The 2nd Virginia Infantry at the 1st Battle of Kernstown

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Editorial note from your blog host: This article was originally prepared several years ago as pre-reading for a campaigner-style event in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was first published in “Rebel Boast.” Rather than consign this research to oblivion I have chosen to preserve it for posterity here in the hope that readers might find this information useful at some point.

By Spring of 1862,  the men of the 2nd Virginia Infantry had experienced as much real war as any unit in Confederate service at that time. Composed of Scotch-Irish stock from the northern Shenandoah counties of Berkeley, Clarke, Frederick, and Jefferson, the 2nd was built around the nucleus of a pre-war Virginia Militia regiment. It was ably led by Colonel James W. Allen. In late April 1861, the 2nd was brigaded at Harper’s Ferry with other Virginia units under an eccentric ex-professor from VMI named Thomas J. Jackson.

Samuel T. Cowley, a representative member of the 2nd Virginia Infantry. Note small size pre-war "US" belt plate. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Samuel T. Cowley, a representative member of the 2nd Virginia Infantry. Note small size pre-war “US” belt plate. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Under Jackson’s stern eye, the Valley men received much needed military instruction. They also soon earn the sobriquet “Innocent Second” because of their discipline and comely deportment in camp. First engaged at Falling Waters in July, the 2nd would gain eternal fame at Manassas for the brigade’s (and its commander’s) gallant performance in this signal Southern victory. Henceforth, Allen’s regiment along with the 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd Virginia would be members of the “Stonewall Brigade.”

When Jackson was given command of all Confederate forces in the Shenandoah in November, leadership of his old brigade was given to Richard B Garnett. A series of ill-considered winter campaigns conducted by Jackson in freezing weather reduced his new army more severely than several major battles might have done. The 2nd VA and all of “Jackson’s Pet Lambs” suffered as severely as any but their devotion to their leader remained constant.

In early March 1862 Union General Nathaniel P. Banks advanced from Harper’s Ferry against Jackson’s base of operations at Winchester. Grudgingly, “Stonewall” withdrew his vastly outnumbered army southward, ever vigilant to a chance to strike the slowly pursuing Federals. Sensing hesitation on the part of Banks, he found his opportunity on May 23rd. After a grueling 20-mile march, Jackson attacked the Federals near Kernstown, just south of Winchester.

Three companies of the 2nd Virginia infantry were deployed as skirmishers and assisted Confederate cavalry in developing the Federal position along the Valley Pike. Finding this sector strongly defended, Jackson ordered the balance of Garnett’s brigade to support an advance ½ mile farther to the left. Fighting grew intense as Garnett moved to the assistance of another Confederate brigade. Nowrejoined by its skirmish companies, Colonel Allen described the actions of the 2nd VA: “ [A staff officer] ordered us forward and after crossing [a] ridge the fire of musketry began on our left and front . . . I brought my regiment into line by the right flank . . . Seeing a wall in front in possession of the enemy, my object was to get possession of it; but owing to the rapid firing of the enemy and the thick undergrowth only the right succeeded in reaching it, which they held until the order to retire was given at 6 p.m. Thus the men were exposed to a severe fire for nearly an hour, during which time they did not lose an inch of ground.”

Federal forces drive Garnett's brigade from their position behind the stone fence. Painting courtesy Keith Rocco.

Federal forces drive Garnett’s brigade from their position behind the stone fence. Painting courtesy Keith Rocco.

They did, however, begin to run out of ammunition. The arrival of large contingent of Federal reinforcements rendered the Stonewall Brigade’s position further untenable. Garnett wisely ordered his men to fall back before they were completely engulfed. Yet Jackson was furious and vainly sought to rally the fugitives. He not only berated Garnett but later placed the brigadier under arrest. It was with tremendous regret that Jackson ceded the field, and the victory, to the Federals, but not before every wounded man had been retrieved.

Map by Hal Jesperson showing movements of 2nd Virginia during the battle.

Map by Hal Jesperson showing movements of 2nd Virginia during the battle.

Truthfully, at Kernstown, Jackson had bitten off more than he could chew. His impetuosity combined with a lack of proper reconnaissance cost him more than one-fourth of his little army. The 2nd Virginia’s losses alone totaled 6 killed, 33 wounded, and 51 missing. Yet for “Mighty Stonewall” and the 2nd Virginia there would be other days, other battles, and other victories. Several were just weeks away.

by Bob Williams