Robert Gould Shaw & the First Battle of Winchester

Robert G. Shaw, 1861 (LOC)

How did Union troops feel about the First Battle of Winchester and their retreat on May 25, 1862? Lieutenant Robert G. Shaw, then serving with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, revealed some details in his post-battle letters and also some valuable insight into the mentality and fears of the Federal soldiers. For example, they thought Jackson would have the wounded murdered; in reality, the Winchester Accord began an effort to designate medical personnel as noncombatants. The Union soldiers’ intense mistrust and even hatred of Winchester grew, and in one of his letters, Shaw hoped the rebel town will be burned. He also took effort to explain that General Banks was not at fault for the battle and wanted Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, to be blamed for the disasters in the Shenandoah Valley.

Woven into this letter and other excerpts from Shaw’s experience at Winchester are his feelings about combat and command. Some of the phrases and explanations seem eerie with hindsight. In May 1862, Shaw had just barely 14 months left to live. In that time, he would take command of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the earliest Union volunteer regiments of Black soldiers. One wonders if his phrase from Winchester “in advancing you hardly think of the bullets” held true in his final battle, the attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. 

While Shaw certainly does not speak for all Union officers or their experiences at Winchester during May 1862, his letters offer details of what it was like during the fight and retreat and prove that it wasn’t such a panicked flight for all regiments as legends would claim.

Williamsport Md.

May 27, 1862

Dear Father

My visit at home seemed hardly more real than a dream, when, little more than 24 hours after leaving Uncle Jim’s at Wallack’s, I found myself on picket duty a little way out of Winchester. The whole division, excepting those who were out off at Front Royal, had arrived there. The 2d Mass. covered the retreat from Strasburg on Saturday afternoon and from all accounts did good service. Two Companies, Capt. Abbott & Cogswell, repulsed a body of cavalry, which would undoubtedly have thrown the rear of the column into confusion if they had got by. As it was, a good many wagons were lost during the day.

As I said above I was on outpost Saturday night. We were firing at intervals all night long, and at daylight a large body of infantry approached and we were obliged to retire. The fight began immediately and continued for about two hours when we were ordered to retreat. The rebels had a much larger force and actually got into the town before we did. We lost a great many men in the streets of Winchester. The inhabitants did their share from the windows – women as well as men. I hope that town will be destroyed when we go back there. We had time to burn part of it while the fight was going on.

Map of the First Battle of Winchester – the 2nd Massachusetts is located just above the text “Bowers Hill”

Major Dwight is missing. He was probably captured as he had dismounted for some reason – his horse got away. Capt. Mudge was wounded in the streets of the town. Some way out of town I got him a horse & then left him. He is missing now though & I feel anxious about him. He could ride perfectly well & the horse was a good one. It doesn’t seem possible that he can have allowed himself to be caught. I am almost certain that he got to Harpers Ferry or some other points on the river – for regiments went over that direction. I telegraphed his Father that he had better come down here. It was real hard writing to them about it – for a wounded man may have a hard time among the Rebels.

Both our surgeons are taken. Leland stayed at Newtown with our wounded on Saturday & Stone was seized in the Winchester Hospital on Sunday.

All the men behaved well and obeyed all orders promptly. They began to straggle about two miles from the town. They were almost exhausted with the work of the day before, having got into camp at 1 A.M. Sunday. Nevertheless we managed to make 34 miles after the fight, though, to be sure, a good many stragglers were taken. 

I hope it will be understood that it was utterly impossible for Genl Banks to do anything with his small force. I believe I told you in my last that Genl Williams adjutant Genl & also our Signal Officers counted 28 Rebel Regiments. It was a brilliant move on their part but unless they have a large force behind them they must be in a ticklish position. Mr. Stanton’s work in this valley has been pretty unsuccessful & I hope it will all be put on his shoulders. The Baltimore & Ohio and the Manassas R.R.s [railroads] both destroyed & the valley of Virginia completely cleaned out – besides a panic in the North and the great encouragement to the Rebel cause.

Two regiments on our right did not stand steady. We were the third from the right & came near being thrown into confusion by them, when the retreat began. The men were so well in hand though, that Col. Andrews was able to halt us and form the regiment in the town & then start off again in good order. Harry was guarding a bridge on the Manassas R.R. when Kenly was attacked on Friday – and on Saturday would have been caught if he hadn’t made a very hard march to rejoin the regiment. Saturday evening a company of N.Y. Cavalry charged several of our companies by mistake & a horse tumbled on Harry’s legs. They (the legs) troubled him very much on the retreat Saturday but he has got over it now.

It was hard to see our men tumbling over though it is not so horrid a sight as the battle-field & the wounded after the excitement is over.

It is strange that all the way from New York, as I was sitting alone in the cars, I kept thinking, more than I ever did before, of what my chances were of ever getting home, and how the last words Uncle Jim said were that he hoped to see me safe through it & soon in New York. So when I felt the blow on my side & found my watch had stopped the ball, the first thing I thought of was how you all would have felt if I had been left on that infernal pavement and it seemed as if I could see you all standing on the piazza just before I came away.

Give my love to all of them.

