Despite being hit in the chest, Confederate General Richard S. Ewell must have considered June 14, 1863 to be one of the finest days in his 25-year military career. Although he had been a corps commander for less than a month, his quick and decisive maneuvers around Winchester, Virginia led several of his subordinates to see him as a worthy successor to the lamented Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Major Henry Kyd Douglas would describe Ewell at Second Winchester as "quick, skillful and effective - in fact, Jacksonian."
Jacksonian or not, no one could argue that Ewell's attack on Winchester was anything other than a great success. Although the city was ringed with fortifications, "Old Bald Head" was able to force Union General Robert Milroy to abandon the town and flee northward. In the process, Ewell captured 23 guns and tons of quartermaster and commissary stores.
But Ewell's victory was incomplete. Milroy's command, officially designated the second division of the Union VM Corps, was streaming toward the Potomac River in what historian Douglas Southall Freeman called "a night of baffling darkness." Only a forced march by his men would enable Ewell to intercept Milroy's weary boys before they reached a safe haven at either Harpers Ferry or Martinsburg.
Fortunately for Ewell, he had the ideal unit at his disposal for just such a march. Stonewall Jackson's old division, the backbone of his vaunted "foot cavalry," had been skirmishing east of Winchester throughout the day on June14. Now under the command of General Edward "Old Allegheny" Johnson, the division was just a few miles south of the intersection where the Martinsburg Turnpike met the Charles Town Road - near a sleepy little hamlet known as Stephenson's Depot.
The armies collided near the depot around 3 a.m. on Monday, June 15. The head of Milroy's column, commanded by General Washington Elliott, first encountered Rebel skirmishers led by Old Allegheny himself. Elliott's brigade quickly formed a line of battle, and pushed the skirmishers back to Johnson's main line, located along the bed of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. Johnson would later write, "My dispositions were scarcely completed when the enemy, cheering, charged with his whole force in front of my position."
Johnson was wrong about being charged by Milroy's "whole force," but he can certainly be forgiven for the overstatement. Milroy's men were determined to breakthrough Johnson's line, and fast. As Milroy would later state in his report, "It was evident ... that a retreat could not be effected excepting under cover of a heavy contest with him." Men on both sides commented on the severity of the fighting. An officer in the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry called it "the most deadly and terrific fire I ever witnessed."
The key to the position was a wagon bridge over the railroad tracks, held by a solitary cannon under the command of Confederate Lieutenant C.S. Contee of the 1st Maryland Battery. With the support of the other gun in his section, located to the left and rear of the bridge, Contee poured canister into the advancing Union lines. Although the blue wave surged to within 40 yards of the cannon, the artillerymen stubbornly remained at their posts.
The cost of holding the splintered bridge was high, however. Milroy's men concentrated their fire on the lone gun and the handful of men servicing it. Their salvos had a telling effect on Contee's command; the section would suffer 14 casualties, including Contee.
Eventually, only one gunner remained to load and fire the weapon - a young Anne Arundel County resident named Benjamin Welsh Owens. Alone, Owens continued to man the field piece.
Owens' gallant stand helped turn the tide, for it gave Johnson the time he needed to bring up reinforcements. Just as Milroy was about to launch simultaneous assaults on both flanks, the Stonewall Brigade appeared on the horizon. It was none too soon, for Johnson would later report, "My infantry had expended all but one round of ammunition." He threw the Stonewall Brigade against the Union left, and its mere presence shattered the resolve of Milroy's weary men.
Confusion was the order of the day. The commander of the Stonewall Brigade noted that "the smoke and fog was so dense that we could only see a few steps in front..."and had difficulty determining friend from foe. One Rebel unit, the 12th West Virginia, was thrown into confusion when the team horses and cavalry mounts stampeded its line, throwing most of the regiment into disarray. The regiment's commanding officer would remember that many of his men were "dashed against the fences, and some gun smashed up by the terrified horses."
Enveloped in chaos, Milroy's men began to throw down their weapons and surrender en masse. Johnson would later remark that he had taken 30 prisoners "with his opera glass."
Afterwards, Ted Barclay of the Stonewall Brigade would tell his sister, "The enemy, seeing the hopelessness of getting through, determined to surrender, our brigade capturing more prisoners than the brigade numbered. Each regiment has a stand of Yankee colors."
Eventually, more than 2,300 Union prisoners were taken in the fields west of Stephenson's Depot.
Only a few shattered remnants of Milroy's command escaped; some eventually arrived in Harpers Ferry while others wound up along Bloody Run in Pennsylvania. Union General William French would describe the remains of Milroy's division as simply "the debris of Winchester." Milroy himself made it back to the safety of Harpers Ferry. Later, when explaining his decision not to give Milroy a new command despite his seniority, General-in-Chief Henry W Halleck would refer to the debacle at Stephenson's Depot: "We have had enough of that kind of military genius." A formal inquiry would eventually exonerate Milroy, pinning the blame on a fellow division commander who failed to cover Milroy's retreat.
Meanwhile, Ewell and his 11 Corps basked in their triumph. They celebrated their victory by raising a Confederate flag over Fort Milroy, renamed Fort Jackson. Robert Stiles, an artilleryman in Lee's army, would later recall the fighting at Winchester and Stephenson's Depot as "one of the most perfect pieces of work the Army of Northern Virginia ever did." At a cost of just 269 casualties, Ewell had devastated Milroy’s command, inflicting nearly 4,000 casualties, including 3,358 prisoners. It is no surprise that a Union colonel would remark after the battle that "the Johnny Rebs had lied in reporting Stonewall Jackson was dead - that there was no officer in either army that could have executed that movement but Old Jack." Ewell had performed brilliantly in his debut as a corps commander. But, unfortunately for Ewell and the men under his command, it was an accomplishment soon to be forgotten in the blood and smoke of Gettysburg.
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