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Battle of Winchester I

May 25, 1862

Fought on May 25, 1862, the Battle of Winchester I was the fourth engagement and third Confederate victory of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862.

In the spring of 1862, Major General George B. McClellan was preparing to launch his much-anticipated Peninsula Campaign against the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. In addition to McClellan's primary command, three Union forces to the northwest were poised to move south through the Shenandoah Valley to support the invasion. Opposing the three Federal armies was a small Confederate force of approximately 4,500 soldiers commanded by General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. As the Union plan to capture Richmond begann, Jackson's instructions were to prevent the Federal armies in the Shenandoah area from reinforcing McClellan.

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 began on February 27, when Major General Nathaniel Banks, Union commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, led much of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac (over twenty thousand soldiers) across the Potomac River near Harper's Ferry and into Virginia. On March 23, a division, commanded by Colonel Nathan Kimball, of Banks's army defeated Jackson at the Battle of Kernstown I.

Following the defeat at Kernstown—the only loss of Jackson's career as a commanding officer—the Confederate general retreated south to the central portions of the Shenandoah Valley and spent the next several weeks reinforcing and reorganizing his Army of the Valley. In mid-April, General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, and General Joseph Johnston agreed to send Major General Richard Ewell's division into the Shenandoah Valley, increasing the size of Jackson's command by 8,500 soldiers. On May 8, Jackson defeated two brigades of Major General John C. Frémont's Mountain Department at the Battle of McDowell in the upper Shenandoah Valley. Jackson's victory at McDowell enabled him to turn his undivided attention to Banks's army, which had moved south through the valley to the vicinity of Strasburg.

As Jackson headed down the Shenandoah Valley (northward), he reunited with Ewell's division, which had been keeping tabs on Banks while Jackson was disposing of Frémont. The addition of Ewell's division swelled the size of Jackson's army to seventeen thousand men. By May 22, Jackson had marched his soldiers to within ten miles of a Union garrison of roughly one thousand men protecting Banks's supply line at the village of Front Royal. On the next day, Jackson's soldiers overwhelmed Colonel J.R. Kenly’s small command and threatened to isolate or to flank Banks's main army at Strasburg, thus forcing the Union general to retreat north toward the town of Winchester.

As Banks's army withdrew down the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson's troops harassed them throughout the day of May 24. During the retreat, the Rebels captured so many Union supplies that they later referred to the Federal commander as "Commissary Banks." As night approached, Banks stopped at Winchester, where the Valley Turnpike and the Front Royal Pike converged. Banks then deployed his force in a defensive formation south of town. He positioned Colonel George Henry Gordon's brigade atop Bowers Hill on the west side of the Valley Turnpike, Brigadier-General John P. Hatch's cavalry brigade on Camp Hill east of the Front Royal Pike, and Colonel Dudley Donnelly's brigade southeast of Camp Hill to cover the Front Royal Pike.

Jackson allowed his troops only a few hours of rest before approaching Winchester. Before dawn on May 25, Ewell's division advanced up the Front Royal Pike and then attacked Donnelly's brigade from the southeast. When his forces encountered heavy fire, Ewell brought up his artillery and drove Donnelly's men back toward Camp Hill. Meanwhile, Jackson moved up the Valley Pike to assault Gordon's brigade atop Bowers Hill from the south. Initially, the action developed into an artillery duel, but Gordon's right flank eventually collapsed following a furious Rebel infantry attack.

Flanked on both sides, the Union center soon disintegrated, and Banks's men fled through the streets of Winchester to escape Jackson's surge forward. Civilians hurled insults and fired on the Bluecoats from buildings as they retreated through the town, adding to the chaos. Jackson's cavalry was disorganized during the battle, and his infantry was too spent from the hard pursuit of the past few days to keep up with the fleeing Yankees. Jackson halted the pursuit approximately five miles north of Winchester, enabling Banks to withdraw the remainder of his army into Maryland. Although Banks escaped, the conflict cost him nearly one-third of his army. Union casualties at the Battle of Winchester I included roughly two thousand soldiers (sixty-two killed, 243 wounded, and 1,714 missing or captured). The Confederacy lost only four hundred men (sixty-eight killed, 329 wounded, and three missing). No exclusively Ohio units participated in the Battle of Winchester I.

Jackson's victory created a great deal of angst in Washington, especially with President Lincoln. Weary of Federal defeats in the Shenandoah Valley, Lincoln personally devised a complicated plan to stop Jackson's escapades. The president's plan eventually led to future Union defeats in the Shenandoah Valley and diverted even more troops away from the campaign against Richmond.

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