The second Battle at Kernstown took place on July 24, 1864, a critical year in the war for the Shenandoah Valley. The balance was tipping toward the Union forces, and the South was losing control of its former stronghold. The Union forces wanted to crush the Confederate opposition, and the Southern soldiers were determined to keep this strategically important area under their power.
The first major defeat of the federal troops in the Shenandoah Valley was at New Market on May 15. After this Confederate victory, the Union soldiers rebounded by burning the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
Part of `Early's Raid'
Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces, led by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early, had the strategy of diverting Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's attention from farther south in Richmond, Va. Early's intentions were to make it all the way to Washington. Kernstown, part of the campaign referred to as "Early's Raid," was the last major Confederate victory in the Shenandoah Valley.
The Union officer in charge was Brig. Gen. George Crook, and he had the Army of West Virginia. Some of the Union divisions were headed by a few colonels, including future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, Isaac Duval, James A Mulligan and Joseph Thoburn, and Capt. Henry A. duPont.
The Confederate officers present for the battle included Early, Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, Maj. Gen.John B. Gordon, Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton, Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, and Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur.
Earlier in the morning before the full battle, there were many skirmishes between Crook's and Early's men, according to Joseph W. Whitehorne's Civil War Battlefield Guide at Houghton Mifflin's online database.
According to Whitehorne, Early's cavalry informed him that the Confederates present greatly outnumbered the Union forces approximately 14,000 to 9,500.
Gordon's division began to push the increasingly organized Union line back around noon, and this was when the battle truly started, according to Whitehorne.
Much of the Union's line was scattered about the battlefield, with the federal brigades taking protection behind stone walls, trenches in the woods, and the nearby Opequon Church, according to Whitehorne.
Many of Gordon's men had the advantage of having fought at the same battlefield two years before at the first Battle at Kernstown under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
The Union soldiers were quickly pushed back by the greater Confederate force. According to Whitehorne, as the Union line pushed back and reorganized, another one of Gordon's brigades came in and forced the Union line even farther north.
Mulligan's and Hayes' divisions were breaking under the heavy fire of the Confederate forces. Mulligan tried to pull his troops together but was mortally wounded. Crook eventually had to withdraw all of his troops.
Hayes' brigade held off the Confederates so that the artillery could withdraw. The Union troops retreated to Bunker Hill. They had lost almost 1,200 men in the battle as compared with the Confederate loss of 600, according to Whitehorne.
Early stated in his memoir, Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States, "Our loss, in this action, was very light. The enemy's loss in killed and wounded was severe, and two or three hundred prisoners fell into our hands."
Early, however, was slightly disappointed that it was not more of a complete victory, according to Milliard Kessler Bushong in his book Old Jube: A Biography of General Jubal A. Early.
The Confederates were unable to track down the retreating troops as they scattered away from the battlefield. The Union troops, confused and outnumbered, retreated down the Valley Pike, and Early's cavalry was unable to catch more soldiers or their wagons. Crook's army retreated to Harpers Ferry within a few days.
Into the North
Despite Early's perception of the incompleteness of the victory, the Confederate forces once again had control over the Shenandoah Valley, and Early's troops went on to burn Chambersburg, Pa., in retaliation for the burning of Lexington, Va., according to the online database ShenandoahAtWar.org. According to Bushong, Early also went about destroying the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, cutting off an important artery of transportation for the North.
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's plans for his Union army changed after the Union defeat at Kernstown. After the Union defeat at Kernstown, Grant ordered the 6th and 19th Corps, which had previously been sent to Washington, back to the Shenandoah Valley, according to Bushong.
After Second Kernstown, Grant fired many Union commanders and put Maj. Gen.Philip H. Sheridan in command. Kernstown was the starting point for a more aggressive Union attempt to take control of, and ultimately destroy, the Shenandoah Valley, according to Whitehorne.
The Battle of Cedar Creek was not until several months later on Oct. 19, but the period between the two battles marks the end of the road for the Confederate forces, according to the ShenandoahAtWar.org database.
If Second Kernstown was the last decisive battle for the South in the Shenandoah Valley, Cedar Creek was supposed to be the last attempt to defeat Sheridan and his army and remove them from the area. It ended up being the last defeat in the Valley that the Confederates could handle, and they never regained control of the valley.
Christine DelliBovi is a senior majoring in writing and psychology at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.