The First Battle of Winchester
Today marks the sesquicentennial of the First Battle of Winchester—another milestone in the Shenandoah Campaign. A highly contested town for its strategic location, Winchester has been called "the key that locked the door to Richmond."1 Reportedly, Winchester changed hands more than 70 times although there were only three formal battles within the town's limits. When the Union had jurisdiction—about 41% of the war—they jeopardized the Rebel army’s left flank and placed the Confederate capital at Richmond at risk. When the Confederates gained control of the town—about 39% of the war—they were physically north of Washington, D.C. and therefore could easily threaten the capital, Maryland, or Pennsylvania.
After the Confederate victory at Front Royal, Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s army was on Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’ right flank. Banks abandoned his post at Strasburg and convened all of his forces in Winchester, Virginia, attempting to reorganize his troops and restrengthen his defensive position. Meanwhile, Jackson’s Rebel army followed up from the south. On May 25th, Major General Richard Ewell led his division in an attack on the Yankee forces positioned at Camp Hill while the Louisiana Brigade overran the Federals stationed atop Bowers Hill. Outflanked on two sides, a fearful and shattered Union army began a rapid retreat northward and across the Potomac River.
This overwhelming Confederate victory resulted in the loss of more than 2,000 Yankees and the majority of the Federal supplies; the Rebels only lost 400 men. More importantly, President Abraham Lincoln feared that the loss of Winchester placed the Union capital at risk. As such, he withheld General Irvin McDowell’s corps from joining the Richmond campaign. The two armies would meet again in Winchester on June 14, 1863 and September 19, 1864.
1. Richard R. Duncan, Beleaguered Winchester: A Virginia Community at War, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 43.