Friday, March 23, 2012

March 23, 1862

March 23, 1862: Eastern Theater, Shenandoah Valley Campaign - FIRST BATTLE OF KERNSTOWN, Virginia. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson’s small force of 3,400 troops strikes at Brig. Gen. James Shield’s division of 8,500 Federals near Kernstown, just south of Winchester. Just as Gen. Banks is leaving the Valley with his second division, leaving only Shields in place, Jackson has marched down the Valley (north) to threaten the Union position, so that he can draw away Union forces intended for reinforcing McClellan on the Peninsula. After skirmishing yesterday, Jackson moves his entire force forward, believing the Union troops in the area to be a small rear guard only. Ashby, with his cavalry, 4 companies of infantry, and Chew’s battery of horse artillery, unlimbers his guns along the Valley Pike and begins skirmishing with the Federals just south of Kernstown. Col. Nathan Kimball, with his own brigade and parts of another, sets up 16 cannon on Pritchard Hill and begins dueling with Chew’s guns. Jackson arrives with his infantry, and sends Col. Fulkerson’s brigade against Pritchard Hill, and finally adds regiments from the Stonewall Brigade, but the Rebels take heavy casualties, so Jackson moves them to a ridge to the west to a safer position, more protected from the rifled Union artillery—with the hope that he may be able to flank the Federal position. Jackson lines up 15 guns on this position, Sandy Ridge, and opens fire on Pritchard Hill. Since his regiments are spread out too far, Jackson tells Garnett and the Stonewall Brigade to hold their position, while he goes to gather up reinforcements. Kimball orders Erastus tyler’s brigade into line on the right–Tyler swings southwestward into Garnett’s line in a column of divisions, 24 lines deep, and an infantry firefight ensues. The Rebels take possession of a stone wall for defense. Parts of Tyler’s brigade begin to fall back, however, and Kimball sends in a second brigade, which strikes west at the flank of the Sandy Ridge position bending back Garnett’s right flank, and the Rebels begin to run out of ammunition. Now completely out of ammunition, and lacking orders, Garnett sees another Union assault forming, and orders a retreat, just as Jackson is coming up with Burks’ small brigade. Garnett’s retreat turns into a rout, and disrupts Burks’ advance. Fulkerson’s flank is exposed, and so his troops also withdraw, and Jackson orders a general withdrawal. The Confederate lose nearly a quarter of their entire force; the Federals lose less than a tenth of theirs. After the battle, Jackson orders the arrest of Gen. Garnett, for insubordination and dereliction of duty. Union Victory.


         Killed    Wounded    Missing or Capt.    Total

U.S.   118        450               22                             590

C.S.   139        312                286                          737

Gen. Shields sends this message to Gen. McClellan at Washington:

WINCHESTER, VA., March 23, 1862.

We have this day achieved a glorious victory over the combined forces of Jackson, Smith, and Longstreet. The battle was fought within 4 miles of this place. It raged from 10.30 o'clock this morning until dark. The enemy's strength was about 15,000; the strength of our division not over 8,000. Our loss, killed and wounded, is not ascertained, but is heavy. The enemy's loss is double that of ours. We have captured a large number of prisoners, some of their guns, and the ground is strewn with the arms they have thrown away in their flight. The cavalry is still in pursuit of the retreating enemy. The particulars cannot be accurately ascertained until daylight.

Brigadier-General, Commanding.

 A result of this battle, even though it was a Union victory, is that Lincoln cancels the movement of Banks’ corps to join with McClellan, and begins moving more troops westward toward the Valley. Banks is to work in concert with Gen. Fremont in West Virginia to destroy Jackson. Lincoln also detaches Gen. Irwin McDowell’s corps to protect Washington. McClellan protests that these depletions mean that he does not have the strength to take Richmond.

The fact that both sides grossly underestimated the strength of the enemy before them underscores the challenges of gathering battlefield intelligence without aircraft, radio, motor vehicles, or satellites.

—During the Battle of Kernstown, George Michael Neese, a young Confederate artilleryman in Chew’s Battery, and new to combat, notes in his journal his view of the fight when the Federal artillery opens up on the Rebels—and of his fascinating encounter with a Federal shell:

The Federal artillery was in position on a range of hills northwest of the town and replied to our opening shot with a vim which at once bespoke that they meant business. In the meantime a body of sharpshooters and two pieces of artillery advanced on our position from the east side of town and a little to right of our front. . . .
The first shell they fired at us from the battery on our right was a twelve-pounder, and I saw it flying in its graceful curve through the air, coming directly toward the spot where I was standing. I watched it until it struck the ground about fifteen feet in front of me. I was so interested in the sky ball, in its harmless appearance, and surprised that a shell could be so plainly seen during its flight, that I for a moment forgot that danger lurked in the black speck that was descending to the earth before me like a schoolboy’s innocent plaything. It proved to have been a percussion shell, and when it struck the ground it exploded and scattered itself in every direction around me, and threw up dirt and gravel like a young volcano. Some of the gravel struck me on the arm. Then I left that place instantly, as I did not have any inclination whatever to watch any more shell just then, and my gun had already retired. . . . The artillery fire now became terrific. Hundreds of shell went just over our heads, howling and shrieking in the air like demons on their way to deal death and destruction to Rebels. Some of their shell exploded over our heads and sowed their fragments and leaden hail in the sod around us.
And then Neese gives his impressions of the fury of the infantry fight and of battle in general:
But it is utterly astonishing and wholly incomprehensible, especially to a tyro, how men standing in line, firing at each other incessantly for hours like they did to-day, can escape with so few killed and wounded, for when Jackson’s infantry emerged from the sulphurous bank of battle smoke that hung along the line the regiments appeared as complete as they were before the fight. . . . To-day was the first time that I experienced the realities of an actual battle-field, and am willing to admit that to see two armies in battle array is an imposing sight. . . . The enchantment act transpired before the battle opened, but when the firing commenced and they began in earnest to pass the bullets, shot, and shell around promiscuously, the fascination and all its kindred suddenly took flight from me faster than forty suns can rout the most delicate morning mist. —Gen. Don Carlos Buell, commander of the U.S. Army of the Ohio, writes to Gen. Halleck, telling him that after taking precautions to garrison all strategic points in central Tennessee, that he will advance, four days from now, toward Savannah, Tennessee with nearly 25,000 to link up with Grant.

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