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THE

CONTINENTAL MONTHLY:

DEVOTED TO

LITERATURE AND NATIONAL POLICY.


VOL. IV. - NOVEMBER, 1863. - No. V.

* * * * *

THE DEFENCE AND EVACUATION OF WINCHESTER,

ON THE 15TH OF JUNE, 1863, BY THE UNION FORCES, UNDER COMMAND OF
MAJOR-GENERAL R. H. MILROY.


The history of many important military operations in the present war,
will be recorded most correctly in the proceedings of the Courts of
Inquiry and Courts Martial, which, from time to time, have been or may
be organized to investigate the conduct of the parties responsible for
them. The reports of commanding officers are no doubt often colored, if
not by their own interests and inclinations, at least by their
enthusiasm and partial view of their own purposes; and even the
description of disinterested reporters and eye witnesses may be
distorted and exaggerated, either by their own peculiarities of excited
imagination, or from their imperfect opportunities for observation. But
in cases where numerous witnesses are questioned, and cross examined
under the solemnities of judicial proceeding, each one knowing that
others equally well informed have been or subsequently will be
interrogated on the same points, the probabilities in favor of a
truthful result are very greatly enhanced.

About the middle of June last, the sudden and unexpected irruption of
the rebel army under General Lee into the Shenandoah Valley, surprised
and surrounded a division of our army, commanded by Major-General R. H.
Milroy, and compelled the evacuation of that post, in a manner and under
circumstances which have elicited the severest criticism and censure of
the public press. The commanding officer of these forces was placed in
arrest by the General-in-chief of the army. No charges were made against
him; but he himself demanded a court of inquiry, which was ordered by
the President. That court has recently concluded its labors, and the
testimony taken has been submitted to the President as the
Commander-in-chief of the army, for his examination and decision.

* * * * *

Although this particular affair was one of subordinate importance, it
was, nevertheless, somewhat connected with the great invasion of
Pennsylvania by the rebel army last summer; and on that account, as well
as from its own intrinsic interest, it is well worth the brief notice
which we now propose to give it. In the general history of the war, the
minute detail of such operations will necessarily be overlooked; but the
interest of truth requires that the principal features and the actual
result, even in these cases, should be fairly stated, and especially
that the actors should receive impartial judgment at the hands of the
public, with such just censure or applause as may be due to their
conduct. In the tremendous operations of the war now raging around us,
minor events may escape present attention; but no part of the great and
bloody drama can fail to be of importance to the future student of this
momentous period in our national history.

At the time of the occurrences that form the subject of the inquiry
recently instituted, from which we chiefly derive the materials for this
sketch, General Milroy was in the department and under the immediate
command of Major-General R. C. Schenck, whose headquarters were at
Baltimore. The force at Winchester consisted in all of about nine
thousand men, and this body had occupied that position for six months
previous to the evacuation. The particular work assigned to General
Milroy and his command, was to assist in guarding that important link of
communication, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, against the incursions
of a considerable rebel force in the valley, under the notorious leaders
Imboden, Jones, and Jenkins. The forces at Winchester constituted but a
part of those employed in this service. There was, of course, a
considerable body of men at Harper's Ferry, with smaller bodies at
Martinsburg, Romney, and New Creek, all intended to coƶperate in the
protection of the railroad.

A question of much interest had been started between General Halleck,
the general-in-chief of the army, and General Schenck, the commander of
the department, as to the best means of disposing the forces on this
road, for its complete security. General Halleck thought the proper mode
was to post his forces immediately on the line of the road, with
blockhouses and other defences for resisting the attacks of the enemy.
General Schenck, on the other hand, insisted upon holding a line some
distance to the south, with a view of watching the enemy, and meeting
his attacks before he reached the immediate vicinity of the road. This
difference of opinion had been the subject of frequent discussion
between these two officers, and gave rise to several telegraphic
communications from General Halleck to General Schenck, which the former
probably intended as orders, but which the latter, in view of their
peculiar phraseology, considered to be merely advisory, and not having
the character of peremptory orders. General Halleck expressed the
decided opinion, if he did not actually command, that the main body of
General Milroy's forces should be withdrawn from Winchester, and a small
force only left as an outpost to watch the enemy. General Schenck, on
the other hand, as he testified before the Court of Inquiry, believed
that any small force left at that point must inevitably be captured; and
he therefore determined to leave the whole garrison until the occasion
should occur for its withdrawal. He therefore gave no order to General
Milroy to evacuate his position until after the telegraphic wire had
been cut, when it was too late to communicate with him. On the contrary,
the last order received from General Schenck, at Winchester, was to hold
the position and await further orders.

