The 110th Pennsylvania Volunteers at Kernstown: the True Story

By Andy Waskie

A short article appeared in the last edition of this eminent Journal (Vol. II, No. IV, Nov. 1986, pg. 16) entitled: "Can this be true?" It concerned the role of the 110th at the battle of Kernstown, and was submitted by a member of this Company. I take the liberty to summarize this piece and would then like to comment upon it in order to set the record straight for our beloved regiment concerning this notable and bloody action. Since the 110th rendered noble, conspicuous and gallant service in the battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862, the study of their achievement begs clarification and publication.

I have examined all possible sources of information concerning the battle, both primary and secondary, which were available to me, and report without equivocation the fruits of my research. The primary sources consist mostly of firsthand reports of the action by unit commanders and other eyewitness accounts, mostly from the Official Records , Vol. XII, Part I. The secondary sources consist of battle accounts written later by non-participants, and often use available primary sources.

The information in "Can this be true?" comes from a spurious article which appeared in the June/July '86 issue of Blue and Grey magazine. This article reports Tyler's Brigade (Erastus Tyler, 3rd Brigade of Shield's 2nd Division, V Corps Army of the Potomac) containing 3,200 men. Tyler actually had less than 2,500 present for duty due to detached service and straggling as a result of the arduous march of the preceding days (Official Records, Series I, Vol. XII, Part I, pp. 335-344).

The 110th at Kernstown had approximately 300 men in the ranks, lost 1 officer and 7 enlisted men killed, 4 officers and 39 men wounded, none missing or captured for a total of 51 casualties, or an almost 20% casualty rate. (compared to the 10.8% figure of the article).

"Stonewall" Jackson, commanding the Confederate "Valley" Army reports his infantry force as approximately 3,000, not 2,000 as recorded in the aforementioned article. Jackson had 6 batteries at Kernstown (27 guns of which 18 were actually engaged). The batteries were those of Chew, Shumaker, McLaughlin, Carpenter, Water and Marye. The article also mentions 3 batteries well-placed to defend the right flank, but the Federal attack came on the Rebel left flank.

The 110th Pennsylvania is identified in the article as belonging to Tyler's Brigade, which is indeed true, but many of the details are shameful distortions or monstrous and deceitful phantasms, bearing little resemblance to reality. As you will soon learn from the reports filed, the 110th at Kernstown could muster little more than 300 men fit for service (Bates, History of Penna. Vols. Vol III, p. 979) and not 460, as appears in the article. What follows next appears to be some clearly subjective, prejudicial bombast concocted from some uninformed sources. Thus, the reference to a "shameful rout" credited to a staff officer; and another reference to the confused uselessness of the 110th for "the remainder of the day," credited to an unnamed and unknown soldier are, at best, inaccurate and mistaken or, at worst, patently false. These statements do not bear up when the record is closely scrutinized, and besmirch the record of a gallant regiment, complimented officially for its meritorious service in the battle of Kernstown; and, worst of all, dishonor the fallen heroes of the 110th who gave their lives in this battle.

I take liberty now to list excerpts from the reports of the commanders involved in the battle which cite the role of the 110th in the action, in order to clear up any inaccuracies and lay to rest any doubt about the gallant, heroic service of the regiment on that 23rd day of March 1862.

1. Initial Report of James Shields, from Winchester, Va. 3/25/1862 to Secretary of War Stanton:

The fight between the infantry on both sides was terrible. No infantry ever behaved better than ours, with the exception of the two Penna. regiments (the 84th and the 110th).

Correction to above report of Shields from Winchester, Va. 3/26/1862 to Secretary of War Stanton

I hasten to make correction. Investigation this day has satisfied me that the Penna. regiments (84th and 110th) behaved as bravely as any on the field. Through the eyes of others I was momentarily misled by misstatements. It affords me infinite gratification to be able to correct them, and to do full justice to a body of brave troops who have suffered dreadfully. You will please expunge that portion of my communication which makes them an exception, as I do in a copy I retain.

2. Official report of General Shields, Hdqs.

Winchester, Va. 3/29/1862 to V Corps Hdqs.

