George Crook’s Tin Ear
The Union general’s refusal to listen cost him the Second Battle of Kernstown
No one could deny that George Crook had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. After graduating a modest 38th out of 43 cadets in his West Point class of 1852, he paid his dues in remote Pacific Northwest outposts and fighting Indians until the Civil War gave him a chance to rise in rank. In September 1861, he took command of the 36th Ohio Infantry, a regiment he found “as rare as beefsteak,” and whipped it into shape. The Buckeyes proudly called themselves “Crook’s Regulars” for the duration of the war.
By 1862 Crook had risen from colonel to brigadier general, and by 1864 he was an experienced veteran of Antietam and Chickamauga, among other battles. He was regarded as a solid, dependable fighter, and the men of the Army of West Virginia celebrated when he took command of that force in July 1864. Crook replaced Maj. Gen. David Hunter after Rebel Lt. Gen. Jubal Early drove the latter from Lynchburg and across the Allegheny Mountains. Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, one of Crook’s subordinates, wrote, “We all feel great confidence in his skill and good judgment.” But Crook’s judgment would fail him when he went up against Early at the Second Battle of Kernstown on July 24, and his intransigence cost him the death of a talented and beloved commander.
Early had alarmed officials and citizens in the North when, in mid-June, his Second Corps was detached from the Army of Northern Virginia outside Richmond and sent to Lynchburg and then the Shenandoah Valley. Confederate General Robert E. Lee wanted Early’s force, re-christened the Army of the Valley District, to stage a distraction and force Union General Ulysses S. Grant to divert men away from Richmond and Petersburg, to defend Washington, D.C.
Ill-tempered, hard-cursing “Old Jube” more than fulfilled his commander’s wishes. After saving the vital rail center of Lynchburg, Early chased Hunter out of the Shenandoah Valley, crushed a Federal force near Frederick, Md., at the Battle of Monocacy and moved on to threaten the U.S. capital before beating a strategic retreat to the Valley.
By July 22, Early was camped at Fisher’s Hill, about 20 miles south of Winchester, while Crook had set up headquarters with the regrouped Army of West Virginia in Winchester. Eager to determine how many Federals remained in the area, Early on July 23 detailed three cavalry brigades under Brig. Gen. John C. Vaughn to conduct a reconnaissance. Vaughn skirmished with Brig. Gen. Alfred N. Duffie’s Union cavalry division and returned with word that only Crook’s battered force remained in the Valley near Winchester. Early immediately issued orders for his entire 16,000-man force to be ready to march north the next morning.
Crook had established headquarters at Winchester on July 22. The Yankee leader knew his force was slightly smaller than Early’s and lacked the experience and élan of the Confederates. Crook decided he would remain at Winchester for “a day or two to give the enemy the impression we will not follow, so that they may send a good portion of their command to Richmond.” And if Early did move to the east, Crook would attack. If Early kept his whole force in the Valley, Crook would fall back into Maryland, adhering to Grant’s orders to keep his army between Early and Washington. Crook did not take into account that Early just might attack.
Before dawn on July 24 that attack was well underway. Five cavalry brigades, totaling 5,000 men, screened the advance. Colonel James W. Gillespie’s horsemen led the advance on the dusty Valley Pike, followed by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s two-division corps. Colonel William L. Jackson’s cavalry brigade rode down the Middle Road on Gillespie’s left, while Brig. Gen. Bradley Johnson’s horsemen cantered down the Winchester–Front Royal Pike to the right. Brigadier General John McCausland’s Brigade covered the extreme right out of Front Royal, while Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden moved through the western reaches of the Valley on the Back Road.
The fighting of the Second Battle of Kernstown began when Gillespie’s and Jackson’s troopers ran into Union Colonel William Tibbits’ cavalry pickets two miles south of the village around 7 a.m. A Union trooper rushed back to warn Duffie at Winchester.
Colonel James A. Mulligan’s 1,800-man division also lay in the Rebels’ advance path. Crook had sent them south the previous day to keep an eye on the Confederate cavalry reconnaissance, and the bluecoats were camped on “Pritchard’s Hill” on the Pritchard Farm.
