- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

Although the Civil War in Virginia's Loudoun County never approached the level of brutality experienced in Missouri and Kansas, the conflict was very much a "brother's war" that divided families and pitted longtime friends against one another on the battlefield. The fratricidal nature of the conflict was typified by the histories of two military units, one Union and one Confederate, raised largely in Loudoun County.
The Confederates scored first in the recruiting competition in northwestern Loudoun when Elijah V. White, a Poolesville native living near Leesburg, received permission to raise an independent company for service "on the border." Throughout the war, he drew his recruits mostly from Loudoun, Frederick, Page and Shenandoah counties in Virginia and from Montgomery and Frederick counties in Maryland.
White originally enlisted in a company of Rangers recruited by Angus MacDonald in the Lower Shenandoah Valley. MacDonald was a rather unorthodox West Point graduate who believed tomahawks were more appropriate weapons for cavalrymen than sabers. MacDonald also believed horsemen should strike without warning and retire swiftly in small groups rather than in the massed ranks so popular with officers trained in Napoleonic tactics and with artists who specialized in painting heroic battlefield scenes.
Because he was 62 when he raised his company, MacDonald soon relinquished his command to a younger, if equally unorthodox, cavalryman Lt. Col. Turner Ashby. "Lige" White was still a member of "Ashby's Rangers" when he served as a volunteer scout and courier for Col. Eppa Hunton during the Battle of Balls Bluff in October 1861. As one of the heroes of the Confederate victory, he soon gained permission to raise his own cavalry company.
Loudoun's only Union unit came into existence the following year, when Samuel C. Means, a Quaker and miller from Waterford, was offered a commission to raise an independent cavalry company among loyal refugees in Maryland who fled Virginia to escape persecution at the hands of Confederate authorities. It did not take Means long to raise the first of two small companies mustered into federal service on June 20, 1862, as the Loudoun Independent Rangers. Despite the pacifism of their religion, many of Loudoun's Quakers enlisted in the new unit.
From the moment the news of the new regiment got out, they were despised by Loudoun's secessionists and condemned as traitors by Virginia and Confederate authorities. Almost immediately, a bounty was offered for the dead body of Means, and Lige White adopted the destruction of the hated Union company as his personal crusade.
The parallels between the Loudoun Rangers and the Confederate battalion that later took the name "White's Comanches" were striking, but not surprising in view of their common origin.
The first two companies of both units were recruited in the same part of Loudoun County, and many of the same surnames appear on both muster rolls. Relations between the two bands were particularly hostile because the men knew each other and were, in many cases, related by marriage or by blood. Both units were created for "service on the border," and both struggled throughout the war to maintain their individual identities.
In White's case, his men were regularly brigaded with the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia as the 35th Virginia Cavalry. The first order assigning the 35th to a regular cavalry brigade was met with such resentment and hostility that White only barely managed to avoid a mutiny in one of his companies.
Capt. George Chiswell's Company B, composed mostly of Marylanders, claimed that, as citizens of a state that had not seceded from the Union, they could fight when and where they chose, and owed no particular allegiance to the Confederate States of America. White, himself a Maryland native, managed to convince them to stay with him and make the best of whatever opportunities came along to attack and discomfit the conquerors of their native soil.
Means was his own worst enemy when it came to preserving the organizational integrity of the Loudoun Rangers. Because he had received his commission directly from the secretary of War, he maintained he was under no obligation to follow the orders of his superior officers in the Union Army. He jealously asserted his right to confine the Rangers' operations to those portions of Virginia and Maryland bordering the Potomac River between Harpers Ferry and Great Falls.
Eventually, Means would resign his commission after refusing to obey an order transferring his command to West Virginia and merging it with the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry. (By the time Secretary of War Edwin Stanton resolved the dispute in his favor, Means had already left the Army.)
That still lay in the future, however, on an August day in 1862 when about half the men of the new Loudoun Rangers (24 men and officers) made their camp in the Baptist Meetinghouse in Waterford. Early on the morning of the 27th, Lige White led his men across country, avoiding the Union pickets on the roads leading into the town. His objective, he said, was "to whip Means and his men, and that no matter how much force they had, he intended to do it."
