Bunker Hill, Va., is a name that frequently appeared in the reports of many Civil War officers and the letters and diaries of soldiers from both sides.
Located on the Valley Pike, about halfway between Winchester and Martinsburg in what is now West Virginia, this peaceful village was a favorite camping site for both armies. On the afternoon of Saturday, June 13, 1863, however, its tranquillity was shattered when it suddenly became a battleground, just like its Revolutionary War namesake in Massachusetts.
The sequence of events that led to the clash at Bunker Hill began early that morning at Berryville, when a scout told post commander Col. Andrew T. McReynolds that Rebel horsemen were advancing toward the town on the Front Royal road.
Not long afterward, vedettes reported hearing two cannons fired in Winchester. As this was the prearranged signal given by division commander Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy for McReynolds’ brigade to fall back to the protection of Winchester’s forts, the old Mexican War veteran promptly issued orders to begin the retreat.
Taking an extra precaution to save his baggage and stores, McReynolds ordered Quartermaster William H. Boyd Jr. and Commissary Frank McReynolds to take the 42 wagons of the brigade and regimental trains northwest to Bunker Hill and stop there to await orders.
Lt. Frank Martindale and Company H, 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, guarded the train. After the wagons left, Col. McReynolds, suspecting the Rebels would block the direct route to Winchester, began marching his soldiers toward the town on a roundabout detour that first led north to Summit Point before turning west and marching to Clearbrook and the Valley Pike.
The graybacks that first appeared outside Berryville that morning belonged to Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins’ cavalry brigade. The day before, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell had added these mountaineers from southwestern Virginia to Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes’ division to help him capture Berryville and another Federal post at Martinsburg.
In the meantime, Ewell’s two other divisions would strike Milroy’s forces at Winchester. Now, although held up outside of Berryville for a while by obstinate Federal artillery, Jenkins’ riders were hot on the trail of the fleeing Yankees.
The Confederates finally caught up with the Federals at Carter’s Ford, on the Opequon Creek near Brucetown. There, in a fierce little skirmish, the carbines and sabers of the Yankee rear guard checked the Rebel pursuit on the east side of the creek just long enough for McReynolds’ command to make its escape.
Sgt. William Beach of the 1st New York Cavalry later wrote, “In this charge the men of both sides became so mixed up that in the dust that was raised it was for a little while difficult for one to recognize his own comrades.”
When things calmed down, Jenkins sent the 36th Battalion Virginia Cavalry to trail the bluecoats toward Winchester while he and the rest of the brigade headed for Bunker Hill. Not long afterward, according to a soldier-correspondent for the Richmond Enquirer, “it was ascertained that a large transport train was in advance of us. … Then the lively forward was the order.”
When the teamsters reached Bunker Hill around 4 that afternoon, they did not go on into the village but parked their wagons in a field along the Smithfield road, just east of the pike. As the men tended their horses and mules, couriers were dispatched to Winchester to find McReynolds.
A few sutlers’ wagons and a carriage driven by Mrs. William H. Boyd, wife of the captain of Company C, 1st New York Cavalry, were also in the wagon park. Three or so miles east, Martindale remained with part of his company out on the Smithfield road to watch for Confederates.
There were also some other Federals at Bunker Hill that afternoon. Since the end of May, about 200 infantrymen under the command of Maj. W.T. Morris had been guarding the crossroads. Morris’ small command consisted of Companies A and I of his own 116th Ohio and Companies G and H, 87th Pennsylvania.
Just west of the pike, this garrison had fortified its barracks in the Presbyterian and Methodist-Episcopal churches by knocking bricks out of the walls to create rifle slits and by barricading the doors and windows. The soldiers had also built a heavy fence across the pike.
Sometime after 4 p.m., Jenkins’ troopers caught up with Martindale’s rear guard. The captain quickly dispatched a rider to Bunker Hill and began a running fight with the Rebels, trying to buy enough time for the wagons to get rolling.
When the messenger reined up at the wagon park, he reported that a force of about 1,500 enemy cavalry was on the way. According to author Wilbur Nye, in his book “Here Come the Rebels!” the wagon master passed the word to hitch up and then positioned himself where the teams would pull out on the road. He shouted, “No teamster shall start until I give the orders.”
Not long afterward, he gave the go-ahead and soon the wagons were flying down the pike toward Martinsburg in a cloud of dust. Left behind, however, were Mrs. Boyd and her two small children. In the excitement, her horse bolted, upsetting the buggy in a ditch and injuring Mrs. Boyd.
Retreat under fire
About 5 p.m., the Rebels appeared on a high hill just across Mill Creek. By this time, Maj. Morris had positioned his men in a thin line in the fields about 500 yards east of the village. The Pennsylvanians formed the left of the line and the Ohioans the right.
Soon, Jenkins sent some dismounted troopers forward and the fighting commenced. Pvt. Addison Smith of the 17th Virginia Cavalry later wrote, “We were marched down to this creek, skirmishing as we went.” Before long, the general realized the weakness of his opponent and promptly led a mounted charge of the 17th Virginia Cavalry and the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry across the creek.
At once, the Federals commenced a fighting withdrawal to the churches. About the time the Ohioans began their retreat, a Southerner shot Capt. Alex Cochran (Company I) in the right arm and took him prisoner. Lt. A.B. Frame swiftly assumed command and led the men back to the church.
Gen. Abner Doubleday later wrote of Frame’s valor: “Under a most galling fire, he covered the retreat to the church, keeping his men in hand as well and as coolly as on a parade ground and was among the last to enter the church. … Mere boy, though he was, that day showed himself possessed of great courage, and superior soldierly qualities.”
As the two companies of Pennsylvanians were falling back, the Rebels killed Lt. Michael S. Slothower and mortally wounded Cpl. Joseph Henry, both of Company H. In all, Morris lost 97 men before reaching the safety of the churches. Once inside though, the Yankees unleashed a withering fire on the graybacks, causing them to fall back and take cover.
While the major and his men anxiously waited for Confederate cannon to blast them out of their sanctuaries, Jenkins faced a dilemma. Although he greatly outnumbered the trapped Northerners, his horse artillery, commanded by Capt. Thomas E. Jackson, was still in Staunton. Fearing the needless loss of too many men, the general quickly nixed the idea of storming the churches.
The two sides kept up a sporadic fire until dark. At that time, Jenkins sent townsman John Lemon under a flag of truce to meet with Maj. Morris and demand his surrender. Lemon delivered Jenkins’ ultimatum to the commander, who, after reading it, stoically retorted, “We are not into that kind of business.”
Not long afterward, a heavy rain began falling, and the downpour combined with the darkness to put an end to the fighting.
Escape by night
Sometime during the long night, Morris decided to use the bad weather for cover and, about 2 a.m., he silently evacuated the churches. Luckily, his men found a big gap in the Southern lines, and what was left of the major’s outfit escaped through it and marched on to Winchester.
At dawn, the Confederates finally discovered that the Yankees were gone and promptly helped themselves to scattered commissary stores, rations, and small arms. After breakfast, the graybacks were back in the saddle and on their way to Martinsburg. According to the grayback scribe, Jenkins lost “only two killed and four wounded.”
The Rebels sent the captured Federals to Richmond, jailing the officers in Libby Prison and the enlisted men on Belle Isle. They also hauled off Mrs. Boyd and her children to the capital.
One wounded Yankee remained in the village, however, escaping imprisonment by hiding in the home of a Southern sympathizer. The family nursed Sgt. John M. Griffith until he was well enough to travel. The Pennsylvanian then journeyed to Philadelphia to continue his recuperation.
Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table.