The Confederates’ ‘high tide’ in the Shenandoah Valley
In June of 1864, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his hearty Army of Northern Virginia stood between Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant’s forces and the Confederate capital in Richmond.
Although Lee had parried Grant’s latest thrust at the battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, developments in the Shenandoah Valley forced Lee to undertake a high-risk operation to ensure his continued ability to defend Richmond.
On June 5, Union forces under Maj. Gen. David Hunter wrecked the Confederate forces at the Battle of Piedmont, and occupied Staunton the next day.
Hunter damaged the Virginia Central Railroad and destroyed many mills and manufacturing facilities. Reinforced by Union forces from West Virginia, Hunter headed south to Lexington, where he burned Virginia Military Institute and the home of former Virginia Gov. John Letcher.
He next set his sights on Lynchburg, a vital Confederate logistical and railroad center. There the Virginia and Tennessee, Orange and Alexandria and Southside railroads came together and sent supplies eastward to Petersburg to supply the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond.
If Hunter destroyed Lynchburg’s facilities, Lee realized he might have to abandon Virginia altogether.
Orders for Jubal Early
Ever the gambler, Lee dispatched newly minted Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early westward to corral Hunter.
Early’s vanguard reached Lynchburg late on June 17 , and stopped a Union attack that had been successful to that point.
But Early’s mission had just begun. At Lee’s direction, he advanced down the Shenandoah Valley, crossed the Potomac River, and invaded Maryland, creating a major stir in the halls of Washington, D.C.
He defeated Union forces at the battle of Monocacy on July 9, and marched to the gates of Washington on July 11. The arrival of significant reinforcements from Grant’s army gave Early pause and he canceled a planned assault on the city, and withdrew toward Virginia the next day.
By July 17, Early’s army of 16,000 had moved to the Shenandoah Valley, where he ably positioned his army near Berryville — in Clarke County on the east side of the Blue Ridge — so that it could readily meet threats from several directions. The vanguard of Hunter’s force reappeared on the scene.
After taking riverboats down the Kanawha River and then up the Ohio River, Hunter’s men rode the rails of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to Martinsburg, W.Va. They marched overland to Harpers Ferry, crossed the Potomac River and encamped near Hillsboro in Loudoun County.
Wright sent out a small Union reconnaissance force under French-born Gen. Alfred Duffie. It passed through Snickers Gap and reached the Shenandoah River at Castleman’s Ferry where the road from Leesburg to Berryville (modern Va. 7) crossed that stream.
Early’s force promptly repulsed the Frenchman’s attempts to cross the river, and he withdrew to Snickers Gap.
On the following day, Wright and Crook came to Snickers Gap and pushed forward, but found that Early’s forces still firmly held Castleman’s Ferry.
Crook concocted a plan to march upstream along the foothills of the Blue Ridge and cross the Shenandoah River downstream near the stately home of Judge Richard Parker, who had presided over John Brown’s trial.
This force would then march upstream and attack the Confederates defending the crossing area from the North. Wright approved the plan and placed 3,250 men under the command of Col. Joseph Thoburn to carry out the mission.
Thoburn was a physician from Wheeling who had long experienced the few ups and many downs of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley.
Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’s veteran division from the Army of Northern Virginia eventually attacked the exposed right flank of Thoburn’s battle line, forcing it to recoil in confusion toward the river.
With Wright’s large force at Snickers Gap and the various detachments nipping at Early’s flanks and threatening his rear, “Old Jube” withdrew his force toward the haven of Fisher’s Hill just south of Strasburg.
The move succeeded, until Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur violated the scope of his orders, which placed him on a strictly defensive holding mission at Winchester while Early evacuated wounded men and supplies from the town.
Instead, the aggressive young general from North Carolina went out looking for a fight. Union Brig. Gen. William W. Averell gave it to him at Rutherford’s Farm late in the day on July 20.
Although Ramseur outnumbered Averell nearly two to one, Averell’s combined force of infantry and cavalry attacked quickly and “in a miracle of execution” routed the Confederates, inflicting 400 casualties on Ramseur’s force and capturing four cannon.
That evening, Wright decided that the troops he led out of Washington could accomplish no more in the Shenandoah Valley.
Wright and Crook believed reports that Early was retreating to Richmond to rejoin Lee. Wright headed the 6th and 19th Corps toward Washington that very night, leaving George Crook in charge of Union operations in the Valley.
At that time, Robert E. Lee had warned Early that he would need to return his force to Petersburg, unless he was able to prevent Wright’s force from rejoining U. S. Grant.
Prisoners captured by Vaughn revealed that Wright had departed, leaving only Crook with slightly less than 13,000 men (many of them in poor condition and inexperienced) as the sole Union forces in the Shenandoah.
Early determined to attack the next day. With Vaughn’s cavalry leading the way along the Valley Pike and Middle Road, the Army of the Valley district moved toward the battle on July 24 that would become known as the Second Battle of Kernstown.
