“We Are In For It”: Jackson’s Impertinence Costs Him Dearly at Kernstown

March 23, 1862 (Sunday)

Battle of Kernstown

It is easy to believe that the scrap between Union skirmishers and Turner Ashby’s Rebel cavalry, the previous day, would have caused both sides to be overly cautious. That seems not to have been the case.

The Confederates, under General Stonewall Jackson, were marching northward from their camp, some forty miles away. Ashby had told Jackson that only four regiments of Union infantry occupied Winchester and both were excited to attack. General Shields, commanding 9,000 or so Federals, for some reason believed the enemy to be gone. He told Col. Jeremiah C. Sullivan, one of his three brigade commanders, that there was no danger of Jackson attacking, even stating that Stonewall was afraid of him.1

Both Jackson and Shields were simply wrong. As Shields was telling Sullivan to take his brigade north of town, south of town, Ashby’s Rebel cavalry reappeared. By 9am, they lobbed a shell towards the Union skirmish line. Though it was harmless, it changed the pleasant spring morning considerably.

General Shields had been wounded the previous day and so field command fell to Col. Nathan Kimball, a captain during the Mexican War, and physician before the present conflict. Though never schooled in the military arts, Col. Kimball was taking quite naturally to them. The Union division under Kimball was located just north of the small village of Kernstown, along the Valley Turnpike. As Ashby opened fire, he saw that his own position, atop Pritchard’s Hill on the west side of the Turnpike, commanded the ground to his front. He called upon artillery, which came up quickly, with ten guns gaping up the Valley towards any Rebels that might venture northward.

Pritcherd's Hill

Ashby had thrown up a heavy skirmish line on either side of the Turnpike, and so Kimball did the same, sending them towards the Rebel line. After some back and forth, it was clear that the Confederates intended to stay. Kimball called up another regiment and was able to finally push back Ashby’s cavaliers around 11am.

During this lull before noon, Turner Ashby was still convinced that only a few Union regiments were before him. Col. Kimball, on the other hand, was having doubts that Ashby’s Cavalry were the only Rebels to his front, and strengthened his line with infantry. He placed his own brigade (now commanded by Col. Samuel S. Carroll) on the west side of the Turnpike, and Col. Sullivan’s brigade, who did not retire north of Winchester, on the east.2

Nearing 1pm, Jackson’s three brigades of infantry arrived south of, and hidden from, the Union position. Realizing that they would soon be spotted, Jackson had his men move west, off the Turnpike, with the prospects of bivouacking for the day. He did not order Ashby to reconnoiter the ground.

Looking southwest towards Sandy Ridge.

This day in 1862 was a Sunday. Jackson was determined to honor the Sabbath and not engage in mortal conflict during the Lord’s Day. His men, having just marched fourteen miles that morning, and twenty-two miles the day before, were jubilant for the rest. Jackson resolved, at first, to let his men rest. The trek had cost him nearly a quarter of his army in stragglers, who would, no doubt, come up over the next day or so. He seemed to have no fear that the Union would attack him and so planned to fight on Monday.

As Jackson surveyed the ground, however, he saw a great opportunity. Believing, as Ashby had reported, that only a small Union rear guard remained at Winchester, he decided to pounce. Opposing the Union-held high ground was Sandy Ridge. Jackson wanted to seize the ridge, and slip around the Union right flank, routing them and taking Winchester, a few miles to the north.

Around 4pm, Jackson first sent two regiments from Col Samuel V. Fulkerson’s brigade, with the Stonewall Brigade, commanded by General Richard B. Garnett, in tow. Fulkerson’s men dashed forward, barely beating their Union counterparts to a stone wall. They let loose a furious volley, throwing the Federals back. There, the battle raged for an hour and a half.3

When Col. Kimball first caught sight of Stonewall’s advancing men, he realized that his right flank was dangling and in grave danger. He quickly sent for Col. Erastus B. Tyler’s Brigade, which took a back road to the north end of Sandy Ridge. Leaving the road, they trudged through rocks, underbrush and a ravine before shooting it out with the Rebel skirmish line that was already advancing down the north face of the ridge.4

Rebels attacked across the fields before the Pritchard House.

Back on the Confederate right, seeing that the two regiments to his front were stalled and that the entire Stonewall Brigade would suffer greatly, General Garnett began to move his troops to the left, towards the woods on Sandy Ridge, his regiments becoming entangled in the brush and themselves.

Jackson took notice of the firing coming from the north face of Sandy Ridge and quickly concluded that there were more than a few regiments of Yankees to his front. After a scout returned with the news that there were, perhaps, three times the suspected number, Jackson deftly surmised, “we are in for it,” and went towards the rear to hurry along the brigade held in reserve.

Meanwhile, the battle continued, as the Rebel ammunition dwindled. General Garnett also realized they were “in for it,” and, after much consideration, decided to withdraw the Stonewall Brigade. As they retired, so did the regiments of Fulkerson’s Brigade.

All of this was unknown to Jackson, who had found the 5th Virginia, his largest infantry regiment. Jackson rode with them, waving his hat and yelling “Cheer the reinforcements!” and ordering the 5th to “reinforce the infantry engaged.”

By this time, however, there were no infantry engaged. All around him, the boys of the Stonewall Brigade filed past. When he spied General Garnett, he growled, “Why have you not rallied your men? Halt and Rally.” To the troops retreating to the rear, Jackson called, “go back and give them the bayonet!”

