The 7th OVI at The Battle of Kernstown—March, 1862
By Richard Donegan AmeriCorps Civil War 150 Leadership Volunteer 2012 at the Oberlin Heritage Center
As 1862 began, President Lincoln urged his Generals to advance against the forces of the Confederacy in all theaters. The offensive that utilized most of the Union Army’s men and resources was General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. McClellan’s goal was to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. To accomplish this, his plan required massive coordination amongst different commands spread across the state of Virginia. One of these commands was headed by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in the Shenandoah Valley, far from the capital of the Confederacy. Banks’ assignment was to guard against any Confederate intrusions up the valley which could threaten Washington DC. With the bulk of McClellan’s forces converging on Richmond, the defenses of the capitol were significantly weakened. Only the commands of General Banks in the valley and General Irwin McDowell’s forces in Northern Virginia stood between the capital and any threatening Confederate armies.
Jackson's Valley Campaign (Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com)
Simultaneous to Banks’ efforts, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was ordered to occupy the attention of Union soldiers in the valley. The Confederate high command wanted to tie up as many Union soldiers, as far away from Richmond, as possible. Doing this would allow them to face a much weakened army commanded an overly cautious General McClellan near Richmond. On March 22nd, 1862, Jackson’s cavalry and infantry skirmished with Union troops of Brigadier General James Shields, a subordinate of Banks, between the towns of Kernstown and Winchester. The attack occurred as Banks was leaving the valley with one of his two divisions. Previously, Banks had been satisfied that Jackson was of no great threat in the northern region of the Shenandoah Valley. The defense of the Union position was left to Brigadier General Shields . Shields, however, was wounded during the fighting on March 22nd. As a result, he turned his command over to Col. Nathan Kimball. One of the regiments under Kimball was the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry; Company C of the regiment was made up primarily of Oberlin men. They were now under immediate command of Lt. Col. William R. Creighton. Col. Erastus Tyler, the 7th OVI’s former commander, had been promoted to lead a brigade.
The Battle of 1st Kernstown
The morning of March 23rd saw the resumption of the previous day’s fight alongside the Valley Turnpike, about half way between Winchester (towards the north) and Kernstown (towards the south). A brigade of Union infantry fought off Stonewall Jacksons cavalry and slowly pushed them back towards Kernstown. In retreating, the Confederate forces left a prime eminence, Pritchard’s Hill, unattended. As Col. Kimball recognized the hill’s importance, he quickly placed another brigade of infantry and batteries under Lt. Col. Phillip Daum atop it. The view from Pritchard’s Hill commanded the entire battlefield. With such a commanding view of the battlefield, Kimball was determined to hold his ground and let the Confederates attack him. He quickly ordered Col. Tyler to bring up his brigade as a reserve.1
Around noon of March 23rd, 1862 the 7th Ohio, at the front of Tyler’s brigade, marched through the streets of Winchester. It was only a couple of days before that the 7th Ohio had come through here, the regimental band striking up “John Brown’s Body”. Desolation had greeted the regiment when they marched through as conquerors, as Winchester’s population held southern sympathies. But now the same streets, as well as rooftops and trees, were filled with citizens looking towards Kernstown and the booming cannons a few miles to the south.2 The 7th OVI marched through the toll gate, down the Valley Turnpike and arrived behind Pritchard’s Hill. They were halted and assigned to guard the batteries of Lt. Col Philip Daum, which were locked in an artillery duel with Confederate batteries placed Sandy Ridge.
Once the 7th reached their position to support the batteries, they engaged in what Corporal Selden A. Day of Co. C said was “the most trying of all that day’s hard work”.3 For nearly three hours, the regiment endured a nerve-wracking artillery bombardment from which they could not run. The occasional Confederate artillery round would overshoot its target of Union infantry and artillery on Pritchard’s Hill and end up hitting the 7th OVI. The men held, and at the front of them rode Colonel Tyler who stayed calm and cool atop his mount.
The 7th Ohio Enters the Battle
Around 4pm Colonel Tyler’s division commander, Colonel Nathan Kimball, gave him the order to advance his brigade to the right of the Union position onto a rise called Sandy Ridge. Just beyond the ridge, a Confederate battery was hammering away at the Union position on Pritchard Hill. Kimball wanted Tyler’s Brigade to attack the distant Confederate battery.4 Almost simultaneously, Stonewall Jackson was endeavoring to push on the Union’s right flank. He intended to use Brigadier General Richard Garnett’s brigade to seize the heights, push the Union batteries off of Pritchard Hill and capture the Valley Pike leading the way to Winchester.5
Before beginning his advance, Colonel Tyler announced to his men, “Boys, put on your bayonets…you will need them”.6 The brigade turned to the right and was immediately formed into columns by division, a formation in which “the brigade showed a front of just two companies, perhaps seventy-five yards across, with the remaining forty-eight companies aligned like dominos in twenty-four lines to a depth of four hundred yards”.7 Tyler’s brigade swung off the Valley Pike and into the fields and woods south of Kernstown. After marching in this direction, Tyler turned his brigade left where they entered the woods on Sandy Ridge.
