The Kings of Kernstown – Civil War Art by John Paul Strain

John Paul Strain has once again shown his artistic talent in this beautifully done work on the Second Battle of Kernstown. His artwork is first rate and speaks for itself. Not only that, but it is one of the few pieces of art based in the Shenandoah Valley that does not feature Stonewall Jackson, so it is a unique piece in that regard. I highly recommend it to anyone who collects Civil War art. It is available for purchase at Mr. Strain’s website.

Being art, the usual artistic license appears to have been taken once again. Strain shows Jubal Early, John B. Gordon, John C. Breckinridge and Stephen D. Ramseur coincidentally gathering right in front of the Pritchard house in the wake of the Second Battle of Kernstown.

No where in my research for Shenandoah Summer did I come across any information that would even remotely verify the scene depicted. Ramseur’s division advanced up the Middle Road toward Winchester and Breckinridge’s division headed up the Valley Pike in immediate pursuit of the retreating Union army. Gordon’s division passed directly over the ground of the Pritchard House and his presence near the house is very likely. However, all three generals moved quickly toward Winchester with their divisions where they found a strong rear guard that they engaged near the Southern end of Winchester. As for Jubal Early, he makes no mention of stopping at the Pritchard House nor have I found any accounts placing him there. Most likely, “Old Jube” probably moved up the Valley Pike as he followed the army in the wake of its successful advance.

The artwork also takes liberty with the wounded Union soldiers in front of the wall. It shows Irish Soldiers from of Capt. Peter Fitzgerald’s 23rd Illinois, known as the Irish Brigade, laying wounded in front of the stonewall in front of the house. That position was held by Maj. Henry Withers 10th West Virginia. The Irishmen were in position about 100 yards to the left of that position and Capt. Fitzgerald was very clear that his men were posted behind a rail fence, not a stone wall. Of course the Irish Harps on the soldiers’ knapsacks and hats add another popular element that sells art.

Again, I do not mean to criticize Mr. Strain, this is just my inner historian and auditor sense crying out for accuracy and documentation. Clearly the artistic world is beyond such bounds. However, I would argue that many well documented accounts at the Second Battle of Kernstown would have presented equally compelling scenes. The meeting of future U.S. president R. B. Hayes and the popular Irish-American hero James A. Mulligan meeting on the battlefield for the first time after George Crook ordered them to destruction or Mulligan’s famous last stand with the emerald green banners of the 23rd Illinois with the mortally wounded Mulligan ordering his men to “Lay me down and save the flag.”

This also brings about another phenomena of modern day battlefield interpretation. I have noticed at small battlefield parks that were part of an engagement that covered significantly more ground than the small plots of land that remain undeveloped today. The ground and actions that took place outside of the preserved ground tend to lose the significance that they held when the historic events actually occurred. A visitor to today’s Kernstown Battlefield views the Pritchard house as the dominate feature of the battlefield.

In truth, the decisive actions of the battle occurred near I-81 to the east and the battle was already decided by the time the combat swirled briefly near the Pritchard House. The key drawing point for the generals after the battle would have been along the Valley Turnpike and they would not have gone into their post battle gathering until they reached Winchester as there was more fighting to be conducted at the southern edge of town.

Once gain, the Kings of Kernstown is beautiful work of art, all of my quibbles aside. Mr. Strain is to be commended for adding the 1864 Valley Campaign to his completed works. There are many more opportunities for artists to jump in and take advantage of the many thrilling scenes of the 1864 Valley Campaign. I am still waiting for someone to do a modern rendition of the Union Cavalry charge at Third Winchester or R. B. Hayes plunging into Red Bud Run under fire as he attempted to inspire his men. The battle of Piedmont with Grumble Jones pointing his sword to the attacking Union troops with the Blue Ridge behind them and attempting to rally his broken troops only moments before his death would present a scene fit for some artist to undertake.

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One response to “The Kings of Kernstown – Civil War Art by John Paul Strain

  1. Good post! You are quite right about the house becoming a focal point for visitors. Of course, a few years back there was no place for visitors to Kernstown to explore, just a few markers at the Opequon Church. So the new park is a wonderful addition to the Valley’s historical attractions.

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