- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

There was a great difference of opinion in the eulogies proffered Capt. Redmond Burke, the famed “Potomac Scout,” after his death in a midnight raid on his Shepherdstown, Va., hideout.

Burke’s commander and friend, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, sadly recalled, “He possessed a heart intrepid, a spirit invincible, a patriotism too lofty to admit a selfish thought, and a conscience that scorned to do a mean thing.”

However, Union Brig. Gen. George H. Gordon, whose soldiers finally killed the wily grayback, branded “Old Burke” a vicious man. Recalling Burke’s notorious deeds, Gordon wrote, “In harrying Union men, whether he robbed them, burned their dwellings, or shot them, he had no equal.”

At the beginning of the war, the recently widowed Burke left his large family for the army, enlisting for a time in the 1st Virginia Infantry. On July 2, 1861, though, he transferred to the 1st Virginia Cavalry.

Like almost everything else about the Irish immigrant, even his age is a mystery. Although the 1860 census lists his age as 44, the one taken 10 years before listed him as being 40.

Whichever number was correct, he was getting well up in years for active cavalry service. But his previous occupations as a miner and C&O; canal stonecutter had hardened his physique and given him the stamina of a much younger man.

Close escape

Many of Burke’s activities early in the war are hard to verify, but in November 1861 it seems he was involved in a legendary incident in his hometown, Shepherdstown.

According to a story found in an old, undated copy of the Shepherdstown Register, Burke secretly met a man named Shepherd Davis and passed along plans of the Washington fortifications. That night a company of Federals crossed the Potomac, searching for the pair.

Once in Virginia, the Federals split up. One group captured Davis, the son-in-law of former U.S. congressman (and future Confederate congressman) Alexander Boteler, at his home Fountain Rock while the other, acting on a tip, surrounded the home of Constable George McGlincey.

While the Yankees were arresting the constable, Burke called on McGlincey’s daughter, Virginia, for help. The girl promptly rescued the scout by taking him to the attic, where he stood on her shoulders and boosted himself up into the rafters.

Later, when the bluecoats started to go upstairs, the seething spitfire defended the passageway with an axe handle and stalled the men just long enough for Burke to thoroughly conceal himself. When the soldiers finally reached the attic, they were unable to find him.

Early praise

Since most of his assignments were cloak and dagger, army stories about Burke’s deeds are also sketchy. In his book “Stringfellow of the Fourth,” R. Shepard Brown recounted some tales that Frank Stringfellow told of his teacher and friend.

Burke took a special liking to the young man, who for a time rode alongside him in Stuart’s escort, especially training Stringfellow for outpost duty and giving him a crucial piece of advice: “A loudmouth doesn’t live long in this business.”

In one of the duo’s early forays between the lines, the trainee heard a whirring sound and, upon turning around, saw a bluecoat slumping to the ground with a knife in his back. About 20 yards behind the dead man, a grinning Burke sat on his horse.

Stuart’s first official praise of Burke comes in his report on the Dec. 20, 1861, Battle of Dranesville. On Feb. 28, 1862, Confederate army commander Gen. Joseph E. Johnston wrote that he sent “Stuart’s man Burke” on a scout and that Burke had just sent a note back to headquarters from Berryville describing conditions around Harpers Ferry and Charlestown.

In later reports, Stuart also commends Burke, now a lieutenant and member of his staff, for his good work in actions in late March and at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5.

Saving Stuart

It was during Stuart’s Chickahominy Raid (June 12-15), though, that Burke’s star reached its zenith. Riding in the vanguard of the column with such intrepid scouts as William Farley, John Mosby and Stringfellow, he participated in the June 13 capture of Tunstall’s Station. But he failed in an attempt to burn a nearby bridge over Black Creek.

The next day, however, he may have saved the “Plumed Knight’s” expedition by hastily supervising the reconstruction of a previously destroyed bridge across the flooded Chickahominy. Using debris from the old bridge and boards torn from a nearby warehouse, the scout built an adequate, though rickety, structure, thereby freeing the trapped graybacks.

In his report, a grateful Stuart wrote, “Lieut. Burke … set to work with a party to construct the bridge. A foot-bridge was soon improvised, and the horses were crossed over as rapidly by swimming. Burke’s work proceeded like magic; in three hours it was ready to bear artillery and cavalry.” Stuart also recommended Burke’s promotion to captain.

Wounds of battle

A few weeks later, in the Seven Days Battles, Capt. Burke again served Stuart well. Later on that summer, however, the Irishman’s luck began to change.

Sometime in early August, while scouting with Stringfellow along the Rappahannock River, a Federal rifleman winged the scout in the left wrist. Soon he was back in action, but on Aug. 20 he went down with a painful leg wound during a vicious cavalry skirmish at Brandy Station.

The German giant, Maj. Heroes von Borcke, later wrote about the aftermath of the bloody clash: “The rest of the day, we were occupied burying the dead and caring for the wounded. I occupied myself chiefly with nursing Captain Redmond Burke of our staff who, while charging gallantly by my side, had received a bullet in the leg.”

The wound kept Burke out of action for the Battle of Second Manassas, the Maryland Campaign, and, the one adventure he probably regretted missing the most, Stuart’s Chambersburg Raid. By mid-October, however, he was back at headquarters, which at this time was located among the stately oaks of the Bower, a plantation along the banks of Opequon Creek in Jefferson County, Va.