Every your loving son

Robert G. Shaw

It seems to us a perfect wonder that the army got away safely – marching about sixty miles – the rear skirmishing all the first day – all of them fighting hard the next morning & saving almost everything. Genl Banks certainly has reason to congratulate himself. The company I went on picket with has been in rear of the whole column skirmishing since 3 P.M., kept awake all night, retired firing the next morning, joined the regiment & was in the engagement with the rest. This was Capt. Cogswell’s company & men.

In several letters over the following days, Shaw made a few other insightful remarks about the First Battle of Winchester, including a small compliment to General Jackson. Explaining that the regiment had feared the fate of their surgeons, he reported on June 6, 1862, that the medical men and wounded left behind had been treated with courtesy and kindness. “All our wounded were left in the hospital at Winchester, and the Major says Jackson was very angry with one of his officers for wishing to carry some of them off, as he said it was inhuman. From all they tell us of Jackson, I should think he was a good man. He is certainly an able commander, for he has escaped everything, when it seemed almost impossible.”

He also added a more descriptive account of the retreat through Winchester in a June 7 letter. “…we had a neck and neck race through Winchester. A heavy fire, from behind, is hard to bear – in advancing you hardly think of the bullets – but they seem relentless when you are running away from them. Then there was the certainty of being left if wounded & we all thought then, that that was equivalent to having our throats cut in cold blood for the amusement of Genl Jackson & friends. There has been no proof of any barbarity on the part of the Rebels this time, and it is pleasant to think that all the accounts have been exaggerated.”

Finally, to his mother, Shaw wrote more details of his near wounding in Winchester. Part of the June 13 letter reads: “You asked me to tell you how the blow felt. I hardly remember anything about it, for just at that moment we were busy with the men, as Colonel Andrews halted the regiment in the street and formed the line, so that every officer had his hands full keeping the men steady. The watch was in the pocket of my vest, though I almost always carry it in my fob. I felt a violent blow and a burning sensation in my side, and at the same moment a man by my side cried out, “O, my arm!” I had just time to wonder why I wasn’t lying on the ground, when the order came, ‘Right face, double-quick, march,’ and off we went…”


Robert Goud Shaw, edited by Russell Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1992). Pages 203-210

6 Responses to Robert Gould Shaw & the First Battle of Winchester

  1. In the credits of the film Glory, it is said that the story is based, in part, on his own letters. In fact, there is a scene in which the actor who plays him, Mathew Broderick, appears writing a letter to his father, somehow complaining that his soldiers were using not precisely to go into combat against the Confederate army and that it was causing a low in morale, and see if he could somehow get to Abraham Lincoln, so that, with an order from the President, they would actually consider his regiment going into real combat.

    My questions: What percentage of that movie, would you estimate that his letters were used for development in the content of it? How prolific was Robert Gould Shaw with his letters during the war? Did these letters influence his rise in his military career or did they simply get taken into account after falling at Fort Wagner?

    1. I’d say the letters certainly had influence on the movie. That said, I haven’t read any of his letters after Antietam, so I can’t answer that definitively.

      Two knits that I’ll pick about the movie are that they make Shaw seems like a neophyte when he got to Antietam, but that was actually his 3rd major battle, to which this piece alludes. Also, the depiction of Antietam was a bit off. The 2nd Massachusetts fought twice there. The first engagement was defensive, and they very much got the best of their opponents. The second engagement, where Shaw was wounded, was not successful. But, it wasn’t so completely disordered in coming off the field. Also, the fighting in that second engagement, along the Hagerstown Pike, was against mostly deployed irregularly behind rock ledges and a farther treeline.

      His letters were quite prolific and full of great detail, as was the case with many of the 2nd Massachusetts’ officers. His father had influence with Governor Andrew. That likely influenced his early Colonelcy more than anything.

  2. This great article raised the thought to me that I would have liked to have heard a post-Winchester conversation between Lt. Shaw (2nd Mass) and Colonel George Gordon (2nd Mass) about Banks, not that one ever existed. Per John Waugh’s, “The Class of 1846,” Gordon commanded one of the best regiments in Banks army, and he knew Tom Jackson, aka Stonewall. What an interesting story the book has on Gordon, Jackson and Banks. I wonder if Shaw would have defended Banks so well.

    1. Many of the 2nd Massachusetts officers griped about Banks in their letters, especially after Winchester. Capt. Richard Cary’s letters, @ Mass. Hist. Society, are great and speak pointedly on Banks’ decision-making. Col. Andrews (2nd Mass.) also wrote critically of Banks after Cedar Mountain. It seems likely, though not certain, that Gordon did not have much of a filter when talking to the 2nd Mass officers (for whom he used to be Colonel) about Banks and Winchester. Gordon’s thoughts on the period are plainly obvious in his published work on this period, Brook Farm to Cedar Mountain. It is a great read, has good details, but Gordon isn’t shy about grinding axes, so it does need to be read with that in mind.

  3. Great article, Sarah. When the 2nd Mass., and the rest of the division, returned to Winchester in a few weeks, they did not have warm feelings for the town’s residents after perceiving that they were fired on by citizens from windows as they retreated.

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