- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

It was not the scene of any important battles during the Civil War, but to students of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s controversial Romney campaign, Morgan County, Va. (now West Virginia), has a special place in the annals of the conflict.

On the bitterly cold evening of Jan. 2, 1862, the few residents of Unger’s Store, Va., were amazed at the number of Confederates in and around the small hamlet.

About one-half mile to the west, thousands of half-frozen, hungry graybacks were settling into camps along the Morgan-Frederick turnpike at Unger’s Crossroads, anxiously waiting for the supply train to catch up. Meanwhile, a few hundred militiamen, just in with Gen. James H. Carson from Martinsburg, put up tents in the fields along the Romney Grade. In addition, the celebrated Stonewall himself had established temporary headquarters of his Valley army in a run-down cabin on the grounds of Oakleigh, the mansion of Washington Unger.

Jackson’s forces numbered about 8,500 men. Most had started marching from Winchester the day before as part of “Old Jack’s” scheme to clear Bath (Berkeley Springs) of Federals before pushing on to destroy B&O Railroad bridges and track along the Potomac. Then he planned to march back across the mountains to strike the Federal force at Romney.

Later that night, the first flare-up between Jackson and his headstrong subordinate Brig. Gen. William W. Loring occurred. Not long before, the War Department had transferred a reluctant Loring and three brigades of his Army of the Northwest north from Valley Mountain to reinforce Jackson at Winchester.

Difficulties with Jackson arose when Loring allowed his men to camp a few miles south of the crossroads. About the time the men began to get warm around their fires, a staff officer from headquarters arrived with a message to bring his men up. At first, Loring vigorously protested the order, but he finally relented and got the soldiers moving.

Skirmish with pickets

The air was frigid the next morning as the column moved out toward Bath, 16 miles away. Just north of Oakland, two contingents of militia under Carson and Gen. Gilbert S. Meem turned west on the Old Bath Road. Following that rugged byway, they eventually would march down Cold Run Valley and, if all went according to plan, bag Federal units fleeing westward over Warm Springs Ridge when Jackson attacked the town.

After advancing eight miles, Meem’s troops started skirmishing with Yankee pickets. When the bluecoats fell back, the column plodded on, marching another five miles before running into them again. In a letter to his wife, Dr. Abram S. Miller recalled, “That was about 6 o’clock. They fired and went off, and we advanced again until the road was blockaded by Yankees chopping trees across it. We halted, and it commenced snowing.”

In the meantime, the rest of the army’s march down the pike toward Bath continued. Many sick soldiers fell out along the way, and roadside houses and churches suddenly became hospitals.

A diarist in the 4th Virginia Infantry described the dismal conditions that Friday: “The air was stinging cold all day … and we crossed the creek some 10 or 12 times. About dark, snow began to fall and a bad night appeared to be before us.”

Heavily engaged

Ahead of the Rebels, two infantry regiments, the 39th Illinois and the 84th Pennsylvania, totaling about 1,400 men, defended the old resort town. Throughout the day, rumors of the Southern advance reached the Unionists, and around 3 p.m., Maj. O.L. Mann of the 84th Pennsylvania ordered Capt. Samuel Linton to take his company “and scout in the direction of the enemy.”

After dispatching 10 men to reconnoiter the west side of Warm Springs Ridge, Linton marched on. Before long, he ran into some Rebel horsemen who, upon being shot at, quickly galloped off. Then, sending squads off to his right and left, the captain stayed on course until spotting the outriders again. The graybacks quickly fired off some signal shots to alert their friends.

About this time, Mann arrived with seven other men on horseback and told all to follow him. Soon, the enemy foot soldiers appeared. The Yankees swiftly took cover behind a fence that ran up over a hill, and the fight commenced. Linton wrote, “By thus keeping up a steady and well-directed fire, we forced the enemy to remain in the woods until we had reached the summit of the hill.”

Across the road, soldiers of Company F, 21st Virginia Infantry, were blasting away at the Pennsylvanians. Pvt. John Worsham remembered, “We were deployed as skirmishers and ordered forward through a woods, halting on its edge, behind a fence. There we became heavily engaged with the enemy, and kept up a fire until it was too dark to see.”

For all the shooting, the fight did not amount to much — just 11 casualties on the Federal side and one Rebel killed and three wounded. Jackson was upset, however, that Col. William Gilham, his old teaching colleague from the Virginia Military Institute, had not immediately pushed the Yankees aside. Jackson soon encountered Loring, Gilham’s commander, and vociferously complained of the lost opportunity to reach Bath before dark.

Yankee retreat

It snowed about three inches that night. Along the pike, an artilleryman remembered, “We used the planks lying around the saw-mill to shelter us … and spent a most uncomfortable night.” Over in Cold Run Valley, diarist Jacob Lemley wrote, ” Commenced snowing this evening and made it very disagreeable laying out.”

In the meantime, some 10 miles east of Bath, Col. Turner Ashby, Jackson’s cavalry chief, and his regiment were camped in the pines around Johnson’s Crossroads along the Warm Springs road “under the peltings of a most pitiless storm of hail and snow.”

On his way to join Jackson, Ashby had left Dam. No 5 that morning and taken most of the day to cover 15 miles.

On the morning of Jan. 4, Gilham’s brigade crept toward Bath. Eventually, long-range sniping caused him to stop altogether. That afternoon, a frustrated Jackson confronted Loring and ordered him to dispatch a regiment to sweep Federal riflemen off Warm Springs Ridge. Not long afterward, other units of Loring’s force fanned out across the narrow valley and started advancing toward the town.

