With Infernal Fury: The 5th Ohio is Blooded at Kernstown

    At the First Battle of Kernstown fought March 23, 1862, the 5th Ohio Volunteer Infantry gained its reputation as a fighting regiment by standing its ground while other regiments nearby quailed before the Rebel fire. But that came at a cost: the regiment lost five color bearers in succession and by the end of the battle, the national colors were perforated with 48 holes while the state colors had another 10 holes. "When the 84th Pennsylvania fell back in confusion, General Sullivan, commanding the brigade, exclaimed that the army was whipped, but on looking again, he observed the 5th Ohio still fighting and exclaimed, "No, thank God! The brave 5th Ohio is still standing its ground and holding the Rebels."

    Among the participants of the Battle of Kernstown was Private Wesley Clark Hickman of Co. I who penned the following letter to his father, the Reverend Robert Frame Hickman, a week after the battle. Wesley had enlisted in Co. I of the 5th in April 1861 and had re-enlisted with the 3 years' organization of the regiment in June 1861. Hickman's eyewitness account of Kernstown saw publication in the Perry County Weekly, a newspaper published in New Lexington, Ohio. 


"Boys, Keep the Colors up!"

Six miles south of Strasburg, Shenandoah Co., Virginia

March 30, 1862

Dear Father,

          Today I received your letters dated respectively on the 20th and 22nd instant and although I wrote you a hurried note on the 26th to inform you of my safety, at the risk of being deemed prosy, I shall devote this evening to a detail of such events of the battle of the 23rd instant as passed under my personal observation. In doing this, I may possibly repeat much of the note of the 26th, but we are so well acquainted that I don’t feel afraid it will be cause of offense to you. The conclusion and excitement of that time rendered a readable letter almost an impossibility.

          On Saturday March 22nd at 4 p.m., the long roll sounded in the camp of the 5th Ohio, and all who were well fell into line under command of Lieutenant Colonel Patrick and double quicked to the scene of the skirmish on the Strasburg road in which General Shields (as usual) was wounded. The Rebels under the command of General Jackson had opened a lively fire of shot and shell upon our troops but withdrew for the night just as we arrived. None of us supposed the affair involved anything very serious; it was thought by the men to be another instance of the Rebel Colonel Turner Ashby’s temerity, as he had been harassing the troops for several days and had evinced impudence enough for the perpetration of any act within the range of possibility. But, when we countermarched, instead of returning to camp at the Romney road, we were ordered to file left and the whole regiment was deployed as skirmishers along that road for nearly two miles and there we remained under arms during Saturday night without any occurrence worthy of note further than that the night was uncomfortably cold.

          On Sunday morning after eating breakfast, we returned to Winchester under the agreeable impression that the affair was settled, and we would be taken to camp and get a good sleep. But the cannonading commenced again, and things began to look serious though none realized the real situation. We were now marched down the Strasburg road about one and a half miles and there ordered into position in support of Daum’s battery, a duty which the 5th Ohio discharged thenceforward throughout the day. For a period of two or three hours, while both armies were engaged in maneuvering for position and in fielding to ascertain the strength and locality of the opposing force, our regiment was in comparatively safe quarters, though frequently shells and solid shot would come in dangerous proximity to our heads.

          At the end of this time, however, Colonel Daum of the artillery determined to discover precisely where the Rebel strength lay and ordered the battery bearing his name into a meadow about 500 yards eastward from Kernstown (a village three miles south of Winchester) and we went with the battery. Scarcely had it been planted (we were directly in rear of it) when the Rebels opened a terrific fire upon us from three batteries planted very nearly one-third of a mile from us. It was but a moment ere they got the range, and though our battery returned the fire in gallant style, it was at once evident that we could not stay long in that meadow. Shot and shell rushed and screamed all around us with infernal fury. It seemed impossible but that dreadful slaughter would be made in our ranks, so thickly were the horrid missiles hurled among us; but the merciful God averted the death that seemed so imminent and but one man of the regiment (H.A. Bolser of our company) was wounded there. His left arm was fractured by a piece of shell. The artillery limbered up and we left the meadow, one of the artillerymen being killed just as they retired, his head being blown completely off.

Veterans' badge belonging to Philip Nunn of Co. G, 5th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The badge incorporates the regimental number within the star, the corps badge of the 12th and later 20th Army Corps of which the 5th Ohio was a part. (Cowan Auctions)

          On leaving the meadow, we resumed position on a hill commanding the Rebel batteries. On this hill were located three batteries- Clark’s of the regular service which was planted on the southern brow of the hill next to Daum’s battery which was planted 100 yards to the rear of Clark’s, and an Ohio battery planted about 100 yards to the right and in front of Daum’s; the space between the three batteries being shaped nearly as a triangle and in this space was the position of our regiment. Here we lay for several hours, dodging and shrinking as occasion demanded, the Rebel batteries firing at us incessantly. Soon we became somewhat accustomed to our situation and knew which way to dodge and but three or four were killed or wounded while we laid there.

