THE FIRST BATTLE OF KERNSTOWN
March 23, 1862
“I do not recollect of ever having
heard such a roar of musketry”
-Stonewall Jackson after the First Battle of Kernstown
It was cold that Sunday, the 23rd day of March 1862. It had snowed a few days before and the farmland was still covered with soft white crystals. But the sunshine that day had left pockets of cold slush in the fields. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson with his small Confederate army of less than 3,000, sensing an opportunity, advanced to Barton's Woods just south of Kernstown. He had been ordered to stay close to the Union army but not to risk a potentially devastating defeat. In the words of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, "...keep that army in the Valley."
Acting upon faulty intelligence which led him to believe that much of the northern army had moved east out of the Valley, Jackson sensed an opportunity to retake Winchester and he ordered an advance. Here at the Pritchard Farm in Kernstown, just a few miles south of Winchester, Jackson's Confederates met Gen. James Shields' Union army of 7000-8,000 strength under the command of Col. Nathan Kimball.
The battle opened with Union forces strategically straddling the Valley Pike and their 16 artillery pieces arrayed on the commanding heights of Pritchard's Hill. Gen. Jackson ordered Col. Fulkerson and Gen. Garnett to mount an attack on the hill to force the cannoneers to retire. After taking heavy losses from the relentless artillery fire while advancing northward across the Pritchard farm's marshy open fields, the two Confederate columns quickly moved westward to the relative safety of the woods on Sandy Ridge about a half mile away. Here they were joined by other infantry and artillery units of Jackson's command moving up from the south.
Seeing this, Kimball ordered his infantry to Sandy Ridge via Cedar Creek Grade. After winning a foot race for the protection of the stone walls lining the rolling hills, the Confederate infantry poured devastating fire into the approaching Union units. Late in the afternoon, however, overwhelming Union numbers took their toll and the southern soldiers began to run out of ammunition. As the day ended the Confederates were forced to retreat leaving the Kernstown battlefield and Sandy Ridge in northern hands.
"I do not recollect of ever having heard such a roar of musketry", wrote Jackson after the battle. When darkness ended the battle, casualties for both sides totaled over 1000 men. Kernstown was the first battle fought in the Valley, and it launched the great campaign still studied today, Gen. Jackson's famous Valley Campaign of 1862. It was to be his only tactical loss. Union leaders, convinced that the size of their opponent had been near 10,000, cancelled plans to move the bulk of their army out of the Valley. This turned a defeat for Jackson into a strategic victory for the Confederate army.