The solicitude about the forces at Winchester arose from the anticipated
movements of Lee's rebel army. After the disastrous battle of
Chancellorsville, it soon became the subject of universal apprehension
that the victors in that field would make an attempt upon Washington,
and with that ultimate object would invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. In
the early days of June, the movements of the enemy on the Rappahannock
indicated some aggressive design, though the precise nature of the
enterprise about to be undertaken was unknown to our military
authorities, who waited with much anxiety for its development. A great
raid across the Potomac by Stuart's famous cavalry was anticipated; but
its inception was thought to have been seriously embarrassed, if not
wholly thwarted, by the several attacks of our own forces, especially by
that at Beverly Ford. Still the mysterious movements of the rebel army
perplexed our generals, while a distinct impression prevailed everywhere
that the Confederates were about to advance northward, menacing
Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

While this state of uncertainty mystified the General-in-chief, as he
sat at the centre of his converging lines of telegraphic wires, and
paralyzed the movements of the Army of the Potomac, there began to be an
unusual activity of the rebel forces on the several roads leading
through the passes of the Blue Ridge, in the direction of Harper's Ferry
and Winchester. It was on Friday, the 12th day of June, that the first
indications were seen of the approach of the enemy in force. On that day
a strong reconnoitring party from Winchester was sent out on the
Strasburg road, under command of Colonel Shawl, of the 87th Pennsylvania
Volunteer Infantry. This party consisted of Colonel Shawl's regiment of
infantry, the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and one section of Battery L,
of the 5th regular artillery; and when its advance was within about two
miles of Middletown, it encountered a superior force of cavalry drawn up
in line of battle. By a well-concerted piece of strategy, the enemy was
lured into pursuit until he fell into an ambush, and received the
effective fire both of our artillery and infantry from a dense wood
within one hundred yards of the road. Repulsed and pursued by our
cavalry, the enemy retreated in confusion, and in this handsome little
affair lost no less than fifty in killed and wounded, and thirty-seven
prisoners. These prisoners all proved to be part of the rebel forces
which had long been in the valley, and thus served to allay all
apprehension of the approach of any part of Lee's army from that
direction.

Another reconnoissance, under Lieutenant-Colonel Moss, of the 12th
Pennsylvania Cavalry, was sent out on the Front Royal road on the same
day. On his return, this officer reported a large force of the enemy,
consisting of cavalry, infantry, and artillery, at Cedarville, twelve
miles from Winchester; but as the accounts of officers present, and of
reliable scouts, were contradictory, and as it did not appear that he
had taken the precautions necessary to enable him to ascertain the
strength and character of the enemy, the report of Lieutenant-Colonel
Moss was discredited. Nevertheless, on Friday night, the pickets around
Winchester were doubled, and strong cavalry patrols were kept out on all
the principal roads. A messenger was also sent to Colonel McReynolds,
who commanded the 3d brigade at Berryville, notifying him that the enemy
was reported to be in force on the Front Royal road, and ordering him to
reconnoitre in that direction, to be in readiness to move, and in case
of serious attack, to fall back on Winchester. It was also arranged that
upon the firing of the four large guns in the fort at Winchester he was
to march immediately to that place. Accordingly, on Saturday morning, at
about 8 o'clock, the enemy was reported to be approaching on the Front
Royal road, and the concerted signal was given for the return of the 3d
brigade, under Colonel McReynolds, to unite with the main forces at
Winchester. Berryville is on the direct road from Winchester to Harper's
Ferry, about twenty miles from the latter place, and ten from the
former. The 3d brigade, under Colonel McReynolds, consisting of his own
regiment, the 1st New York Cavalry, commanded by Major A. W. Adams, the
6th Indiana Infantry, the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the Baltimore
battery, Captain Alexander, had been stationed at Berryville, to keep
open the road to Harper's Ferry, and to watch the passes of the Blue
Ridge and the fords of the Shenandoah river in that direction.

