The Civil War – Stonewall Jackson’s only defeat

By C.J. Johnson

The Shenandoah Valley was recognized by both Union and Confederate leaders as an important area to control, a route to Washington for the Rebels, while the Yankees traveled the Valley when heading south. Winchester, on the Valley’s northern end, was so strategic that control changed hands 72 times during the war. In November 1861, in an effort to keep the Valley in Confederate control, General T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson was assigned to the region, with 10,000 troops at one time, but early 1862, was down to about 3,000 men. During the winter, Union troop count was steadily increasing and by late February 1862, General Banks had crossed over to Harper’s Ferry with some of the 38,000 Union troops in the area. When Jackson heard of Banks’ new location, and realizing the Yanks had superior numbers, Jackson and his 4,200 soldiers left Winchester. Banks and his men entered the city the next day. Considering the Confederate withdrawal, General Banks ordered one division to join McClellan on his Peninsula campaign. He ordered another division, led by Brig. General Shields, to follow Jackson. Between the forces of Jackson and Shields were Ashby’s cavalrymen, who put up an effective shield to hide the size of Jackson’s force. In the first of several bad intelligence reports, Shields and his men returned to Winchester on March 20 and reported to Banks that only a small Rebel cavalry contingent force remained in the Valley. Banks was elated, and sent the second of his three divisions to join McClellan. Only one division, 7,000 soldiers plus support, would remain in the Valley. Banks returned to Washington. Meanwhile, Ashby reported to Jackson that large numbers of Union troops were leaving the Valley. Jackson was supposed to “tie down excess Union troops that could be used to threaten Richmond. So far, it appeared he had failed. That galled him,” according to “Except for Jackson’s movement, most of the 22nd was quiet. Late in the day…Ashby became antsy…he moved up his artillery and began shelling Union skirmishers posted on the southern outskirts of Winchester…The shooting died out around sunset, with the Union troops halting about halfway between Winchester and Kernstown.” Overnight, Ashby reported to Jackson that the Union forces totaled 3,000, another inaccurate report. The next day, fighting continued. Ashby was pushed back further. Jackson and his troops arrived later in the afternoon. Based on Ashby’s reports, rather than his own scouting, Jackson planned his attack. It was a while before Stonewall realized the Federal trap that had been laid for him. A better report came in, giving the Union troop force at 9,000 to 10,000. Jackson was stopped at Kernstown and Federal forces counter-attacked. The Rebels retreated. Kernstown was Stonewall Jackson’s only defeat. Casualties were estimated at 590 for the Union and Confederate at 718. However, battle had a huge impact. According to, “… despite these small numbers, Kernstown was one of the most decisive engagements of the war. The Confederates, though soundly defeated, ultimately gained the most. As historian Bruce Catton observed: ‘The victory meant nothing at all, whereas the mere fact that the battle had been fought meant a great deal.’ Indeed, the ramifications of this odd little affair reached all the way to President Lincoln. None of the Union generals with an interest in the Shenandoah Valley…could believe that Jackson would attack while being so outnumbered. They never realized that Jackson thought he outnumbered them. In their eyes, Jackson must be a far greater threat than in fact he actually was.”