I doubt Major General Robert Milroy (above) had any doubts, even after the rebel infantry opened fire. It was just after sunrise, on a hot and cloudy Monday, 15, June, 1863 , and the “Grey Eagle of the Army”, as Milroy liked to call himself, was leading his men up the “Valley Pike” when suddenly a volley from 3,500 rebel muskets on their flank and blasts from a single cannon revealed the “murderous trap” he had led his men into. I have no doubt that even at that moment, Millroy refused to believe he was largely responsible for the entire disaster about to unfold.
The village of Winchester, Virginia had already changed hands twice in this war. Most professional soldiers on both sides considered it indefeasible. But warned of the rebel advance, the 6 foot white haired Milroy stayed for two days while he was out-flanked and out-fought. It was not until he was ducking shot from the rebel artillery on the surrounding hills that Milroy realized by retreating into 3 forts he had merely concentrated his 9,000 men, making them easier targets. He finally ordered his shell shocked troops to slip out of their fortifications at 1:00 a.m. on 15 June and begin their retreat 30 miles north to Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River.
But the division had made less than 4 miles in the dark before the Confederate infantry snapped the trap shut (above, far right) - much as Hannibal had caught the Romans at Lake Tresimene in 217 B.C.E.
The cork holding Milroy in the bottle was the single cannon on a wagon bridge over the tracks of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. In his panicked response Milroy launched two unprepared flailing attacks which killed all but one of the brave rebel gun crew, but failed to silence the cannon or remove the supporting infantry. Just as Milroy launched a third assault another 1,300 rebel infantry appeared – the brigade once led by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. And under their combined fire the federal regiments began to surrender.
The next day the “debris of Winchester” stumbled into Harpers Ferry. The Hoosier Milroy had lost half his men - killed, wounded and more than 2,500 taken prisoner. But he saved himself. By order of Brigadier General Hallack, General Milroy was relieved of his command and arrested. As the Union Commander explained, “We have had enough of that kind of military genius.” Thanks to Major General Robert Milroy's arrogance the road “down” the valley was now wide open, and the entire 75,000 man rebel Army was free to invade Pennsylvania, with it's supply line back to Virginia secure.
In early January of 1863 even the amature general Abraham Lincoln could look past the 13,000 federal dead and wounded on the frozen slopes above Fredricksburg, Virginia (above) - lives lost without gaining a yard of rebel territory, and costing the rebels just 4,600 casualties - and still observe that, “If the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, while the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host.” Lincoln was right, and Robert E. Lee knew it.
Eight months later that rebel commander, Robert E. Lee. would admit that after his victory at Fredricksburg “I was much depressed. We had really accomplished nothing, “ said Lee, “we had not gained a foot of ground, and I knew the enemy could easily replace the men he had lost..” Lee's right hand man, the brilliant and eccentric General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had told Lee before Fredricksburg, “I am opposed to fighting here. We will whip the enemy, but gain no fruits of victory.”
And after Lee's “masterpiece” at Chancellorsville in early May of 1863, dealing 18,000 casualties to the Federals, Lee would admit, “I... was more depressed...” - more depressed because Chancellorsville had cost Lee 13,000 of his own dead and wounded (above) - and cost him Jackson, shot by his own men in confusion. And yet, Lee was still determined to invade the north.
The situation facing Lee (above) has been explained by Ethan S. Rafuse, of the United States Army Staff College. “ At the heart of the matter,” wrote Rafuse, “was Northern superiority in men and material.” It left Lee with just two choices, according to Rafuse, “Take the initiative by leading his army north or remain on the defensive....” And the latter choice, Lee knew, could end in only one way - a siege of Richmond followed by surrender. But, said Lee, “An invasion of the enemy’s country breaks up all of his preconceived plans...” And his casualties in Pennsylvania, said Lee, would be “no greater than...from the series of battles I would have been compelled to fight had I remained in Virginia.” In short, Lee's invasion of 1863 was not a search for victory. It was a way of continuing to avoid defeat.