When this part of General Milroy's forces was thus ordered to join him
at Winchester, it was not known or suspected that any portion of General
Lee's army was in the valley. The movement was made with a view to
concentrate the command, and to repel an attack from that portion of the
enemy's forces which were known to have been in that vicinity for many
months. It was deemed possible that Stuart's cavalry might have crossed
the Blue Ridge, as had been apprehended, but there was no intention to
abandon the position upon the approach of such an enemy. Indeed it was
believed that, even if Stuart had entered the valley, his advance on
Winchester would prove to be a mere feint to enable the main body of his
forces to cross into Maryland.

Winchester is not a place of any strategic importance; nor is it easily
to be held against a greatly superior force. It is approachable on all
sides by numerous roads, without any difficulty of intercommunication.
But there are some strong positions near the place susceptible of
fortification; and several of these had been very skilfully improved by
General Milroy, during his occupation of the post - not with any view,
however, of attempting to hold it, in case of an attack by overwhelming
numbers, but to resist any sudden concentration of the forces which were
known to be in the valley or likely to invade it. These fortifications
would have successfully resisted Stuart's cavalry, with all the field
artillery he could have brought against them.

On Saturday, the 13th of June, the enemy was encountered early in the
day within a short distance of Winchester; but no enemy appeared in the
direction of the Strasburg road until the afternoon. Our forces held
both roads, but they gradually withdrew, skirmishing, during the day, as
the enemy steadily approached the town. At about 6 o'clock in the
afternoon, a prisoner was captured, who professed to belong to Hay's
Louisiana brigade, of Ewell's rebel corps. From this prisoner was
derived the information that both Ewell and Longstreet, with their
entire forces, fifty thousand strong, were in the immediate vicinity of
Winchester. This report was soon fully confirmed by a deserter, who
shortly afterward entered our lines; and now, for the first time, it was
rendered certain that the command at Winchester was in the immediate
presence of an overwhelming force, probably the advance of Lee's entire
army.

At this time the 3d brigade, under Colonel McReynolds, was on the march
from Berryville to Winchester, in pursuance of the signal, which had
been given early in the morning. The direct road from Berryville to
Winchester was only ten miles; but the appearance of the enemy at
Berryville prevented Colonel McReynolds from taking that route. He
accordingly pursued the Harper's Ferry road for a short distance, then
turning to the left by a circuitous road through Summit Point to
Winchester. His rear guard was attacked by the enemy's cavalry before
leaving Berryville, and also again with greater violence at the Opequan
Creek, between Summit Point and the Martinsburg road. The enemy was
handsomely repulsed in both instances, but particularly in the latter,
when the cavalry, under Major A. W. Adams, and the artillery, commanded
by Captain Alexander, were both brought into action. After a march of
thirty miles, the 3d brigade reached the forts at Winchester about ten
o'clock at night.

After it became known what force was in front of Winchester, early in
the night of Saturday, under cover of the darkness, the men were
withdrawn from the Front Royal and Strasburg roads, and posted in the
southern part of the town, with orders to retire to the forts at two
o'clock in the morning.

It was now apparent that a very large force of the enemy had approached
Winchester, and virtually surrounded it. The Berryville road, the direct
route to Harper's Ferry, was held by them. An attack had been made on
our forces at Bunker Hill, on the Martinsburg road, during the day
(Saturday), and some time in the evening the telegraphic line, which
communicated by that road, was severed. Thus Winchester seemed to be
entirely isolated and cut off from all its communications. Without any
warning whatever, the whole rebel army had eluded the Army of the
Potomac, and had poured over the mountains like an avalanche into the
Shenandoah Valley. General Milroy did not, for a moment, suppose that
this movement could have taken place without the timely knowledge of the
authorities at Washington, and he very naturally supposed he had been
left unadvised and without orders, because of some movement of the Army
of the Potomac, which would soon relieve him from his perilous position.

