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.
After an 11-mile ride, Jones' men crossed Conococheague Creek and then hid behind a low ridge just west of the pike. By then, the captain probably had less than an hour of daylight left. Quickly Jones, Woodruff and a dozen soldiers from Company F, 1st New York Cavalry, walked to the top of the rise and began viewing the passing wagon train. As Jones watched it roll by, he noticed that not only cavalry, but also artillery guarded the wagons at intervals of a half-mile to a mile.
'Use your sabers'
Upon spotting a weak spot in the caravan, the captain led the group back down the hill to where his troopers were waiting. Then, mounting up, he began riding along the column giving encouragement to each and every soldier. Finally, in his well-known stoic manner, Jones said, "If you get into close quarters, use your sabers. Don't strike, but thrust!"
Jones ordered Woodruff to attack the train at the crossroads. Meanwhile, Passenger's detachment would ride a short distance to the north, capture a few wagons and then get ready to hold off a counterattack from the guards of the next section. The captain used Irwin and his Pennsylvanians as his reserve.
By this time, Imboden's train, which he later said probably stretched out over 17 miles, had been on the road for more than 24 hours. Beset by torrential rains that had turned the dirt-covered Pine Stump road into a rut-filled, muddy graveyard for many wagons, the train also had been ambushed by Union cavalry and civilians just south of Greencastle. Although rapidly driven off by the 18th Virginia Cavalry, the ax-wielding civilians had disabled some wagons when they had hacked the wooden wheels in two.
If an alert Southern officer had taken time to post pickets westward along the Hagerstown-Mercersburg road, they would have spotted Jones' troopers in plenty of time and averted the surprise attack. None of the weary graybacks, however, must have thought of it.
A few weeks later, in a letter written to a Syracuse, N.Y., newspaper, a trooper from Company F described what happened when Jones ordered the New Yorkers forward: "Lieut. Woodruff ... led the charge, with drawn sabers, and with shouts that seemed to awaken the slumbering echoes of the whole Cumberland Valley, the undaunted lads of the 1st New York rushed upon the Rebel train. So sudden and unexpected was the attack that the guards were thunder-struck. ... They threw down their arms and headed in every direction. We routed them foot, horse and dragoon."
The rapid assault achieved exactly what Jones had intended, including the capture of two 3-inch rifled cannons protecting that section of the train. The Rebel guards had either sprinted off into the nearby fields or surrendered. Hundreds of other Southerners, including the bedridden wounded, walking wounded and teamsters, were taken prisoner. Meanwhile, more than 100 wagons and their teams were being pointed west toward Mercersburg.
Jacob Hoke, a Chambersburg resident, wrote, "The train was cut from Mr. Hayde's down to the farm ... owned by David Zellers." The wagons north of the crossroad turned right on the road toward Mercersburg, while those to the south were turned around in Zellers' barnyard and driven cross country to get in line behind the other vehicles.
Jones also took part in getting one of the wagons moving. Coming upon one vehicle whose driver had vanished, leaving a wagon full of wounded stranded in the middle of the road, he asked a young black man if he could handle the six-mule team. "Yes massa," the man replied, "I drive um." Then, climbing up into the driver's box, he looked back at the men inside the wagon and said, "By golly, you toted me off. Now, I tote you off."
As the wagons began disappearing behind the hills to the west, the long-anticipated Confederate counterattack began. From the north, a long line of butternut and gray skirmishers advanced on the Yankee rear guard, while from the south, Rebel cavalrymen who had heard the heavy gunfire to the rear were galloping back to the rescue.
In the brief fight that followed, Passenger and Woodruff's troopers were joined on the line by most of Irwin's Pennsylvanians. They put up such stiff resistance that the Rebels backed off, allowing Jones, according to one account, time to get the captured wagons "hurried off rapidly and the prisoners marched off on the double quick."
In the midst of the fighting, however, many prisoners took advantage of the confusion and ran off into the brush. That night, while on the road, others escaped into the darkness.
Jones' total losses in the whole affair were light, amounting to just three killed and one wounded.
Town of wounded
About 10 p.m., the first wagons began rolling through Mercersburg on their way to Fort Loudon. When the train neared Cove Gap, however, Pierce and the rest of his command appeared. Pierce ordered Jones to take the prisoners back to Mercersburg and unload them. In the meantime, Pierce and his troopers followed along and camped just outside of town.
Later that night, two locals rang the doorbell of Phillip Schaff, a professor of religious studies who lived on the grounds of Marshall Theological Seminary. They asked him if he could house some of the badly wounded Confederates inside the school. Schaff, figuring that there would be just a small number, agreed and, following along, went to work unloading the men.
As more and more wagons rolled into town, Schaff watched as first the seminary filled up with wounded, then the basement of a Methodist church and a nearby barn. Then other barns and even some private dwellings became temporary hospitals.
Although most of the soldiers and civilians helped, the Mercersburg Journal later reported that some others rooted through the wagons and personal belongings. In closing, the scribe wrote, " We only hope that for the credit of the neighborhood, that much of this thieving was done in ignorance, and that the perpetrators will return the goods in order that some of the poor fellows in the hospital may cover their nakedness."
In a terrible fix
Early Monday morning, Pierce began readying his whole force to ride to Fort Loudon. By then, each of the wounded officers had taken a solemn oath promising not to flee. Then, all the wounded enlisted men were paroled. Dr. Frederick Elliott, Pierce's medical director, left 308 seriously wounded men in the care of two Southern doctors.
Pierce departed Mercersburg with 345 prisoners, 103 ambulances and wagons and the two rifled cannons. By this time, however, only about half of the 600 horses and mules that had been captured at Cunningham's Crossroads were fit enough to pull wagons.
The sudden departure of the cavalry left the town in a terrible fix. Not long after the Northerners left, both Rebel surgeons, according to Schaff, "skedaddled without paying any attention to their own wounded." Many of the locals, though, showing Christian charity, gladly responded to the daunting task thrust upon them and cheerfully helped feed and nurse the Southerners throughout the day. One Rebel officer told Schaff, "Your kindness makes it almost a luxury to be a prisoner here."
A plea for help
That evening, town leaders sent off letters to Pierce at Fort Loudon and Pennsylvania militia commander Maj. Gen. Darius Crouch, headquartered at Harrisburg, requesting help with the wounded.
As a result, Elliott and others returned on Tuesday afternoon and began giving some much-needed organization to the treatment of the wounded. By this time, according to Schaff, "the filth and odors accumulated in the Seminary ... already [were] almost beyond endurance." Throughout that evening and Wednesday, locals continued to share what little food they had with the Rebels.
On Thursday, July 9, Pierce sent wagons to the hospital. Their teamsters picked up 100 patients and carried them to Fort Loudon. The end of Mercersburg's ordeal with the great Confederate invasion was in sight.
Steve French teaches in Martinsburg, W.Va. and is finishing a book about Gen. John D. Imboden's brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.