Union Forces Occupy Winchester as Rebels Retreat South Without a Fight

March 12, 1862 (Wednesday)

General Stonewall Jackson led only his horse on this mild morning, as he brought up the rear of his army on the march south from Winchester, Virginia. He had issued the order to abandon the town his men had called home for months, leaving the citizens at the mercy of the enemy. He had spent the previous day contemplating how to defend the town from the obvious Federal attack coming from the north.

It pained him to even think about giving up Winchester without a fight, but what could he do? His army barely had 3,600 men in its ranks. Not only did he want to defend the town, he wanted to attack the advancing Union army through the darkness. But through a mishap with the supply wagons being taken eight miles out of town, coupled with his senior officers being opposed to a night attack, Jackson abandoned his plan and abandoned the town.

Under the full moon, Stonewall Jackson followed his infantry, leaving Ashby’s Cavalry behind as a rear guard. Jackson’s Army was gripped by sadness, as if they were defeated on the field of battle.

They stopped at Strasburg, eighteen miles south of Winchester, but no Federals followed. There, they would stay for several days while Jackson readied his force, collected supplies and welcomed some new recruits into the fold. 12,000 men were to soon join in the defense of the Shenandoah Valley.1

Col. Turner Ashby and his Rebel cavalry stuck around Winchester long enough to see that the Federals were coming in force. The lead Union brigade, commanded by General Alpheus Williams, marched in column, entering the town from the north, as their vanguard, a regiment of Michigan calvary, stormed into town just in time to catch Ashby at the other end of Market Street, sitting astride his horse. As the Michiganders looked on, he turned his horse and trotted slowly south to rejoin Jackson’s army.

General Williams’ Brigade found few Unionist citizens remaining in Winchester. Before retiring south, Jackson had rounded them up and drove them with his army. Mostly, the Unionists consisted of old men and pacifist Quakers.

Largely, the Union guests found Winchester to be a charming town, reminding many of the midwesterners of home.2


McClellan Reads of His Demotion in the Paper, but Recovers in Time to Plan for the Peninsula

As General Williams and many more troops were occupying Winchester, General George McClellan, believing himself to be General-in-Chief of all Union armies, learned that he was no longer General-in-Chief of all Union armies. He would now command only the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln had wanted to keep the order to remove McClellan out of the papers for as long as possible. He had dispatched Governor William Dennison of Ohio to personally give McClellan the bad news.

Nevertheless, word had somehow leaked out. And though the order was finalized only the previous evening, the National Intelligencer printed it on the morning of this date.3

McClellan had returned to Fairfax Court House from his tour of the recently-abandoned Confederate works near Centreville and Manassas. After rising, he obtained a copy of the morning paper and read of his demotion. Figuring that Lincoln was purposely slighting him by allowing him to read it in the papers, he sulked all morning until Governor Dennison arrived with the message directly from Lincoln.

Dennison assured McClellan that he was still in the President’s good graces and would lead the Army of the Potomac. For months now, McClellan had been trying to decide what to do with this army of 140,000. After looking at the expansive, impressive Confederate fortifications around the Manassas area, he was glad that he didn’t order his army to attack.

Another plan that he had been kicking around was to take the army down the Potomac, down the Chesapeake Bay, to land them on the Virginia shore around Urbanna. Feeling, perhaps, slightly relieved that he was no longer tethered to Washington, he finally decided upon a plan of action.

The object of the Urbanna plan was to quickly get between General Johnston’s Confederate army and Richmond. But with the Rebels retreating closer to their capital, that was simply not possible.4

He had also been keeping an eye on the situation in Hampton Roads, where the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) battled to a standoff. The previous day, General Wool, commanding nearby Fortress Monroe, had informed McClellan that the extent of the damage done to the Virginia was unknown, but that he expected her to appear again.

Casting these fears aside, after hearing that he was now only the commander of the Army of the Potomac, he wired the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Fox, also at Fortress Monroe, giving the first hints that he had finally decided upon a course of action.

Can I rely on the Monitor to keep the Merrimac in check, so that I can make Fort Monroe a base of operations? Answer at once.5

Before dark, McClellan called a council of war, bringing together his division commanders.6 All assembled agreed that making Fortress Monroe their base of operations was a fine idea, considering the circumstances.

They were, however, worried about the Virginia reappearing and cutting them off, but would have to wait until morning to hear Assistant Secretary Fox’s assessment.7

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  2. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
  3. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  4. To The Gates of Richmond; The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  5. Papers of the Southern Historical Society, Vol. 13, p110. The proper spelling is with a “k” at the end, though many left it out. []
  6. I realize that officially they were corps commanders at this point, but McClellan had not yet figured all that out. That will come on the 14th. []
  7. To The Gates of Richmond; The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
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Union Forces Occupy Winchester as Rebels Retreat South Without a Fight by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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