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Road trip! Second Battle of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley: Part 1

I recently spent a wonderful morning touring the Second Winchester battlefield in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with fellow authors Scott C. Patchan and Eric J. Wittenberg. Eric and I are researching the battle for a new full-length book we envision on this June 1863 battle, which paved the way for the Confederates to march north to Pennsylvania in the Gettysburg Campaign.

The battle, waged from June 13-15, 1863, pitted Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia against a Union division of the Eighth Corps commanded by Indiana political general Robert H. Milroy. Milroy’s force, which included York County’s 87th Pennsylvania Infantry, defended the approaches to Winchester, a key town on the Valley Turnpike (now Route 11) which leads to Harrisburg, Pa.

Milroy held out, against Lincoln’s advice to withdraw to Harper’s Ferry, for two days against Ewell’s forces, but was eventually forced to abandon his forts and march into the open at night in a desperate attempt to escape being surrounded. Rebels caught him near Stephenson’s Depot. In the ensuing battle, they routed Milroy’s soldiers.

The above photo shows an old Revolutionary War-era cemetery near the Stephenson’s Depot battlefield.

Looking north from a country lane toward the railroad cut defended by Rebel infantry against several of Milroy’s attacks in the wee morning hours of June 15.

This wayside marker is at the spot where I took the photograph of the field seen above. The old cemetery in the first photo is along the farm lane toward Milburn Road. The 87th Pennsylvania, primarily raised in York and Adams counties, was part of Ely’s Brigade, shown advancing southward along the Old Charles Town Road.

Nichols’ Louisiana brigade stretched along this naturally sunken section of the railroad south of the Old Charles Town Road…

…while George Steuart’s Marylanders manned the railroad bed north of the Old Charlestown Road. These photos were taken from the modern railroad bridge which goes over the tracks. The Old Charlestown Road has been slightly rerouted to the west of its wartime location. Back in 1863, Rebel artillery held the bridge, supported by Nichols and Steuart eventually) against repeated Union attacks.

This view to the east from the modern road near the overpass shows the vestiges of the wartime road’s location.

Second Winchester was an unmitigated disaster for Milroy’s division. He fled the field and left his men to fend for themselves. Thousands surrendered, including a large portion of the 87th Pennsylvania. Stunned survivors made it to Harper’s Ferry, Everett PA, and other locations from West Virginia to Pennsylvania. A contingent of the 87th made it all the way back to York County, where two weeks after Second Winchester they helped defend the Columbia Bridge by manning the entrenchments southwest of Wrightsville.

Click here to read another account of the Second Battle of Winchester. Hundreds of young York County soldiers were “seeing the elephant,” a colorful old phrase for experiencing their first combat action.

A portion of the 1864 Third Battle of Winchester was fought on the same ground where Milroy met his debacle.

If you go: Winchester is between two and two-and-a-half hours south of York along Routes 11 and Interstate 81. It’s a relatively short, pleasant toll-free drive over good and flat roads, with plenty of gasoline and food along the way, as well as other Civil War sites including the very well preserved Kernstown battlefield. Downtown Winchester has a wonderful outdoor walking mall, a nice Civil War museum, and some great restaurants.

Stay tuned for Part 2!