          At about 3 p.m., the Rebels succeeded in gaining position on a hill nearly 900 yards west of us and planted a battery and their infantry, under cover of the artillery, attempted to turn our right flank with a view to capture the batteries named in the foregoing paragraph. They were met and checked by the gallant men who composed our right wing. Now the famous Stonewall Brigade emerged from the woods nearly a mile south of us with their banners flying and marched up to reinforce the Rebel infantry. Our signal corps signaled to our left wing to hasten to the support of our right.

          The din of artillery, the roar of musketry, and the shouts and yells of maddened men rendered the scene one of fearful excitement, and the issue of the battle was almost in doubt. Steadily the Stonewall Brigade moved forward under a destructive and galling fire from our batteries, keeping their ranks well closed up as they came. When within about 400 yards of our batteries, they filed to the left and our artilleryman shouted for “three second fuse” shells, which with grape and canister they poured with deadly effect upon the Rebels. I was standing where I could witness the havoc our guns made in their ranks. By files, nay by platoons almost, the doomed men fell, but still the survivors preserved good order in their ranks and their hated banner moved as steadily forward as though they had not been under fire. Their bravery was heroic, worthy of a better cause, and commanded the admiration and respect of all who witnessed it.

American Battlefield Trust map of the Battle of Kernstown. The 5th Ohio went into action alongside the 67th Ohio, a local regiment which ranks as one of my favorites. 

          At this time, our regiment was ordered to fall in to go over to the help of the infantry engaging the Rebels. The men formed with fixed bayonets and started at the double quick, but when we had gone about 100 yards, the artillery officers “raised a row” about withdrawing all of their infantry support and five companies (F,G,H,I, and K) were ordered to remain, and the other half of the regiment went forward under a galling fire from the Rebel battery which killed and wounded several of our brave fellows. Reaching the wood in which the Rebels were, Color Corporal T.B. Isdell of Co. I and bearer of the state flag fell dead at the first volley, shot through the head; a moment afterward Ensign Swayne, bearer of the national colors, fell shot in the face; then Captain Whitcom took the flag and gave it to one of the color guard and in a moment afterward was shot in the head and instantly killed while cheering on his men. Colonel Patrick’s horse was shot from under him.

In about half an hour (which seemed like an age to those who remained with the batteries), the companies of the 5th Ohio which had remained behind fell in and with cheers and yells ran at the top of our speed to the scene of battle. Before we reached there, the Rebels gave way, making a second stand under cover of trees and rocks. After we got up, they fired but two or three volleys and then began their retreat. Our troops pursued them for a little while when they were recalled and the cavalry charged after the flying mass, capturing many prisoners, among them one of General Jackson’s aides. A mile or so away the Rebels made large campfires and kept on their retreat. We bivouacked on the battleground.

Those so disposed (and I am glad to say there were hundreds) now went round over the field seeking the wounded of both sides and rendering to them such aid and comfort as circumstances rendered possible. The wounded men desperately needed water and thanked us so heartily when it was given that those who labored thus were repaid more than a thousand-fold. I think I never realized the value of a cup of water as I did there.

As we were returning from pursuit, I encountered a captain who relieved my anxiety by assuring me of brother’s safety and that of the whole regiment. We had a warm shaking of hands and shouted for the old flag with a will. The 62nd Ohio was not in the fight actively compared with the part which some of the other regiments rook, but they were on hand and as willing as the rest. A few shells burst near them however, I believe. Before we took up our quarters for the night, there was a shouting time there you will readily believe.

The next morning, I took a walk over the battle ground and many, many ghastly scenes presented themselves to the eye. The Rebel loss was very great in a space of perhaps half an acre lay 20 dead Rebels, at least 16 or 17 of whom had been shot in the head and lay there stark and cold; from this spot, many wounded were removed. But I will not disgust you with details.

The next day we expected a renewal of the battle, but the Rebel loss had been too severe; they still retreated, and we pressed on in pursuit till we reached this point. The papers will give you the most important features of the pursuit. All along the road, wounded Rebels had been left at houses. Our loss in the 5th Ohio is said to be 20 killed and 38 wounded. The aggregate on either side is unknown to me.

Source: Private Wesley C. Hickman, Co. I, 5th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Perry County Weekly (Ohio), April 16, 1862, pgs. 1-2

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