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THE Turning Point of the Civil War!!

Today is the 150th anniversary of one of the truly important events in the military history of the Civil War.

While others might answer Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Antietam, or perhaps Fort Donelson when asked what they think the military engagement that had the greatest impact on the outcome of the Civil War was, I am not among them. First, I do not agree with the contingency theory for explaining the outcome of the war (in sum, the notion that had a particular engagement gone the other way, the outcome of the war would have been different). There is no question, though, that some engagements did have a much greater impact on its course than others. When asked what I think was the most important battle of the war, my unhesitating (and only slightly irreverent) response is this: First Kernstown, 23 March 1862.

In that battle, of course, Stonewall Jackson impetuously decided to set aside his reservations about initiating an engagement on a Sunday and attacked what he thought was only a small Union force posted just south of Winchester. It was a horrible blunder–at least tactically; strategically it turned out to be an inadvertent stroke of genius. In a bitter engagement fought around Pritchard’s Hill and on Sandy Ridge (the first picture below looks north toward Pritchard’s Hill; the second looks west over toward Sandy Ridge from Pritchard’s Hill), the Federals won a crushing tactical victory and drove off Jackson’s command. As the battered Confederates made their retreat, one perceptive—and brave–soldier summed up what had happened when he encountered Jackson afterward, “looks like you cut off more tobacco today than you could chew.” “General Jackson,” another man complained afterward, “was completely taken in. The wonder is why the Yankees didn’t capture our whole army.”

What made this engagement so important in the war was not so much what happened on the battlefield (or that Gary Ecelbarger wrote such a fine book on the battle, though he did), but the impact that it had in Washington. Despite the fact that Jackson’s forces had been crushed and effectively neutralized, the fact that he attacked at all spooked Washington badly. Most important, it reinforced Lincoln’s grossly exaggerated anxieties over the security of the Shenandoah Valley, which would lead him in the months that followed to undermine McClellan’s operations on the Peninsula through gross mismanagement of McDowell’s command. The failure to capture Richmond, of course, was the catalyst for a month of recalibration of the Union war effort, which ultimately led: 1) to the evacuation from the James and two years of frustration for the Army of the Potomac until Grant got it back to the James; and, 2) the shift to hard war, manifest in passage of the Second Confiscation Act, Lincoln’s decision to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, and the tone with which John Pope assumed command of the Army of Virginia. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say the road to emancipation passed through Kernstown.

Kernstown was significant in another respect. In his search for scapegoats after the battle, Jackson fastened on Richard Garnett, commander of the Stonewall Brigade, placed him under arrest, and removed him from command. Garnett rightfully resented what was a manifest injustice—as did the men of the Stonewall Brigade—and demanded a court of inquiry. The court finally began meeting in early August 1862 at Liberty Mills near Gordonsville, with the first few rounds of testimony being quite damning for Jackson. Then, fortuitously for him, elements from Pope’s army began stirring around Culpeper, giving Jackson what must have been a very welcome excuse to suspend the proceedings and put his command in motion. The Battle of Cedar Mountain followed shortly thereafter. One can’t help but wonder how much of the aggressiveness and eagerness to maintain a high optempo that distinguished Jackson’s generalship over the next few months was motivated by a desire to keep that court-martial suspended and Kernstown out of people’s minds!

In sum, it is hard to think of many, if any, battles that had such significant consequences for the course of the American Civil War. Happily, it is a pretty cool battlefield also. If you ever get a chance when you are in the Winchester area, it is well worth your time to check it out.

Comments (4) to “THE Turning Point of the Civil War!!”

  1. Kernstown is indeed a very interesting battlefield.

    I hope you are not serious regarding Jackson’s aggressiveness being to avoid continuing the court-marshal. He was aggressive before and after the need to avoid the trial.

  2. Great post Dr Rafuse. Yet another battlefield to add to the “must visit” list while living in NoVA. Hope all is well at CGSC.

  3. While we all know a pure Christian patriotism animated all Jackson’s actions, but you can’t help but wonder. I know that if I were in the place Jackson was in regard to the whole Kernstown-Garnett matter, it would certainly weigh on my mind.

    Thanks, John. I hope you history is still “informing your professional military judgment.”

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