Born of Irish immigrant parents in 1830, Mulligan spent his youth farming near Chicago, and then graduated from college aiming to become a lawyer. An associate of Stephen A. Douglas, he briefly became a Democratic Party organizer and also served as a militia officer.
Mulligan got permission to raise a regiment in 1861, and he filled the ranks of the 23rd Illinois Infantry with fellow Hibernians to such an extent that the unit was nicknamed “Mulligan’s Irish Brigade.” For the war’s first two years Mulligan’s regiment served largely in West Virginia. By Second Kernstown, Crook had given Mulligan the command of a small division that included his beloved 23rd.
While Mulligan and many of his men were attending informal church services on July 24, they were interrupted by the sounds of battle. The colonel ordered his infantry into line of battle and unlimbered the Upshur Battery, 1st West Virginia Light Artillery, on Pritchard’s Hill. The Union shellfire quickly bedeviled the Confederate advance.
Duffie, alerted by the courier, rushed Colonel Jacob Higgins’ brigade to Kernstown to help stabilize the front, and Crook sent Colonel Joseph Thoburn’s large division to Sandy Ridge, to the right and rear of Mulligan’s position at Pritchard’s Hill.
Crook arrived on the scene, but the Confederate infantry could not be seen, causing him to believe he was merely witnessing another cavalry scare—a fateful mistake. Crook returned to Winchester a little after 10 a.m. and concocted a plan to trap the Rebel troopers.
He ordered Brig. Gen. William W. Averell to advance his cavalry division south on the Front Royal Road, east of the Valley Pike, and use the byways that connected the roads “to gain the enemy’s rear, by passing around his right to destroy his trains and inflict all the injury [possible] upon his forces.” Averell’s 1,500 horsemen trotted out of Winchester at 11 a.m., unwittingly riding toward more than twice their number of Confederate cavalrymen and mounted infantry.
Duffie, Mulligan and Tibbits, meanwhile, were still facing off with the Rebels. Remembering that Pritchard’s Hill had served as the anchor for the Union victory at the First Battle of Kernstown, Mulligan remarked, “It is no doubt the best in this range of the country, if we will not be ordered from it, I have no fear of the result.” His spirits sank when Crook ordered his division off the hill to the west side of the Pike, a bit south of Opequon Presbyterian Church.
As Mulligan’s men tried to settle into their new position, Breckinridge’s infantry was arriving on the battlefield’s southern edge, still out of sight of the Federals. Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Division advanced on the west side of the Valley Pike, concealed by Barton’s Woods.
Gordon moved through the trees behind a screen formed by his elite sharpshooter battalion. When the sharpshooters began relieving Gillespie’s Tennesseans and Georgians in the firing line, the Southerners’ well-aimed fire stunned the Federals. Mulligan soon withdrew to the relative safety of a stone wall along Pritchard’s Lane, which ran along the base of the hill.
Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton’s Division deployed on the pike’s east side, also out of sight of the Northerners. Wharton advanced two brigades, and his skirmishers fanned out across the Triplett Farm, relieving the rest of Gillespie’s Brigade, which shifted farther east and joined the cavalry on the Front Royal Road.
Alarmed by the Confederate buildup, Mulligan sent his brother-in-law, 19-year-old Lieutenant James Nugent, to warn Crook in Winchester. Crook snapped at Nugent: “Colonel Mulligan is mistaken. I have full and accurate information. There is nothing in his front but a few bushwhackers…. Colonel Mulligan must move forward.” Crook also questioned Mulligan’s resolve, saying, “Why, I haven’t heard a half dozen shots fired this morning.” Nugent retorted, “General, if you’ll get a little closer to the front, you may hear as many as a dozen.” Crook shot back angrily: “Tell Colonel Mulligan to instantly and persistently advance. Tomorrow, I will settle with you.” Nugent returned to Mulligan and told him of his orders, while Crook ordered Averell to sweep behind the “bushwhackers.”
