Stonewall Jackson: Triumphant in Defeat
The First Battle of Kernstown and the Beginning of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign
The morning of March 23, 1862 was a sunny and warm day in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was also a Sunday. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson did not like to fight on Sundays since Sunday was the Lord’s Day. “The enemy could be destroyed tomorrow; the peace of the Lord would not be violated.” The sun and warmth were a welcome relief for Jackson, considering that for the past few days Jackson and his “foot cavalry” had been braving high winds, cold temperatures and hard rain, in endurance draining marches that covered roughly 21 miles a day, upward through the Shenandoah Valley. The destination of their exhausting marches was Winchester, Virginia, where soldiers from the Union’s V Corps were located, but Jackson and his men did not make it there. Instead of reaching Winchester, Stonewall Jackson halted his men at Kernstown, just a few miles south of Winchester with plans of bivouacking. At Kernstown, Jackson wanted to rest his men, continue the march the next morning, and engage the enemy on Monday. Unfortunately for Jackson, things did not work out the way he had intended them to, for on this day, Sunday March 23rd, Jackson and his men were en route to an encounter with men from Union General Nathaniel Banks’ V Corps, and they were about to make history.
During the previous days and weeks, tensions had been high between Union and Confederate soldiers stationed in the Shenandoah Valley area, and Stonewall Jackson’s forces which had been encamped in Winchester, had been forced to move around a great deal. Union General Nathaniel P. Banks had been following orders given by General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, to disrupt and remove Jackson’s forces which were encamped at Winchester, Virginia, and to secure the Shenandoah Valley for the North. When General Banks and the men of the V Corps approached Winchester in early March, Jackson had intended to fight to maintain his position there. After all, this was familiar ground for Jackson, and he felt confident that he could be successful there. Unfortunately for Jackson and his men, badly needed supply wagons with rations and muskets for the soldiers had been taken to the wrong location in Newtown, roughly eight miles south of Winchester, just as Banks’ V Corps was closing in on the town. The grim news and poor timing forced Jackson to make a difficult decision regarding his critical position at Winchester. With the arrival of General Banks’ men, without supplies and rations, and seriously outnumbered, Jackson felt that he had to withdraw from Winchester without a fight. “This I grieve to do! I must fight! No, it will cost the lives of too many brave men. I must retreat.” Under the cover of darkness, Tuesday night, March 12, 1862, Jackson and his men began their retreat from Winchester.
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