General Schenck was in expectation of early advice in case of any
movement of Lee's army into the valley. In his testimony he produced
several telegrams to General Halleck inquiring for information on this
subject; but down to Sunday, the 14th, it seems there was no knowledge
of Lee's movements in possession of the commander-in-chief of the army.
On Friday the 12th, General Schenck had telegraphed General Milroy in
these words: '_You will make all the required preparations for
withdrawing, but hold your position in the mean time. Be ready for
movement, but await further orders._' The additional orders had not been
received. The telegraph had been in operation during the greater part of
Saturday, while the enemy was gathering around the post; and when, that
night, the real situation became known, the most obvious conclusion
arising from the circumstances was, that General Schenck had ordered the
place to be held until further orders, for some important reason
connected with the wider plans of the General-in-chief of the army. The
cutting of the telegraphic wire was the only circumstance which cast any
doubt upon this view. But in consultation with some of his officers on
Saturday night, the commanding general, with their concurrence, adopted
the conclusion that his orders prohibited him from leaving Winchester at
that time, even if he could have done so with safety, which was more
than doubtful. He resolved, therefore, to await the events of Sunday,
when the enemy would probably have massed his forces; and if relief
should not come during the day, it would then be more easy to determine
in what manner and by what route it would be possible to escape. This
conclusion was undoubtedly the wisest that could have been adopted. The
most critical military judgment will hardly succeed in finding any
ground of complaint against this decision in that serious emergency.

So passed the night of Saturday. On Sunday morning the contest was
renewed, and kept up with great energy during the whole day, chiefly
within the suburbs of the town of Winchester. In the afternoon a sudden
and unexpected attack was made upon an unfinished earthwork on Flint
Ridge, which, as it commanded the Pughtown and Romney roads, was
occupied by Battery L of the 5th regular artillery, supported by the
110th and part of the 116th Ohio volunteer infantry, all under command
of Colonel Keifer, of the former regiment. A reconnaissance had been
previously ordered in that direction, and had been made or pretended to
be made by part of the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the officer in charge
of the party reporting that there was no enemy on either of those roads
or between the two for a considerable distance from Winchester. Within
two hours after this report was made, an overwhelming force appeared in
that very quarter. The enemy opened on the position with not less than
twenty guns, and precipitated upon it a column of at least ten thousand
men. After a gallant but ineffectual resistance, Colonel Keifer was
enabled to make good his retreat, under cover of the guns from the main
fort, which commanded the position. The guns of Battery L were most
effectively served in this affair, and executed great slaughter in the
ranks of the enemy; but the horses having been nearly all killed, they
were necessarily spiked and abandoned.

Our forces, pressed by the enemy on all sides, were now concentrated
within the fortifications, and the rifle pits immediately in front of
them; and the contest was continued with artillery on both sides until
darkness compelled its cessation. In his report of this affair, General
Milroy, with characteristic ardor at this juncture, says: 'To my regret,
the enemy made no effort to take my position by assault.' It was
probably about this time that the rebel General Ewell is reported with
his glass to have descried General Milroy in the lookout, which had been
constructed some distance up the flagstaff of the main fort, and to have
exclaimed, 'There's that d - d old Milroy, who would stop and fight, if
the d - l himself was after him.'

With the exception of the loss of Battery L, which was wholly
attributable to the imperfect reconnaissance or the false report of
Captain Morgan, who commanded the reconnoitring party, the advantage in
the fighting, both on Saturday and Sunday, had all been with our forces;
and there can be little doubt that the enemy would have suffered
severely in any attempt to take the forts by assault.