(I) gave positive orders that all disposable infantry should be immediately thrown forward on our right to carry the enemy's batteries and to assail and turn his left flank and hurl it back on the center. Colonel Kimball (acting for Shields -Ed.) entrusted this movement to Tyler's splendid brigade (which included the 110th -Ed.), which under its fearless leader Col. Tyler, marched forward with alacrity and enthusiastic elan to the performance of the most perilous duty of the day. The enemy's skirmishers were driven before it, and fell back upon the main body, strongly posted behind a high and solid stone wall, situated on an elevated ground. Here, the struggle became desperate, and for a short time doubtful (several thunderous volleys were poured into Tyler's brigade and into the 110th, as the Rebels rose up from behind the wall and staggered the advance; at this time, the 110th fell back, but regrouped and continued their charge - Ed.); but Tyler's brigade being soon joined on the left by .. (reinforcements), this united force dashed upon the enemy with a cheer and yell that rose high above the roar of battle, and though the Rebels fought desperately, as their piles of dead attest, they were forced back through the woods by a fire as destructive as ever fell upon a retreated foe. Jackson, with his supposedly invincible "Stonewall Brigade" and the accompanying brigades, much to their mortification and discomfiture, were compelled by this terrific fire to fall back in disorder upon their reserve. Here, they took up a new position for a final stand, and made an attempt for a few minutes to retrieve the fortunes of the day. But again rained down upon them the same close and destructive fire. Again cheer upon cheer rang in their ears. A few minutes only did they stand up against it, when they turned dismayed and fled in disorder, leaving us in possession of the field, the killed and wounded, 300 prisoners, two guns, four caissons, and a thousand stand of small arms. Night alone saved him from total destruction..

I cannot conclude this report without expressing thanks and gratitude to the officers and soldiers of my command for their noble conduct on this trying day. Col. Tyler's brigade and the regiments accompanying it (including the 110th - Ed.) achieved the decisive movement of the day. They drove the forces of the enemy before them on the left flank, and by hurling this flank back consummated this glorious victory...

3. Official report of Signal Officer W.W. Rowley from Hdqrs. Dept. of Shenandoah, New Market, Va. April 21, 1862

About 3 P.M., Col. Tyler was ordered to advance with his five regt's (including the 110th - Ed.) to turn the enemy's left and capture a battery. He was met with a heavy force, which poured in upon him volley after volley with deadly effect, but our forces, under Col. Tyler answered it with a will.

4. Official report of Col. Nathan Kimball, commander 1st Brigade Shields Division and acting Div. commander on the field from Strasburg, Va. March 26, 1862

About 4 PM, I ordered the 3rd Brigade (Tyler's, including the 110th - Ed.) to move to the right to gain the flank of the enemy and charge them through the wood. They moved forward steadily and gallantly, opening a galling fire on the enemy's infantry.

5. Official report of Lieut. George Whitcamp

Act. Adj. of 5th Ohio Inf. March 26, 1862

At last the 84th Pa. advanced to support our left flank, but twice they fell back. The third time their brave Colonel urged them to follow him and stand fast. It was under that advance that the gallant Col. Murray lost his life. When the colonel fell his regt. retreated and could not be rallied again. Lt. Col. Patrick beseeched them not to leave the field, but they had taken the panic, and it became infectious.. (perhaps it is the rout of the 84th Pa. which gave rise to the confusion about the 110th; although even the 84th later rallied - Ed.)

6. Official report of Col. Erastus Tyler commanding the 3rd Brigade from Camp Kimball, Va. March 26, 1862

After my brigade (including the 110th - Ed.) had thus bravely stood their ground for at least an hour ... when the complete rout of the enemy was affected ... both the men and officers of my command fought with the most commendable bravery and determination and are entitled to special mention...

7. Unofficial account of the engagement contained in a letter from Col. Wm. D. Lewis, Col. of the 110th Pa. to Gov. Andrew Curtin of Pa. from Winchester, Va. March 30, 1862

Hon. A.G. Curtin,

Dear Governor,

I have been intending for some time past to write you a letter informing you of some of the doings of the 110th but have been waiting until something of interest, should occur to do so. Since the terrible battle of Sunday last we have been kept quite busy. Indeed, we have known but little rest since our departure from Camp Curtin. All sorts of fatiguing forced marches and duty have been heaped upon us, but in justice to the men I must say that they have endured all exposures, & hardships without complaint. Fortunately our subsistence depdt. has been well attended to & I have done my best for the comfort of the men.