Though he deployed skirmishers in front of his column, an historian of the battle, Peter Cozzens said that Tyler’s decision to keep his men in column was a terrible error. Cozzens acknowledged Tyler’s need to maintain “tactical control” of his men while in the broken and wooded ground of Sandy Ridge, but it was a formation that left the brigade vulnerable and unable to respond to an attack.8 While skirmishers were sent out the brigade waited. George L. Wood of the 7th Ohio noted the men did so “breathless, and with anxious hearts”.9 All was silent in the woods until just about an hour after the brigade began its march, when Tyler’s skirmishers met the enemy. Skirmishers of the 27th Virginia were posted along the edge of the woods on Sandy Ridge. They opened fire from behind trees doing damage to Tyler’s front lines, who urged his brigade forward still in column formation.10
As the brigade moved out of the woods, it followed a gentle descent towards a ravine. Beyond the ravine and above the men of Tyler’s lead companies was a hill atop sat a stone wall. Behind the stone wall were two full regiments of rebel infantry. Tyler was heard to order “Charge, bayonets!” and the brigade broke into a run down the slope.11 Some of the men in the 7th Ohio yelled out “Cross Lanes!” as they charged, naming their first battle (an embarrassing rout) as a means to exercise their demons and to spur them on.12 Immediately, the Confederates opened up with a storm of rifles and artillery. Orderly Sergeant Danforth of the 7th Ohio was shot and died instantly. The Confederate volley was the worst Tyler and the men in his brigade had ever seen. Tyler noted that the fire was so galling and came on “with such force that I immediately ordered up my reserve”.13 Captain George L. Wood remembered:
the grape and canister was tearing bark from the tree over our heads, while the solid shot and shell made great gaps in their trunks. Under our feet the turf was being torn up, and around and about us the air was thick with flying missiles. Not a gun was fired on our side. The head of the column soon reached the ravine, when a deafening discharge of musketry greeted us. A sheet of flame shot along the stone wall, followed by an explosion that shook the earth, and the missiles tore through the solid ranks of the command with a fearful certainty.14
By the time the lead companies of the 7th Ohio reached the ravine, mass confusion reigned. The violence of the Confederate barrage was enough to bewilder even the most veteran unit. Here Tyler’s decision to keep his men in column by division began to have its more adverse effect as commands on the company and regimental levels intermingled. Men hid in depressions and behind what scant trees they could find. Of the break down in command, Peter Cozzens wrote, “from behind what cover they could find, the Federals returned the fire, each man an army of one.”15
Tyler's Brigade in the ravine between Sandy Ridge and the stone wall (Library of Congress)
Officers, instead of directing fire, fought alongside enlisted men. Lt. Col. Creighton of the 7th Ohio had his horse shot from underneath him. Creighton was seen to leap from the wounded and frightened animal, grab a rifle off a wounded soldier and shoot up towards the stone wall. Colonel Tyler and Major Casement partook in the engagement as well, the latter earning a number of bullet holes through his clothing.16 More and more men were getting hit, and not just from Confederate guns. Soldiers from other Union regiments were arrayed across the hill behind the ravine and firing off shots, sometimes into the backs of the men of the 7th Ohio. Corporal Selden Day remembered, “Men were falling all around me, and glancing backward I saw that the slope of the hill was barely sufficient to enable the men in the rear to fire safely over the heads of those of us in the front. A sergeant of Company H fell near me, shot through the neck, and I was quite sure it was done from the rear”. Day himself was shot, and sustained a bruise on his right hand.17 The Confederate fire continued to rake the men in the ravine and the hillside. The 110th Pennsylvania was thrown into such confusion by the attack that they withdrew up the face of the Sandy Ridge and were of little use the rest of the afternoon.18
