- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

On Wednesday, Aug. 20, 1862, Lt. Milton Rouss, commanding Company B, 12th Virginia Cavalry, received orders to report with his men to Mount Jackson, Va., for picket duty. Not long afterward, his troopers were in the saddle and heading down the Shenandoah Valley from Harrisonburg on what would prove to be one of their most exciting and successful escapades of the war.

Usually referred to by the moniker the Baylor Light Horse, the company consisted mostly of young men from Jefferson County, Va. (later West Virginia), who had grown up together and, after experiencing more than a year of warfare, were expert riders and crack shots.

Many of their Federal opponents, however, considered them no more than road agents and bushwhackers. In fact, one of their own stalwarts, Lt. George Baylor, might have been agreeing with the bluecoats when he later wrote, “Everything but ourselves were branded U.S.”

Spirit of adventure

According to a newspaper article penned by Pvt. Henry D. Beall a few days after they returned to camp, the outfit arrived at its station early the next morning. In a little while, though, a spirit of adventure possessed Rouss, Baylor and Lt. George Roland, and the officers promptly decided to leave some men at Mount Jackson and take 30 others scouting toward the Potomac.

Mounting up and following the Valley Pike, the horsemen reached Woodstock later that day. In his story, the young scribe recalled a most pleasant evening being entertained by “Smiles and sweet notes of music from accomplished ladies … and we left Woodstock at noon on Friday in the best possible spirits — some say under the influence of a variety of spirits.”

Briefly stopping for supper that evening in Strasburg, the riders pressed on, reaching Newtown (Stephens City) around 10 p.m. There, the whole town royally welcomed the young paladins. After partaking of some refreshments, however, Rouss and his troopers promptly mounted up and disappeared into the night.

Soon, the Rebels left the pike and rode east, then northeast, bypassing the small Federal garrison at Winchester commanded by Brig. Gen. Julius White.

Around dawn on Saturday, the men reached a safe hiding place and bedded down in the brush. In the meantime, Rouss finalized his plan to rob the Winchester & Potomac Railroad’s mail train later that day.

Stopping the train

The Winchester & Potomac was a 32-mile-long single-track line that linked Winchester with the B&O; Railroad at Harpers Ferry. Although it was helpful to Virginia’s militia in the capture of Harpers Ferry at the beginning of the war, the Confederates in due course removed its iron rails and shipped them south. However, B&O; afterward sold the company some rail, putting it back in business.

Sometime early that afternoon, the men roused from their slumber and proceeded to a spot on the south side of the track, approximately halfway between Summit Point and Wade’s Depot. Off in the distance, the men heard the sound of the locomotive on its way from Harpers Ferry. Almost instantly, soldiers erected a barricade across the tracks.

The train, consisting of the engine, two old “low-back cars” and a mail car, soon chugged into view. About 100 yards from the obstruction, some of the raiders shouted at the engineer to stop. When the startled man failed to pull the brakes, others tried to persuade him by emptying their revolvers toward the cab.

The train halted when it crashed into the barricade. The Rebels quickly collared the engineer and, boarding the cars, captured eight Yankees on their way to Winchester. They let a few civilian passengers go, but one of the graybacks shot and badly wounded the Adams Express agent in the thigh as he attempted to flee.

Dispatches and letters

When the first Confederates entered the mail car, they spied a cornucopia of fruit consisting of “delicious peaches, apples, pears, oranges, lemons, etc.” After taking bites of the delicacies, the hungry men washed the food down with gulps of captured champagne.

Beall added, “The boys drank to the health of everyone in general, and their sweethearts in particular, and jollity and good cheer reigned supreme.”

Even though the Federals had 80 infantrymen and five cavalrymen stationed at Summit Point and Wade’s Depot — just two miles from each other — the raiders were in no rush and scoured the car to make sure they did not leave behind anything of worth.

Upon opening the Adams Express safe, they discovered $4,000 and “a number of other valuable articles.” Tucked away in the mail pouches were some important dispatches from Maj. Gen. John Pope to White and some civilian letters that sparked the interest of the group.

Pope’s letters later were sent to Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, but the raiders retained the others, “many of which will be valuable as soon as our troops regain entire possession of the Valley,” Beall cryptically remarked.

Making their escape

When the troopers finished ransacking the mail car, it and the two passenger cars were set ablaze. Then came the locomotive’s turn. After heating the boiler to a full head of steam, “ten times hotter than it was wont to be,” they sent the old engine hurtling up the line with no one at the throttle. The Federals later found it stopped dead on the track about three miles from Winchester.