Through this came the 5th Virginia. Its Colonel found Garnett, who told them there was nothing they could do, but also ordered them to move to the left and cover the retreat. As they were doing just that, Jackson rode up and thought he heard and saw Garnett ordering the 5th to retreat.

Map, as displayed at the battlefield.

The 5th were not at all retreating (and Garnett probably never ordered them to do so). With an additional regiment on their right, they held back the surging Federals as the rest of Jackson’s army left the field. The Union forces did not pursue the Rebels as they marched five miles south, encamping south of Newton. Though they did not chase after Jackson that night, General Banks, overall commander of the troops, recalled the brigade of General Williams, en route to Centreville. The next morning, they resolved to take the fight to Jackson.5

Jackson’s mistake had caught him and his men dearly. They suffered 139 killed, 312 wounded, and 253 captured, nearly a quarter of his entire force. The Union faired better, sustaining 118 killed, 450 wounded, and 22 missing or captured, less than a tenth of their total number.6

  1. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  2. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
  3. Stonewall Jackson by James I Robertson. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  5. Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner. []
  6. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
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6 thoughts on ““We Are In For It”: Jackson’s Impertinence Costs Him Dearly at Kernstown

  1. Tears are welling up in my eyes from laughter. That is the most hilarious account of 1st Kernstown that I have ever seen! We taught the Valley Campaign to Marine officers both when I trained at Quantico, and when I was an instructor on staff. I have seen hundreds of papers written on the campaign, including this key opening battle. The worst and most disgruntled paper of a West Point exchange Army Captain did not attempt to put all the negative and ignore actual positive outcome for Jackson, as this article does. I and most historians agree that the Offical Record of the War of Rebellion is one of the most fanciful and comic reports of a war of all time. Baghdad Bob could not have put it better. But that has now been topped. My friend, this battle was the whole key to the success of the CSA this 1862 summer. Jackson derailed the entire train. If this battle did not happen, the Valley Campaign could not happen, and the split of a huge portion of the US Army into the Valley would not have happened. I often saw many an Army Captain and Major not “get it” at our USMC schools. It was no surprise then to see the 3rd ID get hung up on the road to Baghdad in 2003 while the USMC cut through several divisions of Iraqi and up the west side into Baghdad. By the time the US Army PFC Lynch had finished breaking a nail, their aviation brigade was in-op, and their Rolling Thunder fiasco was done, the Battle of Baghdad was complete. The US Army cannot get out of their mindset. Bottom line: The US Army has often been befuddled at the intense study and appreciation of Bobby Lee and the CSA by the Marines, with their Quantico, VA and Lejeune tidewater bases in the south, and disproportionate number of southern, USNA and VMI officers. But you cannot argue with the outcome. Jackson, my dear sir, knew FULL well he HAD to strike at Kernstown and he HAD to pull US Army away from the peninsula. In what battle has an offensive force struck one 3x its size, stopped it, and got the ball rolling on their operational objectives? Only a few, such as Thermopylae. But no one has essentially gone unscathed except MajGen Jackson. This Valley Campaign is considered by the best experts, and by the US Marines, as the most brilliant military operation in all of history. By the way, your casualty numbers and interpretation is a bit off as well. You’re clearly drinking Robertson’s Revisionist Koolaid, LOL!! He’s actually recanted some of his bigger bungles, like Jackson’s Great Train Raid, another brilliant take. Enjoy.

    1. Oh good. You’re back! I was worried that you forgot about me.

      My dear dear sir, may I humbly suggest you wait to see how I shape my telling of the campaign before you get your panties all bunched up? I mean, I know that my use of silly primary documents and well-respected research might alarm you and cause you to drone on about whatever the hell you were droning on about, but try to grasp that I’m taking the whole war day-by-day. Not everything is going to be explained for you in every post.

      Besides, if it’s so bad, what keeps you coming back? The pretty pictures?

  2. To me, this is a nicely written account, and since you’re doing a day-by-day report, the upcoming falling-out between Jackson and Garnett is quite properly saved for later. I believe, however, that the word you want for the headline is “impatience” rather than “impertinence”, which generally means disrespect to a senior.

    1. Thank you! I tend to do very little foreshaddowing with this. I don’t usually read ahead (much) and try to learn about the war as it happened. I realize that this might not sit well with others (for some reason), but I’m glad that some appreciate it and understand what I’m doing.

      Impatience is definitely what Jackson had in this and other battles. He was a big picture kind of guy. Though “impertinence,” meaning “presumptuous” is also fitting in this case.

  3. jackson thought he had easy prey after having to run from winchester and he was going to beat up on some yankee regiments-when it turned sour instead of blaming himself-he blames a fine officer in richard garnet-thats all it was at this time-lincoln and the politicians make jacksons valley campaign bigger than it had to be-presidential advisor re lee sees more than jackson who just a couple months earlier wanted to court martial his vmi colleage-gilham durring the bath-hancock campaign-frederick lander would have smash him

    1. I’ve recently finished researching and writing the Peninsula and Valley Campaigns and have done quite a bit of thinking on this (to the tune of two-three hours a day). I might get crucified in some circles for suggesting this, but while I believe Jackson was certainly a much better than average independent commander, much of his success in the Valley had to do with his opponents. Put him under another general and against well trained troops (like during the Seven Days Battles) and you’ll have a different story.

      Kernstown, contrary to what David suggests, was a bungle, plain and simple. The Union reaction to it was an even bigger bungle, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Jackson screwed up big time. It was an incredibly important battle that rippled through Washington and scared Lincoln into cutting McClellan’s numbers. All this *despite* Jackson’s horrible performance.

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