Union defeat at Winchester Ewell's march north overwhelms Milroy's 2nd Division

135th Anniversary Re-Enactment, REVISITING GETTYSBURG

June 14, 1998|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,SUN STAFF

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.

Young's account

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."

Hunt's account

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.

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