Winchester, Virginia, saw more of the war than any other place North or South a town EMBATTLED CHRIS FORDNEY
Ten thousand Confederate troops filled the small town of Winchester, Virginia, early in the summer of 1861. Soldiers were quartered in almost every building. Then, in mid-July, a call came to stop a Federal advance on Manassas, and the town quickly emptied. The streets grew quiet.
Two days later the quiet was broken by the clatter of horse-drawn wagons carrying wounded and dead soldiers back from the First Battle of Manassas. Five of the dead were townsmen. “I saw the rough farm wagons that brought them back in rough boxes through the straw in the bed of the wagon,” wrote resident Robert T. Barton. “We had begun to realize what war was.” And the next four years wouldn’t let them forget.
No town heard more of the war’s rumblings than Winchester. Several major engagements were fought in the vicinity, including the namesake First, Second, and Third Battles of Winchester in May 1862, June 1863, and September 1864. There were also dozens of smaller skirmishes and raids. All this action has led some local historians to claim that military control of the town switched hands nearly 100 times, though a recent tally of formal changes of possession sets the number at 14.
Winchester was a prosperous commercial center of 4,400 people that lay at the junction of several roads, including the macadamized Valley Pike. The main street through town featured an imposing Greek Revival courthouse, gas lights, solid brick shops, taverns, and the two-story Taylor Hotel. The inhabitants were hard-working, sociable churchgoers. The surrounding fields of fertile limestone soil supported lush wheat crops. Abundant pastures fattened the valley’s cattle and sheep, and gave the people a diet rich in meat.
The town’s location determined its fate in the war. Tucked in the northern stretches of the Shenandoah Valley, the town lay on a natural transportation corridor used first by nomadic American Indian tribes, then by westbound settlers, and finally by Confederate armies, which found it advantageous to march north behind the barrier of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east. Both Confederate invasions of the North followed this route. Winchester was also close to key military sites. About 70 miles from the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., and 20 miles from the important Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Harpers Ferry in western Virginia, the town was a natural jumping-off point for Confederate army campaigns.
Another geographic feature would magnify in importance during the war: Winchester was surrounded on all sides by low hills that hid the approach of armies. Occupiers found it almost impossible to mount a defense, so they usually had to flee quickly, sparing the town from prolonged, destructive sieges.
The irony of Winchester’s experience is that the townspeople were reluctant to go to war. Established in the 18th century by Scottish and German settlers from Pennsylvania, the town and its surrounds were populated mostly by small-scale farmers, artisans, and merchants, who had little use for slaves and who retained strong ties to the North. Thus they had sharp political and cultural differences with the slaveholding tobacco planters of eastern Virginia who dominated the statehouse.
When Virginia held its secession convention in April 1861, Winchester sent Robert Y. Conrad, a level-headed businessman and lawyer who ended up leading the Unionist faction. Conrad, along with many other representatives, fought hard against secession with the hope that the North and South could reconcile. On April 4 the convention voted 89 to 45 to remain in the Union. But when secessionist forces bombed Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12 and President Abraham Lincoln called three days later for 75,000 volunteers to fight “the insurrection,” the tide began to turn. “Lincoln’s awful proclamation has made secessionists of all,” one Winchester woman wrote. The representatives voted again, on the 17th, and everyone had changed his mind except Conrad and six other delegates from the northern Shenandoah Valley. Nonetheless, Conrad and most of Winchester accepted the decision to secede. Conrad’s four sons would serve with the Confederacy.
Men from the town and surrounding Frederick County left their dinner tables and plows, and headed to Harpers Ferry to seize the Federal armory there and guard the northern approaches to the Shenandoah Valley. Local volunteers formed four companies of what would eventually become the renowned Stonewall Brigade. They and the other enlistees from the valley would harden into resilient but highly individualistic soldiers. Their cavalry especially was notoriously undisciplined. These valley men would spend much of the war on familiar ground. “In few wars have the soldiers maintained as intimate contact with their homes and with the community from which they came as did the valley soldiers,” one historian writes.
In March 1862 Winchester experienced its first enemy occupation. Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 3,500 Confederates, who had held the town since the previous summer, retreated after a sharp clash with Brigadier General James Shields’s 9,700 Federals at Kernstown, to the south. Six more local men were dead, and the streets of Winchester were suddenly crowded with blue uniforms. The Union commander, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, imposed a strict curfew on the townspeople, and food, hay, and grain were confiscated to feed the Northern troops and horses. Daily life was ruled by provost marshals. The strictures of the occupation hardened secessionist sentiment and tipped many fence-sitters to the Southern cause.
