiers whiled away the hours “carousing with the Mexican women and fighting with the Mexican men.” It would not be long until the Confederates in Santa Fe learned of this movement.7

  1. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p836. []
  3. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. As well as Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
  4. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p653. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p653-655. []
  7. The Battle of Glorieta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. []
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The Deceptive Little Skirmish Before Kernstown by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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