US casualties at 1st Winchester: Will it ever be accurately reported?

by Ned B. on January 15, 2015 · 1 comment

The first battle of Winchester, Virginia was fought on May 25, 1862 between forces under Confederate General Thomas ‘Stonewall‘ Jackson and those under Union General Nathaniel Banks. For US casualties in the battle, almost all books and websites I have seen report the same thing: 62 killed; 243 wounded; 1,714 missing/captured; for a total of 2,019.  See this National Park Service Study.  There are many books and websites that use the same numbers. But in doing so they perpetuate an error.

The precision of the numbers points to the primary source: a table from the Official Records found in Series 1 – Volume 12 (Part I) pages 553 and 554. The totals at the end of the table are exactly the numbers given above.  The error that has been made is revealed by the heading on that table:  “Casualties in the Union forces at Front Royal and Winchester, & c.*” with a footnote that says “Includes losses at Front Royal and Buckton Station, May 23; Strasburg, Middletown, and Newtown, May 24, and Winchester, May 25.” So it is incorrect to report these numbers as casualties from just the battle at Winchester on May 25.

To determine the casualties for just the battle, the other losses would have to be deducted from the totals in that table. The National Park Service states that the US casualties at Front Royal were 32 killed, 122 wounded and 750 captured. If the Front Royal losses are subtracted from the totals, the remainder is 30 killed, 121 wounded, 964 missing/captured for a total of 1,115.  Since the table also referred to casualties at “Strasburg, Middletown, and Newtown, May 24”, the actual losses during the battle of Winchester on the 25th would be even less.

There has been some effort to comment on this. For example, in his book Shenandoah 1862, Peter Cozzens wrote: “The losses at Winchester are difficult to calculate. Union reports lumped together casualties incurred at Front Royal, on the retreat of March [sic] 24, and at the battle of and retreat from Winchester.” But reporting the overall total as if it were just the losses in the battle has become so embedded in Civil War literature, copied over and over in books and webpages, that I despair that there will ever be accurate accounting.  When the National Park Service is reporting data incorrectly, it is a difficult obstacle to overcome.

What difference does it make? With a force of around 8,000 (as per Civil War Day By Day) a loss of 2,019 is more than 25% but a loss of 1,115 would be less than 14%.  Percent loss is often used as a metric in assessing battles and the difference between 25% (the range of the bloodiest battles of the war) and 14% is significant.

Note: I am focusing on battle losses.  There were hundreds of sick and wounded left in hospitals at Winchester who became prisoners when Jackson occupied to town.  They count as US losses during the campaign, but not casualties during the battle.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Christtopher Coleman January 16, 2015 at 9:05 am

Ned B has revealed a glaring error in the Winchester battle accounts; good work. Sadly, The 1st Winchester is not the only battle where casualty figures are either misreported or tinkered with.
In researching my forthcoming biography of Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career, I came away with the distinct impression that the reported figures of Grant’s Shiloh casualties–and consequently the status of his army at the end of the first day’s fight–are misleading at the very least and probably deliberately deceptive. The same is probably true for the standard account of his “massed artillery” breaking up Confederate attacks on the left flank at the end of the first day.
Grant’s official report merged casualties of the two day’s fight, masking the enormity of his defeat on the first day; similarly, how many manned batteries Grant had at the end of the first day of Shiloh to “blow away” the Confederates is also a dubious proposition, since a number of Grant’s artillery pieces were captured or abandoned on the first day and then recaptured on the second; so the final figure of Union artillery is also deceptive. Moreover, Buell and Nelson each report encountering different batteries at Pittsburg Landing that had been abandoned by Grant’s men and were unmanned. I did not delve too deeply into this issue, since my book is mainly about Ambrose Bierce and his comrades in Buell’s army, but I suspect the real facts about the first day of Shiloh have yet to come out–if they ever will.

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