Colonel James Mulligan at Second Kernstown: A Soldier’s Recollections

Yesterday’s post on Colonel Mulligan prompted me to share this interesting recollection of Mulligan’s last moments on earth. I had not seen this particular account when Shenandoah Summer was published, but it supports other accounts that led me to the same conclusion regarding General George Crook’s actions at Kernstown. It is quite interesting to see the difference of opinion from soldiers who were from outside of Crook’s sphere of influence. Crook’s tight knit group, including Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, sugar coated Crook’s role in the defeat at Kernstown. Hayes went so far as to write that escaping from such an overwhelming force after a defeat was greater evidence of a General’s skill than actually winning the battle. The following account was written by Lieutenant T. S. Nutter of the 10th West Virginia Infantry.

The battle of Kernstown was fought July 24, 1864. General Crook commanded the Union forces. Only part of his forces, however, were engaged. Mulligan’s Brigade, the Tenth West Virginia, Twenty Third Illinois, and a few other regiments bore the brunt of the battle. The Union forces were not only defeated but utterly routed, demoralized and panic-stricken, worse than ten thousand “Texas steers.”

I have always held that General Crook was wholly responsible for Colonel Mulligan’s death, and the disastrous and useless battle that was fought. I formed this conclusion at the time from an animated conversation that took place between the two not more than a half hour before the battle began. Colonel Mulligan, with his brigade, had been skirmishing with the enemy all day the day before the battle and on the day of the battle up to within a half hour of the time the conversation took place. Colonel Mulligan was satisfied that the enemy were in full force in our front, and so reported to General Crook. About 2:30 P.M., our line fell back, and took up a position behind a lane that runs from the Strasburg Pike to the Pritchard Mansion. About one-fourth of a mile distant there is a crook or turn in the lane about midway. Right at this turn the two regiments – Tenth Virginia and Twenty Third Illinois- joined. My company was next to the Twenty Third.

Lt. James Nugent

Colonel Mulligan was exactly in our rear, no more than twenty feet distant. Just then General Crook and staff rode up very leisurely, and after saluting each other, General Crook said, “Well, Colonel Mulligan, what are the prospects here?” To which Mulligan replied, “The prospects are that we will get a sound thrashing. The enemy are in our front in full force, and I think we had better fall back, cover our retreat, and save ourselves the best we can.”

Crook replied “Oh, no; no, no; not at all. I don’t think there are a hundred men over in those woods. I have sent back for reinforcements; there is no danger. We are able to whip all the rebels there is in our front.”

This somewhat discourteous answer of General Crook in which he might have said to Colonel Mulligan in so many words, “You don’t know any thing about it; I guess I know what I am doing, evidently stung Colonel Mulligan to the quick, for he quickly replied in an animated but suppressed manner, “All right, General; if you say so, right here we will fight, but we are doomed to defeat.

To this General Crook replied, “Never fear, Colonel.” The result showed that Colonel Mulligan was right, and that General Crook was totally ignorant of the true situation. The penalty of General Crook’s ignorance was the worse than useless sacrifice of one of the best such men who walked on American soil, wore the Irish Green or American blue. Colonel Mulligan was certainly a magnificent specimen of manhood, a true soldier, loved and respected by all…

I saw Colonel Mulligan fall; saw his brother in law and aid-de-camp, Lieutenant [James] Nugent dismount and attempt to raise the fallen hero up, but only to receive a death wound himself. This occurred near the spot where the two officers held the conversation so short a time before.

By Lieutenant T. S. Nutter, 10th West Virginia Infantry

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, September 10, 1881


Filed under Battles, Biographical

8 responses to “Colonel James Mulligan at Second Kernstown: A Soldier’s Recollections

  1. David Lowe

    Nice quote.

  2. Indeed a great memoir. Kernstown itself must have had some bad mo-jo going as far as making otherwise capable commanders have moments of incompetence when in the town: Crook in this instance, Ashby in ’62.

    • I view it more of a case of everyone being human and making mistakes. My psychoanalysis of Crook at Kernstown is that he considered himself a vastly superior officer to Averell, Duffie and Mulligan. He had been warned by all three of them that Early was lurking since July 21. However, the more warnings he received, the more condescending he became to them. He greatly resented Averell and likely saw him as a threat, considered Duffie a fool (not the only one who did) and did not trust Mulligan, who was an outsider and an Irishman. Mulligan liked Crook at first but after a few days Mulligan noted in his diary, “I am taking the measure of Gen. Crook. His name says it.” For Crook to tell Hunter that Mulligan’s men broke at the first shot at Kernstown was not only a lie, but a disgrace, considering that Mulligan gave his life for the cause. The true irony is that the first regiment to truly break was Crook’s old regiment, the 36th Ohio, which Crook had put in a no-win situation because of his disregard for the information his subordinates had provided.

      Also a close examination of Crook’s record reveals a commander who had good days and bad days. He was part of a team under Sheridan and was not as the sycophantic Rutherford B. Hayes wrote (and is so often quoted) “the brains of the army.” Crook learned a lot from his friend Sheridan including how to blame others and hoard credit for success that belonged to others. He also rode Sheridan’s coat-tails to a very successful career in the U.S. Army.

  3. Thomas Stager

    What a nice find! After hearing and reading about Col. Mulligan, this adds a little more light concerning how imcompetent Gen. Crook was ….Thanks

    • I would say that Crook was very much like John Pope at Second Manassas. Although Crook had plenty of evidence to know what he was dealing with at Kernstown, he assumed that Jubal Early was on his way back to Richmond because that is what Crook and Horatio Wright determined on July 20, even though elements of Crook’s army defeated Confederate General Stephen D. Ramseur at Rutherford’s Farm that day. My feeling is that the information about Early rushing back to Richmond likely came from some of Crook’s scouts and he valued their word over that of the information obtained by Averell, Duffie and then Mulligan on the day of the battle.

  4. Glenn Klein

    It’s obvious that Early know what he was up against in Crook. Incompetent,
    indecisive, bungling and inept in military tactics, that was Crook. On the other hand, the fact remains the Confederates thought more of Mulligan not only as a soldier but as a true leader and Christian Gentleman. Mulligan was respected by both Sterling Price from the Missouri campaign and Jubal Early who commented on Mulligan’s ability as a military builder and Fort Commander.

    • Indeed, George Crook did seem to be all of those things on July 24, 1864 at Kernstown. But Kernstown had a way of making generals look out of sorts – consider Stonewall Jackson in 1862. Mulligan did without truly having an opportunity to show what he could do as a commander.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s