Winchester’s Civilian Heroes

Stonewall Jackson seemed undaunted by his defeat. Trotting south along the Valley Pike, just north of Middletown, Virginia, General Jackson passed a group of soldiers preparing their evening meal. Having built a campfire made of fence rails, one of the men called to the General and invited him to join them for their repast. Jackson accepted their offer and sat down with the men to consume the first nourishment he had taken all day.

One of the young men boldly asked: “General, it looks like you cut off more tobacco today than you could chew.” Stonewall turned to the young man and replied, “Oh, I think we did very well.” Strategically, of course, he “did very well.” With his defeat on the battlefield Jackson would succeed in drawing large numbers of troops away from the Union advance on Richmond, and this was exactly what the Confederacy needed at this moment.

Sandie Pendleton, an officer on the staff of General Jackson, declared Kernstown “was a harder fight than Manassas.” Frank Paxton of the Stonewall Brigade wrote home saying: “We had a severe fight to-day and are pretty badly whipped.” Even Jackson knew he had been sternly punished. In less than two hours he had lost one quarter of his army. The fatalities were so severe they would closely parallel the percentage of Confederate losses suffered during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Hotchkiss map Kernstown

Jedediah Hotchkiss’s Map of the First Battlefield of Kernstown.

Union soldiers, who held the field in victory, were ordered to “lay on their arms.” Campfires were prohibited and the misery was compounded when temperatures dipped into the thirties. Cold and wretched, the joyful yells of triumph were quickly drowned out by the mournful cries of the wounded, and the dying, on both sides of the field.

With the rout of Confederate troops, Union ambulances and attendants were tasked with removing the injured from the battlefield. Some Union regiments detached their own search parties to assist with the mission. These men would carry the wounded and maimed, of both sides, from the battlefield and pile them into the wagons. Once completed they would return to the battlefield, locate more of the injured, and retrace their route. Unfortunately, as darkness diminished, the morning light would reveal ever more of the wreckage of war.

The inhabitants of Winchester would similarly make their own observations on the Battle of Kernstown. Cornelia McDonald, who was one of several distinguished Winchester diarists, did just that. On Sunday, March 23, Cornelia noted “the usual annoyance of the enemy in the distance, but as the day wore on it thundered louder and louder and came near and nearer. All the troops left town, and we soon became aware that a battle was being fought very near us.”


Cornelia McDonald

Cornelia noted sometime after “two o’clock in the afternoon the cannon ceased, and in its place the most terrible and long continued musketry firing, some said, that had been heard since the war began, not volley after volley, but one continued fearful roll, only varied in its distinctness by the swaying of the battle.”

Two of Cornelia’s sons, Harry and Allan, received permission in the early morning to go to the top of a nearby hill to ascertain what the commotion was all about. Cornelia had given her consent “thinking of no danger other than occurred every day.” She soon regretted her decision. Cornelia fretted all day fearing for their safety. The boys did not reappear until nine that evening. When they did return “they seemed not like the same boys, so sad and unnatural was their expression.”

To the civilians of Winchester the sounds of the battle were terrifying. Mrs. McDonald’s two boys related many of the details of the battle which they had witnessed. They were “grave and sorrowful; disappointed, too as we had lost the battle, and they had been compelled to see the Southern troops sullenly withdraw after the bloody struggle.” “When the boys told of the retreat their mortification found relief in tears, but they were tears of pity when they told of the wounded.”

Mary Lee

Mary Greenhow Lee

Mary Greenhow Lee, likewise a Winchester resident and diarist, also chronicled her fear and apprehension over the day’s events. She noted: “I could not doubt my own ears, when I heard the din of battle; nor could I believe but that that there were numbers of immortal souls, being hurried into eternity, & that, most probably, some of them were our own soldiers, it might be, friends and acquaintances.” “All sorts of rumors are afloat, amongst the Yankees; some say Turner Ashby is killed, others that he is wounded, & others that Jackson is in full retreat.”

The night was long and most of the residents experienced profound bouts of sleeplessness. Many feared members of their own family had been killed or wounded. “No eyes closed during those nights for the thought of the suffering pale faces turned up under the dark sky, or for the dying groans or helpless cries of those they were powerless to relieve.”

Laura Lee, a Market Street resident, was awakened early on the 24th by her neighbor. Mrs. Barton, with news that the confederates had lost the battle and that many of their neighbors were dead, wounded or prisoners. The women scampered about their homes gathering makeshift bandages, food, and other nourishments. They then scurried off, attempting with varying success to present these items to their brave soldiers.

“Wagons and ambulances filled with the wounded had been coming in all night and all the morning.”  It was noted every available space in Winchester had been converted into a hospital. “The courthouse was full, the vacant banks, and even the churches.” The Farmer’s Bank, and the Frederick County Courthouse next door were filled to overflowing with the injured, the dying, and the dead.

Court House

Drawing of the Frederick County Courthouse.

Cornelia McDonald went to the courthouse herself that morning and observed “the porch was strewed with dead men. Some had papers pinned to their coats telling who they were. All had the capes of their great coats turned over to hide their still faces; but their poor hands, so pitiful they looked and so helpless; busy hands they had been, some of them, but their work was over.”

