On 23rd March 1862 Stonewall Jackson entered into his first serious clash in the Shenandoah Valley, at the Battle of Kernstown. The fight was part of what became known as the 1862 Valley Campaign, a series of engagements that would make Jackson a legend. However, at Kernstown the Confederate General had miscalculated; he had mistaken a superior Union force for a demoralized rearguard. The result for his men was a vicious clash centred around a low stone wall on what was called ‘Sandy Ridge’. Amongst his small army were 187 Officers and men of the 1st Virginia Battalion, otherwise known as the ‘Irish Battalion.’

Following Virginia’s secession on 17th April, 1861, the Virginia Convention sought to establish a provisional army of two regiments of artillery, eight regiments of infantry and one regiment of cavalry. These men were to enlist for a period of three years. As the majority of Virginians anticipated a short war, most chose to enlist in volunteer regiments which required a commitment of only one year. As a result only one battalion sized infantry unit of the provisional army came into being- the 1st Battalion Virginia Infantry (Irish). (1)

The battalion was organised in May 1861, and the rank and file consisted mainly of Irish laborers from towns and cities such as Norfolk, Alexandria, Covington, Richmond and Lynchburg. Although most of the men were Irish, the unit was officered by native-born Virginians, many of whom had been trained at the Virginia Military Institute and West Point. The five companies were mustered into Confederate service on 30th June 1861 as the 1st Battalion Virginia Regulars. (2)

The Battle of Kernstown would prove to be the Irishmen’s first major test of the war. Stonewall Jackson’s opponent on the day was technically Tyrone-born Brigadier-General James Shields, but an injury received the day before the battle had disabled the Union commander, who was forced to hand over effective command at Kernstown to Colonel Nathan Kimball (this did not prevent Shields from subsequently claiming credit for the victory). Jackson had ordered his 3,400 men to the attack believing they faced only some 3,000 soldiers who represented the Federal rearguard at Winchester. The 187 men of the 1st Virginia Battalion moved forward with their unsuspecting comrades against an enemy force which in fact numbered some 8,500.

It was early afternoon when Jackson, leading his army north up the Valley Pike, found what he assumed to be the outnumbered Union force positioned on an eminence to the immediate west of the Pike known as Pritchard’s Hill. Conferring with his cavalry commander Turner Ashby, who had been skirmishing with the Federals, the Confederate General decided to launch his main attack around the right of the enemy position. Jackson left Turner’s cavalry to deal with any Union threat to the west of the Pike and on the road itself, before amassing 24 guns to the left of the route to occupy the enemy. Meanwhile he would lead his main force further off to the left of the Pike to execute his plan. On the day of battle the Virginia Irishmen formed part of the brigade of Colonel Jesse Burks, and were led by Richmond native Captain David B. Bridgford. At the start of the engagement they were assigned to provide infantry support to the artillery concentration, specifically to Captain Carpenter’s Battery. (3)

David B. Bridgford who commanded the Irish Battalion at the Battle of Kernstown

David B. Bridgford who commanded the Irish Battalion at the Battle of Kernstown

The 1st Battalion remained in position with Carpenter’s guns for around 90 minutes, all the while being subjected to unnerving counter-battery fire from guns on Pritchard’s Hill. They managed to see this duty through without sustaining any casualties, but their good fortune would not hold. Sometime around 4.30pm they received an order to move a half-mile to their left front, where the main battle was now being fought. All had not gone to plan for the Confederates on the Irishmen’s left during the intervening period. As the main Rebel force had sought to outflank Pritchard’s Hill they had been subjected to artillery fire, and a brigade which attempted to assault the Federal positions at the base of the hill had been repulsed. Meanwhile Jackson had continued to shuttle his men towards the high ground of Sandy Ridge on the Union right, where the fighting would soon intensify. Having moved to directly support this flanking attempt, the Irish regulars spent some 30 minutes in rear of the Rockbridge artillery before finally being thrown into the infantry contest. (4)

