The 21st North Carolina Infantry was organized at Danville, VA in June of 1861. Its twelve companies were composed primarily of recruits from Davidson, Forsyth, Guilford, Rockingham, Stokes, and Surry Counties. Commanded by Col. W. W. Kirkland, the unit left Danville on July 15th to join General Joseph Johnston’s army around Manassas Junction. They were positioned along Bull Run Creek but were not actively engaged in the subsequent Confederate victory there.
Kirkland’s Tar Heels remained in Northern Virginia throughout the balance of 1861 and in October were assigned to General Isaac Trimble’s brigade, which also included the 21st Georgia. The winter was spent doing routine camp chores and “arduous picket duty.” It was a relief to the regiment when orders were received in early March of 1862 to break camp and join the command of “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley.
Jackson wasted no time in committing his force against an invading Federal army under the command of General Nathaniel P. Banks. Stationed near Strasburg, VA, Banks was fearful of the legendary Southern general. On May 23 the Union commander decided to retreat northward towards Winchester. Ever audacious, Jackson determined to cut off Bank’s withdrawal before the protective defenses of Winchester might be reached.
As part of General “Dick” Ewell’s division, Trimble’s brigade and the 21st North Carolina marched relentlessly in pursuit. Bank’s immense supply train was overtaken near Middletown by portions of Jackson’s force on May 24th. However, delay occasioned by the plundering of this rich prize enabled most of Banks’ army to reach Winchester safely. Jackson was furious but urged his infantry onward. The Confederates gamely marched all night and around 4 a.m., lay down in the cold dew to rest.
Dawn of May 25th found Banks’ forces defensively positioned on a range of protective hills just south of the town. Jackson launched assaults on both Federal flanks and immediately encountered fierce resistance. On the Confederate right, near the Front Royal road, Trimble ordered his “two Twenty Firsts” to charge a strongly positioned Union regiment. A member of the 21st North Carolina described the ensuing charge: “With a wild cheer the regiment moved swiftly towards the enemy’s line behind stone walls, and was met by a most terrific fire of infantry and grape shot. The regiment moved right on to the stone wall, from which the enemywere pouring forth a perfect storm of canister and minie balls from right and left–cross-firing upon us.” Despite initially wavering in the intense fire, the Carolinians regrouped and joined their brothers in the 21st Georgia in driving the Federals from the field.
Across the battlefield, Confederate forces were equally successful. The surrounding hills resounded with the Rebel Yell as retreating bluecoats fled through Winchester in what became a general stampede. They would not halt until safely crossing the Potomac, more than 30 miles distant. Despite Jackson’s most strenuous efforts, the exhausted and equally disorganized victors could only mount a half-hearted pursuit. The citizens of Winchester were overjoyed at the Union withdrawal and wildly greeted Jackson’s troops as “liberators.” For the time being at least, the Shenandoah Valley was safe.
The carnage on the field at Winchester was shocking despite the battle’s short duration.. “The sight which there presented itself can never be forgotten,” recalled a participant. “Around stood several pieces of artillery deserted by the enemy. Many Federals and Confederates lay dead, wounded and dying around me. Colonel Kirkland, while waving his sword and cheering on his men, was shot through the thigh but did not leave . . . Never were men more mangled or pierced with so many balls.” Indeed, its baptismal engagement cost the 21st North Carolina Regiment roughly 21 killed and 60 wounded.
For these gallant volunteers from the Piedmont, First Winchester was just the beginning of a long and bloody war.
By Bob Williams