Now, facing overwhelming numbers, the Yankees started to retreat. In the meantime, however, part of Jackson’s cavalry, followed by their intrepid leader, galloped into town. “Though I followed after the cavalry and entered the town in advance of the skirmishers,” Jackson later reported, “yet both the enemy’s infantry and artillery were out of sight.”

As Ashby’s men coming in from the east joined in, the chase after Yankee cavalry and artillery continued north toward Hancock, while most of the Federal infantry marched to the top of Warm Springs Ridge and made tracks down the other side for Sir John’s Run. Once there, the just-arrived 13th Indiana got back on its train and headed west to Great Cacapon, while the others crossed the Potomac and followed the canal towpath east to Hancock.

Slowed by snow

Had Jackson’s plan worked and the militia reached its intended position, he would have captured most of the Federals. However, the snow and persistent Yankee skirmishers slowed the citizen-soldiers too much. As it was, Jackson, who had dashed up the ridge pursuing the bluecoats, hurried Gilham toward Sir John’s Run and ordered Col. Albert Rust to march west and destroy the B&O bridge at Great Cacapon.

Jackson returned to Bath but later rode toward Hancock. On the way, he met some troopers coming back. He promptly turned them around and headed for the Potomac. Upon reaching the heights overlooking the town, however, some of the riders ran into a trap.

Pvt. Harry Gilmor, one of Ashby’s men, recalled, “We followed them to the river bluffs, where we ran into an ambuscade of infantry, which opened fire on us from both sides of the road. … Horses and men were rolling in the road covered with a sheet of ice, and officers were shouting trying to preserve order.” Intermittent skirmishing and cannon fire continued past midnight.

The next morning, Loring marched to Great Cacapon to help Rust, whose troops had fought a sharp skirmish the night before, finish the job of destroying the bridge. Jackson also dispatched Col. W.A. Forbes and some pioneers two miles upriver from Hancock — in the vicinity of Grasshopper Hollow — to build a bridge.

Artillery duel

Not long after 10 a.m., Ashby started to Hancock under a flag of truce. After crossing the river, he was met by a Union officer who blindfolded him and marched the Virginian to the headquarters of post commander Brig. Gen. Frederick W. Lander.

Jackson’s message to Lander demanded the surrender of the town within two hours or the Confederates would shell Hancock. After reading the note, the former Western explorer, acknowledging the pro-Southern sympathies of many of the town’s residents said, “Colonel Ashby, give my compliments to General Jackson and tell him to bombard and be damned. If he opens his batteries on this town, he will injure more of his friends than the enemy.”

When Ashby returned to headquarters, he handed Jackson a written reply containing a more polite refusal from Lander. Then, at the appointed time, the Rebel cannons crowning the steep ridge above Alpine Depot opened up. Federal artillery posted near two hillside churches barked their replies.

In Hancock, merchant James R. Smith wrote of the Sunday artillery duel, “At one o’clock they came cannonading, but we silenced them before night. About 100 shots were exchanged.” Confederate gunner George Neese commented that during the cannonading, he spotted an odd sight: a company of cavalry, with sabers drawn, near a church. He wrote, “I suppose they were ready to charge the whole of Dixie Land, and would have done it if it had not been that the river was in the way.”

Splendid shooting

That night, it snowed another five inches. Monday morning, the cannonading soon resumed, and many soldiers stood along the bluffs watching the show. Dr. Miller noted that the men had plenty to eat, and “Very few of them are complaining.” He added an ominous observation, however: “The roads are getting very slippery.”

Throughout the day, the accurate fire of the Federal artillery impressed Lt. James H. Williams. “The enemy shelled us out of our encampment,” he wrote. “Did splendid shooting, came near hitting me several times.”

Toward evening, Jackson, suspecting that reinforcements were by then well on their way to Lander, called back Forbes and prepared to retreat. On the plus side, the Cacapon Bridge and long stretches of the track and telegraph line were out of commission. In addition, during the night, a number of soldiers had braved sniper fire from across the river to outfit themselves from the Yankee supply cache at the depot.

Icy roads

Although the bad weather of the past week had constantly annoyed the Confederates, the conditions they encountered the next two days on their march back to Unger’s Store proved to be almost unbearable for man and beast alike.

According to a member of the Rockbridge Artillery, the supply train led the column as it made its way south. Before long, the snow covering the road was so tightly packed that the road became a glitter of ice. The horses, not being ice-shod, could hardly stand up.

Descending some of the steep hills was especially dangerous. “There were many times when all of the horses would fall as they began to descend a hill,” the artilleryman remembered, “and the weight of the gun, or caisson, would push them in a heap to the foot.”

Travel was no better for the infantry. A Tennessean in one of Loring’s brigades wrote, “The roads so slick that we can scarcely get along. A great many, fall and hurt themselves.” Lt. Henry Kyd Douglas recalled, “The soldiers laughed and swore and compared the trip to those of Hannibal and Napoleon.”

Freezing backs

The march continued into the night, but soon the bitter cold caused many units to stop far short of the crossroads to search for shelter and fence rails to start fires. The Rockbridge scribe wrote, “The cold was estimated at twenty to forty degrees below zero. Sleep was impossible, but men sat around the fires nodding, faces begrimed with smoke, and with freezing backs.”

The retreat continued the next morning, and by the evening of Jan. 8, about all of the Confederates had reached the vicinity of Unger’s Store. They remained camped there in the cold, snowy weather for the next four days.

By the time the army marched for Romney on the 13th, the soldiers were disgusted with the 11 miserable days they had spent in Morgan County. As Pvt. Sam Watkins later wrote of those times, “The storm king seemed to rule in all his majesty and power.”

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

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