Today is Flag Day, but 150 years ago, leading up the historic battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Union suffered a defeat at the hands of the Confederate Army in the Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester, Virginia.
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had embarked on an invasion of the North at the start of June, 1863. His men left their defensive positions along the Rappahannock River and headed northwest into the Shenandoah Valley. They were able to use the Blue Ridge Mountains as cover as they made their way northward and met little opposition from the Federal Army.
At this time General Joseph Hooker commanded the Army of the Potomac. He tracked Lee’s army, but didn’t know what they intended by the move. His main focus was to protect Washington D. C. from invasion.
On June 14, Winchester, a town that had changed hands throughout the war, was in Union control. But only a small Union garrison was left to guard the town. The Union commander, Robert Milroy, didn’t know Lee’s army was headed in his direction. Although he’d received warnings from Washington, he was unaware of an evacuation order sent after the Confederates had cut telegraph lines.
A few days prior to the attack, Milroy had bragged that he could hold back any size Confederate force. When Richard Ewell’s corp assaulted his small garrison, his idle boast was proven false.
The garrison was swiftly surrounded and a battle ensued. Ewell captured 4,000 Union soldiers, but Milroy and about 2,700 others escaped. Of these, he lost 270 men. He was relieved of command and later arrested. But an inquiry court found him not responsible for the Union disaster.
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