But the core of Robert E. Lee's generalship was always aggression. Within days of throwing the Federals back from Fredricksburg, he had ordered 35 year old Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, the chief topographical engineer for the Army of Northern Virginia, to secretly prepare a new map of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and extending north as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Hotchkiss' magnificent work measured 7 ½ feet long by 3 feet wide, with roads in red and streams in blue, and would prove accurate through out the coming campaign. In mid-March Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “I think it all important that we should assume the aggressive by the first of May, when we may expect General Hooker’s army to be weakened by the expiration of the term of service of many of his regiments. . . . I believe greater relief would in this way be afforded to the armies in middle Tennessee and on the Carolina coast than by any other method.”
Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, and President Jefferson Davis, wanted to capitalize on the success at Chanellorsville by sending a third of Lee's Army to either the Carolina or Georgia coasts, wherethe Federal naval blockade threatened to cut the Confederacy off from Europe, or to the middle of the Mississippi Valley, where Union troops threatened to capture Vicksburg sundering the eastern Confederacy from Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. For General Lee, it was a case of use his men or lose his men. Faced with his opposition to dismembering the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee's civilian masters were forced to back down.
On 10 May, 1863, in preparation for the invasion, Lee ordered the 2 corps of the ANV to became 3 corps, of approximately 22.000 men each. Lieutenant General James (Old Pete) Longstreet retained command of the First Corps.
Newly promoted Lt. General Richard (Old Bald Head) Ewell took over the Second Corps, including Jackson's old division.
And new Lt. General Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill assumed command of the Third Corps.
The 6,400 men in the Cavalry Corps under General James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart raised Lee effective strength to about 75,000 officers and men.
On the Federal side, in May of 1863, 5,000 veterans were discharged, their 2 year enlistments at an end, and another 10,000 were discharged at the beginning of June. Replacements could not keep up with those losses, so by mid-June, the Army of the Potomac numbered somewhere between 83,000 and 95,000 effective soldiers. This deficiency would be transitory, as Lee well knew. But for the first time since the start of the war, the Federal numerical advantage was just 10 to 20,000 men – 1 or 2 divisions. Lee knew he would never face better odds.
The Army of Northern Virginia was as close to a national army as the Confederacy ever had. Most of its men came from Virginia and North Carolina, but it contained regiments from every state in the Confederacy. This was both a strength and a weakness. As wastage and casualties thinned their ranks, new recruits were fed into the veteran regiments, maintaining and extending unit experience. In the north, new recruits were formed into new regiments, which meant part of the Army of the Potomac was always at the bottom of the learning curve.
But it also meant few of Lee's soldiers ever received “basic training”, or basic equipment. They were all ill supplied and underfed, many lacking even shoes. The first loyalty of every soldier was to their regiment, the basic unit of maneuver. While willing to take orders from officers above the regimental level, outside of combat, Confederate soldiers were as likely to argue with an unknown officer as to obey him.
The only thing that held the army together as a cohesive force was “Massur Lee”. He was more than their mounted commander. As a Georgia regiment passed Lee on the road to Pennsylvania, one private told his fellows, “Boys, there are ten thousand men sitting on that one horse.” Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia would kill and die for their regimental flag, and for General Lee.
The median private soldier in Lee's army earned $11 a month, was 24 years old, and single, a small farmer or unskilled laborer. The vast majority had volunteered during the first two years of the war, all most half either owned or someone in their extended family owned slaves. And increasingly the support and supply man power of the ANV were conscripted slaves, driving supply and ambulance wagons. No Confederate officer ever gave a slave a musket, but the war was forcing changes on the slave culture.
In April of 1862 The Confederate Congress passed the first “conscription” act in American history, supposedly drafting all able bodied unmarried white males between 18 and 35 years of age. The same law also extended by 2 years the service of volunteers already in the army. But Southern conscription never really worked. Besides being run by and for the states - who did not let many of the conscripted men leave their jurisdiction - there was a complication which allowed wealthy men to buy their way out of the system, and most of the 82,000 low and middle class men drafted, deserted within weeks. But desertion would always remain a serious problem for all Confederate armies, and on 19 August of 1862 “Stonewall” Jackson executed 5 of his own men for desertion, the first recorded in the ANV - but far from the last.
The first units to shift away from Fredricksburg, on 3 June, 1863, were members of A.P.Hill's Corps, on the A.N.V.'s right flank. First they were ordered to pull back toward Culpepper Courthouse, Virginia, for resupply and reorganization. Everything depended on achieving this first without alerting the Federals. But almost immediately the Army of the Potomac knew the rebels were on the move. What they didn't know was where they were headed.