On June 13-15, the Second Battle of Winchester brought war and threat of shelling to the streets of the pro-southern civilian population and the Union troops’ surrounding camps and forts. For nearly six months, Union General Milroy and his army had occupied and liberated the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation for the African American population and creating stricter standards of loyalty for the white southern residents. During the winter and spring months, some families of Union soldiers came to visit, and at least one local romance turned into a wedding of a Union lieutenant and a Winchester woman.
Surprisingly, Milroy had not ordered these civilian visitors to leave his army or camps by June 1863 as the Second Corps of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia marched north toward Winchester. Thus, nearly fifty (recorded) white civilian women and children were caught and captured during the Union army’s retreat. Their experiences would be far different from the newly-freed African American civilians captured at Winchester and returned to a condition of slavery.
The accounts and details of the captured Union families at Winchester sparked a mini-moment of self-justification in the post-war years as Confederate Veterans tried to downplay the stories. Like many moments in the Civil War, memory tried to reframe reality and perhaps this offers an intriguing starting point to examine the account of captured white civilian and the Second Battle of Winchester.
In 1922, I. G. Bradwell wrote an article for the Confederate Veteran Magazine, titled “Capture of Winchester, VA & Milroy’s Army in June 1863.” His military-focused story about the Second Battle of Winchester included the following paragraph:
“We followed leisurely the course the enemy had gone, and after we had advanced a few miles from the city, we found long lines of wagon and artillery trains standing in the road. To the east of the road was a strip of woodland and beyond this a field of clover, in which hundreds of United States army horses and mules were peacefully grazing. Our column halted a while at the baggage wagons….
“In the grove just mentioned an usual sight met our eyes. All the bright colors of the rainbow, all the finery displayed in the most fashionable shops of a city seemed assembled there in that strip of woods. What could it mean? In a few minutes they started toward us, two and two, led by a gray-clad soldier. When they reached us we found they were the wives and sweethearts of our enemies, who, in their haste to follow the army, had put on their most costly attire and mounted army wagons and horses in an effort to escape. As they passed us all were in tears and excited our sympathy by their hasty inquiries as to what had become of Lieutenant or Captain or Colonel So and So. Of course we could give them no satisfactory answers, and all were marched back to the city and finally sent back through the lines to their friends in the North.”[i]
In a later edition of the Confederate Veteran Magazine, someone else offered commentary on Bradwell’s article, mixed with a significant amount of justification and conjecture.
“It may be a matter of general interest to know that the number of wives and children (no sweethearts are accounted for in the record) of the Yankee garrison at Winchester, who fell into the hands of the Confederate pursuers, was forty-seven. It was soon reported, across the line, that these unfortunate noncombatants had been carried to Richmond and imprisoned in Castle Thunder. The latter part of the report was, of course, untrue.
“As the Confederate army was making an important movement at the time the fortunes of war threw these unfortunate noncombatants into their hands, they could not wisely be transported through the lines to Harper’s Ferry, or any other near-by point, without danger of having such movements revealed, hence they were transported to Richmond. The nearest point to a railroad was Staunton, approximately one hundred miles. This part of the trip was perhaps made in wagons or ambulances and required, no doubt, several days. After reaching Richmond, times was necessarily consumed before arrangements were completed for their transfer. All this time, necessary restraints, which were doubtless annoying, were thrown around them and caused no little inconvenience, but I am sure they were subjected to no restraints or unpleasant conditions, no necessary or that ordinary prudence did not dictate. They were delivered at Fort Monroe on July 2, a little more than two weeks after the culmination of their unfortunate adventure.”[ii]
So…what really happened to the dozens of civilian women captured at Winchester? Can parts of their stories be pieced together to confirm or alter the post-war assurances that their experience was merely “necessary restraint”? Fortunately, several Union chaplains left accounts and newspaper notices from 1863 also survive. There are surely more primary sources to be analyzed about this incident, but the following sampling provides context and a few answers.
Toward the end of 1863, Chaplain J. Harvey of the 110th Ohio Infantry published his account of his post-Winchester imprisonment, and the story even circulated into international newspapers. Harvey had been detained and accused of helping an enslaved woman escape, and he also wrote about seeing the captured officers’ wives:
“They were not camp followers, but respectable women, and they were crowded into that fort with these three to four thousand men. Such objects of pity I never saw before. There they lay in the dust of the crowded fort, with nothing to protect them, nothing to eat, and nothing to drink (for the water gave out in the cisterns), and they were nearly famished for water. I was at the entrance of the fort before my arrest when the husbands of these women were marched out. They started out with them, but were driven back at the point of the bayonet into the fort, and thought they wept and entreated to be permitted to accompany their husbands they were kept there and sent to Richmond in the same gang in which I was sent. I saw these women on the march for Richmond laying on the bare ground and in the drenching rain…”
Harvey remembered entering the Confederate capital: “We arrived in Richmond toward night of a dark, drizzly, damp day, and there we were separated from the ladies who went down with us. The ladies were sent to Castle Thunder, and we were sent to Libby Prison.”[iii]
David C. Eberhart, a dentist and itinerant preacher by profession, served as the chaplain of the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry since February 1863. On June 15, Eberhart was captured while he assisted wounded soldiers to a field hospital, and he asked his captors if he could remain at Winchester to care for the wounded instead of being quickly sent further south. The Confederates agreed, and he stayed about ten days. Then “at the solicitation of some of the Union officers’ wives, who fell into the hands of the enemy when Winchester was evacuated, and who were to be sent through the lines, by way of Richmond, he accompanied them to that city, where they were all put in Castle Thunder prison. The women soon afterward were sent North.”[iv] The chaplain was transferred to Libby Prison where he remained until October 1863; after his release, Eberhart returned to the 87th Pennsylvania and remained the regiment’s active chaplain until October 1864.