Raids into Maryland

On Oct. 20, Stuart placed Burke on “detached service.” Going along with him were his three soldier sons, John Redmond, Polk, and Frank. Others in the small band were Andrew Leopold and Thomas Hipsley, two troopers from the 12th Virginia Cavalry, and a grayback named O’Brien.

For the next month, the riders, based around Shepherdstown, roamed the lower valley crossing at unguarded fords for swift night raids into Maryland or stealing horses from local Unionists.

Watching the Potomac “from the mouth of the Antietam to the mouth of the Opequon Creek,” however, was the infantry brigade of Union Gen. Gordon. Gordon’s command, part of the XII Corps, consisted of his own 2nd Massachusetts regiment, along with the 3rd Wisconsin, 27th Indiana and the 107th New York regiments.

Even though it had been very dry and the river was low at that time, a confident Gordon expected that his battle-tested veterans would be ready to thwart any Rebel incursions into the “Free State.”

Fortunately for Gordon, he also had the cooperation of a large group of Virginia refugees who, fearing conscription, lived in Maryland. Joseph Chapline, their leader, ran a tavern along the canal in Mercersville. From there, he operated a loose network of spies who kept Gordon posted on happenings across the river.

In a letter to a friend, one of Gordon’s staff officers described a peculiar meeting with a few of these strange characters in the upper room of the tavern, calling it “a scene worthy of a novel.”

A confusing fight

About 10 a.m. on Nov. 19, a Virginian named Jim Dunn, his father, and five other men were getting ready to pole a scow, holding Dunn’s possessions and family, across the Potomac near the C&O Canal guard lock four. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Burke and his scouts appeared and captured the five helpers.

In the confusion, Dunn jumped in a skiff and, ducking bullets, furiously paddled over to Maryland to get help. At the same time, the captain took his reluctant new conscripts about 300 yards to the rear and gave them to Polk. He and the rest of the men then hid in the woods.

Dunn’s father waited a while before crossing in another skiff to look for his son. Unable to locate Jim, he saw three refugees walking up the canal and asked for their help. The men, William Colbert, Mortimer Cookus and Charles Ridenour, agreed to lend a hand, and before long Ridenour and the elder Dunn were boarding the scow while the other two men sat in the boat. Then, just as they were pushing off from the bank, the Confederate Leopold, followed by Burke and Hipsley, shouted for them to halt.

Three of the men meekly surrendered, but Cookus pulled out a pocket pistol and took a wild shot at the graybacks. Burke and Leopold returned fire, hitting Cookus in the side. Flopping out of the skiff, the 46-year-old began swimming toward Maryland.

Hearing his cries for help, two pickets from the 27th Indiana opened fire on the Confederates, causing Burke to shout, “If you kill one of my men, I’ll kill every [man] here. I have got prisoners.” Then, grabbing Colbert, the Confederates ran for cover.

A few minutes later, the three Confederate scouts reappeared. Leopold, ignoring Burke’s shout to leave the swimming man alone, took careful aim with his carbine and shot Cookus in the head. By this time, however, some troopers from the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry had joined the fray, causing the outgunned Confederates to flee.

Stealthy attack

News of Cookus’ untimely end spread like wildfire along the canal. Not long afterward, the evacuees met with Chapline and they decided that 50 of them would go after Burke’s gang. When the tavern keeper presented the plan to Col. Silas Colsgrove, now commanding the brigade in Gordon’s absence, he vetoed the idea. Instead, with the Virginian’s help, the Army would handle the matter.

In a few days, using information supplied by Chapline’s spies and William Colbert, who had since escaped Burke’s men, the Federals prepared to launch a nighttime raid on Shepherdstown. Capt. William Cogswell of the 2nd Massachusetts commanded the force, which included 60 picked men from the regiment, some local guides, and staff officer Capt. Henry Scott.

At 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 24, the Yankees began crossing the Potomac about one mile above Shepherdstown in eight-man relays. Once in Virginia, Cogswell started his men on a cross-country hike toward the home of Burke’s mother, Betty. Reaching their destination around midnight, the men stopped in sight of the unguarded, well-lit house.

End of the line

In a Nov. 28 letter, Sgt. Henry Newton Comry described what happened next: “A squad of men filed around to the back of the house. … I was with the squad facing the front. We had hardly reached our positions when someone made a rush for the horse that was saddled. Halt! Halt! our Captain shouted, but he would not stop. Bang, Bang, the reports of the rifles rang out sharply in the dark, and the notorious guerrilla chief Redmond Burke was dead.”

After the shots, other soldiers rushed into the house, capturing five men whose only resistance was a fusillade of profanity. Then, after searching the scout’s still-warm body and finding orders from Stuart among his effects, Cogswell returned to headquarters at Sharpsburg with his prisoners.

The next day, the Federals made a sweep through the town, arresting Daniel Rentch, the so-called “Confederate Postmaster of Shepherdstown,” and confiscating a few weapons.

The townspeople took the corpse of their hero and buried it in the new Southern Soldiers Cemetery — later Elmwood. Stuart planned to erect a monument over Burke’s grave, but his own death later in the war prevented this.

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

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