Men of the 87th PA defended Bunker Hill churches
Concurrent with the opening of the Second Battle of Winchester, Confederate Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins led his Virginia cavalry and mounted infantry on Saturday, June 13, 1863, toward the small Union garrison protecting the Opequon River crossing on the Martinsburg Pike (today’s US Route 11) at Bunker Hill, [West] Virginia.
The roughly 200 defenders were Companies G and H of the 87th Pennsylvania and Companies A and I of the 116th Ohio, under the overall command of Buckeye Maj. William T. Morris. They had erected sturdy barricades across the turnpike, posted pickets and sentries on major roadways, and removed bricks from two local churches to serve as loopholes for firing at any attackers. It was a good fallback position, but vulnerable to a flanking movement or a siege. Morris arranged his men in an extended line some 500 yards east of the village and the turnpike.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Jenkins’ vanguard chased off the forward pickets along Mill Creek, and the main body of 1,500 men started forward an hour later toward the main Union line. Most of the Rebels dismounted, while one company remained mounted.
The badly outnumbered Buckeyes and Keystoners, most of whom had never experienced combat — let alone a mounted enemy cavalry charge — nervously awaited the orders to open fire.
About 5 p.m. the 17th Virginia led the attack for Jenkins’ men. “This was the first fight many of us were ever in,” one of the Rebel officers later recalled. They were likely as nervous as their Yankee opponents, who by now were lying prone in the distant field.
The mounted Confederate cavalry company, the “Nighthawks” of Company F, headed toward the enemy soldiers, who soon raced toward the two prepared defensive positions in the Presbyterian and Methodist Episcopal churches. Several retreating Union soldiers were shot or struck with swords, and Lt. Michael Slothower of the 87th Pennsylvania dropped with a wound that would prove mortal. He died the next day. A wounded Sergeant John M. Griffith found refuge with some of the residents who had not left town; they would hide him and feed him for a month.
Once inside the churches, the beleaguered Ohioans and Pennsylvanians kept up a steady fire from the small openings in the brickwork, forcing the Virginians to keep a safe distance as a cold rain began to fall after dusk. Jenkins did not have any artillery to drive the stubborn Yankees from the churches, and at nightfall he withdrew his men after unsuccessfully trying to convince Major Morris to surrender.
At 2 a.m., Morris, realizing that the enemy was long gone, withdrew his remaining men from Bunker Hill and marched through the soggy night to rejoin the main Union force at Winchester. No one realized Sergeant Griffith was still being sheltered in one of the nearby houses, and the force marched away without him.
To read much more about the 87th Pennsylvania’s and the 116th Ohio’s fight at Bunker Hill, pick up a copy of Eric J. Wittenberg’s and Scott Mingus’s newly published book, The Second Battle of Winchester.