By mid-day on Monday many of the deceased had been borne away from the courthouse so that others could take their place. Cornelia had gone to the courthouse to provide “refreshments” for the Confederate wounded; not for the Yankees. Still she noted a “long line of blue clad uniforms lay on each side” of her as she passed through the building. One Union soldier regarded her with “sad looking eyes.” Among the items she had brought with her was a pitcher of lemonade. She took the container and “poured it into his mouth with a tablespoon.” He told her: “It is a beautiful drink for a thirsty man.” When Cornelia returned the following day, she would arrive in time to witness the young man’s passing.

Many of the patients at the courthouse were “dreadfully mutilated.” Amputations were being performed on a table beneath the judge’s platform. One of the men Mrs. McDonald was asked to aid had been struck by a ball “on the side of the face, taking away both eyes, and the bridge of his nose.” “The surgeon asked me if I could wash his wound. I tried to say yes, but the thought of it made me so faint that I could only stagger towards the door.” As she exited the building her “dress brushed against a pile of amputated limbs heaped up near the door.” The sight brought Cornelia to her knees.

Laura Lee, who also maintained a diary, stated that before the war “we thought nothing would induce us to enter the hospitals, but we have never thought of having our own troops and their wounded and dying together.” Together with Mary Greenhow Lee they visited the Union Hotel that afternoon and “found everything there in utter confusion. The Yankees had taken over the facility shortly after midnight and converted it into a hospital. It was said the “shrieks & groans had been awful.” Mary located a close friend, George Washington, who had just had his leg amputated. Mary admitted there “was little hope of his recovery.”

By two PM all of the prisoners that were healthy enough to walk were marched down Market Street on their way to the train station. Amongst the prisoners were several close friends and family. Included were Willie and Ranny Barton of the 33rd Virginia Infantry, Robert Burwell of the 2nd Virginia Infantry, and Robert Bell of the Rockbridge Artillery, all Winchester residents. “They were bright & joyous as if they were in a triumphal possession; every one came out to tell them good-bye, & to cheer them, & I found myself hurrahing, with the Loring men for Jeff Davis, in spite of the Yankee Officers by their sides, who heard every word we said to them.” “They had more life & spirits, though prisoners, than any of the Yankees who have been here.” The boys were then transported to prison in Baltimore where they would remain for some time.

That evening Mary Greenhow Lee, a woman who admitted she could barely stomach the sight of Yankees, went once again to the Union Hotel to take care of injured Southern soldiers. “The dead, the dying, the raving Maniac, & agonizing suffering, in its revolting forms, were before us; our men and the Yankees, all mixed together. She found herself “down on the floor, by the Yankees, feeding them.”Mary discovered her humanity in this facility. She found she “could not give to one sufferer, and pass another by in silence.” Mary soon discovered that Union soldiers were very “grateful & humble, & surprised at our taking care of them.”

Mary would be kept awake that night, and for many nights to come, by the scenes she had witnessed. The following day she returned to the Union Hotel. “The poor men are neglected as the doctors are overwhelmed with the numbers of patients they have to contend with.” “The surgeons do not dress their wounds, even once a day, and there is no one to hand them a cup of water, after the ladies leave; they promise things will be better tomorrow;” but they never were.

Mary Greenhow Lee avowed that it “made no difference between Yankees and Rebels, when both were wounded and helpless.” “The dreadful scenes of the day, are before me so vividly, that I fear they will haunt me again to-night.” These thoughts would preoccupy her that night and for many nights to come.

Care for the wounded would continue, seemingly without end. A week after the battle Laura Lee was still reporting multiple daily trips to the Union Hotel. At one point she overheard the surgeons saying “the army has been more demoralized by the kindness which have been shown the wounded than by the battle. They say they are sorry they allowed the women to enter the hospitals.” “When are these horrors to end?”

The horrors would not end any time soon. Mary Greenhow Lee would asserted she was “so tired of the Yankees. They are more unendurable every day & then I so much dread the battle that will have to be fought before they are driven from the valley.”

Unknown to Mary there were many more battles, and unnamed skirmishes, the residents of Winchester would have to endure. The town, itself, would prove to be one of the most contested in the Confederacy. The municipality would change hands more than seventy times during the course of the war, and would earn the reputation of being the “shuttlecock of the Confederacy.”

The Winchester region, itself, would continue as an active theater of war for the next three years. The near constant clashes with the enemy would change the psyches of both the combatants, and the noncombatants. The lives of the Winchester civilians would be forever transformed, and war would not treat them kindly. Though lives would be taken, families broken, prosperities lost, and buildings destroyed, the city would endure. For the survivors, however, their animations would never again reclaim the normality of the antebellum era. They would fight the good fight but, in the end, they would lose all that had been precious to them; except their humanity.

Ecelbarger, Gary. We are in for It! The First Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862. White Mane Publishing Company Inc.  Shippensburg, Pa. 1997.

Mahon, Michael. Winchester Divided: The Civil War Letters of Julia Chase & Laura Lee. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Pa. 2002.

Robertson Jr., James I. The Stonewall Brigade. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge, La. 1963.

Straader, Eloise C. The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee. Winchester County Historical Society. Winchester, Va. 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s