But it was now apparent that the only alternatives were an evacuation or
a surrender. A council of war was ordered by the commanding general, and
the three brigade commanders, Brigadier-General Elliott, 1st brigade;
Colonel Ely, of the 18th Connecticut, 2d brigade; and Colonel
McReynolds, of the 1st New York Cavalry, 3d brigade, were called into
consultation. The critical condition of the command was perfectly
understood. In pursuance of orders previously received, which looked to
the early evacuation of the place, most of the stores had been sent
away. The communication with Martinsburg, from which supplies had been
obtained always in a few hours, had been cut off; and it now appeared
that the stock of ammunition had been very nearly expended, and the men
were already on half rations. It was therefore resolved to retreat from
the forts at one o'clock in the morning (of Monday 15th June),
abandoning everything except the horses, and such supply of ammunition
as each man could take upon the march. There was some question as to the
feasibility of taking the field artillery; but as the enemy's pickets
were within two or three hundred yards of the rifle pits, and as the
forts were located on a rocky ridge, which could not well have been
descended by the guns without arousing the enemy, it was finally
determined to spike and leave them.

The fortifications had been constructed on the ridge, extending
northwest from the town; and the guns in position commanded the
Martinsburg road to the extent of their range. Probably on this account
the enemy had not made his appearance in that direction; and this road,
therefore, seemed to offer the only means of escape. The council of war
resolved to march by this road to the point whence diverges a cross road
to Summit Point, and thence by that place to Charlestown and Harper's
Ferry. The three brigades were directed to go out in the order of their
numbers, the 1st New York Cavalry, of the 3d brigade, being placed in
the extreme rear. Notwithstanding the great precautions taken to elude
the enemy immediately in front of the forts, the chief apprehension was
that these forces would follow and harass the column on its retreat.

At two o'clock, on the morning of Monday, June 15th, with the most
perfect silence, and in extreme darkness, the fortifications were
evacuated, and the command of General Milroy commenced its march in the
order and by the route designated. The bold and energetic resistance of
the day previous had led the enemy to expect a renewal of the contest on
Monday morning. Hence he was completely deceived and eluded; and the
head of the retreating column had proceeded four and a half miles from
Winchester, when suddenly, while it was yet quite dark, it encountered
Johnson's division of Ewell's corps, eight or ten thousand strong,
posted at the junction of the roads to Martinsburg and Summit Point. The
commanding general, expecting only an attack from behind, was near the
rear when the firing began. He immediately hastened to the scene of
action, and in riding up to the front, and passing Colonel McReynolds,
some distance ahead of his troops, ordered him to go back and hurry up
his brigade. The forces of the 1st and 2d brigades were at once thrown
into line of battle, the former on the left and parallel with the
Martinsburg road, and the latter at right angles with the road, facing
the woods in which the enemy were posted. The first brigade, by a
gallant charge, succeeded in driving the enemy from their guns; the
second, led by General Milroy in person, was three times repulsed by
greatly superior numbers. Pending these successive charges, during which
General Milroy's horse was shot under him, he awaited the arrival of the
3d brigade, and sent repeated messengers to order it up. His purpose was
only to engage the enemy long enough to enable the whole column to pass
away under cover of the severe blow he had given the enemy in the first
charges of the two brigades engaged. But, unfortunately, the only part
of the 3d brigade which could be found upon the field was the 1st New
York Cavalry, which had been drawn up in line of battle by Major Adams,
without having received any orders from the brigade commander. The rest
of the brigade had gone to the right in the early part of the conflict,
and, with the exception of the 6th Maryland Volunteers, became
disorganized and scattered. Colonel McReynolds himself became separated
from his troops, and reached Harper's Ferry alone, among the first who
arrived.

Thus thwarted in his plans by the failure of the 3d brigade to respond
to the orders given; the commanding general was compelled to continue
the retreat with only the regiments which were yet upon the field.
General Elliotts's forces, being in advance, mostly escaped. Colonel Ely


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Online LibraryVariousThe Continental Monthly, Vol. 4, No. 5, November, 1863 → online text (page 1 of 20)