Tag Archives: Robert Rodes

Northern Virginia: The Rappahannock Engagement

November 7, 1863 – Elements of the Federal Army of the Potomac tried crossing the Rappahannock River, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates were determined to stop them.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Lincoln administration pressured Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, to launch one more offensive before winter. Since the administration ruled out a move on Fredericksburg to the east, Meade planned to retake the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers to his south and west.

Most of Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was south of the Rappahannock, but some forward units held a mile-long defense line on the north bank, from Kelly’s Ford on the right to Rappahannock Station on the left. Lee received word around noon on the 7th that Federals were advancing toward this line in two columns:

  • Major General William French led I, II, and III corps toward Kelly’s Ford, which was defended by a Confederate regiment on the north bank of the Rappahannock and Major General Robert Rodes’s division to the south.
  • Major General John Sedgwick led V and VI corps toward Rappahannock Station, where Major General Jubal Early’s division guarded a bridgehead consisting of two redoubts and entrenchments to protect the pontoon bridge spanning the river.

According to Lee, the Rappahannock Station bridgehead could “threaten any flank movement the enemy might make above or below, and thus compel him to divide his forces, when it was hoped that an opportunity would be presented to concentrate on one or the other part.” Lee planned to hold the bridgehead while allowing French to cross at Kelly’s Ford, where his Federals would fall under a massed attack.

Expecting a fight, Meade ordered his corps commanders to distribute 40 rounds of ammunition to each man and bring up their ambulances. Meade instructed French that once the Federals crossed the Rappahannock, “the two columns will move forward to Brandy Station.”

If Sedgwick’s smaller column could not break through at Rappahannock Station, he was to follow French across the river at Kelly’s Ford. Meade directed, “You will attack him vigorously, throwing your whole force upon him, should it be necessary, and drive him from his position, and secure your own upon the high ground.”

French’s men approached Kelly’s Ford in early afternoon, with Federal artillery quickly driving the Confederate regiment across the river. French reported, “The terrific fire of my batteries ran down to the river bank (old style), and the 4 1/2-inch paralyzed the enemy.” Rodes fell back, enabling the Federals to lay a pontoon bridge and cross the Rappahannock, just as Lee wanted.

Sedgwick’s men approached the Rappahannock Station bridgehead around 3 p.m. Since Lee needed to prevent a crossing here, Early moved nearly 2,000 Confederates forward to hold the fortifications on the north bank. Federal artillery came up around 5 p.m. and began pounding the enemy lines until dark. The Federal infantry showed no signs of attacking during this time, leading Lee to believe that this was just a diversion for the main crossing at Kelly’s Ford. However, Brigadier General Harry Hays, commanding the “Louisiana Tigers,” wrote, “It was then, under cover of the darkness, that a simultaneous advance was made of the entire force of the enemy.”

Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding VI Corps, reported, “Under most circumstances, I should have hesitated in ordering the assault of so strong a position, and believed its success hopeless.” But the “darkness, which was fast approaching, was favorable to the attack. The remaining daylight enabled the troops to see what they had to do before reaching the works, while the succeeding darkness would prevent the enemy on the opposite bank from firing where they could not distinguish friend from foe.”

The Federals advanced through defilements, breastworks, and other obstructions to get to the enemy. Wright stated that “over every hindrance, in face of a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the storm party pressed on with bayonets fixed and never pausing to fire a shot. A desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued, the foe was overpowered and the works were ours.”

But the Confederates regrouped. Brigadier General David A. Russell, commanding a division in the assault, recalled, “Furious, but as yet futile, endeavors were made from the rifle pits to retake the larger redoubt.” Even with reinforcements, the Federals “were not strong enough to carry the rifle-pits and stay the fire from them, which still greatly annoyed our men.”