You have heard however, doubtless, from time to time of our movements etc and it is therefore useless to look back that far. But of the Battle of Sunday you would no doubt like to hear some of the details of the Pennsylvania boys doings. Our Camp, "Tyler's Brigade", was situated some 3-1/2 miles north of "Winchester" on the "Martinsburg" road. Genl. Shields ordered on Saturday evg. the entire Brigade up to the town, in consequence of the skirmish of that afternoon. We arrived there during the evg. & bivouacked in an open field adjoining the town for the night. Next morng we were ordered back to our Camp which we reached about 12 o'clk. M. when the men (very hungry) began cooking a hearty meal combining Breakfast and Dinner, and had but just commenced when an order came for us to immediately report to Col. Kimball of the 1st Brigade (Comdg. the Division) as "Jackson" had marched to within 3 miles south of the town & "Kimball" was marching to engage him. We reached him as soon as quick marching would take us in good time & found that the Rebels were occupying strong points in great force. The Cannonading was very severe and as we were waiting upon the road, for orders to take our position the men were obliged to fall to the ground to let the shells pass over them. We were soon ordered to take position to the rear & left of the enemy and endeavor to out-flank them and Capture one of their batteries. This involved a march of about 1/4 of a mile & as we went we halted in an orchard to strip the men of their over-coats, blankets etc. preparatory to going into action. We soon reached our position - the men anxious for their turn to come. The official return of our part of the action, I send you herewith a Copy of. But as it is only confined to bare facts, I will add some lines giving some particulars. As soon as the enemy had found out that we had taken position they opened upon us, whilst still under cover of the woods, a most deadly & destructive fire which at the moment was unexpected to us & our men were very properly ordered to fall, in order that they should escape the fire, & give them time to bring themselves to their senses. The fire of the enemy was most determined, but soon our troops made a dash from the woods and the engagement was general, our troops staggering at times & falling back, yet rallying with increased vigor each time, and firing with great effect. The Rebels were mostly screened by stone walls, which accounts for their mostly being shot in the upper part of the body and head. The fighting has now been going on for some time and each Regiment fighting pretty much on its' own hook. Col. "Daum" of "Daum's Battry" rode up to me, & said Col. Lewis, if you do not make a charge across that ravine and dislodge the enemy opposite your center we are lost, and in fact we were nearly flogged at this juncture. I replied "Col. the charge will be a desperate one". He said "yes, very". I did not hesitate a moment but faced my men by the rear rank & left - half wheel down we went at a charge double-quick time. The charge was completely successful & we dislodged the enemy from behind their stone wall driving them like sheep before us, wounding and killing as many as we wanted to. In this charge we received the full fire on our left flank from the enemy engaged upon the hill and my loss was severe, some 8 being killed & 38 wounded. On we pressed, & as we gained ground it was a fearful spectacle to see the vast number of the enemy's killed and wounded strewn around the route. For this charge, my men deserve the greatest praise & I feel sure that they will get what they deserve. They certainly fought like devils, and obeyed my orders strictly. They only wanted to know what to do, to do it . From this time our prospects brightened, & our men, much encouraged, advanced bravely, completely routing the enemy, and capturing 4 cannon - one taken from the Rhode Island men at "Manassas". Our color had 3 bullets through it, & the spear shot off. By dark we were masters of the Field & the Brigade bivouacked that night adjoining the battle field in utter darkness - no camp fires being allowed to be lighted. It was a long, cold, & dreary night. About one hour before day-break we were called up, preparatory to starting in pursuit of the Rebels, when we found ourselves reinforced by Genl. Williams' Brigade, & on we went to five miles beyond "Strasburg". The enemy made a stand two or three times a day availing themselves of every strong point to engage our Artillery, but I feel satisfied that it was only their rear guard holding us in check as their main body advanced. At any rate they gained ground on us fast. We bivouacked in the open field again for the night, making now our 4th night in the open field, when I was called up at 3-1/2 o'clk. on Wednesday morng. by an order from Genl. Shields to report to him "at once" with my Regiment at his Head Quarters at "Winchester". As mine was the only advancing Regiment ordered back, we could not surmise why this order came, but I made the march back (20 miles) in good time, reaching Winchester during the afternoon. On reporting at Hd.Qrs. I was informed that Genl. Shields anticipated joining his command in a day or so, & that on his leaving I was to take command of the Post, which is considered a very important one. I shall have a good command of Cavalry, Artillery, & Infantry, & as nearly all are Secesh here, my berth will be no small one. The General will probably leave to-morrow. Altho' the appointment is a compliment, I must confess I should have preferred remaining with the advancing column.

