- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

On the morning of Oct. 10, 1862, Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and about 1,500 troopers slipped through the Union lines headed for Pennsylvania.

Crossing the Potomac River just upstream from McCoy’s Ferry, Stuart proceeded to ride unscathed through Maryland and the Keystone State for the next few days, collecting horses, hostages and assorted military goods.

No doubt, most of Stuart’s success on the Chambersburg raid came from his skillful leadership and the ineptness of his Federal pursuers. It is possible, however, that a previous upper-Potomac foray against Union forces guarding the B&O; Railroad had created just enough confusion among the bluecoats to give the great cavalier the edge he needed.

On Sept. 27, Col. John D. Imboden had notified Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson that he would “attempt the destruction of the bridge over the Little Cacapon early next week.” The former artillery captain led the 1st Virginia Partisan Rangers, a 900-man outfit that he had organized the previous spring and summer.

Many of the soldiers came from home counties occupied by Union forces. Imboden had attracted scores of recruits to his banner by circulating a bloodcurdling broadside that declared, “It is only men I want, men who will pull the trigger on a Yankee with as much alacrity as they would on a mad dog.”

‘Land pirates’

On the afternoon of Oct. 2, most of the raiders left their secluded camp at Capon Bridge and marched northwest toward Bloomery Gap and the road over Spring Gap Mountain to Little Cacapon in Hampshire County, W.Va. About 100 soldiers, under Lt. Henderson Stone, remained at the camp while a detachment of horsemen rode west toward Romney.

Although most of these “land pirates” were perhaps not keen on risking their hides to destroy a bridge, they probably were looking forward to a big share of some Yankee loot, which Richmond allowed because of their status as partisans.

That same day, Companies B and F of the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry rode south from Springfield toward Romney to scout the countryside for Rebels.

Commanded by Capt. Jenyns Battersby, the riders continued through Romney on past Burnt Mills. There Battersby split the command, giving half of it to Lt. Eugene Lewis and instructing Lewis to scout a road to the left while he traveled the pike.

Not long afterward, Lewis returned to Romney. Just after his men unsaddled their horses, he heard a commotion and, upon looking up, saw Battersby’s men galloping back into town. Learning that Southerners were on the way, the lieutenant ordered his men to saddle up and make haste for Springfield.

When the chase finally was over, Capt. John H. McNeill’s company had captured Battersby and five troopers, 14 horses, and arms and equipment. The crestfallen captain and his men were promptly marched to Winchester.

Hidden by fog

Since March 1862, the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry had been guarding a 56-mile stretch of the B&O from Back Creek Bridge to the iron bridge over the South Branch of the Potomac.

From his headquarters at Sir John’s Run, Col. Jacob M. Campbell kept in contact by telegraph with his various companies posted at vital spots along the line. Company K guarded the bridge across the Little Cacapon while, three miles to the east, Company B defended Paw Paw tunnel.

Around 6 a.m. on Oct. 4, Imboden’s men, under cover of a heavy fog, silently crept through a long field toward the camp of Company K (coincidentally, in the same locale where detachments of Gen. Edward Braddock’s British regulars camped in 1755, before crossing the Potomac on their ill-starred march to Fort Duquesne).

Then, just as Capt. Edmund R. Newhard was calling the roll, the first wave of graybacks burst through the unguarded entrenchments. After a brief skirmish, Newhard surrendered. More than 30 Unionists, however, escaped.

A surgeon’s warning

At Paw Paw, assistant surgeon Andrew Matthews recalled being seated in front of his tent “when my ear was accosted with three volleys of rifle-shot.” Matthews immediately recommended that a squad be sent to investigate, but after Lt. Henry Baer halfheartedly said, “There might be a strong force,” the bold physician swiftly called upon his servant to saddle his mare. Then he galloped off, following the railroad to a straight stretch of track within 400 yards of the camp.

“From this point,” he wrote, “I could see the smoke from the burning bridge and camp, which were both on fire.” Wanting to get a better look, Matthews forded the Potomac and rode along the C&O Canal towpath before halting directly across from the camp.