While some companies attempted an advance up towards the stone wall, Colonel Tyler attempted to regain the tactical edge with a flank march to the left. In all, some one hundred assorted men from Companies C, D and F of the 7th Ohio attempted this maneuver towards a hillock some distance to the left. Had the bulk of the regiment responded to the order, they may have been able to turn the rebel line. As it was, the din and adrenaline of battle reduced the maneuver considerably. Private F.M. Palmer of Company C was one a few men shot while climbing a wooden fence near the hillock on the left. He survived with a wound through the neck for two weeks until he died. Corporal Day of the Company C also heard the order to deploy left. He dutifully ran towards the wooden fence as had others. However, he soon noticed only a few other men had followed the order.19 Col. Tyler’s attempt at a flank attack fell apart quickly. With no support and with such few numbers to attack the flankers they found their way back to the relative safety of the ravine.20
Less than a half hour had passed from when the fighting began to when Confederate reinforcements began to arrive at the stone wall. Entrenched behind a stone wall looking down at their confused and mostly exposed adversaries, the Confederates of Garnett’s brigade began to gain the initiative as their own numbers swelled.21 Seeing this, Tyler again tried to gain the tactical advantage, this time by extending his line to the right. He ordered another of his regiments, the 1st [West]Virginia to make an attack on the far left of the Confederate line. This movement coincided with the Confederates bolstering their defenses on that part of their line. As the 1st [West] Virginia moved into an open field, it met a terrible fire and was forced back to the ravine.22
The Battle of First Kernstown, showing Tyler's assault (Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com)
Tyler’s command continued to get bludgeoned by Garnett’s brigade, now reinforced by other Virginia Regiments. Captain George Wood wrote, “The roar of musketry was now deafening. The dying and the dead were lying thick upon the hillside, but neither army seemed to waver. The confusion attending the getting of troops into action had ceased. The great ‘dance of death’ seemed to be going forward without a motion. The only evidence of life on that gory field, was the vomiting forth of flame and smoke from thousands of well-aimed muskets.”23 Corporal Day, meanwhile, had managed to escape the violence of the ravine and crawled up to a small notch on the hill. He found himself looking over the brow of the hill and along the line, full of the Virginians of Garnett’s brigade, at the stone wall. There is no telling how many Confederate soldiers Corporal Day was able to hit, but he effectively acted as a sharpshooter. He advanced along the hill cautiously along his stomach, and hands and knees, always maintaining cover until the time came to fire. He emptied his cartridge box once, and went down the hill towards the ravine. There he found more ammunition on the body of a dead compatriot and crawled back towards the top of the hill.24
Cpl. Day wasn’t alone on the hill, nor was he without danger. He noted a number of bullets striking the ground dangerously close to him. Prior to emptying his ammunition, he was joined by man from another company of the 7th Ohio he didn’t know. He and the mystery soldier shot round after round into the Confederate line. At one point Cpl. Day looked to the man who only said to him “Isn’t it fun?” Day did not respond. When Day looked back at the man a few moments later, he had been shot dead.25
The day grew late. There was perhaps an hour of daylight left. Both Col. Nathan Kimball and Stonewall Jackson knew if their respective commands could hold against the other until dark, they could claim victory. In attempting to force the Confederates from the stonewall on Sandy Ridge, Col. Kimball decided to strip his artillery on Pritchard Hill of infantry and send the of brigade of the 8th and 67th Ohio, 14th Indiana and 84th Pennsylvania to assist Tyler. Five companies of the 5th Ohio of Colonel Jeremiah Sullivan’s brigade were also sent in. The regiments arrived on the Confederate right flank, a few hundred yards to the left of the 7th Ohio, piecemeal and without any real weight to the attack. They were met by 1st and 2nd Virginia and the Irish Battalion. The Federal regiments were repulsed, but only initially. The Confederates had been fighting for hours and were running low on ammunition.26
The Tide Begins To Turn
Early evening found Corporal Day back in his rifle pit taking careful aim towards the 33rd Virginia. He had watched scores of his comrades make charges up the hill only to be turned back by rifle fire. As he watched a third charge take form, he could see the 21st Virginia, further down the line, begin to retreat from the stone wall.27 Unbeknownst to the Federals, Confederate Brigadier General Garnett caught wind of a Federal Cavalry envelopment on his left and ordered a general retreat from the stone wall. The 21st Virginia was the first to receive the order. They were shortly followed by the 4th and 33rd Virginia.28 The defenses at the stonewall began to slowly peel away.
