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Saturday, June 15, 2013

150 years ago today: William Cowhey sees his first action in the Civil War

"Everything was quiet [at Winchester] until Saturday the 13th of June 1863. The weather was fine and balmy. We wished we were at home to help the farmers plant corn; something else turned up."
Thus wrote Union private Lorenzo Barnhart of Company B, 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The "something else" that suddenly "turned up" for himself and his fellow Union soldiers is now known to history as the Second Battle of Winchester: a three-day conflict that resulted in a devastating loss for the greatly outnumbered Union forces. This was part of the Gettysburg campaign: the Confederate attempt to invade the north for the first time (and what would be the only time). The Confederates greatly outnumbered the Union boys in blue: about 19,000 to 6,900. By June 15, the Union forces had been routed, paving the way for what would become the infamous Battle of Gettysburg.

Virginia's town of Winchester was, according to the Encyclopedia of Virginia,
"the most contested town in the Confederacy during the American Civil War,
changing hands more than 70 times." (This drawing depicts Jackson's Confederate
Army in Winchester in 1861. The building is the Taylor Hotel which would later
serve as Union Army headquarters during the 2nd Battle of Winchester.) 

This weekend is the 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Winchester, and it has special significance to me. My great-great-grandfather Private William Cowhey served for three years in the Union army within Battery L, 5th U.S. Artillery. This battle was the first time his regiment saw action in the war, and it was not a pretty sight. When the three day skirmish was over, Confederate General Richard Elwell had lost only 270 of his 19,000 men, but had captured 300 wagons, hundreds of horses and twenty-three artillery pieces. The Union forces had lost close to 5,000 of their greatly outnumbered 6,900 men and the rest had been sent running for their lives.

Sketch of the 2nd Battle of Winchester by Jedediah Hotchkiss
It was a disgraceful moment for the Union. As a result of the defeat, Union General Robert Milroy was relieved of his command. The men under his charge had scattered in different directions, many of them heading to Gettysburg. There they would play a role in the most critical turning point of the war. Many would be numbered among the dead within that battle, which was to be the cause of more casualties than any other in the Civil War.

William Cowhey did not go on to fight at Gettysburg. Along with the other survivors from Battery L, 5th U.S. Artillery, he moved on to Camp Barry and served in the defense of Washington D.C. for a year from July 1863 to July 1864. Later he moved on to other action, including the Third Battle of Winchester (also known as the Battle of Opequan) in September 1864.

William Cowhey's "Declaration of Recruit" that he signed as
he enlisted in the Army's 5th Artillery at age 28 in January 1862.


Below are a few more excerpts about the Second Battle of Winchester from Private Lorenzo Barnhart's diary.

About Saturday, June 13, 1863 -
"We did not know what force was coming against us out on the Winchester and Strawberry Pike. We were ready for them. Our pickets engaged them. I was on the picket line myself. It was the first engagement we ever were in, and we seen how they fought. We matched them at their own game. They kept hid behind Cedar and Pine bushes and Field rock and stumps..." 
About Sunday, June 14, 1863 -
"...My company B of the 110th was sent to guard a battery of canons...Everything was quiet on Sunday the 14th. The boys were laying on the parapets in the sun. We came to the conclusion the confederates had all went to Church to get Religion, but they were only fixing to kill all of us. There was a pine mountain off about a quarter of a mile [to the west]. All at once, Oh! here came a shower of shot and shell. The boys tumbled off the parapets like turtles drop off a log into the water. The pine mountain fairly blazed with canon. They sent showers of shot and shells at us. We could not reach them with our small rifles. It seemed they let loose about 50 or 60 canons. [We] could do nothing to them. They shot our little guns wheels off, and upset them. Then they ceased firing off the pine mountain, and our officers gave us orders to fix bayonets and [get] our guns loaded, and watch over the fields in front of us. We would see the confederate infantry come out of the brush, out of a ravine. We would get to shoot only one shot, then use our bayonets and club with our guns. They came in desperate order. We gave them a volley low down in their legs. They dropped out of ranks. We made large gaps in their lines, but they did not stop for they closed the gaps shoulder to shoulder. They had been in such scraps before. They gave us a volley, then came onto us with bayonets and a yell like Indians..." 
To read more visit this webpage about the 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry: Letters, Accounts, Oral Histories.

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