- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

A wagon train may have been responsible for the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia at the battle of Gettysburg.

Early in the predawn darkness of Sunday, June 28, 1863, advance units of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Virginia cavalry, commanded by Gen. Wade Hampton, approached the Potomac River at Rowser’s Ford, some 20 miles above Washington. The river was 2 feet higher than normal that morning. To avoid wetting their ammunition, cartridge boxes were unpacked, and Hampton’s horsemen carried the ammunition above the high water. They forded the river, dragging three cannons with them, and advanced into Maryland. Their eventual destination, along with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, was Pennsylvania.

Their immediate goal, however, was Rockville, a rural hamlet with a population of 365. The cavalry had been assigned to scout Union positions as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Union territory for the second time.

The loyalties of Rockville residents in 1863 were divided, with a majority favoring the South. Lawrence Dawson, for instance, was a Unionist and former Maryland legislator who practiced law in Rockville and owned the Rocky Glen farm on Rockville Pike, south of town, while his three brothers fought for the South. Dawson’s wife, Mary, also was a strong Unionist. His 9-year-old daughter, Mollie, was scorned by her classmates at school for her parent’s Unionist sympathies.

Dawson was targeted for capture by Stuart’s cavalrymen.

On the Maryland side, Hampton’s horsemen almost immediately encountered the C&O; Canal, a vital coal-transportation waterway. The canal could be crossed only by bridging the canal lock, a tedious process, but Stuart’s troops waited patiently, captured 40 canal boats and turned them sideways — gangplanks down — permitting the Confederate force to cross.

After filling their haversacks with captured Union rations, Stuart’s troops set off for Rockville. Hampton’s brigade arrived first and chased a contingent of Union cavalry out of town. They had traveled along Darnestown Road, while the brigades of John Chambliss and Fitzhugh Lee moved east along River Road, through present-day Potomac, then north along Falls Road into Rockville, where they met Hampton’s brigade at about 10 a.m.

The Confederate horsemen were greeted boisterously by the teenage girls of the Rockville Female Seminary, which sat at the corner of Commerce Lane (present-day East Montgomery Avenue) and Washington Street. For $140 tuition and board, these young women received a strict Christian education — but for a few brief minutes on that Sunday morning, which many would not forget, Stuart’s cavalrymen occupied their attention. John Esten Cooke, one of Stuart’s troopers and author of “Wearing of the Gray: Being Personal Portraits, Scenes, and Adventures of the War,” described their reception:

“The present writer … came suddenly upon a spectacle which was truly pleasing. This was a seminary for young ladies, with open windows, open doors — and doors and windows were full and running over with the fairest specimens of the gentler sex that eye ever beheld. It was Sunday, and the beautiful girls in their fresh gaily coloured dresses, low necks, bare arms, and wildernesses of braids and curls, were ‘off duty’ for the moment, and burning with enthusiasm to welcome the Southerner; for Rockville, in radical parlance, was a ‘vile secesh hole.’”

Cooke and his comrades did not stay long. As the seminary girls were cutting buttons off their uniforms for souvenirs, news arrived of a long Union wagon train coming up Rockville Pike, destination Frederick. The train was at least 150 wagons long, each drawn by six mules, and they had left Washington about 7:30 a.m. laden with provisions for Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Union leadership ignored a warning that Rockville was occupied by Confederate cavalry, and the train continued up the pike. It was met at about 12:30 p.m. by troops of Chambliss’ and Lee’s brigades.

“Such a train we had never seen before … bread, crackers, bacon, sugar, hams,” commented Col. R.L.T. Beale of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Lt. Thomas Lee and four others routed the train’s guards and caught the fleeing rear wagons within sight of Washington’s defenses. The teamsters were unarmed, and the train’s commander — a Capt. Page — galloped over a fence and escaped amid a hail of Confederate fire. Stuart’s troopers captured 125 wagons, and burned the rest. Four teamsters were killed. The long wagon train, which at first seemed a blessing, proved instead to be a grave hindrance.

Meanwhile, Stuart had found several prominent Rockville Unionists, including Dawson. A number of these Federal loyalists were arrested in the vestry room of the Christ Episcopal Church on Washington Street. Among them were town commissioner John Higgins, a merchant and husband of “Dora” Higgins; Richard Johns Bowie, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals and Rockville’s most prominent resident; Thomas Bailey, postmaster of Rockville; and Provost Marshal Mortimer Moulden. Moulden’s position, “civilian provost marshal,” was created by a special act of the War Department to report on suspicious “secesh” activity in Montgomery County.

Stuart also captured Capt. John T. Vinson at the church, and Richard M. Williams. Vinson was a vestryman, and his home once stood on the site of the present Rockville Public Library.

Stuart briefly considered attacking Washington’s outer defenses, but with evening approaching, he gave marching orders to Hampton, Lee and Chambliss, and the Confederates left Rockville sometime after 4 p.m. They rode up Baltimore Road toward present-day Georgia Avenue, there turning northwest, and rode toward Mechanicsville, present-day Olney. They were accompanied by the 125 captured wagons and the arrested Unionists.

Marching with Stuart was an arduous and unpleasant experience for the captured Unionists. Vinson was probably released after a few miles, and Bowie was paroled in Brookeville, but Higgins, Moulden, Bailey and a 17-year-old Union soldier named Eblen were forced to march to Claggetsville, about 70 miles north of Rockville in Carroll County. Moulden and Bailey were offered their freedom, unconditionally, at Brookeville, but they refused to leave Eblen, fearing that he would be shot. The prisoners were not fed, and Moulden and Bailey kept Eblen from fainting. After being released in Claggetsville, Moulden, Bailey and Eblen came upon 300 black prisoners, who were shot at and slashed with sabers for drinking from streams.

Stuart’s cavalry continued its slow progress northward, weighed down by the long wagon train. They spent the night of June 28 at Cooksville, 20 miles west of Baltimore. After an engagement with Union cavalry at Westminster the next day, they finally crossed into Pennsylvania on June 30. At Hanover, they engaged Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s Union cavalry. Stuart’s troops beat back Kilpatrick’s force, but the battle and the presence of the wagon train delayed the famed cavalryman’s progress.

After fighting another battle at Carlisle on July 1, engaging units of the Pennsylvania militia, Stuart finally sent his aide Andrew Reid Venable in search of Lee. Venable found Lee about 12 hours later, 33 miles southwest at Gettysburg.

Stuart’s troops and animals, however, were now exhausted and hungry, and the troops were low on ammunition. When his horsemen finally got to Gettysburg, they proved ineffective against George Custer’s cavalry. The wagon train captured at Rockville clearly played a role in Stuart’s failure in reconnaissance in the Gettysburg campaign — in effect leaving Lee “blind” as the Army of Northern Virginia moved toward Gettysburg.

Steven Bernstein is a writer who lives in Montgomery County.

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