Battle of Kernstown

May 8, 1862: Battle of McDowell

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Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible; and when you strike and overcome him, never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half their number. The other rule is, never fight against heavy odds, if by any possible maneuvering you can hurl your own force on only a part, and that the weakest part, of your enemy and crush it. Such tactics will win every time, and a small army may thus destroy a large one in detail, and repeated victory will make it invincible.

General Thomas J. Jackson

True genius is a rarity on this planet, and it is amazing when it suddenly appears.  Humans who display it often do so unexpectedly.  So it was with Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson, nicknamed Stonewall, after the decisive role played by his forces at the battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run) in 1861.  The name probably seemed appropriate to the few observers at the time who had followed his career.  Jackson had a reputation as an unimaginative, albeit valiant, soldier.  As a Professor of Natural Philosophy, Optics and Artillery Tactics (!) at VMI prior to the War he had a reputation as a deadly dull instructor who would repeat his lectures word for word if his students failed to grasp the lesson that he was teaching.  He once spent a night in an office at VMI because his superior told him to wait for him, and then forgot about his appointment with Jackson.  Other than his part in the victory at First Manassas, Jackson had distinguished himself mostly by being an almost fanatically strict disciplinarian.  If genius were needed in the War, Jackson would not have been the man even those who admired him would turn to.  Yes, the nickname Stonewall suited this stolid soldier.

It took the Valley Campaign of 1862,where he outmarched and outfought numerous Union armies, each larger than the force he led, for Jackson to astonish North and South with the fact that behind this dull facade lurked one of the Great Captains of History.

 

Jackson opened the Campaign on March 23, 1862 with an attack on part of General Nathaniel Bank’s Union forces in the Shenandoah at Kernstown.  Outnumbered almost three to one, Jackson suffered a tactical defeat but a strategic victory.  This attack by a Confederate force so far north in the Valley and so close to Washington caused Lincoln to take a division from the Army of the Potomac and send it to the Shenandoah,  to cancel any plans to reinforce the Army of the Potomac with troops from the Shenandoah and to order that McDowell’s corps would stay close to Washington during the ensuing Peninsula Campaign, rather than advancing overland towards Richmond to help McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula.  Few defeats have been so beneficial as First Kernstown (there was a second battle of Kernstown during the 1864 Valley Campaign) was for the Confederacy.

The Valley Campaign now entered a long quiet period during which Jackson’s command skirmished with the various Union forces beginning to mass against his army.  On May 7, 1862 Jackson saw an opportunity on the southwestern fringe of the Valley as Fremont’s men under General Robert Milroy, consisting of three regiments, were in an exposed position south of McDowell.  Milroy on Shenandoah Mountain escaped an attempted encirclement by Jackson and  withdrew to McDowell.  There he was joined at 10:00 AM on May 8th, by Brigadier General Robert Schenck and his command that had arrived with after a forced march from Franklin, West Virginia.  Schenck being senior took command of the combined force of approximately 6500 opposing Jackson’s army of 6000.  Fighting continued until dark with the Union force, which had been on attack most of the day, withdrawing in good order.  Casualties were fairly light:  259 for the Union (34 killed, 220 wounded, 5 missing), and for the Confederates 420 (116 killed, 300 wounded, 4 missing).  It could be argued that tactically the battle was a draw, but in the following week the Union force retreated back to Franklin with Jackson pursuing all the way, returning to the Valley on May 15, 1862.  This turned what was a tactical draw into a strategic victory.  More posts on the Valley Campaign during this May and June.  Here is Jackson’s report on the battle of McDowell: Continue reading

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