Disaster at Second Winchester with the 122nd Ohio

     The Second Battle of Winchester fought June 13-15, 1863 was among the most lop-sided victories of the Civil War. In the opening gambit of the Gettysburg campaign, General Richard S. Ewell led Jackson's former command back into its old stomping grounds of the Shenandoah Valley to confront an old adversary, General Robert Milroy. Milroy had a garrison of about 6,900 men around Winchester and after being leveraged out of town, lost roughly 4,000 of them to capture when he retreated on June 15. With Milroy's garrison knocked out of the equation, the road was open for Lee to march into Pennsylvania with a secure supply line through the Shenandoah Valley. 

    Among those who escaped capture at Winchester was Sergeant John M. Sawhill of Co. B of the 122nd Ohio. Shaken up at the heavy losses inflicted on his regiment in its first fight, the plucky Ohioan sent this two-part letter describing the battle home to his family who had it published in the July 9, 1863 edition of the Guernsey Times of Cambridge, Ohio.

 

The above accouterments belonged to Corporal Thomas F. Magness of Co. B of the 122nd Ohio and appears courtesy of Larry Stevens' Ohio in the Civil War page. 

Harper’s Ferry, Virginia

June 16, 1863

          You will see by the heading of this letter that we have changed our place of locality. We have done some as fierce fighting as this war can record. I will proceed to give you a brief detail. A quire of paper would not contain all the particulars. The fight began at Winchester last Saturday morning about 8 o’clock and the artillery fight was terrific. In the afternoon, the infantry regiments became engaged with the Rebels. The 110th Ohio charged on them and routed them. The Rebels rallied and our artillery mowed them down fearfully. The loss that I cannot just tell, although it was very great.

On Saturday, we (the 122nd Ohio) went out to meet the enemy through one of the heaviest rains I was ever out in. We stood in line of battle until morning and then returned to camp, got no sleep, but struck tents, packed knapsacks, and ready for a fight at a moment’s warning. Early Sabbath morning the enemy’s skirmishers became engaged with ours. A constant musketry was kept up, the Rebels coming into the suburbs of the city and, lodging in the houses, fired on our men. Some of our artillery was brought to bear on the houses, scattering the Rebs in all directions. The 122nd Ohio was out early in the morning. Skirmishers were deployed, Companies E and D. Captain [Charles] Gilbeaut [Co. E] stood up like a hero. The balls flew thick and fast; Sergeant Bell, the man who took Dorsey home, was wounded in the arm. Companies B, K, and I relieved E and D.

Private Westel Willoughby
Co. K, 122nd Ohio


This was the first fire I was ever under. The balls whistled past my ears and body like you would hear if you were in a nest of bumblebees. We kept this up till 4 p.m. The Rebels were behind two stone walls about 4 ½ feet high. We supposed there was not more than 100 men behind the wall. General Milroy ordered the skirmishers to charge and dislodge them. We formed in line, then the command, “Forward, double quick, march!” And in we went, cheering as loud as we could holler. When we were within about 30 yards of the wall, the Rebels arose (at least 2,000) and such a volley as they poured into us I never want to see again. We advanced to within about 50 feet of the fence and fired a volley at their heads and I think that the result was that several of them expired. The left wing of the skirmishers gave way and retreated hastily. We threw ourselves on the ground and loaded as soon as possible. They were pouring in thousands of shots but overshot us. Retreat was the only alternative which was done with little loss. Salathiel Briel was wounded in the thigh, also George W. Moore and Price Worthington in the bowels; he has since died.

This was our only loss at that time. In a few minutes, the Rebels opened batteries on our forts from two sides and the cannonading was terrific. We retired to the fort and the Rebels advanced and poured volley after volley into our rear, wounding Lieutenant Scott in the thigh. We went to the fort, the shells screaming over our heads from the Rebel batteries without any serious result, louder than thunder shaking the earth around us, was kept up. The Rebels charged on our battery on a hill west from our main fort and captured it. The loss on the Rebel side was heavy in that charge. Three of our men were wounded, but the Rebels lost at least 100. The 110th was supporting the battery and the Rebels charged it with a whole brigade. At 8 o’clock that night, the firing ceased.