Crook, however, had second thoughts. He summoned Colonels Isaac H. Duval and Rutherford B. Hayes (Duval commanded Crook’s old division, while Hayes led one of Duval’s brigades). Crook ordered Hayes to take his brigade and some artillery to the front, deploy on Mulligan’s left and attack. Crook himself rode back to the front and decided Mulligan should advance directly toward Barton’s Woods while Hayes’ brigade advanced along the east side of the Valley Pike, wheeled to the right and struck at Gordon’s right flank. Crook also ordered Thoburn’s division to advance along Sandy Ridge, then turn and strike Gordon’s left flank. Averell’s division would cut off the Rebels’ retreat.
Crook found Mulligan on his horse Lexie behind the left flank of the 10th West Virginia Infantry. “Colonel Mulligan,” Crook hailed him. “What are the prospects here?” “The prospects are we will get a sound thrashing,” replied Mulligan, again pointing out the Confederates’ growing strength. “I think we should fall back, cover our retreat and save ourselves the best we can.”
Crook mocked the colonel, saying, “Oh no; no, no; not at all….” He added: “I have sent back for reinforcements; there is no danger. We are able to whip all the rebels there is in our front.” A 10th West Virginia lieutenant who observed the exchange said Crook’s tone and response “stung Colonel Mulligan to the quick.” But Mulligan suppressed his anger, saying, “All right, General, if you say so, right here we will fight, but we are doomed to defeat.”
Early, noting the Unionists strengthening their position along the Valley Pike at 1 p.m., deployed Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s Division to extend from Gordon’s left flank across the Middle Road to Sandy Ridge. Jackson’s cavalry brigade deployed on the west side of the Ridge, with Imboden’s brigade farther west on the Back Road. The Rebels now overlapped Thoburn’s division on Crook’s right.
While Early was developing his Sandy Ridge strategy, Breckinridge was reconnoitering. He noticed Crook’s left flank was in the air, where Hayes’ brigade went into position on the McCardle Farm across the pike from the Pritchard homestead. Even better, he located a ravine that led directly behind a hill overlooking Hayes’ left flank. Breckinridge informed Early, who ordered him to launch a flank attack. Breckinridge led Wharton’s Division through the ravine, deployed it and prepared to attack. At that point Crook’s fate was sealed.
Mulligan and Hayes were readying their own assault when a man on Hayes’ staff told them the enemy was in force on their left. Mulligan said, “My orders are to go forward, and I am going forward.” Hayes replied it was “as well to go forward as any way. We are gone up anyway.”
The Union forces advanced about 1:30 p.m. Hayes’ men pushed back Rebel skirmishers toward the woods on the Triplett Farm. On the west side of the pike Mulligan’s division advanced to Opequon Church, where he encountered Gordon’s advancing division. His troops hunkered down behind a stone wall and the ruins of the church to repulse several sorties by Gordon’s men.
Crook finally realized that the Confederates outflanked Mulligan’s right, and sent one of Thoburn’s brigades to assist the Irishman. But heavy fire from Ramseur’s sharpshooters turned the men back. Remarkably, instead of pulling back and consolidating his position, Crook ordered Thoburn to concentrate his entire division on Sandy Ridge and crush the enemy left flank.
On the east side of the battlefield, Breckinridge had deployed Wharton’s Division so it was perfectly perpendicular to Hayes’ brigade. The Kentuckian kept them out of sight on the reverse slope of the hill until Hayes’ brigade reached a point opposite the center of Wharton’s battle line. Then at least 2,500 Confederate riflemen advanced to the crest of the hill and fired at Hayes’ left flank, only 40 yards away.
Crook’s beloved 36th Ohio, which held the extreme left flank of the attack, bore the brunt of that fusillade. “We were cut down by the score,” recorded Major Jewett Palmer. The 36th lost 136 men in a matter of minutes, and most of Hayes’ brigade dissolved and fled.
Mulligan’s left flank brigade also fell back in confusion. The Irishman had warned Colonel Thomas Harris, the commander on his right, to be ready to fall back, and Harris quickly pulled his two regiments back to the stone wall along Pritchard’s Lane when the left collapsed.
