- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

"Martinsburg will not be surrendered. You may commence shelling as soon as you choose." That was the defiant response of Col. Benjamin F. Smith to Confederate Brig. Gen. Alfred G. Jenkins on the afternoon of June 14, 1863.
The Confederate cavalry general was aware, however, that his weary troopers from southwestern Virginia stood little chance of forcing the Yankees off the heights east of the town. Nevertheless, if he could hold them in position, Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes and his 9,000-man division would soon be up and steamroll the hapless Northerners.
Martinsburg, which was in Virginia but was soon to be part of the new state of West Virginia, was a town of about 3,500 residents of divided loyalties. The town, known as "The Gateway to the Shenandoah Valley," also was known throughout the Old Dominion as the home of the spy Belle Boyd and of one of the finest companies in the 2nd Virginia Infantry. Some of its Unionist residents and railroad workers were still smarting over the destruction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad shops by Stonewall Jackson in October 1862.
During the first two years of the war, the town had changed hands a number of times, but the Rebels seldom stayed long. The Yankees usually garrisoned the place in their efforts to keep the vital railroad up and running.
According to Union Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler, Col. Smith got word of the Rebel approach along the Winchester Pike about 8 a.m. Tyler, who had been sent at midnight by Maj. Gen. Robert Schenck on a special train from Baltimore to take command of the post, watched as Smith began forming his 1,200 bluecoats into line. Since the action was about to start, the general declined to take over.
Smith's force mostly consisted of his own 126th Ohio Infantry and the 106th New York Infantry under Col. Edward James. A six-gun West Virginia battery commanded by Capt. Thomas Maulsby gave Smith's railroad guards some added firepower, and a few companies of cavalry provided reconnaissance.
By 10 a.m., the colonel had his two regiments about one mile south of Martinsburg, covering the Winchester and Charlestown roads, with Maulsby's cannons in between. Smith, like his Confederate counterpart, wanted to buy time, but in this case it was to allow his baggage train and another that had escaped Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell's attack on a Union force at Winchester to make it to safety at Williamsport, Md.
Skirmishing started about 11 a.m. that Sunday and continued sporadically throughout midafternoon before Smith ordered a retreat to the heights of Union Hill. From there, the green soldiers nervously watched the Confederate buildup for the next few hours.
Years later, Pvt. Josephus B. Scott of the 106th New York recalled: "Clouds of dust down the valley indicated a big force of Johnnies coming our way and we could distinctly hear the Rebel yell as the victorious force pushed forward." In a letter home, Pvt. Henry Gaddis, another New Yorker, wrote, "We could see them as thick as hair on a dog."
Rodes reached the field ahead of his infantry and quickly went about making his dispositions for the attack and sending some of Jenkins' cavalry northwest of town to cut off any Union retreat to Hedgesville or Williamsport. Two days before, he had met with his corps commander, Gen. Ewell, at Cedarville and been ordered to capture the Union posts at Berryville which he did on June 13 and then Martinsburg. Meanwhile, Ewell would be attacking Gen. Robert H. Milroy's Union force at Winchester with his two remaining divisions.
Toward evening, Rodes' Rebels, having marched about 19 miles that hot, humid day, began arriving. By sundown, Rodes' artillery chief, Lt. Col. Thomas Carter, had his guns in position to shell Union Hill from three different directions. Four brigades of infantry, preceded by Jenkins' skirmishers and some Alabama sharpshooters, were set to sweep into Martinsburg after the bombardment.
Meanwhile, over on Union Hill, Smith had just received word from a courier that his wagons had made it to Williamsport. He promptly gave the order for his own regiment to pull back a short distance to the Green Hill Cemetery and then march toward Shepherdstown.
The colonel also dispatched a messenger to notify James, but, probably forgetting about the West Virginians, he failed to notify Maulsby's guns of the retreat. As the Ohioans were moving out, the Confederate cannoneers unleashed a terrific barrage, completely catching the 106th New York by surprise. James, however, quickly settled his men and followed Smith from the field.
Tyler was just below the brow of Union Hill at this time with Maulsby and four of his guns plus a few companies of infantry supports from the 106th. After braving the furious iron storm for about 20 minutes, Tyler finally ordered the captain "to throw a half dozen shots from each of his guns as rapidly as possible and then to limber up and follow the infantry." Unfortunately, the general didn't tell the artilleryman which road to take, and he thought the infantry was retreating north toward Williamsport.
Tyler, now vainly searching everywhere for Smith, galloped down Union Hill and toward the cemetery, where he could see the New Yorkers drawn up in line of battle. In the gully between the two hills, he noticed an overturned artillery piece evidently left behind by Lt. John S.S. Herr, whose two guns had been previously detached by Maulsby to defend Martinsburg's western approaches. Herr had followed Smith when he left the field. Reaching the top of Green Hill, Tyler told James that he was taking command and to continue following Smith to Shepherdstown.
By this time, some of the Confederate horsemen were already in Martinsburg, battling Union cavalrymen for control of the streets and the Williamsport Pike. Maulsby and his men tried cutting their way through the close combat but ended up abandoning their guns and scattering after the captain was seriously wounded.
On the southern edge of town, Rebel foot soldiers were streaming across the fields of former Stonewall Jackson aide Charles J. Faulkner's plantation and past his magnificent house, "Boydville." Maj. Charles Blacknell of the 23rd North Carolina Infantry remembered: "There was such confusion & terror & running to & fro by the Yankees & citizens that I never before witnessed."
After the skirmish, some graybacks continued chasing Unionists down the Shepherdstown Road while others rushed to the rail yards to put out a fire set by the fleeing troops. Most, though, spent their time eating food thrust into their hands by grateful "secesh" or rooting out Yankees hiding in the houses of Northern friends.
As the Confederates struggled to round up the last of the elusive Yanks, they began to stir up feminine wrath: Some of Martinsburg's loyalist belles were determined to help their beaus escape. A soldier-correspondent for the North Carolina Standard wrote, "One young lady, whose Yankee sweetheart had tarried late actually struck me in madness when I espied him."
Smith's precautionary measure a few days before, of sending most of his supplies by rail to Harpers Ferry, paid off. When Rodes and his quartermasters tallied up the captured goods, the total included Maulsby's five guns, 400 rounds of rifled artillery rounds, and miscellaneous commissary goods and small arms. A good haul, considering that they had only lost a handful of men. But the Rebels had expected a lot more.
They stayed in Martinsburg that night before marching to Williamsport the next day, where they rested a few days until moving on to Hagerstown and subsequently receiving orders from Ewell to invade Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, the tired Yankees kept plodding on throughout the night, fording the Potomac just below Shepherdstown at midnight. Following the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the exhausted soldiers arrived in Harpers Ferry the next morning. They, like the Confederates, lost few killed or wounded, but 150 of Smith's men had been captured.
Later that summer, a court of inquiry examined the defense and evacuation of Martinsburg.
In his review of the court record, Judge Advocate Joseph Holt sternly chastised Tyler for causing confusion by not taking command upon arrival and for not telling Maulsby which road to take. Although he praised Smith for skillfully handling his force throughout the day, Holt criticized him for his actions in the evening, writing that "he withdrew from the field too abruptly, and without giving proper attention to a part of his command the final orders for retreat."
Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table.


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