The Battle of Kernstown provided the townswomen with their first exposure to the grisly aftermath of combat. Diarist Cornelia McDonald described how she hurried to the courthouse to help tend the wounded, avoiding the bodies of several dead soldiers on the steps. Inside she found “many, many poor sufferers, some so dreadfully mutilated that I was overcome by the sight.” When a doctor asked her to wash the wounds of a soldier whose eyes and nose had been shot away, she became faint. “I could only stagger towards the door,” she wrote. On her way out, her dress brushed against a pile of amputated limbs.
Some of the occupying soldiers made the mistake of trying to ingratiate themselves with the Confederate women of the town. “We are glad to hear that they are very much disappointed in their reception here,” Laura Lee wrote in her diary. “They say they were never treated with such scorn as by the Winchester ladies.” One trooper commented to an elderly black woman about the beauty of the town’s young women. “Honey,” she replied, “they could just cut your hearts out.”
The women noticed a change in themselves as they struggled to keep their households afloat and hold their own against a military rule that paid scant attention to their constitutional rights. Accustomed to being treated as delicate feminine ornaments, they found they had a tougher side. “I take it out in cussing,” wrote 18-year-old Kate Sperry in her diary. “Have become reckless–stonehearted and everything, hard and pitiless.”
“My contempt of the Yankees is so great that I cannot feel afraid of them,” wrote Mary Greenhow Lee, who fought a one-woman war against the Union occupiers and recounted it in a voluminous diary, the most detailed account of wartime civilian life in Winchester. “I know I can cow them and make them afraid of me whenever we come into collision.”
Women would cross the street or step off sidewalks into the mud to avoid brushing up against Federal soldiers or walking under a U.S. flag. Mary Lee described how she would watch a Federal officer approach her, intending to speak, and then turn her back just as he opened his mouth. Unionist Julia Chase described the “Jeff Davis bonnets” worn by secessionist women to hide their faces from Federal soldiers. “They put on many airs and frowns and sneers, and try in every way to put down the Union people,” she wrote. “They are certainly very bold and impudent.” U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton summed up his impression of the town after a brief visit: “The men are all in the army,” he wrote, “and the women are the devil.”
The Union occupiers made their own contributions to the tense atmosphere. For instance, officers forced residents to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States as a condition of free movement and other privileges. Some refused to sign, even later when obtaining necessities such as food and firewood was contingent on the oath.
Of course, not every interaction between occupier and occupied brimmed with such hostility. The women who carried food to the many hospitals fed both Northern soldiers and Southern prisoners, and Federal officers sometimes detailed guards to homes whose residents had been harassed. Some Unionist women even married Northern soldiers (though a few would later discover that their new husbands already had wives and families in the North).
The town’s first occupation came to abrupt end in late May, when 17,000 hard-marching troops under Stonewall Jackson suddenly stormed out of the Luray Valley to the south. Most of Banks’s force was in nearby Strasburg, leaving only 6,000 men in Winchester. Banks backpedaled his main contingent furiously and had barely got his men into position on the south hills when the boom of Jackson’s artillery at dawn on May 25 opened the First Battle of Winchester. The Federal lines soon broke, and civilians watched with glee as their occupiers fled through the streets panic-stricken. A few townspeople took potshots at the retreating Federals, including a woman who leaned out a window to fire a pistol at a galloping cavalryman.
The dramatic liberation was the high point of the war for Winchester. Jackson’s troops were welcomed as conquering heroes. Even dour Jackson was swept up in the celebration. The people “seemed nearly frantic with joy,” he wrote his wife. “Our entrance into Winchester was one of the most stirring scenes of my life.”
But jubilation turned to sorrow in some homes as news of deaths arrived. At the Barton home on Market Street, the family gathered around the body of Marshall Barton, a handsome artillery officer who had been killed by a shell.
The town’s Unionists were shocked by the rout of their troops and the riotous cheering of the secessionists. “Oh, what an awful day this has been!” wrote Julia Chase. “God grant I may never see the likes again. The citizens in town have become demons almost. It is said that Rev. Norval Wilson fired upon a Federal soldier. God have mercy on this town.”
