Harpers Ferry All Over Again

By June 13, the vanguard of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, consisting of Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, was now in the Shenandoah Valley. Guarding against the Confederate advance were token Federal forces at Berryville, Harpers Ferry, and Winchester, under the overall command of Major-General Robert H. Milroy. Milroy had about 9,000 men to defend against 23,000 in Ewell’s corps.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Ewell’s cavalry under Brigadier-General Albert G. Jenkins and one of his infantry divisions under Major-General Robert Rodes struck out for Berryville, while Ewell’s other two divisions under Major-Generals Edward “Allegheny” Johnson and Jubal Early headed to Winchester, 12 miles east of Berryville.

Commanding the Berryville garrison was Colonel Andrew T. McReynolds. Rodes hoped to take McReynolds by surprise, but a Federal picket had already alerted him of the Confederates’ approach. Rodes dispatched Jenkins’s cavalry to pursue the withdrawing garrison, but the troopers could not catch the Federals before they joined Milroy at Winchester. McReynolds, having only seen enemy cavalry during his withdrawal, still did not know that Confederate infantry was approaching.

Brigadier-General Benjamin F. Kelley, commanding Federals at Harpers Ferry, heard rumors that the Confederates had destroyed all available supplies at Berryville. He wrote, “If this is reliable, it would seem as if it was not a movement in force” because an advancing army would need those supplies.

Meanwhile, Johnson drove in Federal outposts south of Winchester, while Early moved to confront the fort west of town. Skirmishing occurred until nightfall, when Milroy learned from a Confederate prisoner that his Federals were facing Ewell’s corps. He wrote his superior, Major-General Robert C. Schenck at Baltimore, “I can hold this place five days if you can relieve me in that time. They will surround, but can’t take, my fortifications.” Schenck ordered Milroy to abandon Winchester, but the message did not get through due to downed telegraph wires.

Back east, Brigadier-General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Cavalry Corps for the Federal Army of the Potomac, had done little so far in the way of providing information on the Confederate movements. Pleasonton thus far had postulated that Lee’s ultimate goal was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But on the 13th, Pleasonton notified Major-General Joseph Hooker, the Potomac army commander, of rumors that Ewell’s corps was approaching the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. This, coupled with intelligence provided on the 12th by intelligence Captain John McEntee, convinced Hooker to put his army in motion.

Unaware that Ewell was already in the Shenandoah Valley, Hooker directed his army to transfer its base of operations from Falmouth to Manassas Junction, keeping between Lee and Washington. Hooker’s Federals began pulling out of Falmouth on the night of the 13th, leaving the camps they had occupied since November of last year. The army marched in two columns:

  • The western column consisted of the First, Third, Fifth, and Eleventh corps, under overall command of Major-General John F. Reynolds. This column was to move toward Manassas Gap, protect the Federal left flank, and block any sudden attempt by the Confederates to march on Washington.
  • The eastern column consisted of the Second, Sixth, and Twelfth corps, led by Hooker himself. This column would be the rear guard and protect the Federal right flank.

Lee may have gotten a jump on Hooker with the advance of Ewell’s corps, but Hooker put his Federals in motion before Lee’s other two corps under Lieutenant-Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill had left Culpeper Court House or Fredericksburg respectively. Hill’s Confederates began moving out of the Fredericksburg defenses on the 14th, after reporting that Hooker was leaving Falmouth. While Ewell invested the Federals at Winchester, Longstreet’s corps controlled the gaps in the Blue Ridge so Hill and the rest of the army could march through.

Confusion reigned in Washington. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck notified Hooker, “Pleasonton’s telegrams… contain all the information we have of the enemy’s movements. They are very contradictory.” Finally realizing that Lee might invade the North, Hooker warned Major-General William T.H. Brooks, commanding at Pittsburgh, to be on alert. Brooks frantically tried raising volunteers.

Hooker wrote President Abraham Lincoln, “If the enemy should be making for Maryland, I will make the best dispositions in my power to come up with him.” Lincoln replied, “If the head of Lee’s army is at Martinsburg and the tail of it on the Plank road between Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the animal must be very slim somewhere. Could you not break him?”

Meanwhile, Ewell’s Confederates were closing in on Winchester from the south, east, and west. Milroy, opting to stay and defend the town, pulled his Federals back into the three forts the north and west of Winchester. Lincoln gathered with Halleck, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles at the War Department. They saw the potential for disaster, but none of them knew why Milroy had not been ordered to evacuate sooner. Lincoln said, “It is Harpers Ferry over again.” He wired Schenck at Baltimore, “Get Milroy from Winchester to Harpers Ferry if possible. He will be gobbled up, if he remains, if he is not already past salvation.”


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