Colonel Emory Upton’s Federal brigade launched a bayonet charge that finally overran the bridgehead. Some Confederates tried escaping by swimming across the river. Upton reported, “The enemy, supposing a vastly superior force was advanced upon him, and also aware that his retreat was intercepted, laid down his arms.” Federals captured four cannon, eight battle flags, and 1,303 prisoners in their first successful night attack of the war. VI Corps netted the army’s largest Confederate prisoner grab in one action.

When Lee returned to headquarters, he learned the Federals had captured parts of two regiments at Kelly’s Ford, laid a pontoon bridge, and moved a large force across the river. Then Early sent news that the Federals had captured the whole Confederate force at the vital bridgehead north of the river. This engagement wrecked Lee’s plan to hold the ground between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, and possibly launch another offensive.

Just as Lieutenant General A.P. Hill had been criticized for his actions at Bristoe Station last month, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell was criticized for retreating in this action since the divisions of Rodes and Early were part of his corps. Lee quickly fell back to a point two miles northeast of Culpeper Court House, which guarded the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and blocked the road from Kelly’s Ford to Stevensburg. Lee reported:

“The loss of this position made it necessary to abandon the design of attacking the force that had crossed at Kelly’s Ford, and the army was withdrawn to the only tenable line between Culpeper Court House and the Rappahannock, where it remained during the succeeding day.”

French continued advancing on the 8th, crossing the Brandy Station battlefield. Sedgwick advanced as well, linking with French around 9 a.m. Skirmishing occurred among the pickets at various points throughout the day, as Lee braced for an attack on the 9th.

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Sources

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 648-49; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19145-53; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 339; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 799-801; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 369; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6476-88; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 411, 615; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 431-32

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The Gettysburg Aftermath: Lee Escapes Again

July 23, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac missed another opportunity to destroy General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Meade hoped to trap two-thirds of Lee’s army west of the Blue Ridge in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate First Corps had pushed east through Chester Gap, and Meade was unaware that by the morning of the 23rd, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps did the same. Hill left a brigade at Manassas Gap to defend against a possible Federal attack on Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, which was following Hill.

Meade dispatched three corps to Manassas Gap, with III Corps in the lead. The corps had been led by Major General Daniel Sickles, but Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg and was replaced by Major General William French. On the 23rd, French sent skirmishers through the gap to determine Confederate strength. All of French’s divisions arrived later that day, and they began moving through the gap. Captain C.H. Andrews, commanding the Confederate brigade assigned to hold them off, later wrote:

“They threw forward two regiments of cavalry and six of infantry as skirmishers. A line of battle of three brigades was formed in rear of these skirmishers. To each of these brigades was attached a battery of artillery. In rear of their line of battle, 15 regiments of infantry in column of regiments were formed in support and reserve.”

The Federals drove the Confederates back two miles toward Chester Gap, where the rest of Lee’s army was trying to pass east. The Federals charged a second time, and, according to Andrews, “We resisted them to the utmost of human capacity.” A third charge finally broke the thin Confederate line, sending the troops back into a skirmish line formed by arriving troops of Major General Robert Rodes’s division.

Rodes later reported that the Federal officers “acted generally with great gallantry, but the men behaved in a most cowardly manner. A few shots from Carter’s artillery and the skirmisher’s fire halted them, broke them, and put a stop to the engagement.” Rodes called the Federals’ conduct “decidedly puerile.”

French ordered his men to fall back. They secured Manassas Gap, but they could not prevent the Confederates from continuing their move farther south through Chester Gap. A single Confederate brigade had stalled an entire Federal corps for hours, enabling much of Lee’s army to pass through the Blue Ridge. Another opportunity to destroy the Confederates was lost, and Meade received harsh criticism for entrusting French, an inexperienced commander, to lead such an operation.

But Meade had not yet received word that most of Lee’s army had gotten away. At 10 p.m., he wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “There are reasons for my considering it probable that but a small portion of his army has passed on. I shall attack his position covering Chester Gap tomorrow at daylight.”