The secessionists’ celebration was short-lived. Jackson’s bold foray in the valley wrecked Union plans to link Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, positioned east of Richmond, with another force under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, marching south from Washington, for a concerted drive on the Confederate capital. Now the Northern capital seemed threatened, and Lincoln set three separate forces into motion to trap Jackson. After seizing a hoard of Union supplies at Harper’s Ferry, Jackson moved back south through the valley, eluding and defeating his pursuers. Winchester was left deserted, exposed, and grief-stricken over the loss of cherished hero Turner Ashby, a cavalry commander killed in a rearguard action near Harrisonburg in early June, just two weeks after a promotion to brigadier general.
With memories of their treatment in Winchester just two weeks before still fresh, returning Federal troops were not in a forgiving mood. They searched and looted homes, ransacked stores, and roughed up citizens. The situation got so bad that Banks ordered his army out of town and sealed off the flow of mail and contraband. Federal artillerymen practiced their trade by firing wooden cannonballs over the town. A few fell short and hit houses, suggesting the damage that could occur with live ammunition.
After a long and difficult summer, Winchester braced itself for another battle as General Robert E. Lee marched his Army of Northern Virginia into the valley after the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862. Once again the town was spared when the heavily outnumbered Federals fled without a fight, but the Union troops sent a bolt of terror through the population by burning several warehouses and detonating a powder magazine with a blast that shook every house to its rafters and broke many windows.
Lee established a supply base at Winchester and launched a Confederate invasion of the North. He marched his army into Maryland, colliding with Federal forces near Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg, some 35 miles from Winchester. Serving as cooks and nurses to large numbers of soldiers had become commonplace to the women of Winchester, but nothing could prepare them for the tide of human misery that swamped the town in the wake of the September 17 Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day of the war. The town became a giant hospital as hundreds of wagons rolled in with thousands of maimed and bleeding men.
Even Unionists were dismayed by the dreadful Confederate casualties from Antietam. “Oh, the horrors! horror of war,” wrote Julia Chase. “Every heart must groan to think of the suffering that is in our midst. Some 3,000 wounded soldiers are being brought in today, and our town is thronged with them.”
By then Cornelia McDonald had nursed many severely injured soldiers, but she was still unnerved by the carnage. “I saw such fearful sights in town today that I turned sick; long rows of wounded men, sitting on the curbstones…their pitiful faces so haggard with suffering.”
For the next month Winchester was the center of the Confederate universe, as Lee rested his troops just north of town. Soldiers, families, horses, wagons, and stragglers jammed the town’s narrow streets. Mary Lee, whose ardent support of the South had become known far beyond Winchester, entertained several British newspapermen and was visited by Jackson in what probably was his only wartime social call.
The Army of the Potomac, under new commander Major General Ambrose Burnside, was on the move in November. Winchester gradually lost its protectors as Lee shifted his forces to deal Burnside a disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg the following month. The town’s secessionists would sorely miss their presence.
With the arrival of Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy on New Year’s Day of 1863, Winchester entered one of the most difficult periods of the war. Milroy would be remembered bitterly in Winchester as the man who began the harsh practice of sending troublesome citizens “through the lines.” This meant transporting them by wagon about 20 miles south and dropping them by the side of the road, sometimes in foul weather. His first target was the wealthy Logans, who were evicted from their large house, even though two daughters were ill, so Milroy could use it as a headquarters and home for himself and his wife. Buildings were torn down to provide construction materials for new forts on the surrounding hilltops. The stately home of former U.S. Senator James M. Mason, a Confederate diplomat, was dismantled brick by brick. Milroy served notice to Winchester’s Rebel women that they were in for a hard time. “Hell is not full enough,” he said. “There must be more of these Secession women of Winchester to fill it up.”
The spring and summer of 1863 brought another cycle of gloom and elation for the secessionists. Women wore black mourning bands after Stonewall Jackson’s death from a wound received at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May. Their symbolic statement enraged the Federal troops and prompted another round of expulsions. So, naturally, excitement grew when news came in June that Lee was moving north.
Hometown boys were in the lead of the liberating Southern army as Lee sent Major General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps ahead to flush the Yankees from Winchester. Despite the large force bearing down on him, Milroy decided to stand and fight with his 7,000 men. But this garrison general was no match for the veteran Southern commanders.
Major General Jubal Early used the hills west of town to screen his division’s march into a commanding position, while a brigade south of town held Milroy’s attention. A short battle raged around one of the three forts west of town on June 14 before Milroy consolidated his forces in another of the forts and then fled north under cover of darkness. At daylight Major General Edward Johnson’s division caught Milroy’s troops a few miles from Winchester. The Confederates captured nearly 4,000 prisoners and 20 cannon and gorged themselves on captured stores. Milroy, however, escaped, much to the regret of the long-suffering people of Winchester.
