Randolf H. McKim about the 1st Battle of Winchester

        ...Of the next day, Sunday, the 25th, I shall always have a vivid remembrance. It was my first battle at Winchester. By three A.M. we were in line of march, five miles from Winchester:

        "As the sun rose, the Sabbath stillness was broken by General Jackson's artillery on our left. Then the battle commenced along the whole line. We pressed on through the smoke and mist till we were nearly in the town." 

        For some time we could not see friend or foe, but through the fog we could hear the orders of the Federal officers to their men. Well, after three or four hours heavy fighting the enemy yielded before the charge of the Louisiana Brigade, and the whole line dashed forward, entering the town by 8.30 A.M. "For the first time in the valley, 'the Rebel yell,' that strange fierce cry which heralded the Southern charge, rang high above the storm of battle." 

        I would like to pay a passing tribute to that fine soldier and gallant gentleman, Gen. Dick Taylor, who commanded the Louisiana Brigade. Enough to say that he speedily won the confidence of Jackson as a resolute and skilful commander,--though when he heard him utter an oath he said, "I'm afraid you are a wicked fellow." His conduct and that of his splendid brigade on this occasion elicited universal admiration. Ewell cheered himself hoarse as he witnessed their charge. It was in truth a gallant feat of arms. 

        Strange sights were seen in those two days of fighting before Winchester,--Federal cavalrymen strapped to their saddles, so that when made prisoners and ordered to dismount they couldn't obey till time was given them to unstrap themselves,--and soldiers equipped with breastplates to protect them from the musket balls! 

        In the rush into Winchester that morning of May 25th I suffered a serious loss--serious in my eyes, at least, at the time. 

        At Front Royal I had filled my haversack with "good things" from the captured stores; and during our rush at double quick into the town, the strap broke, and away went all the rich stores it contained! I groaned in spirit that I could not stop to recover that precious haversack. 

        My diary proceeds: 

        "We were received with most enthusiastic demonstrations of joy by the inhabitants, who thronged the streets regardless of the death-shots flying around them. Our timely arrival saved the city from being blown up. The storehouse was on fire at one end. The retreating miscreants took delight in telling the women and children they would be blown up. We saved the medical stores too. Colonel Dorsey behaved with gallantry and was wounded. I found him at Mrs. Hugh Lee's. I was detailed to take care of him and stayed till the Wednesday afternoon following, reveling in the enjoyment of ladies' society in particular and civilized life in general."

        That was a joyous breakfast table that Sunday morning at Mrs. Lee's. The battle was over. We were all "heroes" and "deliverers" in the eyes of the charming women of the family, and all was proceeding gaily till the entrance of my friend Berkeley Minor brought me the sad news of the death of Robert Breckinridge McKim, my young cousin, who had joined the Rockbridge Artillery near this very town less than eleven months before. He fell gallantly serving his piece in the battle. It was a painful shock to me, for I was warmly attached to the noble boy. Procuring a horse, I rode out to the field and found him laid out in a barn, with a label attached, on which was his name. The minie-ball had pierced his head just above the forehead, leaving the face undisfigured. His features wore a peaceful expression, and I believe his soul was at peace with God in the better world. How joyous he used to be and how well he sang our college songs, "Lauriger Horatius," "The Irishman's Shanty," etc. 

        I remember once, at a Sunday afternoon students' prayer meeting, Bob was called on to pray, and promptly answered in the phrase we used in the lecture room when the lesson had not been studied--"unprepared!" To this call to meet his Maker in the storm of battle, dear Bob had no need to make that answer. He was gay and joyous, but true and good, and he had given himself to Christ. This is a fair sample of the checkered life we led. Joy and sorrow were strangely mixed. Whenever possible, we were "gay and happy," as one of our favorite marching songs had it. The dear women of the South, young and old, always met us with smiles, and did everything to cheer our hearts, even when their own were sore and sad for some loved one who had fallen. As the war went on and became more and more bloody, there were few families which did not mourn a father, or a husband, or a brother who had fallen in battle. The valley of Virginia was for four years a constant battle ground. Up and down, all the way from Staunton to Shepherdstown, the two armies swept, till at the end it was reduced to a scene of desolation. I myself participated in five battles at or near Winchester, and it is said the town changed hands more than eighty times during the war. To Winchester I had come with the University companies en route to Harper's Ferry, in April, 1861. To Winchester again Robert and I had come in July, 1861, to join Johnston's army. At Winchester now Robert had yielded up his life. At Winchester and at Stevenson's Depot I was to see severe fighting in June, 1863. Near Winchester again I was to be in the fatal battle of September, 1864, and at Cedar Creek the following October I was to see Gordon's victory turned into defeat by General Early's mistakes,--at least, that is my opinion. 

        Its people were devotedly loyal to the Confederacy, and my heart warms to-day to the dear old town, as I think what a warm welcome it always gave us. 

        In this battle General Jackson, by his brilliant strategy, ably seconded by the blindness and the blunders of the Federal commander, General Banks, had succeeded in attacking the army at Winchester with a force double its numbers. He led a force of 17,000 men, infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Three or four weeks before this disaster, General Banks had written to Mr. Stanton expressing regret that he was "not to be included in active operations during the summer." On that 25th of May, the Confederate commander relieved him of that regret in very rude but effective fashion. 

        This unexpected blow delivered at Winchester by Jackson reverberated with telling effect through the whole North. Mr. Lincoln and his cabinet were alarmed for the safety of the Capital. Stanton wrote the governor of Massachusetts: "There is no doubt that the enemy in great force are marching on Washington." General McDowell, who was just starting to reinforce McClellan, was stopped, and his 40,000 men cancelled from the advance on Richmond. Fremont was ordered to support Banks. Even McClellan was ordered either to attack Richmond at once, or come to the defense of Washington. Such was the alarm that in one day nearly 500,000 men volunteered to save the Union. 

        Thus this great soldier had in a single engagement transformed the whole military situation in Virginia, --and the cause of the South, till then shrouded in gloom, had suddenly been irradiated with hope. By an unfortunate and almost inexcusable refusal to obey an order of Jackson because it did not come through Ewell, the pursuit of Banks's defeated army by our cavalry was delayed until the splendid opportunity was lost. Three days later part of the army advanced as far as Halltown, and the Stonewall Brigade, with our regiment and a battery of artillery, was pushed forward to Bolivar Heights, which was within range of Harper's Ferry. There we had some fighting--chiefly a duel of artillery--but the only man I remember seeing injured was an artilleryman who was shot in the thigh by a rifle ball at a distance of approximately 900 yards. That was looked upon as a remarkable achievement at that period in the history of war. How different it is to-day! I also recall that the wound was a horrible one--the flesh was dreadfully torn and lacerated. The enemy had resorted to the reprehensible practice of using explosive bullets. 


Books on Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

Books on the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862

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