By that time, Ewell had led his corps farther south, to Thornton’s Gap, and moved east through the Blue Ridge without resistance. French’s corps advanced into the Shenandoah Valley to Front Royal and discovered the Confederates were gone. A disappointed Meade reported to Washington:

“I regret to inform you that, on advancing this morning at daylight, the enemy had again disappeared, declining battle, and though an immediate advance was made and Front Royal occupied, nothing was seen of him but a rear guard of cavalry with a battery of artillery. I then ascertained that for two days he had been retreating with great celerity…”

Longstreet’s corps arrived at Culpeper Court House, south of Meade, as Meade’s Federals began assembling at Warrenton. Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis that he had intended to move east of the Blue Ridge before the Federals crossed the Potomac, but various issues prevented that. Lee sought to heal his battered army as both he and Meade began moving back into their old camps.

This ended the fateful Gettysburg campaign. As details of the Confederate defeat began spreading throughout the South, some began doubting Lee’s leadership abilities. On Sunday the 26th, the head of the Confederate Bureau of War, R.G.H. Kean, wrote in his diary:

“Gettysburg has shaken my faith in Lee as a general. To fight an enemy superior in numbers at such terrible disadvantage of position in the heart of his own territory, when the freedom of movement gave him the advantage of selecting his own time and place for accepting battle, seems to have been a great military blunder. (Moreover) the battle was worse in execution than in plan… God help this unhappy country!”

Josiah Gorgas, Confederate ordnance chief, lamented in his diary:

“Events have succeeded one another with disastrous rapidity. One brief month ago we were apparently at the point of success. Lee was in Pennsylvania, threatening Harrisburgh, and even Philadelphia. Vicksburgh seemed to laugh all Grant’s efforts to scorn… Port Hudson had beaten off Banks’ force… Now the picture is just as sombre as it was bright then… It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success; today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 312; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 642; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 334; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 472; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 390-91; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 665

Hooker Pursues Lee in Earnest

June 16, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued crossing the Potomac River, as Federal cavalry tried uncovering Lee’s plan.

Gen R.E. Lee and Maj Gen J. Hooker | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

After clearing the Federals out of the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates began crossing the Potomac. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps led the way, with Major General Robert Rodes’s division leading the corps. Rodes crossed at Williamsport, Maryland, and waited for the rest of Ewell’s men to follow. By this time, the Army of Northern Virginia stretched 130 miles from Maryland to Chancellorsville.

Ewell’s cavalry under Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins rode ahead to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where the troopers foraged for supplies. They paid for common goods with Confederate money, but they freely took horses, weapons, and black people. Most blacks taken were sent south into slavery, even those who had never been slaves. A Chambersburg newspaper reported that Jenkins’s troopers “went to the part of the town occupied by the colored population, and kidnapped all they could find, from the child in the cradle up to men and women of 50 years of age.”

Terror swept through the region. A correspondent noted that the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, northeast of Chambersburg, was gripped by a “perfect panic… Every woman in the place seemed anxious to leave.” Wagons filled with evacuated possessions clogged the streets; state officials grabbed government archives and other valuables to keep from the falling into Confederate hands.

Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, was still trying to pinpoint the Confederates’ exact location. As he moved the bulk of his force from Manassas Junction to Fairfax Court House, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck warned him against “wanton and wasteful destruction of public property.” This admonition seemed to resurrect the bad blood that had existed between Hooker and Halleck since before the war.

Hooker had taken command of the army with the understanding that he would answer directly to the president, not the general-in-chief. As such, he wrote Lincoln, “You have long been aware, Mr. President, that I have not enjoyed the confidence of the major general commanding the army (Halleck), and I can assure you so long as this continues we may look in vain for success.” Lincoln, unimpressed by Hooker’s performance since Lee began moving north, replied:

“You do not lack his confidence in any degree to do you any harm… To remove all misunderstanding, I now place you in the strict military relation to Gen. Halleck, of a commander of one of the armies, to the General-in-Chief of all the armies. I have not intended differently; but as it seems to be differently understood, I shall direct him to give you orders, and you to obey them.”