In town, the celebration of victory in this Second Battle of Winchester was reminiscent of Jackson’s liberation the year before. Mary Lee again entertained Southern leaders and foreign visitors, including British observer Colonel Arthur J. Fremantle, with whom she spent a “very amusing evening, laughing at each other’s pronunciation.” She also met with Ewell, who told her to pray for the army. “The great struggle is yet to come,” he predicted.
Fremantle remarked on Winchester’s unfortunate distinction of having “been made a regular shuttlecock by the contending armies…. I understand that Winchester used to be a most agreeable little town, and its society extremely pleasant. Many of its houses are now destroyed or converted into hospitals. The rest look miserable and dilapidated.” He was struck also by something unique about the women. Though “familiar with the bloody realities of war,” they “spoke of the enemy with less violence and rancor” than any other Confederate women he had met. They told him their compassion arose from the hard experience of seeing “many men shot down in the streets before their own eyes.”
On July 1, the great struggle Ewell had foreseen began at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the climactic battle of the Confederacy’s second invasion of the North. Four days later a mounted courier arrived in Winchester with the message that at least 5,000 wounded were on the way. The wagons began arriving the next day, and the townswomen again worked to exhaustion feeding and nursing injured men as Lee’s battered army struggled back across the Potomac River. This time the army kept moving, and by mid-July all Confederate soldiers, except those too badly wounded to move, were gone. Many families that had tired of the constant struggle headed south as well, leaving the town nearly deserted.
Only a resolute core of residents refused to leave, including the indomitable Mary Lee. “The rain is descending in torrents and we are cut off from North, South, East, and West,” she wrote. “No papers, no letters, no news, no visitors.” A religious revival was the only diversion as the war-weary town waited out the winter. “There is nothing new or interesting or startling to record,” Kate Sperry wrote. “Same old revival going full swing–some small skirmishes between our men and the Yank scouts–and another cold, very cold winter–each day seems cold, dark and dreary.”
For the rest of 1863, Winchester remained free from military occupation, though it was visited often by cavalry of both sides, sometimes on the same day. Mary Lee described how she was often “roused by the welcome sound that the town is full of Confederates, our hearts warmed by the sight of our men, then they are gone and the hated Yankees sneak through, looking so mean.” Both sides arrested enemy supporters during their rides through town. Julia Chase, who attributed the death of her father to his imprisonment by Confederates, wrote, “The Union men are so fearful of being carried off to the dreaded prisons of the South that they seem obliged to do all in their power to prevent the arrest of secessionists.”
Three years of war had depopulated Winchester and almost completely broken down civic order in the northern Shenandoah Valley. There were sporadic attempts to uphold local government, but without elections, tax collections, and police, anarchy ruled instead. Inflation soared, and there were chronic shortages of necessities. Banks, courts, and schools were closed, and because most churches were in use as hospitals, barracks, and stables, congregations became scattered. Crime flourished between military occupations. Horse thieves and even murderers went unpunished.
When three men rode into town on November 24, 1863, and demanded a citizen’s horse at gunpoint, the owner of a local flour mill tried to intervene. He was shot and wounded, and his mill was set on fire. While the building burned, the outlaws rode up and down the main street, shooting at anyone in sight. “Are we not in a defenseless condition?” Mary Lee wrote after witnessing the incident.
The severest test was yet to come. The great battles of 1864–the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Spotsylvania–would be fought east of the Blue Ridge, but the valley would remain an important region of operations. And it would support one more Confederate incursion into the North. Determined to eliminate the valley’s usefulness to Southern armies, Union strategists eventually decided to render the valley unfit for man or beast. Systematic burning came late in the year at the hands of sour-tempered Major General David Hunter.
Hunter replaced Major General Franz Sigel, whose advance into the valley in May had come to grief when a hastily assembled force of Confederates, including cadets from Virginia Military Institute, defeated him in the Battle of New Market. Hunter resumed the offensive, planning to seize the important rail junction at Lynchburg, and repaid the cadets by burning their school in Lexington. His fondness for torching crops and buildings, actions that extended beyond his orders, quickly blackened his name in the valley. When it was falsely rumored that he had been killed in action, Mary Lee remarked that was “too honourable a death.”
