Milroy to Hold Winchester ‘In Spite of Fate’; Hooker Catches On

June 13, 1863 (Saturday)

Rebs acomin'? Milroy don't care. Milroy don't give a damn.
Rebs acomin’? Milroy don’t care. Milroy don’t give a damn.

Confederate General Richard Ewell was poised to take Winchester, Virginia. Two of his divisions, under Jubal Early and Allegheny Johnson, were within a short day’s march of the contested city. Meanwhile, Robert Rodes, commanding the division remaining, was sent towards the east of Winchester to attack a smaller Federal outpost at Berryville.

Holding the town of Winchester was General Robert Milroy, a pompous sort of fellow who always seemed to have something to prove. His division contained 6,900 or so men, and had been ordered by General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to vacate the town and fall back to Harpers Ferry. That order, however, was countermanded by Milroy’s immediate commander, General Robert Schenck, heading up the department in Baltimore.

Milroy was convinced that he could hold Winchester against anything the Rebels could throw at him. Of course, he was also convinced that it was only bits of Confederate cavalry nipping at his defenses. To be sure, the only units his scouts had encountered were cavalry. General Ewell had marched his infantry quickly, but were not yet within the range of the Yankees pickets.

As Early and Johnson’s Divisions rose before dawn and began their descent upon Winchester, Robert Rodes had his division set for Berryville. Lying between Winchester and Harpers Ferry, it was commanded by a single brigade of 1,800 under General Andrew McReynolds. Rodes wanted very much to surprise McReynolds, but it was not to be. As he passed through a squad of Federal pickets, a runner was sent back to warn the troops at Berryville that the Rebels were on their way.

Rodes quickened his pace and sent Albert Jenkins’ Cavalry ahead to keep the Federals busy while he got into position to attack. But Jenkins was also too late, though neither he nor Rodes would know it for some time.

General McReynolds wasn't quite sure who was repulsed.
General McReynolds wasn’t quite sure who was repulsed.

In the distance, General McReynolds heard a pair of artillery shots from the direction of Winchester. This was a per-arranged signal Milroy had devised to call the Berryville boys to his side. Just after he heard the blasts, the runner from the picket post arrived and told him the news. By the time Jenkins’ Cavalry arrived, there was only a strong rear guard occupying the defenses. The bulk of McReynolds’ Brigade had slipped away, taking a series of roads via Smithfield that would eventually bring him out north of Winchester, which he wouldn’t reach until well after dark. Rodes and Jenkins gave pursuit, but could not catch him.

News gets muddled in war. It’s an understandable thing. And so, it wasn’t at all surprising that when McReynolds reported the affair via courier of his flight from Berryville, he told Milroy that he had repulsed the enemy. It was fortuitous for General Rodes that his Rebels had not arrived earlier, because McReynolds made no mention at all of Confederate infantry. And so as General Ewell pushed closer to Winchester with the divisions of Johnson and Early, General Milroy, defending the town, still believed only Southern Cavalry was in his front.

Even the details of Rodes foray into Berryville convinced some that it was only a small raid. General Benjamin Kelley, commanding in Harpers Ferry, understood that if the Rebels were marching in force, they would need all the supplies they could get. But when the Rebels took Berryville, they sacked the place, burning and destroying everything. “If this is reliable,” wrote Kelley, “it would seem as if it was not a movement in force.”

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As the morning turned to afternoon, the skirmishing to the south of Winchester heated up. Milroy had sent a brigade to the south, near Kernstown, and Johnson had pushed them back with relative ease. Winchester was protected by strong earthen forts, the largest of which was west of town. Ewell, decided to split his force and sent Early in that direction while Johnson kept Milroy busy to the south. But due to Milroy throwing another brigade into the mix, Early had to form line of battle and duke it out with the Yankees until dark.

Shortly after, General Milroy got the surprise of his life. Even up to this point, he had no idea he was fighting Rebel infantry. It wasn’t until his troops captured a Confederate prisoner who claimed to be from Ewell’s Corps that he saw the light. This was incredibly shocking news, but it hardly phased Milroy. After reporting that he had repulsed the Rebels, he clued in General Schenck to the prisoner from Ewell’s Corps. Milroy relayed: “I can hold this place five days if you can relieve me in that time. They will surround, but can’t take, my fortifications.”

As news from General Kelley’s scouts near Harpers Ferry flooded into Schenck’s office, he finally decided to pull Milroy out of Winchester, even issuing the order to do so. But by this time, the telegraph wires were down (possibly due to a storm that had kicked up). The downed wires also held up a telegram from Milroy, reasserting that his men “will hold this place in spite of fate.”

Hooker: Ohhhhh... So Lee's where?
Hooker: Ohhhhh… So Lee’s where?

While Ewell was skirmishing, Berryville was falling, and Milroy was testing fate, General Joe Hooker, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, was finally putting all the pieces together. The previous day, though he was unsure, he believed that General Lee’s entire army was still between Fredericksburg and Culpeper. He had no idea that a third of it had already pierced the Shenandoah Valley.

In the morning, Hooker’s cavalry chief, General Alfred Pleasonton, reported rumors, which he believed, that Ewell’s Corps had left Culpeper for Sperryville, on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. Throughout the day, more reports corroborated this. Nobody seemed to have any suspicion that Ewell was in the Shenandoah Valley. Hooker figured that the Rebels were merely trying to get around his right flank, probably around Manassas.

With this information, Hooker decided it was time to move his base of operations from Falmouth to the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. He issued orders for the I (Reynolds), III (Sickles), V (Meade), and XI (Howard) Corps to rendezvous at Manassas Junction with Pleasonton’s Cavalry. The other wing of his Army would take care of the clean up at Falmouth and move to Dumfries, southeast of Manassas Junction. It would be a rapid march, actually stealing a day or so from James Longstreet’s Confederates, still resting in Culpeper.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p38; Part 2, p164-166; Part 3, p79-80, 82, 84, 87; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears. []
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