Regarding Lee’s army, Hooker wired Lincoln that “we can never discover the whereabouts of the enemy, or divine his intentions, so long as he fills the country with a cloud of cavalry. We must break through to find him.” Hooker then directed his cavalry commander, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, “Drive in pickets, if necessary, and get us better information. It is better that we should lose men than to be without knowledge of the enemy, as we now seem to be.”

On the morning of the 17th, Hooker specifically instructed Pleasonton to “put the main body of your command in the vicinity of Aldie, and push out reconnaissance towards Winchester, Berryville, and Harpers Ferry” to “obtain information of where the enemy is, his force, and his movements.”

Pleasonton dispatched Colonel Alfred Duffie and the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry to Middleburg and sent a brigade under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick to Aldie, hoping to catch Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen. Kilpatrick ran into Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade, resulting in a vicious four-hour fight. Kilpatrick gained the advantage, but because he committed his men piecemeal, he could not drive the Confederates from the gaps in the Bull Run Mountains. The Federals withdrew around 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, Duffie was isolated at Middleburg and forced to disperse his regiment. Many of his Federal troopers were captured, with Duffie riding into Centreville the next day with just 84 of his 300 men. Based on these engagements, Pleasonton reported to Hooker that the main Confederate army was now west of the Blue Ridge. However, Major General John Bell Hood’s division of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps remained about 10 miles west of Middleburg.

The next day, Pleasonton sought to atone for the losses by sending the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry under Colonel J. Irwin Gregg to seize Middleburg. Gregg succeeded but then received orders to support the fight at Aldie. The engagement at Aldie resumed when Federal cavalry, strongly supported by infantry, forced Stuart to withdraw. However, Stuart had taken some 400 prisoners along with a large amount of horses and equipment. Confederates also reoccupied Middleburg.

Pleasonton dispatched three brigades under Brigadier General David Gregg to Middleburg and Union. Their goal was to break through the Confederate cavalry and find out once and for all what Lee was doing. Stuart’s horsemen took positions on a ridge west of Middleburg. The Federals attacked, eventually driving the Confederates to another ridge farther west. However, Pleasonton still did not achieve the breakthrough needed to learn Lee’s intentions. He wrote Hooker, “We cannot force the gaps of the Blue Ridge in the presence of a superior force.”

Meanwhile, Hooker continued receiving conflicting reports of Lee’s activity, both from his army and the press. He wired Halleck, “So long as the newspapers continue to give publicity to our movements, we must not expect to gain any advantage over our adversaries. Is there no way of stopping it?” Halleck replied with a touch of sarcasm: “I see no way of preventing it as long as reporters are permitted in our camps. Every general must decide for himself what persons he will permit in his camps.”

During this time, Ewell’s corps completed its Potomac crossing. Lee expressed dissatisfaction that Ewell had not crossed sooner due to rain swelling the river. He wrote Ewell, “Should we be able to detain General Hooker’s army from following you, you would be able to accomplish as much, unmolested, as the whole army could perform with General Hooker in its front.”

Ewell sent his lead elements up the Cumberland Valley toward Chambersburg on the 19th. Longstreet’s corps followed Ewell, moving through Ashby’s and Snicker’s gaps in the Blue Ridge. However, Lee ordered Longstreet to return to the gaps and wait for Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps upon learning that Stuart was having trouble keeping up the screening movement.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 391; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 25-28, 33-35; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18994; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 295; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9318-29; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 440, 448-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 311-13; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5-6; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 366-69

The Second Battle of Winchester

June 15, 1863 – The vanguard of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked the supposedly impregnable Federal defenses at Winchester, precipitating a Federal disaster.

Gen. Robert Milroy | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Robert H. Milroy’s division within the Federal Middle Department was assigned to protect Winchester and Harpers Ferry in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. As the Confederates approached, Milroy’s immediate superior, Major General Robert C. Schenck, as well as General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, had urged Milroy to abandon Winchester and hold Harpers Ferry. But Milroy insisted that Winchester could be held.