Additional details in the 87th Regimental history provide names of some of the captured women:
“Early also authorized him [Eberhart] to look after the comfort and welfare of the fifteen laundry women who were prisoners in the main fort. Chaplains Eberhart, of the 87th, and McCabe, of the 122d Ohio, were given charge of seventeen women, the wives and daughters of Union officers, who had spent the winter and spring months in Winchester, and fell into the hands of the enemy at the time of the evacuation. Among these was the wife of Captain Maish, a daughter of S. F. Guenslen, a strong Union man of Winchester. On account of her persistent and determined efforts to supply food to members of the 87th Regiment, who were captured at her house, she was ordered under arrest, by the Confederate authorities, and sent with other loyal ladies to Castle Thunder in Richmond, where she was kept ten days, and then sent under a flag of truce to Washington City. Mrs. Maish has since felt herself to be as much a part of the regiment as her husband.”[v]
(Chaplain McCabe’s 1908 biography confirms that he was captured at Winchester and sent to Libby Prison, but did not have helpful details about captured Union women.)[vi]
A Union chaplain from the 110th Ohio included more details about Mrs. Maish in his reminiscences:
“An incident of the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Winchester, who had fallen in love with a lieutenant in the Eighty-seventh Pennsylvania regiment, and had married him, and after the battle had asked permission to enter the fort and look for her husband, who fortunately had not been captured. Said the commander, “Is your husband in the federal army? How came he to be there?” “Why” said she, “he was there when I married him.” “You,” said he, “a high-born southern lady, marry a federal soldier! Ain’t you ashamed of yourself?” With a look of as much indignation in the countenance as I ever aw in the countenance of any lady in my life, she answered him: “No, sir, I am proud of him.” In a short time an ambulance was sent to her father’s house, and she was notified that immediately she must get into it and start for Richmond.”[vii]
The regimental history of the 1st New York Lincoln Cavalry includes a mention of another captured woman. As the Union wagon attempted to escape – guarded by elements of the Lincoln Cavalry – Confederates “overtook it at Bunker Hill and had a lively skirmish with…Company H. They were checked in their pursuit, while whip and spur were freely used on the teams, and the wagons were whirled along over the stone pike toward Martinsburg. Captain Boyd’s wife, son, and daughter were riding in a buggy with the wagons. In the fight their horse became frightened, and ran away, overturning the vehicle. Mrs. Boyd had her ankle sprained, and all were captured.”[viii]
On July 14, 1863, the New York Times printed an article titled “Female Prisoners from Richmond. The women and children had recently been returned to the North on a “flag of truce boat” which landed at Annapolis. The article explained that the civilians had been lodged in Castle Thunder in Richmond, but they had had adequate, bland food and the only serious trouble reported was that their extra clothing had been forcibly taken and sold at an auction in Richmond. Once returned to northern soil, the U.S. Government had provided the civilians with transportation back to their homes and in some cities soldier relief organizations had welcomed them with food and lodging. The article noted that some of the women were wives and mothers of Ohio and Pennsylvania soldiers.[ix]
In the beginning of July several Confederate newspapers printed and reprinted the following notice which may have first been announced by the Richmond Examiner: “HOSTAGES – Forty-one females have been brought from Winchester and confined in Castle Thunder as hostages for ladies of Winchester and vicinity driven from their homes. In many instances they were the informers against Southern ladies, and assisted to rob them. The social circle of most of them is not very exalted.”[x] Interestingly, Confederate papers of the war era mentioned Castle Thunder as the place of confinement in Richmond, and this notice tries to frame the incident as retaliation for Union General Milroy’s inconvenient actions toward pro-Confederate civilians in Winchester.
Despite the Confederate Veteran Magazine’s conjecturing tone and slight protest about the accusation that the Winchester female prisoners had been held at Castle Thunder prison, there are plenty of accounts suggesting that is where the women were held. In many ways, Castle Thunder prison would have been the logical place for Confederate authorities to put the captured women if they wanted to restrict their movements and knowledge. That prison was already used to house political prisoners, Unionist, and other female prisoners.[xi]
The stories of captured Union women at Winchester offer a glimpse into their experiences. Perhaps other accounts from the husbands and fathers or the women themselves will be re-discovered and offer more opportunity to explore the details of their capture and imprisonment and how that fit into military-civilian struggle in Winchester during and after Milory’s occupation in 1863.
[i] Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume 30 (1922). Pages 331-332.
[ii] Ibid., page 422.
[iii] The Leeds Mercury, December 4, 1863. Accessed through Newspapers.com
[iv]George Reeser Prowell, History of the Eighty-seventh Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1903. Pages 277-278. Accessed a digital scan of the book through GoogleBooks.
[v] Ibid., page 81.
[vi] Frank Milton Bristol, The Life of Chaplain McCabe: Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1908). Pages 80-90.
[vii]The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, November 10, 1863. Accessed through Newspapers.com
[viii] William Harrison Beach, The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry from April 19, 1861 to July 7, 1865 (New York Lincoln Cavalry Association, 1902). Page 235.
[ix] The New York Times, July 14, 1863. Accessed through Newspapers.com
[x] Weekly State Journal, July 8, 1863. Accessed through Newspapers.com
[xi] “Castle Thunder” Encyclopedia of Virginia.