Then it was time to mount up and make their escape. After cutting the telegraph wire, Rouss sent Roland and 13 men back to Mount Jackson with the prisoners. He and Baylor would take the rest of their somewhat tipsy gallants and ride five miles north to Smithfield (Middleway), a familiar place to all and one where they might find adventure or possibly romance.

The small village of Smithfield was guarded that day by a small detachment from the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry.

According to a report written two days later by Union Lt. Robert H. Milling, Capt. Henry A. Cole had ordered him on Aug. 4 to take 20 troopers and proceed to the town. Besides picketing the roads, the young officer was “to arrest all returned rebel soldiers, capture their horses, arms, and to keep all contraband articles from being conveyed to the enemy.”

For nearly three weeks, Milling, deemed by one high-ranking officer as being “trustworthy and attentive,” had performed his duties well. It was his misfortune, however, to be absent from his station, along with three of his men, when the intrepid young chevaliers of the Baylor Light Horse struck.

Caught by surprise

Milling, a sergeant and two other soldiers had accepted an invitation to attend a party a few miles from town, according to Pvt. C. Armour Newcomer. “The lieutenant’s head was turned by the persuasion of a beautiful woman,” Newcomer wrote in his regimental history, “Cole’s Cavalry.”

The graybacks were moving along at a slow trot when they spotted one of Milling’s picket posts about a half-mile from Smithfield. Keeping their same pace, the riders steadily advanced to within 20 yards of the three soldiers before the Yankees realized they were not Union comrades. By that time, it was too late. The Rebels spurred their horses and quickly “gobbled up” the daydreaming bluecoats.

Upon questioning the men, Rouss learned that just 14 Federals defended the town. In an instant, the order to charge rang out, and the 19 Rebels thundered into town, surprising the Marylanders and taking them with only a slight struggle.

Besides the 17 troopers and their horses, saddles, etc. that Rouss’ band captured, they also picked up 20 Colt revolvers, five Sharps carbines and a good number of gum overcoats and blankets.

A tight fix

By this time, news of the train holdup had reached White’s headquarters in Winchester. The brigadier promptly sent 200 cavalrymen out to track down the Rebels, but the former Illinois legislator guessed wrong on the route of their getaway. While his men searched around Berryville, Wade’s Depot and Summit Point, the hard-riding Southerners were making tracks in another direction.

In Bolivar, Cole also began a futile chase to rescue his men. In his Civil War memoir, “Bull Run to Bull Run,” George Baylor recalled that on their way back to Mount Jackson, “we took the route by Bunker Hill to Apple Pie Ridge, crossing the Northwest Grade a few miles west of Winchester.”

“About midnight,” Newcomer remembered, “our captors halted at a farmhouse and placed us prisoners in an outhouse.” The next morning, they continued south at the gallop.

Later that day, the raiders stopped at a farmhouse for something to eat. As the prisoners were taking turns eating soft-boiled eggs from a crock, the farmer’s daughter recognized one of them, an old soldier named Duncan McConnell. Her brother just happened to be one of the raiders, and she told him that McConnell had previously stopped at the house and told her “that he would like to marry such a pretty Rebel girl.”

Then the questioning by the angry brother started. For a time, the old private was in a tight fix. According to Newcomer, McConnell repeatedly “denied ever being in this section of the country, and assured the young man, if he was fortunate enough to get out of this scrape he would never be there again.”

The girl, however, kept insisting that McConnell was the man. A few of the Southerners recommended hanging him, one stating, “It would be a warning to others not to insult their women.” Finally, the scared trooper talked his way out of the sticky predicament.

Once back on the trail, a shaken McConnell confided to his friends that he had made the comment to the girl, but he had “meant no harm.”

Hard-luck Romeo

By Monday morning, Aug. 25, the weary riders of Company B were back in Harrisonburg. Beall, who in the years after the war served for a time as editor of the Baltimore Sun, reckoned that the men had traveled around 175 miles.

Back in the lower valley, Federal authorities were extremely upset with Milling. After reading the officer’s report, Col. D.S. Miles, commanding the post at Harpers Ferry, suggested “his name be stricken from the rolls of the army.”

Milling’s report of the incident and Miles’ conclusion passed up the Army chain of command until reaching the desk of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The secretary agreed with Miles and dismissed the hard-luck Romeo from the service effective Sept. 12, 1862.

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

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