Schenck ultimately left it to Milroy to decide whether to abandon Winchester, and Milroy opted to stay and defend the three forts north and west of town. By the 14th, two divisions from Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate Second Corps, led by Major Generals Edward “Allegheny” Johnson and Jubal Early, were closing in on Winchester from the south, east, and west.

Milroy’s Federals pulled back into the forts. President Abraham Lincoln, seeing the potential for disaster, wired Schenck at Baltimore, “Get Milroy from Winchester to Harpers Ferry if possible. If he remains he will get gobbled up, if he is not already past salvation.”

Johnson feinted from the south and east, while Early positioned his troops to the west. The Confederates brought up 22 guns and began bombarding the forts at 6 p.m. At 6:45, one of Early’s brigades attacked the main fort to the west, while Johnson drove against the two to the north. Early’s men captured one of Milroy’s key earthworks, and the Confederates nearly surrounded the Federals by nightfall.

Meanwhile, the rest of Ewell’s corps, Major General Robert Rodes’s infantry division and Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins’s cavalry, attacked the 1,500-man Federal garrison at Martinsburg, behind Milroy to the north. Jenkins attacked first; the Federals initially held firm but evacuated as many supplies as possible before being overrun. By the time Rodes’s infantry arrived, many of the Federals had escaped. But the Confederates still took 700 prisoners, along with five guns and a large amount of supplies.

Back at Winchester, Milroy held a council of war at 9 p.m. Surrender was not an option since Milroy was considered an outlaw by the Confederate government and could face execution for his suppression of civilians and his liberation of slaves. The officers agreed to try escaping northeast to Harpers Ferry, via Martinsburg, along the same route Milroy had used last year to elude “Stonewall” Jackson.

The Federals were to move out at 1 a.m., but before they left, they had orders to destroy all the wagons, guns, and supplies they could not take with them. The men began moving toward Stephenson’s Depot, on the Martinsburg Turnpike four miles north of Winchester.

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

Ewell, who had served under “Stonewall” Jackson, anticipated Milroy’s plan and ordered Johnson to block the turnpike at Stephenson’s Depot. This maneuver, which was very difficult to execute in darkness, took five hours. Nevertheless, the Confederates reached the depot around 3 a.m., ahead of the retreating Federals.

During this time, messages were exchanged between Lincoln and Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln asked incredulously, “Do you consider it possible that 15,000 of Ewell’s men can now be at Winchester?” He then asked if Hooker could somehow rescue Milroy. Hooker replied, “I do not feel like making a move for an enemy until I am satisfied as to his whereabouts. To proceed to Winchester and have him make his appearance elsewhere, would subject me to ridicule.”

Lincoln cited Hooker’s own message stating that the corps of both Ewell and Lieutenant General James Longstreet had left Culpeper Court House. If Hooker was right, then, Lincoln wrote, “I should feel sure that Winchester is strongly invested.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton then informed Hooker that Ewell’s corps was divided between Martinsburg and Winchester, but Hooker still would not move.

As Milroy’s Federals approached Stephenson’s Depot, they saw the Confederates blocking their path at a bridge. They tried fighting their way through, but rather than use his numerical advantage for one overwhelming assault, Milroy sent his men against the enemy piecemeal. The Confederates scattered the Federals with artillery, and as the sun rose, Milroy ordered them to disperse. They fled in all directions as the Confederates rounded most of them up.

The Federals sustained 443 casualties and lost over 4,000 taken prisoner. Milroy escaped. The Confederates also took 23 guns, 300 wagons, 300 horses, and enormous amounts of supplies while losing just 269 men (47 killed, 219 wounded, and three missing). Ewell’s victory at the Second Battle of Winchester was greater than Jackson’s victory over Nathaniel P. Banks in the first.

This, along with the victory at Martinsburg, cleared the Federals out of the Shenandoah Valley and opened the path for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to invade the North. Rodes’s division under Ewell became the first Confederate unit to cross the Potomac River. Jenkins’s Confederate cavalry rode on toward Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to gather supplies.

