I had a chance to make arrangements to be in Vicksburg on the exact dates of sesquicentennial events in a few weeks – with a conference I could have attended just before that time in New Orleans. But I chose not to, as honestly, I’d rather not deal with crowds on battlefields … even as those are times with some of the best programs.
But living close to northern Virginia, I did choose to go on the actual middle day date of the Second Battle of Winchester. No crowds at all! In fact I never met another person at any stop except for one – where two re-enactors and a history person were preparing for an evening program.
There is a tourism visitor’s center on the south end of town, where I was able to pick up a driving tour brochure for the battle – noting also a similar document for the First Battles of Winchester and Kernstown. Some of the stops are remote, and several are in the middle of housing developments or on the edge of town. But it is not difficult to get a sense of what happened and how the original terrain appeared. The best stop is the Star Fort.
The Army of Northern Virginia, having departed the Rappahannock, had gone west of the mountains and swung north through the Shenandoah Valley toward what would eventuate as the ultimate destination of Gettysburg. Screened by the Blue Ridge, the first significant force of the Union to be encountered was at Winchester – about 8,000-9,000 troops under Robert Milroy. The Confederates had about 12,000-13,000 in the Corps of Richard Ewell. (All of these numbers vary wildly in different accounts and resources, but it is certain that the Confederates had about 50% more on this occasion.)
Milroy entirely overestimated the strength of his position and fortifications, while entirely underestimating the possibility of a large force overwhelming him. He had three forts of various sizes to the north and west of the town. Early fighting on the south side of Winchester on the 13th drove the Union men back to the forts, while the Confederates swung a significant force to the west. Late in the afternoon of the 14th, the Rebels surprised Milroy’s troops at the West Fort with a powerful advance supported by a significant amount of artillery. The Union men retreated to the east to Fort Milroy, while to the northeast at the Star Fort, the Baltimore Light Artillery pounded the Confederates at West Fort with accurate fire.
That evening, Milroy arranged for a retreat to abandon Winchester and head for Harpers Ferry. Anticipating this very movement, another Confederate flanking action to the east (the division of General Edward Johnson) cut off the retreating Federals at Stephenson’s Depot, capturing 4,000 men and considerable amounts of artillery and supplies. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Snowden Andrews commanded an artillery battalion, with the battery of two guns of C.S. Contee holding the center of the line at a bridge. The heavy fighting at that spot resulted in 13 of the 16 artillerists being killed or wounded. Lee called this stand at the bridge “the Thermoplae of my campaign.”
The Second Battle of Winchester was one of the finest hours of the war in terms of the well-timed and executed Confederate logistics and fighting. It was a disaster for Milroy and the Union. Lee’s invasion was off to a great start.