Vaughn’s cavalry shoved Crook’s troopers back toward Kernstown, where they rallied upon a small infantry division commanded by a popular but inexperienced commander, Col. James Mulligan. He had supported Sen. Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential election, but when the secession crisis arose, Mulligan proved instrumental in rallying the Irish populace of Chicago to the Union cause.
He served bravely at the Siege of Lexington, Mo., in 1861, but was ultimately forced to capitulate to a vastly superior force. Eventually Mulligan and his regiment, the 23rd Illinois Infantry, informally known as Mulligan’s Irish Brigade, headed east in the fall of 1862.
Crook had accurately concluded that his force was not strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Early’s Confederates and reported that fact to General Hunter on July 22. Although reports from Crook’s cavalry confirmed that Early remained in the Valley, Crook changed his mind and decided that the reports were inaccurate and that Early had indeed left the Valley.
He clung to this belief well into July 24, 1864. When Early’s forces deployed south of Kernstown, Mulligan tried to reinforce the cavalry, but found that Early’s troops were too strongly posted to advance. The Irishman sent his 19-year-old brother-in-law back to Winchester to inform Crook that Early was present in force.
Upon hearing the news, Crook replied, “Col. Mulligan is mistaken. I have full and accurate information. There is nothing in his front but a few bushwhackers. I have sent General Averell’s cavalry to their rear. Col. Mulligan must move forward.” Crook went on to question Mulligan’s tenacity, sneering, “I haven’t heard a half dozen shots fired this morning.”
An incensed Nugent shot back, “General, if you’ll get a little nearer the front, you may hear as many as a dozen.” Crook angrily replied, “Tell Col. Mulligan to instantly and persistently advance. Tomorrow, I will settle with you.”
Nugent hurried back to Kernstown, but Crook had second thoughts about his assessment of the situation.
He had previously sent Thoburn’s division to Sandy Ridge west of Kernstown, but he now ordered Col. Rutherford B. Hayes to take his small brigade and reinforce Mulligan. Hayes’s men had served with Crook throughout 1864, and Crook could count on them to do the job.
Crook then rode to Kernstown, where he met with Mulligan on Pritchard’s Hill.
Crook realized that Early had a stronger position than he had anticipated, but still did not believe the Southern force too large to deal with. Early had kept his army well concealed in woods and under cover of the terrain with his cavalry screening both flanks.
Crook concluded that perhaps a division of Confederates was present in Barton’s Woods to the south. Crook planned an attack with Mulligan striking the woods head-on while Hayes flanked it to the east and Thoburn to the west.
In Crook’s mind, the routed Confederates would then be scooped up by Averell’s cavalry, which would soon be coming up behind the Confederates.
Although Mulligan disagreed, he dutifully set about fulfilling his orders.
“We are gone up, anyway”
Jubal Early had not been idle.
He had shown Crook only what the cagey Virginian wanted his opponent to see. Now he shifted Ramseur’s division into position across the Middle Road and onto Sandy Ridge.
Two cavalry brigades extended Early’s line even farther toward the Alleghany Mountains, greatly overlapping Crook’s right flank.
As Ramseur moved into position, Lt. Gen. John C. Breckinridge dashed up and revealed that Crook’s left flank east of the Valley Pike was uncovered. Early granted the Kentuckian permission to undertake a flank march and crush the Union left.
Farther to the east, three brigades of Vaughn’s cavalry blocked Averell’s approach as it attempted to carry out the fool’s errand Crook had sent them on. Ironically, Crook naively believed that he had concocted a plan to swallow up the Confederate force in Barton’s Woods, but Early’s army had spread out well beyond both ends of Crook’s battle line and was poised to engulf it.
Mulligan had mounted his bay horse and galloped along Pritchard’s Lane toward the Valley Pike to meet with Col. Hayes. Although the future President Hayes had never met Mulligan, he readily recognized the popular Irishman by the “green scarf of the Hibernians” that he wore.
The two men exchanged greetings and shook hands. As they did so, Early’s plans turned into reality. Hayes and Mulligan received reports of Confederates on their flanks, but a staff officer from Crook reiterated the attack order.
Resigned to their fate, Hayes looked at Mulligan and said, “It is as well to go forward as any way. We are gone up, anyway.”
“Cut down by the score”
As the Union battle line moved forward, Breckinridge advanced Brig. Gen. Gabriel Wharton’s division of 2,500 men up a hill that directly overlooked the left flank of Hayes’s brigade.
The Southerners reached the top of the hill, halted, and aimed their rifles directly at the 36th Ohio on the left end of Hayes’s line.
These Buckeyes had fought at Antietam, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, some of the bloodiest fields of the war. George Crook had been their original colonel and he cared for them deeply. Ironically, his mistaken judgment would cost the Ohioans dearly.