A court of inquiry later investigated Milroy’s conduct at Winchester, including his insistence on holding the town and his claim that he could withstand any Confederate attack. The court absolved Milroy of any blame for the fiasco, but he never held a significant command again.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 23-25; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18985; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 294; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 440; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 310-11; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 365-66; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 176; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 307-08, 495-96, 834-35

Confederates Threaten Winchester

June 12, 1863 – Part of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia drove toward Winchester on its way to the Potomac River and the North.

As the Confederates continued their march toward the Shenandoah Valley, the only substantial obstacle in their path was Major General Robert H. Milroy’s 5,100-man Federal division, which had guarded Winchester and Harpers Ferry since January. This force was part of Major General Robert C. Schenck’s Middle Department. Schenck, headquartered at Baltimore, warned Milroy to be on alert and prepare to defend Harpers Ferry against a potential attack, even if it meant abandoning Winchester.

Gen. Robert Milroy | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Milroy was extremely unpopular among the people of Winchester because of his dictatorial rule. He destroyed buildings and houses to build fortifications, he arrested anyone expressing Confederate sympathies, he freed local slaves (prompting Virginia Governor John Letcher to offer a $100,000 reward for his capture or execution), and he seized private homes to shelter his troops. Even many Unionists had turned against Milroy due to his harsh tactics.

Milroy told Schenck that abandoning Winchester would not be necessary because he had built defenses there that could withstand any Confederate assault. One of Schenck’s aides inspected the defenses and reported that the Federals “can whip anything the rebels can fetch here.” Milroy asserted, “I can and would hold it, if permitted to do so against any force the rebels can afford to bring against me, and I exceedingly regret the prospect of having to give it up…”

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who saw no benefit in holding Winchester, wrote Schenck:

“Harpers Ferry is the important place, Winchester is of no importance other than as a lookout. The Winchester troops, except enough to serve as an outpost, should be withdrawn to Harpers Ferry.”

The message was forwarded to Milroy with an attachment: “It must be considered an order, and obeyed accordingly. Take immediate steps. You understand this.” Milroy replied on the 11th, “I have sufficient force to hold the place safely, but if any portion is withdrawn the balance will be captured in 48 hours.”

Meanwhile, the vanguard of the Confederate army, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, continued moving toward Winchester, reaching the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge that day and crossing on the 12th. Ewell planned to divide his 13,000 men by sending part to take Colonel Andrew T. McReynolds’s 1,800-man Federal brigade at Berryville and part to take Milroy’s garrison at Winchester.

Although Halleck had urged Milroy to withdraw to Harpers Ferry, Milroy insisted that his Federals could hold Winchester. Schenck, after receiving Milroy’s assurance that Winchester could be held, wired him, “Be ready, but wait for further orders.” Milroy was to “make all the required preparations for withdrawing,” but stay put unless ordered to leave.

Of the three Federal commands in the Shenandoah Valley (Milroy’s at Winchester, McReynolds’s at Berryville, and Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley’s at Harpers Ferry), none had seen anything more than Confederate cavalry and therefore did not know a Confederate army was heading their way. But Milroy guessed they would come at some point, wiring Schenck, “The enemy are probably approaching in some force. I am entirely ready for them. I can hold this place.”

Milroy explained that holding Winchester was vital to secure the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, guard Unionists in the region, and protect nearby foodstuffs being harvested for the troops. The fortifications outside the town made Milroy confident that “I can hold them against five times my number.” Based on this, Milroy wrote, “I am, therefore, 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.”

By day’s end, Ewell’s Confederates had marched through Chester Gap and camped north of Cedarville, less than 20 miles from Winchester. The next morning, 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.

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.

At Harpers Ferry, Kelley 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 Schenck, “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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 22-23, 32-33; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18985; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 293-94; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 439-40; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 308-09; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 364-65; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 307-08, 495-96, 834-35