Shortly before dawn, he sent 20 dismounted men under the command of Capt. Randolph with orders to drive the Yankees away from the brick church so they could be easily captured by the rest of the command, which remained mounted in the roadway. Unfortunately, Randolph's men began firing too soon, and merely drove the Rangers into the church after severely wounding Lt. Slater, their commanding officer.
For the next 90 minutes, the two parties exchanged indecisive volleys, until both sides were running low on ammunition. White considered withdrawing from the fight, but he was loath to leave without at least capturing the Yankees' horses, which were tied in the churchyard.
Luckily, from his perspective, many of the Union troopers were wounded, and their ammunition was almost exhausted. White made two attempts to convince the Rangers to surrender, promising to parole all prisoners and allow the Union officers to keep their personal sidearms. Finally, Drillmaster Charles Webster, commanding in place of the wounded Lt. Slater, surrendered the Rangers.
The brief surrender ceremony in which the Rangers who were able to stand formed a line and gave up their arms presented a curious spectacle.
"Many," said Frank Myers of the 35th Virginia, "were old friends and had been schoolboys with some of White's men." One sergeant of the 35th, William Snoots, loudly demanded to be allowed to kill one of the Union prisoners, his own brother, Charles. Had he not been restrained, his actions might have set a tone of brutality and disregard for the laws of war that would have made Loudoun a much bloodier and more brutal battleground than it was. To the good fortune of every man who fought in Loudoun for the rest of the war, however, Charles Snoots was paroled and allowed to march north with his comrades.
White's captures that day included 56 horses, complete with saddles and bridles, and more than 100 revolvers and carbines (weapons in short supply in the Confederacy). He captured and paroled a total of 30 soldiers and officers. His cost was one man killed, one mortally wounded and several others slightly wounded. The Rangers lost one man killed, one mortally wounded, eight men with lesser wounds and the entire command captured.
The prize White most coveted escaped him, however. Means had been spending the night with his family rather than in the church with his men. Hearing the first shots of the attack, he quickly mounted his horse and made his escape.
The Rangers and the Comanches clashed many more times, although the 35th Virginia was only rarely in Loudoun as an intact unit for the rest of the war. Individuals and small detachments returned to the "border" as often as possible. On Sept. 1, 1862, the Rangers surprised a detachment of the 35th Virginia at Hillsboro, driving the Confederates from the town and capturing two of them. The next day, they were less successful when they ran into the 2nd Virginia Cavalry about a mile north of Leesburg. Their ebbing fortunes saw them only a short time later in the garrison at Harpers Ferry when Col. Dixon Miles decided to surrender his command to Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson.
The Rangers, however, were among the cavalrymen who managed to escape the town before its surrender and make their way safely into Pennsylvania while Harpers Ferry and its 12,000 defenders fell and the bloody Battle of Antietam was fought behind them.
That the Loudoun Rangers never managed to recruit enough men to become a battalion, let alone a full regiment, is probably because most of Loudoun's Unionists were also ardent pacifists.
The Quakers and the Brethren were excellent farmers whose thrift and industry fed and clothed the fighting men of both sides for three long years, but they were poor candidates for the recruiting officer because of their religious beliefs. Thus, the Rangers never numbered more than two companies.
They suffered their final indignity only three days before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
While camped at Keyes Switch on the B&O; Railroad just west of Harpers Ferry, the command was surprised by Mosby's Rangers and captured down to the last of their 65 men and 81 horses. Their final battle ended with the same result as their first.
When Army Chief of Staff Winfield Scott Hancock learned of their fate, he is said to have laughed loudly and said, "Well, that's the last of the Loudoun Rangers."
White's Comanches, on the other hand, served loyally as part of the famed Laurel Brigade for the duration of the war. The regiment took part in most of the cavalry actions from Gettysburg to Appomattox, including several successful foraging raids into West Virginia and Wade Hampton's "Beefsteak Raid" during the Siege of Petersburg. With the death of Gen. James Dearing at the Battle of High Bridge (which was fought the same day the Loudoun Rangers surrendered to Mosby), Lige White became the last commanding officer of the Laurel Brigade.
Three days later, he and his men took part in the cavalry's breakout from Appomattox Court House and disbanded rather than surrender.

Steve Meserve
is a historian in Loudoun County, Va.

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