- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

Many students of the Confederate cavalry consider Harry Gilmor to have been the epitome of Maryland valor and chivalry. The leader of the 2nd Maryland Cavalry Battalion always galloped to the thickest of the fighting and was a romantic favorite among the "secesh" belles of the Shenandoah Valley.

Nonetheless, Gilmor's reputation as a ladies' man sometimes had its drawbacks. One incident in particular illustrates this. On Oct. 14, 1863, the major's intense desire for feminine companionship caused him to leave his small unit for a time at the beginning of a raid to burn an important B&O Railroad bridge. The next day, his men were captured while they rested in the woods along a creek waiting for his return.

In his memoirs, "Four Years in the Saddle," Gilmor skillfully glosses over this embarrassment. It is sandwiched carefully between his deadly duel on horseback a short time before, with Capt. Dent Summers, and his important role in Brig. Gen. John Imboden's successful attack on the Yankee garrison at Charlestown, W.Va., on Oct. 10.

The casual reader might scan the text without realizing what actually happened Oct. 14. Moreover, Gilmor places blame for the debacle on Capt. John Blackford, accusing his subordinate of being "incautious and totally reckless of danger." Reading a few Federal sources along with Gilmor's account, however, gives a better understanding of what actually happened on that disconcerting day.

The Unionists guarding the B&O Railroad in eastern West Virginia were taking every precaution against the numerous Southern guerrillas and partisans prowling the area. Federal authorities had posted strong garrisons in Charlestown, Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg, W.Va. Smaller units guarded remote bridges and depots, while cavalry squadrons scoured the countryside daily, searching for the elusive graybacks. Meanwhile, spies roamed the lower valley with their ears open for loose talk that would be the tipoff of an upcoming Rebel foray. Unfortunately for Gilmor, it would be his bad luck to meet and entertain one of those agents.

William Beach, in his book "The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry," relates the opportune encounter that spy Pvt. Edward Savacool had with the dashing cavalier on Oct. 14 at Newtown (Stephens City), Va. The major was preparing to leave camp with his wild band when the operative, posing as a mail carrier, rode up. Although at first suspicious of the outsider, Gilmor soon became friendly when he found that the mailman had a letter for him from a woman in Winchester, Va.

After reading the note, Gilmor invited the stranger to take a drink from his canteen. Evidently, it contained something stronger than cool, clear water, because the major soon was glibly telling Savacool of his upcoming secret mission to burn Back Creek Bridge. A short time later, the Union spy started a roundabout trip back to warn his superiors at Martinsburg.

At about 2 p.m., Gilmor and about 40 officers and men began riding toward their objective. Reaching the home of his paramour, however, the major unexpectedly turned command over to Capt. Blackford while he and a Mr. W. "stopped for a few moments to see the ladies there."

As the gray raiders continued on toward Back Creek Valley, the jaunty Baltimorean and his companion extended their short visit until sundown. Then, mounting their stallions, they galloped away to rejoin the raiders.

Meanwhile, after Savacool reached Martinsburg that evening with his warning, Col. L.B. Pierce of the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry hastily dispatched six troopers to a lookout post atop North Mountain. The soldiers got up at daybreak and, after the fog lifted, scanned the narrow valley for the men whom a Baltimore American reporter later sarcastically dubbed "the knights of the order of the rum punch."

Blackford and his Southerners were slowly winding their way down the long hill toward Tomahawk when the pickets spotted them and dispatched a rider to Martinsburg with the news. Around noon, a loyal citizen also rode into headquarters and reported that the graybacks had camped in a secluded ravine along the east side of Back Creek.

When the Confederates had arrived in Tomahawk, a village named after an oddly shaped limestone spring, Blackford called for a halt. While some of the troopers fanned out over the hamlet to find food, others forded the creek and prepared the camp.

The captain planned on resting his men and horses in the supposed safe haven until Gilmor caught up and then to leave at night to burn the bridge five miles away.

Back in Martinsburg, Pierce was putting the finishing touches on a plan to surround the Rebels. He ordered one company from the 1st New York Cavalry and another from his own 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry to cross Back Creek and carefully approach Tomahawk from two directions. Once there, the troopers were to remain hidden until a small force from the 116th Ohio Infantry from North Mountain Depot, previously notified by telegraph, marched by a seldom-used mountain byway to strike the Rebel camp. Then, if all went as the colonel expected, the Ohioans would flush the raiders from their hideout and into the arms of the cavalry across the creek.

Once in Tomahawk, Capt. R.S. Pendergast of the 1st New York posted the Pennsylvanians near the Old Stone Church and his own men in the hamlet itself. Then the soldiers bided their time, waiting for infantry to attack.

Not long after, a sudden burst of gunfire signaled the Buckeyes' assault on the raiders' lair. Many of the surprised and still groggy graybacks rushed to untie their horses while others vainly ran into the woods. Only a dozen or so of the Rebels mounted and galloped across the ford, where they were met by the hard-charging Yankee squadron. Of this number, only Blackford and four others came close to escaping. They were rounded up when their horses couldn't make it up a steep bank.

On the way back to Martinsburg, the 36 prisoners were hardly down-spirited; they bragged to their captors of their many escapades inside Federal lines. A scribe commented on their boasting: "They had speculated in horses (stolen ones, of course), attacked our cavalry pickets at night, carried rebel mails, aided parties running the river 'blockade' with goods, burned bridges, robbed Union people, and lived on the plunder thus obtained."

More than happy with their success that day, the blue-clad troopers just chuckled at the braggarts. Their only regret was not catching the infamous leader

Gilmor missed falling into Union clutches that day, but 16 months later, on the night of Feb. 4, 1865, he was captured by Union scouts while sleeping at a house in Moorefield, W.Va. Now a colonel, he eventually was shipped off to a cell at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. He was released from confinement on July 24, 1865.

Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table.

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