The Union disarray finally dawned on Crook. He canceled Thoburn’s attack and withdrew the division to the southern outskirts of Winchester, to form a rear guard with Duval’s infantry brigade. By that time Gordon and Ramseur had their divisions moving forward, and Wharton was rapidly closing in on the Valley Pike.
Duffie’s cavalrymen launched desperate charges into the right flank of Wharton’s Division to save thousands of Union soldiers, buying time for the Federal retreat. The Upshur County gunners also shelled Wharton’s command with great accuracy as the 13th West Virginia took position in an apple orchard east of the pike, offering Wharton the first resistance his division encountered that day.
A soldier in the 13th said he’d never forget seeing Mulligan in the fray, “with coat off revealing his green shirt, emblematical of his native land, and with his locks streaming in the air, he arose in the saddle and gave vent to his feeling, exclaiming, ‘Bully Boys, brave boys! Stand up to it—keep your line unbroken.”
Mulligan rode back to Pritchard’s Lane and continued to cheer on the 23rd Illinois and 10th West Virginia—until a bullet ripped into his thigh. Several men helped him dismount, but sharpshooters put two more rounds into his upper body. Lieutenant Nugent stepped in for Mulligan, grabbing his regiment’s battle flag. A Rebel bullet killed him instantly, and the colors fell to the ground.
As Confederates closed in from three sides, Mulligan saw Nugent fall and told his men, “Lay me down and save the flag.” At first they refused to leave him, but they finally fell back toward Winchester. Rebels took Mulligan into the Pritchard house. Samuel Pritchard recalled the colonel “lingered two days in great agony” before he died.
While Mulligan was holding out in the lane, Hayes rallied portions of his brigade around the Upshur guns on Pritchard’s Hill. Although Hayes’ brigade bore the brunt of Breckinridge’s initial onslaught, his men regrouped and formed part of the rear guard on Winchester’s outskirts.
Over on the Front Royal Road, Averell’s division ran into a wall of three Confederate cavalry brigades. To make matters worse, Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ Division raced cross-country to try to cut off Averell. Colonel James Schoonmaker’s brigade fell to pieces, racing to the rear. The 8th Ohio Cavalry abandoned its dismounted skirmishers, who were saved by troopers of Colonel William Powell’s West Virginia brigade.
Powell’s Mountaineers and Colonel Tibbits’ brigade from Duffie’s division provided cavalry support to the rear guard. But Schoonmaker’s brigade retreated to Stephenson’s Depot, spreading rumors that the Union army had been destroyed and all the artillery was lost. Colonel Higgins, the commander of Duffie’s other brigade, ordered the train to move out to avoid capture. The situation quickly ratcheted up into wild confusion. A Massachusetts soldier who had been on the field at First Manassas observed that “Bull Run was nothing in comparison” to the stampede from Stephenson’s Depot to Martinsburg. Teamsters cut their horses loose, burned their wagons and dashed north. Averell’s horse artillerymen abandoned their guns at the depot, leaving Hayes’ infantry to haul them to safety.
Bad weather blew in that night. Whereas Crook’s command experience had earlier failed him, he rallied and calmed his retreating men that stormy evening. His rear guard kept the Rebel cavalry at bay.
Early would criticize his horsemen for their failure to cut off Crook’s retreat—a tall order for cavalry. Old Jube had nevertheless achieved a spectacular victory. Losing no more than 200 men in the process, he had killed, wounded or captured 1,200 Federals.
Second Kernstown is one of the war’s misleading battles, a small fight but with large consequences. Early’s success gave him the opportunity to launch a retaliatory raid that resulted in the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., six days later and, even more important, forced Grant to return the VI and XIX corps to the Shenandoah Valley, some 30,000 men, and to send Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to the region with two cavalry divisions.
The resulting Fall 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign kept a large number of Federals from Robert E. Lee’s front until the end of that year. The concentration of such a large Union force in the Valley ultimately led to Early’s defeat, but he had done a great job of buying time for Lee. Had Crook listened to Mulligan when he had the chance, the results might have been very different.
Scott C. Patchan, a battlefield guide, is the author of Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign. Orignially published in the Feb. 2012 Civil War Times.