When thousands of re-enactors gather at Gettysburg, Pa., next month to commemorate the Civil War battle there, they will mark as the opening encounter of that struggle the clash between Confederate infantry and Union cavalry on July 1, 1863. But the fighting of the Gettysburg campaign started long before that day with a series of encounters as Gen. Robert E. Lee's army moved north through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
The largest of these encounters was at Winchester, Va., one of the most contested locations in the Civil War. It changing hands 72 times, according to Jay Wertz and Edwin C. Bearss' account in "Smithsonians' Great Battles & Battlefields of the Civil War," published in 1997.
In mid-June, the Confederate advance reached Winchester, where the only Union force standing in its way was the 2nd Division of the 8th Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy.
From June 13 to 15, Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's 2nd Corps, led by Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's division, attacked the federal positions. Milroy's division suffered heavy casualties. Jesse Bowman Young, in "The Battle of Gettysburg," published in 1913, describes the battle:
"It had been intimated to Milroy in previous instructions that Winchester was not a fit place to fight a defensive battle, but no definite order was given to him to withdraw his troops to Harpers Ferry until midnight of June 11th, and that order was annulled within a few hours on the morning of June 12th. Up to that time, Milroy, it must be remarked in addition, had no information either from Washington or from his department headquarters at Baltimore suggesting that any part of Lee's army was advancing down the valley, although Hooker had given note to Halleck again and again of his apprehensions of danger threatening that region.
"On the 12th Milroy sent out reconnoitering parties; one of these returning from an expedition on the Front Royal road brought word that Confederate forces of cavalry, infantry and artillery had been encountered 12 miles up the valley from Winchester at Cedarville, but the commanding general could not believe that this force belonged to Lee's army, and that he, in command at Winchester, had been left without warning concerning such approach.
"That night, Friday, June 12th, at 10 o'clock, he informed by wire his department commander, Schenck, at Baltimore, concerning the approach of a considerable Confederate force, and asked for a definite order either to hold the place or abandon it. Almost at once a telegram was prepared directing Milroy to withdraw immediately, but before the operator could transmit the message, the wires were cut between Harpers Ferry and Winchester by Jenkins' troopers, and Milroy got no word. Concluding, therefore, from all the information he had received that it was his duty to hold Winchester, he disposed his force so as to defend the town, learning late on Saturday for the first time that the troops in his front were two divisions of Ewell's corps."
Union Maj. Gen. Henry J. Hunt provided details of the battle at Winchester in an 1884 article:
"Milroy's Federal division, about 9,000 strong, occupied Winchester with [Col. A.T.] McReynolds' brigade in observation at Berryville. [Brig. Gen. Benjamin F.] Kelley's division of about 10,000 men was at Harpers Ferry, with a detachment of 1,200 men and a battery under Col. B. F. Smith at Martinsburg. On the night of June 11th, Milroy received instructions to join Kelley, but, reporting that he could hold Winchester, was authorized to remain there. Ewell, leaving Brandy Station June 10th, reached Cedarville via Chester Gap on the evening of the 12th, whence he detached [Brig. Gen. Albert G.] Jenkins and [Maj. Gen. Robert E.] Rodes to capture McReynolds, who, discovering their approach, withdrew to Winchester. They then pushed on to Martinsburg, and on the 14th drove out the garrison. Smith's infantry crossed the Potomac at Shepherdstown, and made its way to Maryland Heights; his artillery retreated by the Williamsport Road, was pursued, and lost five guns.
"Meanwhile, Ewell, with Early's and Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's divisions, marched direct on Winchester. Arriving in the neighborhood on the evening of the 13th, he ordered Early on the 14th to leave a brigade in observation on the south of the town, move his main force under cover of the hills to the northwestern side, and seize the outworks which commanded the main fort. He also ordered Johns on to deploy his division on the east of the town, so as to divert attention from Early. This was so successfully done that the latter placed, unperceived, 20 guns and an assaulting column in position, and at 6 p.m., by a sudden attack, carried the outworks, driving the garrisons into the body of the place. This capture was a complete surprise, and Milroy called a council of war, which decided on an immediate retreat, abandoning the artillery and wagons.
"Ewell had anticipated this and ordered Johnson to occupy with a brigade a position on the Martinsburg pike, north of Winchester. The retreat commenced at 2 a.m. of the 15th, and after proceeding three or four miles, the advance encountered Johnson's troops, attacked vigorously, and at first successfully, but, the enemy receiving reinforcements, a hard fight ensued in which the Federals lost heavily."
Milroy's wagon train and much of his command were captured on the Martinsburg Road, north of Winchester at Stephenson's Depot, by Johnson's division.