Major Unger has been to see us & I have given him all the information in my power.

And now Governor can you not send me one Company? My command is slim & my men are heavily taxed for duty. I have 100 out daily on picket duty, 45 for Camp police, 15 with the division as teamsters, 58 in the hospitals as nurses, 96 sick in the hospital, & camp, one whole company detached at "Paw Paw" & 2 of my teams attend to Commissary stores. Our total wounded is about sixty . Forty-three is official from the hospital, but many slight cases did not go to hospital & consequently are not reported. I have room for just one Company, as I have had to consolidate two skeleton Companies, who had no hopes of recruiting. This leaves me 9 Companies and I want the tenth. Our duties are likely to be arduous for some time to come, & independent of all I fell sure that you could send them nowhere, where they could render more service. Capt. Baker's command are I know anxious to join me, as their friends are here. The command is in good order, and in a good state of discipline.

But I must close, for I fear that my letter may become tiresome. Yet I could not but suppose that you might be interested to hear some particulars of the action of one of Penna.'s Regmt. in so terrible a battle.

With my kindest regards to yourself & family, & also Major Russell, I am

Very respy yr obdt. servt.

Col. 110th Regt. P.V.

P.S. On the next page I give the copy of my official report.

8. Official report of Col. Lewis 110th Pa. from Winchester, Va. March 27, 1862.

Brig. Genl. Shields


I have the honor to report that on the afternoon of Sunday March 23rd my command left Camp, 3-1/2 miles on the main road north of "Winchester" by order of Col. Tyler, 3rd Brigade, and proceeded with his command immediately to the scene of action that afternoon. The Brigade was ordered to the rear & to the left flank of the enemy & were marched "Close Column by Division" into & under cover of a thick woods, when a deadly fire was immediately poured in upon them which, for the moment staggered our troops. They soon recovered, and my command, with the rest of the Brigade, advanced to the out-skirts of the woods & retd. the fire with great spirit. Subsequently, finding that the enemy held a stong position behind a stone fence across a ravine directly opposite our center & were harassing us with their fire, I ordered a charge of my command at "double-quick" upon that point, which was quite successful. The enemy were completely routed on their flank & driven from their position behind the fence. In this charge the command suffered severely from the fire of the enemy.

The Regiment was rallied after the action, in good order, & bivouacked for the night, with the Brigade on the field adjoining the battle field.

Below I respectfully furnish the Field return of the killed & wounded in the action.

Killed - Eight, Wounded - Fourty-three, Missing - None

I have to honor to be yr obdt. servt.

Wm. D. Lewis, Jr.

Col. 110th Regt. P.V.

9. Official report of Maj. Morris Copeland Ass. Adj.-General U.S.A. Hdqrs. 5 Corps Army of the Potomac from Strasburg, Va. March 26, 1862.

The enemy reserved his fire until our line was very near. They then arose and poured in a very heavy volley. The suddenness and strength of their fire caused our lines to falter, and the extreme left, composed mainly of the 110th Pa. broke and ran. I, Having in vain attempted to rally the 110th which, with such Company officers, as I could see, was in a shameful rout, I joined the advance on the first field which the enemy had held...

As is evident from the bulk of factual reports, the 110th Pa. did advance into the enemy fire, was staggered, faltered, fell back, but was rallied successfully and returned bravely to the fray where the Regt. rendered gallant and meritorious service in defeating the Rebels.

Why Major Copeland in the final report listed chose to single out the 110th and defame its character in the official records, I do not know. Its heroic service is praised in all other reports. Even the division commander, Gen. Shields makes special effort to set the record straight on the service of the 110th and expunge any negative report he had received, perhaps from Maj. Copeland. We will never know Maj. Copeland's motivation for an obvious slander. What is important is that the glorious exemplary service of the 110th in the Battle of Kernstown be stated and memorialized, and any further doubt of innuendo be abolished.