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Question of the Day
On the night of July 4, 1863, a lone rider saddled up and left Mercersburg, Pa., traveling west to McConnellsburg to deliver Judge James O. Carson’s urgent plea for help to W.S. Fletcher.
For the previous two weeks, the Rebel invasion of the Keystone State had isolated the prosperous Franklin County community. During that time, various enemy regular forces and passing bands of guerrilla fighters, horse thieves and stragglers had forced the helpless townsfolk and local farmers to contribute animals, clothing and provisions.
After a nine-mile gallop through a driving rain that took the horseman through the small village of Cove Gap (the birthplace of former president James Buchanan) and across Tuscarora Mountain, the messenger reached his destination and delivered the note. After reading the message, Fletcher hurried over to the headquarters of Col. Lewis B. Pierce.
In their subsequent meeting, sometime after midnight, Fletcher recommended sending Capt. Abram Jones and 200 men to Mercersburg to give the beleaguered people some protection. Fletcher knew the captain well. On July 29, just six days earlier, Jones, leading a patrol of 31 men, had surprised a 60-man company of Rebel horse soldiers in the streets of Mercersburg, killing two and capturing 32.
Pierce speedily agreed with the man’s idea. Although Fletcher did not know it, the colonel already had ordered Jones to take some troopers and try to ride around the rear of the Confederate army to see if he could find the Army of the Potomac.
On July 3, Pierce had moved a small brigade of cavalry east from Bedford, Pa., toward McConnellsburg. Arriving there the next afternoon, Pierce’s force consisted of his own 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry and some companies from the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry. Originally, all of these troops had been part of the cavalry attached to Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s command in Winchester, Va.
Early on the morning of June 15, however, they had escaped capture by riding westward toward Hancock, Md., after Confederate Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division defeated Milroy at the Battle of Stephenson’s Depot. Continuing on to Bloody Run (Everett) in Pennsylvania, Pierce reorganized the fugitives there but eventually moved them a little farther west to a new camp at Bedford.
When Jones rode out that Sunday morning, he had about 100 New Yorkers and another 80 or so from the 12th Pennsylvania. As they passed the picket line, troopers from the 1st New York galloped out to join them. Not long afterward, the captain divided his riders into three detachments. Lts. Franz Passenger and Charles Woodruff would command the men from the Empire State, while Lt. David Irwin led the Pennsylvanians.
The command reached Mercersburg around 11 a.m. and, finding no graybacks about, stopped to rest their horses and get something to eat. Word of their coming had preceded them, and the ladies of Mercersburg had already prepared a delicious meal topped off by plenty of desserts.
While they were eating, Jones heard sketchy reports of an immense Confederate wagon train traveling south on the Cumberland Valley Turnpike toward the Potomac. Wanting to see this train for himself, he began asking around for guides.
Not long afterward, two local men volunteered to lead the Yankees to Cunningham’s Crossroads, Md. (now Cearfoss), a point where the Hagerstown-Mercersburg road intersected the pike about halfway between Greencastle, Pa., and Williamsport, Md. Soon, after about a three-hour rest, the bluecoats were back in the saddle, getting ready to depart for what one soldier later called “the most brilliant and unparalleled cavalry charge of the war.”
The night before, at his headquarters west of Gettysburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee had decided to take his battered army back to Virginia. With a Potomac crossing at either Light’s ford at Williamsport or a pontoon bridge at Falling Waters, W.Va., to be his first objective, Lee made plans for three immense wagon trains to start for Dixie. One commanded by Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden would be entrusted with transporting most of the Rebel wounded, plus the baggage trains of the I, III Corps, and J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. Its 42-mile route to the river would follow the Chambersburg Turnpike, the Pine Stump road and the Cumberland Valley Pike on into Williamsport.
Meanwhile, the other two trains, under the direct supervision of II Corps quartermaster Maj. John Harman, were assigned a route to the river that passed through Fairfield, Monterey Gap and Waterloo, Pa., then continued on through Leitersburg and Hagerstown, Md., before finally reaching Williamsport. This column, besides including most of the fighting men of the army, also carried along some of the wounded, plunder that had been taken in Pennsylvania and sizable herds of cattle and sheep.
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