In the retreat Milroy's forces became separated and of those who escaped, some reached Harpers Ferry and the balance found themselves in Hancock. Milroy's losses in men, horses, and equipment were great. Lee claimed for Ewell the capture of 4,000 prisoners and small arms, 28 pieces of artillery, 11 flags, 300 loaded wagons, as many horses, and a considerable quantity of supplies. Confederate killed, wounded and missing totaled 269.
The Union troops who reached Hancock subsequently passed through Chambersburg, Pa., on June 15.
Count of Paris' account
Louis Philippe Albert d'Orleans, the Count of Paris, in his "History of the Civil War in America," published in English in 1888, reports on the aftermath of the battle at Winchester: "The news of Milroy's disaster, spreading like wild-fire, had caused a profound sensation in the North. People saw in it the sure sign of an impending invasion. On being informed of the investment of Winchester the day before, the President, General Halleck, and the Secretary of War, in a series of dispatches bearing evidence of the confusion into which this news had thrown them, had asked Hooker either to go to the relief of Milroy or to adopt their favorite plan of cutting the enemy's column in two. ... On the 15th, Milroy's fate was known, and his conduct was more severely criticized than it deserved to be. ...
"Terror already prevailed throughout the whole Cumberland Valley. In fact, Jenkins' troopers followed the fugitives so close that on the evening of the 14th he compelled them to cross the Potomac at Williamsport, after dislodging them from Martinsburg. The substantial population of all the neighboring towns in Maryland, remembering the incursions of the previous year, fled in crowds, with all they could carry off with them. ...
"On the 16th, the capital of Pennsylvania was in a great state of excitement, and while the people worked day and night in raising barricades and regular fortifications, which they would probably have had no means of defending, a solid mass of fugitives was hurrying along the left bank of the Susquehanna, thinking there was no safety except north of that river. Never, it is stated, had the bridge-toll produced such heavy receipts. It was precisely in the hope of not finding the Cumberland Valley completely deserted that Jenkins was pushing northward so rapidly. On the morning of the 16th, he entered Greencastle, the first Pennsylvania village, and reached Chambersburg during the night. He seized all the horse, cattle, forage, provisions, and medical stores he found there, paying in Confederate paper for part, and confiscating the rest; but his soldiers did not commit any act of plunder, and the inhabitants themselves were obliged to do justice to their discipline and good behavior. It is asserted, however, that he took a number of free negroes, whom he sent South to be sold as slaves.
"On the 17th, while people were expecting to see him continue his raid, and the Federals already believed that the whole of Lee's army was at his back, he suddenly retraced his steps and joined General Rodes, who with three brigades had taken a position at Williamsport on the left bank of the Potomac. In fact, Ewell's soldiers had to wait for the two other corps, which they had left so far behind."
Lee's army crossed the Potomac in force on June 24 and 25 and arrived in the vicinity of Chambersburg on June 27.
As for Milroy, he faced a military court of inquiry from Aug. 4 to Sept. 7, 1863, over the heavy losses of his division at Winchester. The court declared that he never received an order to withdraw and that he was not culpable in the disaster. Lincoln signed the findings.
Milroy finished the war guarding railroads in West Virginia, where he was so vigorous in suppressing Southern partisans that the Richmond government put a price on his head.
6th Maryland at Winchester
John Howard Hinton, in his "History of the United States of America," published in 1884, related this account of a detail of the battle of Winchester:
"Lee's army, moving north into the valley of the Shenandoah, approached Winchester, Va., on the 12th of June. The next day, part of this advance attacked Berryville, between Winchester and Snicker's Gap, where a force of about 3,000 men under Col. A. T. McReynolds was stationed.
"The post was vigorously defended for some time, but the enemy appearing in overwhelming numbers, the Federal troops retreated toward Winchester, the retreat being covered by the 6th Maryland Regiment and a section of the Baltimore Battery, Maryland Light Artillery. The rebels pursued, and closing around this rear-guard, the guns were captured and a large part of the regiment were taken prisoners. They were not at once disarmed, and in the evening, taking advantage of the confusion and want of watchfulness on the part of their captors, they escaped and withdrew to Winchester."
Harold R. Manakee, then assistant director of the Maryland Historical Society, continues the story in his "Maryland in the Civil War," published in 1961:
"The regiment arrived in Winchester while the town was under heavy attack by Ewell and defended the Star Fort until ordered to withdraw. It then shared in the June 15 engagement of Martinsburg Road, flanked the Southerners, and escaped almost intact to Harpers Ferry."
Pub date: 6/14/98