Union Generals Play at Semantics and Guessing Games, While Rebels March North

June 12, 1863 (Friday)

“Be ready,” warned Union General Robert Schenck, “but wait for further orders.”

The Generals Halleck: We are pretty sure you understood us completely.
The Generals Halleck: We are pretty sure you understood us completely.

It was really just a question of semantics. The Rebels were apparently marching towards Winchester, Virginia, and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck ordered Robert Milroy to pull his division back to Harpers Ferry. What he actually said was “The Winchester troops … should be withdrawn.” When General Schenck paused to consider Halleck’s wording, his mind must have fluttered to Milroy’s assertion that he could hold Winchester against anything the Rebels threw at him.

Perhaps General-in-Chief Halleck wasn’t exactly ordering Winchester to be abandoned. After all, he didn’t say “The Winchester troops must be withdrawn.” The problem was compounded by Schenck’s staff officer telling Milroy that it was, in fact, an order: “It must be considered an order and obeyed accordingly.”

At this point, General Schenck had a choice to make. He could either follow what he believed to be Halleck’s suggestion to abandon Winchester, or take Milroy’s word that he could hold the town. He chose the latter, and chastised his staff officer for not doing likewise.

“You have somewhat exceeded my instructions,” wrote Schenck from his far off headquarters in Baltimore, before telling him that he would be in direct communication with Milroy from here on out. And so he was, immediately taking up the telegraph key.

The staff officer, wrote Schenck to Milroy, “misunderstood me, and somewhat exceeded his instructions.” While he wanted Milroy to “make all the required preparations for withdrawing,” the force at Winchester was to remain in position until otherwise ordered. Schenck also denied Milroy a requested brigade of reinforcements, apparently just to make things interesting.

General Schenck, it seems, was influenced by the officers in his department. Namely, Benjamin Kelley at Harpers Ferry, and Andrew McReynolds somewhere close. All were convinced that only parties of Rebel Cavalry were in the area. No infantry, and certainly not an entire Confederate Corps, was even the remotest threat. He even went as far as asking Helleck himself if he knew of any Rebel infantry in the Shenandoah Valley.

In fact, the only scouts to encounter Rebels, and then only cavalry, were under Milroy. His own cavalry had tangled with the Confederate counterparts some twelve miles south. “The enemy are probably approaching in some force,” wrote Milroy to Schenck. “I am entirely ready for them. I can hold this place.” By all accounts, however, it was only cavalry, and cavalry alone could not take Winchester.

Here is a map, it will help you on your way.
Here is a map, it will help you on your way.

Milroy had four specific reasons for deciding to follow Schenck’s orders rather than what had become Halleck’s mere suggestions. First, he believed that Winchester was the key to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. If it fell, raids would increase and rail traffic brought to a halt. Secondly, his fortifications were pretty good. “I can hold them against five times my number,” he assured Schenck. Thirdly, he wanted to protect the Unionists living mostly outside of Winchester. Though he had found not a single soul who would swear their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes inside Winchester proper, there were a number of them outside of the town. And lastly, there was quite a bit of wheat in the surrounding counties. If Winchester was abandoned, the entire crop would fall to the Rebel scythe and storehouse.

“I am, therefore,” concluded Milroy, “decidedly of the opinion that every dictate of interest, policy, humanity, patriotism, and bravery requires that we should not yield a foot of this country up to the traitors again.”

This was all very interesting, but when viewed in light of General Joe Hooker’s Army of the Potomac, still hugging the Rappahannock River eighty miles to the southeast, it was but a sideshow. General Hooker, by this time, was convinced that only the Confederate Division under General James Longstreet was in Culpeper. It was sighted and identified by Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry around the time of the Battle of Brandy Station. Hooker believed that the other two corps in General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were at or very near to Fredericksburg.

Hooker: I don't know, but I might just be out-Generaled.
Hooker: I don’t know, but I might just be out-Generaled.

On this date, he was even convinced that the Rebel army before him had received reinforcements. “It is reported to me from the balloon that several new rebel camps have made their appearance this morning [near Fredericksburg],” wrote Hooker to Halleck. “There can be no doubt but that the enemy has been greatly re-enforced.”

It wasn’t that Hooker didn’t want to move against the Rebels, he just wasn’t certain where they were going, if anywhere. Thus far, there had been no reports at all of any major Confederate march away from Culpeper. The main body of Hooker’s Army of the Potomac remained in their position at Falmouth, but little by little, Hooker had dispersed several Corps westward. Aside from George Meade’s V Corps patrolling the fords up the Rappahannock, and Winfield Hancock’s II Corps handling the fords closer to Falmouth, Hooker had sent John Reynold’s I Corps and Dan Sickles III Corps toward Bealton on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

This was, however, not a move northward to combat Lee’s own northward movements. Hooker did not know that Lee was moving north. In a letter written that afternoon to General John Adams Dix on the Virginia Peninsula, Hooker laid it all out:

“All of Lee’s army, so far as I know, is extended along the immediate bands of the Rappahannock, from Hamilton’s Crossing [just south of Fredericksburg] to Culpeper. A.P. Hill’s corps is on his right, below Fredericksburg. Ewell’s corps joins his left, leading to the Rapidan; and beyond that river is Longstreet’s corps, with not less than 10,000 cavalry, under Stuart. […] From my balloon it can be seen that he is daily receiving acquisitions. He has a numerical superiority over me.”

General Pleasonton, commanding the Union Cavalry, was of little help. His scouts, far out on the new Federal right, had detected no Rebel movements at all. “I am inclined to believe they will not send off their cavalry or make a move until they are satisfied of ours,” reported Pleasonton. “The information I receive is that they will play the defensive until we make a false step.”

Hooker must not have been very convinced of Pleasonton’s information gathering abilities, because he immediately questioned the reports. He asked the cavalry commander how deep into the Shenandoah Valley his scouts had penetrated. Pleasonton replied that they were on their way to Chester Gap.

Also on their way to Chester Gap were Confederate troops under Richard Ewell, supposed by Hooker to be much closer to Fredericksburg than they actually were. In truth, Ewell’s men made it through the Gap and into the Valley early enough to cross the Shenandoah River, pass through Front Royal and camp north of Cedarville. They were roughly sixty miles away from where Hooker believed them to be. They were also fewer than twenty miles away from General Milroy’s defenses at Winchester.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, p36; Part 2, p125-126, 162, 178; Part 3, p70, 71-72; The Secret War for the Union by Edwin C. Fishel; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Here Come the Rebels by Wilbur Nye; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin B. Coddington. []
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