Lee could not ignore the threat posed by Hunter, so he sent Early’s 8,000-strong Second Corps to Winchester. Hunter responded by withdrawing into western Virginia rather than fighting, and Early encamped just north of town. By July 1 there were joyous reunions as soldiers from Winchester began to filter into town. Several families who had “refugeed” south also returned for short stays. The socially inept Early paid a call on Mary Lee, but she was not impressed. “Early was very stupid, as he always is,” she wrote. But she would have nothing but admiration for him in subsequent weeks as he marched his troops to the ramparts of Washington. Early’s famous raid on the U.S. capital, though militarily inconsequential, was a welcome boost to the sagging spirits in Winchester. “If all the news of today is correct,” wrote Mary Lee, “this is indeed a glorious era in our national history.”
Ironically, Confederate success in the North raised the threat of ruin for Winchester. Rebel troops under Brigadier General John McCausland burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1864 when the town failed to produce a ransom of $100,000 in gold. The burning was in retaliation for Hunter’s destruction in the valley, and word quickly spread south that the Union would retaliate in Winchester. Later it became known that Federal officers en route to Winchester had voted on whether to burn the town; 71 were in favor, 100 against.
Winchester changed hands for the last time in September 1864 with a Union victory that owed much to a Quaker schoolmistress, Rebecca I. Wright. A staunch Unionist, she sent word through an elderly slave to the new Federal commander in the valley, Major General Philip Sheridan, that one of Early’s divisions had been sent to Richmond. Sheridan and Early had been maneuvering around the northern valley for more than a month, but with this new information, Sheridan suddenly had the advantage and decided to attack immediately.
Most of Early’s 14,000 troops were deployed in an L-shaped wedge on hills east of town when Sheridan’s forces struck early on the morning of September 19, opening the Third Battle of Winchester. The Southern lines held into the afternoon, when the weight of Sheridan’s 30,000-man force and a crushing cavalry charge on Early’s left sent the Confederates “whirling through Winchester,” as one Federal officer wrote.
Mary Lee and other women of the town were in the streets trying to rally the retreating soldiers amid the shriek of shells and the buzz of minié balls. “We stood on the porch and on the pavement and shamed them and by dint of reproaches and encouragement succeeded in turning some back,” she wrote. But by nightfall the Federals held the town.
The farms near Winchester experienced what was in store for the entire valley as Sheridan’s troopers pursued Early south. The Barton farm in Springdale was along the line of march. Its fields, full of 1,500 bushels of wheat that Early’s troopers had cut and stacked but not yet threshed, proved an overwhelming temptation to the Union soldiers. The stacks were soon blazing. Robert T. Barton, sick in bed in the house, watched the scene unfold. “Hogs, sheep, cattle & c. were shot down and left to rot and horses were taken and carried away, whether needed by the army or not,” he wrote. “Springdale was left like a wilderness, almost every living animal on the place either being driven off or killed….”
Early’s forces suffered more defeats at Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek that fall. The latter at first seemed a Southern victory, as the Confederates surprised and routed Sheridan’s army 12 miles south of Winchester. But Sheridan rode from his headquarters in town to rally his men and launch a powerful counterattack in the war’s most exceptional example of battlefield leadership.
Life in Winchester during the winter of 1864-65 reflected the desperate straits of the Confederacy. While refugees from the burned-out farmlands to the south shivered in half-wrecked buildings, depending on handouts from the Federals, the abundantly supplied Northern troops went into comfortable winter quarters, with senior officers taking over the best houses in town. Federal wounded recuperated in a large, well-staffed field hospital as the town’s Unionist families entertained their saviors with lavish parties. One incident marred the winter for the Federals: a hotel in the city collapsed, killing seven soldiers and injuring two dozen others.
Mary Lee continued to send intelligence reports to Southern partisan units outside town, whose operations were severely curtailed by lack of food and fodder. Finally her activities provoked Sheridan into sending her through the lines. She ended up in Baltimore and never returned to Winchester.
The last apparent civilian casualty of the war in Winchester was 23-year-old Mollie Forsyth, who was shot through the heart while in her home on March 21, 1865. One account had her mistakenly killed by a Federal soldier aiming at a chicken; another had her the victim of a soldier who became enraged when she spurned his advances.
The end of the war found Winchester battered but intact. With farm animals, tools, seed, and money donated by Baltimoreans, the town recovered from the war’s effects. By 1877 a traveling correspondent credited Winchester with the state’s largest steam flour mill outside Richmond and wrote of a paper mill, a shoe factory, wool mills, and the famous gloves made in the town. Later Winchester, with the aid of a Northern benefactor, would build a large resort. Among the tourists who visited late in the century were Federal soldiers who served there during the war. This time their stay was far more comfortable.
Freelance writer Chris Fordney resides in Winchester.