Tyler's Brigade charges the Confederate line at the stone wall. (www.etc.usf.edu)
Cpl. Day could see numbers of men from his brigade reaching the stone wall and firing at the crouching and retreating Virginians. At this point he turned back to his comrades in the ravine and shouted “We have got them started! Come on, come on!” He jumped over the wall and fired at a group of Confederates. As he reloaded he was joined by Privates James Dixon and Orlando H. Worcester, two of his companions. The three of them started after the Confederates.29
The rest of the Confederate line began to retire. The regiments of Kimball’s brigade began their pursuit of Garnett’s men, as did elements of Tyler’s brigade. Major John Casement of the 7th Ohio rode up the hill and crossed paths with Day, Dixon and Worcester. They rallied together and joined the pursuit of the Confederates, toward Tyler’s original objective earlier that day: the Confederate artillery battery that threatened Sandy Ridge. The major, on horseback, beat Day to the grove which housed the artillery battery. By the time he got there, Day noticed Dixon and Worcester were nowhere to be seen. A few more men from Tyler’s brigade passed through the wrecked battery and joined in the chase. Day spotted a cluster of Confederates and opened fire. As he drew near to the lone man who did not run off from his firing, he was horrified. He realized they had been carrying a wounded comrade off and that he had shot the wounded man again. Day said of this “I was completely overcome for the time, and the tears ran down my face.”30
With twilight falling and the adrenaline drying up, much of Tyler’s command stopped where it was, spread across Sandy Ridge. Men from Tyler’s regiments took stock of the situation, men stood next to others of completely different units as they made their way back to the stone wall. The Battle of Kernstown was drawing to a close.31
Cpl. Day had one more bit of excitement left in store for him. As he took survey of the fading light across the fields, he could see troops moving off to the left that he mistook to be Kimball’s brigade trailing after the Confederates. Day called out to a lone staff officer to find out the location of the 7th Ohio. The staff officer turned out to be a member of Stonewall Jackson’s staff, Lieutenant Junkin. Day was soon joined by two members of the 14th Indiana who assisted in the apprehension. The four men walked back to the Union lines where Day ran into Dixon who implored Day to come help him with their wounded comrade Worcester. Day turned his prisoner over to the Indiana men and went to help with Worcester.32
Of the 590 Union casualties that day, 80 were in the 7th Ohio. Of that 80, 6 were wounded, only one of whom returned to duty. Sergeant Danforth was the only member of Company C to be killed outright. Four others: Privates Wallace Coburn, Frederick Palmer, Edward G. Sackett and Orlander H. Worcester, would die over the next few weeks. Even the colors of the 7th Ohio were in tatters: 28 balls struck the flag, while another tore apart the decorative crescent at the top of the staff, still another took a chunk out of the staff itself.33 For his gallantry after being wounded, for being one of the first of his brigade over the stone wall, and for capturing a staff officer of the Confederate high command, Corporal Selden Day was promoted to Sergeant.34
As the firing died down, Company C’s Private Daniel of Judson of Oberlin, was back in Winchester. He had fallen ill a few days prior and had to spend the march to Winchester in an ambulance much to his dismay. He was not happy about having to miss the fight with his comrades and wrote in his journal as the skies went black: “Night comes and the sound ceases. I lie down to be awakened at midnight by Walworth who with a ball through his fore arm had made his way to camp. I do all I can to help him and then wait to hear the result. The day is ours, but at what cost?”35
The Union division under Col. Kimball’s tentative command had defeated Stonewall Jackson’s forces. It would prove to be the only time Jackson tasted defeat during the war. Yet, Jackson’s defeat was only a tactical one; strategically he had accomplished his goal. Jackson’s temerity frightened the Union high command, especially President Lincoln, into believing he had a much larger force than he actually did. The Shenandoah Valley was seen as an open back door to Washington DC for the Confederates. Lincoln ordered Union troops into the Shenandoah Valley and kept additional tens of thousands more Union soldiers close to Washington DC in case of Confederate attack. This had an adverse effect on General McClellan’s efforts on the Virginia Peninsula. Because of Lincoln’s redistribution of soldiers, McClellan was left without one-third of his entire 150,000 man force he needed to attack Richmond. McClellan’s ensuing failure to conquer the Confederate capital, and the Confederate victory during the Seven Days’ Battle in June of 1862, ensured the war would go on longer.36
1Enderlin, Lee. “Battle of Kernstown: Stonewall Jackson’s Only Defeat”, Civil War Trust. 12 Jan. 2012 http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/kernstown/kernstown-history-articles/battle-of-kernstown.html.
2Lawrence Wilson, ed. Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry 1861-1864 With Roster, Portraits and Biographies, (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1907) 127, 129 and Major George L. Wood, The Seventh Regiment: A Record, (New York: James Miller, 1865) 98.
5Peter Cozzens, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008) 166, 168 and Wilson 130.
11Wilson 135 (Selden Day).
12Lorain County News, "The Seventh O.V. at the Battle of Winchester" April 2, 1862, pg.2
13Wilson 130 (Tyler's report).
17Wilson 136 (Selden Day).
18Cozzens 181 and Wood 101.
19Wilder 26 and Wilson 136-137.
20Cozzens 180 and Wood 101.
22Cozzens 181-182 and Wood 102.
24Wilson 137-138 (Selden Day).
25Wilson 138 (Selden Day).
29Wilson 138 (Selden Day).
30Wilson 138-140 (Selden Day).
32Wilson 141-143 (Selden Day).
33Wilson 131 (Tyler's Report).
35The Private Civil War Journal of Daniel S. Judson Co. C 7th Regt. Ohio, transcribed by Clare Ann Hatten, Oberlin Heritage Center, 23.