Wharton’s men opened fire. Maj. Jewett Palmer of the 36th Ohio recorded: “We were cut down by the score. Enlisted men went down as I never before saw them fall.”
In 10 minutes, Wharton’s veterans shot down 136 of the Ohioans. Hayes’s brigade had broken and most of it was falling back in confusion, pursued by Wharton’s men.
West of the Valley Pike, Mulligan’s division had advanced across the fields of the Pritchard Farm until it reached the area near Opequon Church, where his men sheltered themselves behind stone walls and battled Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s men posted in Barton’s Woods.
With Hayes’s collapse on the left, one of Mulligan’s brigades joined the retreat, but the Irishman pulled back the 10th West Virginia and 23rd Illinois in good order to the Pritchard Lane.
The crash of Wharton’s rifles awakened George Crook to the reality of the situation
He quickly withdrew Thoburn’s division from the battlefield and hurried it back to Winchester, where it formed the nucleus of a rear guard with another brigade that had never left camp. This quick move prevented Crook from experiencing a disaster similar to the one that befell Maj. Gen. Robert Milroy at the Second Battle of Winchester in 1863.
Back on the battlefield, Mulligan rode along his battle line cheering his men as they resisted Gordon’s attacking division in his front. Hayes rallied his troops on Pritchard’s Hill behind Mulligan as the Confederates closed in.
The Upshur Battery from West Virginia poured a deadly fire into Wharton’s approaching division as it threatened to envelop Mulligan’s command from the east. From the hilltop, Hayes saw that one of his regiments holding out desperately in an orchard would soon be swallowed up by Wharton.
He sent a young staff officer named William McKinley to warn the regiment to pull back. McKinley mounted his horse and dashed down the hill. A Confederate shell hit the ground near the future president, creating an immense and deadly cloud of shrapnel, dirt, dust and smoke.
Hayes looked on and thought they had witnessed the last of this promising young man, but to their great joy both horse and rider raced out of the cloud and fulfilled their mission and saved the 13th West Virginia infantry from destruction. Instead, the Mountaineers formed the nucleus of a Federal rear guard on the Valley Pike.
With Confederates surging forward from the Front Royal Pike to the Back Road, only Mulligan’s small command remained in position, resisting the attack from its position along Pritchard Lane.
Riding behind the 10th West Virginia, Mulligan cheered the men, “Give it to them, brave Virginians!” When he reached the 23rd Illinois, he called out, “Stand firm 23rd!” as the men cheered their commander.
Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, he ordered the men to fall back in good order when a rebel bullet crashed into his thigh. Lt. Nugent and a sergeant helped him from his horse, but two more bullets ripped into his chest, mortally wounding him.
Another round struck Nugent in the head, killing him instantly and causing him to drop the flag he had been holding. Fate had robbed Mrs. Marian Mulligan of her husband and brother within a matter of seconds.
The men refused to leave their beloved colonel, but he commanded them, “Lay me down and save the flag.” They complied and retreated over the hill toward Winchester.
He would die in the Pritchard House within a few days. His wife traveled to Winchester, but did not arrive in time to see him alive.
“The severest thrashing”
The Confederates chased the retreating Federals into Winchester, but Crook’s swift action in creating a rear guard saved the Union cause from disaster.
It was bad enough as it was. Crook had lost 1,200 men and Early, just 200. Panicked teamsters burned dozens of Union wagons, and artillerists abandoned their guns to be carried off by hand by Hayes’s infantry and some of Averell’s cavalry.
A North Carolina colonel called the Second Battle of Kernstown “the severest thrashing that was ever caught by the Yankees since the war began.” John Worsham of the 21st Virginia Infantry called it the “most easily won battle of the war.”
As easy as it may have been, it bore many fruits for the Confederate cause. It opened up Pennsylvania for a retaliatory raid that resulted in the burning of Chambersbug, Pa., an occurrence that greatly injured Lincoln’s re-election effort at the time.
More importantly, Grant sent the 6th and 19th Corps back to the Valley and reinforced them with two divisions of cavalry from the Army of the Potomac.
Even more, Grant sent his finest combat commander, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to lead the Union forces in the Valley. In June, Robert E. Lee had sent 10,000 troops away from Richmond to save Lynchburg and raid Washington.
Those operations in conjunction with Early’s victory at Kernstown and the ensuing raid on Chambersburg forced Grant to detach 30,000 men from his operations against Lee.
Indeed, Jubal Early had served Lee well, and helped the Confederacy to survive the summer of 1864.
Scott Patchan is an authority on the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. He is the author of “Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign;” “Second Manassas: Longstreet's Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge;” “The Battle of Piedmont and Hunter’s Campaign for Staunton;” “The Forgotten Fury: The Battle of Piedmont;” and most recently, “The Last Battle of Winchester: Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, August 7 - September 19, 1864.”