The final action of the battle occurred near Stephenson's Depot on the morning of June 15, 1863. In the confused fighting that followed, charge after countercharge followed in the dim light of early morning. With their path to Harper's Ferry seemingly cut off, thousands of Federals surrendered. Ewell's force suffered only 266 casualties in the three day engagement versus a loss of 4,443 for the Federals. 

We laid in the fort until 3 a.m. when we retired from the fort to we knew not where. We started on the Martinsburg road and we soon knew we were on the retreat. The reason and only cause was our ammunition was exhausted; we had not two rounds of shells left and what else could we do? It was a great disaster on our part, but it was not on account of cowardice. When we were on the retrograde movement and about five miles from Winchester at break of day, we met the enemy concealed in the woods. They opened on us, and the 87th Pennsylvania began shouting and charged across an open space of ground and compelled the Rebels to fall back. Then the 110th Ohio charged on the adjoining side of the woods and after heavy firing both the 87th and 110th fell back. Then the 122nd Ohio went round and charged on the Rebels, compelling them to fall back some. Then we retired over an eminence, formed in line with the 110th, and went into the woods again and fired and loaded as fast as we could. After we were engaged about 15 minutes, we retired again, fell into line again and charged again, determined to repulse them, but they overpowered us so far that we were compelled to retreat towards this place.

Regimental colors of the 122nd Ohio

About 300 of the regiment are missing. I have not seen cousin Alexander Sawhill or Newt McConnel since we made the third charge. I know not what became of them, but I think they were not wounded. Captain Gibeaut is missing; John Williams, Sam Voorhes, Brown, Morrow, and Nelson Yakey are unhurt. Company B had 70 men a few days ago but only 40 are here now. You will receive the official account in a few days. I was lying on my back firing in the woods near the enemy when a ball struck my little finger on the first joint and just twitched the hair on my forehead. We have not had anything to eat but bread and water for three days, fighting most of the time. We lost all of our tents, knapsacks, clothing, woolen blankets, everything except what we had on. The peaches which you sent me some Rebel will feast on. My Bible is gone.

We marched about 35 miles yesterday with nothing to eat except bread and water. Some of the boys had their canteens and haversacks shot away. I think cousin Alex and Newt McConnel will yet come in, but they may be captured. I feel very well, only very sore feet. It is reported we will have a fight here in a short time. We have very large guns here, 100 pounders. We spiked all our guns at Winchester. We had Maryland and Connecticut regiments with us which deserve great praise. Our flag is completely riddled and torn. The Rebels shot railroad iron, cutting the limbs of trees off and small trees. They fight like demons. They were Louisiana troops commanded by General Ewell. You have no idea of the fearful scene of a fierce battle.

General Robert Milroy
"The Grey Eagle"

Harper’s Ferry, Virginia

June 18, 1863

          I will write you a few lines this morning and inform you that I am still living and in good health, heaving recovered from the exhaustion of our retrograde movement. I wrote you the day after arriving at this place. None of our missing boys have yet returned. I am very much in doubt as to the fate of cousin Alex and Newt. I do not think they were wounded. I think they went in the direction of Romney or New Creek. There were thousands of Secesh troops all through the valley, and it would be difficult for our boys to escape. We have only 40 left in the company- we are minus 43 men. Some regiments were almost annihilated. We have been looking for a fight at this place. It was only by the mercy of God that any of us escaped. The balls flew in volleys of thousands and cut the clothes, blankets, and canteens and everything on us. It is said we were engaged against 21 regiments for one and half hours Monday morning. I was not in the least frightened while loading and firing. The Rebels shot grape, canister, solid shot, and railroad iron. We have a strong force here, and I think the place is almost impregnable. Remember me in your prayers. I have passed through the fiery ordeal of battle, only getting the skin broken on my little finger.

 

Source:

Letter from Sergeant John M. Sawhill, Co. B, 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Guernsey Times (Ohio), July 9, 1863, pg. 1

To learn more about the Second Winchester campaign, I recommend that the reader check out Eric Wittenburg and Scott Mingus’ 2016 collaboration entitled “The Second Battle of Winchester: The Confederate Victory that Opened the Door to Gettysburg” available here from Savas Beatie. It’s a superb read.

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