The focus of the fighting on Sandy Ridge was a half mile long low stone wall, which both sides had initially raced to occupy- the Confederates had got their first, but the contest would ebb and flow back and forth over the position for nearly two hours. As more and more Union troops began to appear on and about the Ridge, it was beginning to become horrifyingly clear to Jackson and his men that far from facing a demoralised rearguard, they were in fact heavily outnumbered and staring at potential destruction. It was late afternoon when the 1st Virginia moved towards the top of the Ridge and the stone wall; again conflicting orders bedeviled deployment, with three companies (including Captain Bridgford) moving to the left of the line and two towards the right. They would fight separately for the remainder of the battle. The Irishmen did not have to wait long to encounter the enemy on their arrival at the top of Sandy Ridge. Captain Bridgford described the scene:

‘[The] position was directly opposite the enemy’s line, at a range of not more than twenty yards. We immediately took part in the action. The firing was general and continuous along both lines. The ground we occupied was soon dotted with dead and wounded men. The fire of the enemy was exceedingly severe. The colors of the battalion were planted on the crest of the ridge by Color-Sergeant Kenney…’ (5)

Men had begun to fall almost immediately, particular around the spot where Kenney had positioned the colors. Second Lieutenant Heth of Company D fell beside them, shot through the body while directing his men’s fire. Acting Sergeant-Major James Duggan from Derry took a horrific wound to the face in front of the colors while in the act of taking aim. Meanwhile the two separated companies of the battalion under Captain Thom of Company C were enduring an equally trying ordeal. Twice they repelled Union assaults, with Thom himself taking a bullet to the left breast, which was stopped from entering his body by a copy of the New Testament he had fortuitously placed there. (6)

The final Confederate retreat at the Battle of Kernstown by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

The final Confederate retreat at the Battle of Kernstown by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

Despite the efforts of the Irishmen and their Virginian officers the position they faced becoming hopeless for the Confederates. Eventually Jackson’s entire line began to crumble and was forced into retreat, with the 1st Virginia and the rest of the Rebel force being driven from the stone wall and Sandy Ridge. Fortunately for Stonewall and his men the Union troops were themselves too disorganised to form an effective pursuit. The Confederates moved back down the Valley Pike; Stonewall Jackson had suffered what would turn out to be the only defeat of his military career. (7)

Captain Bridgford reported 47 casualties in the Irish Battalion at the Battle of Kernstown, including 6 killed, 20 wounded and 21 missing, although the unit’s muster rolls indicate that these losses were somewhat greater, amounting to 12 killed, 28 wounded and 19 prisoners of war. The 1st Virginia Irish Battalion would continue to fight with Jackson’s army and experience ultimate success with him during the Valley Campaign. They became the Provost Guard for Jackson’s Corps on 11th October 1862, a role which they would adopt for the entire Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Despite this function, the unit was plagued by desertion and notorious ill-discipline for much of the war. Many of its original Irish component were not present by war’s end, when the remnants of the Battalion surrendered with the rest of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House in 1865. (8)

(1) Driver Jr and Ruffner 1996:1; (2) Ibid.: 1-2; (3) Cozzens 2008: 168,  Official Records: 405, Driver Jr and Ruffner 1996:12; (4) Official Records: 405, Driver Jr and Ruffner 1996: 12; (5) Cozzens 2008: 172-185, Driver Jr and Ruffner 1996: 12, Official Records: 405; (6) Official Records: 406-7, Driver Jr and Ruffner 1996: 102; (7) Cozzens 2008: 192-207; (8) Driver Jr and Ruffner 1996: 32, 35-6;

References and Further Reading

Cozzens, Peter 2008. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign

Driver Jr., Robert & Ruffner, Kevin 1996. 1st Battalion Virginia Infantry, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, 24th Battalion Virginia Partisan Rangers

Official Records Series 1, Volume 12, Part 1, Chapter 24. Report of Capt. D. B. Bridgford, First Virginia Battalion

The Kernstown Battlefield

Civil War Trust Battle of Kernstown Page