June 14, 1863 (Sunday)
“Get General Milroy from Winchester to Harper’s Ferry, if possible,” wired a frantic Abraham Lincoln to General Robert Schneck. “He will be ‘gobbled up’ if he remains, if he is not already past salvation.”
Schneck, commanding troops north of Washington, from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry and Winchester, had been urged and even ordered on several occasions to pull General Robert Milroy out of Winchester. Instead, he had allowed him to stay, attempting to hold the town General-in-Chief Henry Halleck deemed “of no importance,” with a division of men (around 8,000). Of course, that was when everybody believed that only Rebel cavalry was before Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley. As of late the previous day, however, it was discovered that Richard Ewell’s entire Confederate Corps was gunning down the Pike.
Either the Rebels or a severe storm had cut telegraph wires the night before, and no messages could easily get in or out of Winchester. Milroy was on his own. He could have escaped late the previous night and even very early on the morning of this date. Winchester wasn’t quite surrounded. Instead, he chose to stay, knowing that he would be enveloped within his defenses northwest of town, and hoped for outside help. By dawn, Milroy had pulled his men back into the forts, leaving the ground below Winchester, which was contested the previous day, mostly bare.
General Ewell had already divided his Corps. The two divisions under Jubal Early and Allegheny Johnson were south of Winchester, while Robert Rodes’ Division was well to the north and about to take Martinsburg. To capture Winchester, Ewell needed to divide it again. He sent Johnson’s Division to the east of town, while Early’s took a wide path that eventually brought them out due west of the forts.
These Union forts were well constructed, but were dominated to the west by a large hill. This is where Early’s men now waited.
General Milroy was more than a bit confused and leagues in over his head. With the commotion the previous day in Berryville, the ruckus created by Johnson’s demonstrations to the east of Winchester, and the bizarre notion that he had repulsed the Rebels before him the previous day, Milroy sent scouts to the northwest. They, of course, found nothing, since all the Confederates were to the west, south, east and northeast. When he heard firing from the direction of Harpers Ferry (this could have been Johnson’s demonstration or Rodes’ attempt at Martinsburg), Milroy figured that General Ewell’s entire corps had bypassed Winchester for easier prey.
But at 5pm, all of Milroy’s confusion was blasted away by twenty pieces of Confederate artillery wheeled into position on the hill dominating his series of forts. Milroy’s boys did what they could to return the Rebel fire, but it was all too much. When the defenses were softened, Early sent Harry Hays’ Louisiana Brigade forward with a scream.
In a rush, they charged the nearest defenses, dubbed “West Fort” by Milroy. The defenders were able to fire but three volleys at the Louisianans, who were now scrambling up the embrasures. With the flags of secession planted upon the parapets, the Yankees began to scatter out the back of it, making time for the two other forts to their rear (Star Fort and Main Fort).
But with darkness came silence. Even the artillery was put to sleep. Around 10pm, Milroy gathered his officers for a council of war. He told them of their dire situation. There was enough food and ammunition for one day’s fight (a curious claim since he told General Schenck the previous day that he could hold out for five). Nobody wanted to surrender, and so different routes of escape were discussed. They finally settled on a path to Harpers Ferry via Martinsburg – a very roundabout way – because it was the route taken the previous year that eluded Stonewall Jackson. The march was set for 1am, and to preserve the silence, Milroy ordered that no wheeled vehicles of any kind be used.
Milroy’s troops had left their defenses by 2am. They marched along the pike towards Stephenson’s Depot, convinced that they had gotten away.
By night fall, Confederate General Ewell was fairly certain that Milroy was trying to escape. Hoping to cut off the retreat, he ordered Allegheny Johnson’s Division to make haste for the pike running out of town. He was to cut across fields and streams to arrive two and a half miles north of Winchester. This was no easy task in the daylight, let alone through the pall of darkness.
Johnson had trouble assembling his partially-engaged division, and got himself lost along the way. The seven mile tramp took five hours. With the help of some friendly locals, they arrived near Stephenson’s Depot around 3am and waited for Milroy’s retreating columns. It would not be long.
Throughout the day, President Lincoln and General Joe Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, were trying to figure out just what was going on in Winchester. Because the lines were down, no word had been received since the previous evening. “Do you consider it possible that 15,000 of Ewell’s men can now be at Winchester?” asked Lincoln in complete disbelief that one-third of General Lee’s entire army could have slipped away from Hooker. A little while later, Lincoln deduced that Ewell or not, Milroy was probably surrounded. He asked Hooker if he might be of some assistance. “Could you not break him” asked the President.
“I do not feel like making a move for an enemy,” Hooker replied, “until I am satisfied as to his whereabouts. To proceed to Winchester and have him make his appearance elsewhere, would subject me to ridicule.” So, no. Hooker was going to be of little help.
Lincoln then referred Hooker to the information sent by Hooker himself, which stated that both Ewell’s and Longstreet’s Corps had left Culpeper. If Hooker’s own words were true, shot Lincoln, “then I should feel sure that Winchester is strongly invested.”
Even Secretary of War Edwin Stanton got in on the game, spelling out for Hooker that Ewell was indeed at Winchester and also at Martinsburg. Nobody, however, ordered him to do anything.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p38-40; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington. [↩]