Suddenly, a soldier came crashing through the brush. Matthews stopped the scared man, who told him that about 500 Southerners had captured the company.

While the doctor raced back to warn company commander Capt. John Hite, Imboden detached a substantial number of men to guard the 57 prisoners, plus seven wounded, and began preparing to march to Paw Paw with “only about 80 to 100 cavalry and about 150 to 200 infantry.” When Matthews arrived, he informed the captain of Company K’s situation and then rode off to the top of a ridge overlooking the company’s defensive position.

Not only had the surgeon alerted the camp, but two soldiers, Pvts. Henry Schneider and Edward Ackerman, had scouted ahead and reported that Imboden was on the way. With this, Hite ordered the soldiers to get into ranks. Pvt. John Spangler later recalled the officer shouting, “Boys, will you retreat or fight?” A thunderous “Fight” sprang from the throats of the eager soldiers. Hite then ordered his men into the rifle pit.

Bewildered troops

Hite’s command numbered 89 soldiers and two other officers, Lts. John Cole and Baer. Spangler remembered the captain encouraging the men, saying, “Boys, if you fire, take good aim for the head.” The soldiers were in high spirits. The company had an excellent defensive position, and each man had at least 110 rounds of ammunition. Spangler also added, “We had plenty of water and hard bread.”

About three hours later, Imboden’s infantry arrived. The men marched down a hill and across an open field, stopping between 400 yards from the rifle pit.

Before long, his cavalry appeared off to the right, about a half-mile away. Soon, a lone rider carrying a flag of truce cantered in. Hite and the two other officers promptly went off with the man to meet Imboden about halfway between the lines. After a short conference, they returned.

Spangler remembered Hite then saying, ” Boys, get out of the pits now.”

As the bewildered soldiers were filing out and stacking their arms, surgeon Matthews pondered the curious scene. Then, recalling a previous talk he had had with Hite, a known Lincoln critic, he wrote, “I was led to believe that he would not fight if attacked.”

Plunder and retreat

For Imboden, the day had been a great success; not only capturing most of the two companies, 175 Austrian rifles and 8,000 rounds of ammunition, but also severing the B&O at Little Cacapon and cutting the telegraph line. As his men plundered the Federal camp, scouts reported Yankees coming by train from the east. Satisfied with his day’s work and not willing to risk another engagement, the colonel set fire to the camp and retreated toward Capon Bridge.

Although Imboden didn’t know it, just 20 or so Federals were on their way to Paw Paw. Earlier, Campbell had become concerned when the telegraph had gone dead, and he promptly had put some soldiers on a locomotive at Sir John’s Run and headed west to check the line.

About five miles from Paw Paw, Campbell found out about the attacks. He decided to pick up two other 30-man detachments, one at Water Station No. 12 (Magnolia) and another at Orleans, and take them back with him before the Rebels could gobble them up.

Brief melee

Although safe in that quarter, Imboden still faced danger elsewhere. On Oct. 3, Capt. William Boyd led six companies of the 1st New York Cavalry out from Springfield to find the “wily guerrilla’s” trail. The next day, a patrol led by Sgt. E.C. Watkins spotted three graybacks atop a ridge. After the Rebels shot at the scouts, the 16 New Yorkers chased them and some nearby compatriots over the crest.

Alerted by the gunfire, a large Union detachment commanded by Capt. Ezra H. Bailey galloped up and joined the chase. Racing down the mountain road at breakneck speed, the bluecoats soon were closing in on the Rebels. Straight ahead, a covered bridge spanned the Cacapon River. Across the narrow stream lay Imboden’s camp.

Sgt. William Beach described what happened next: “Everyman was striving to be foremost … they all rushed at the top of their speed through the bridge, that swayed and rocked till it seemed as it would go down under them.”

On the other side, Confederate gunners were all set to sweep the pike with two mountain howitzers, but their own men were pursued so closely that they held their fire. The New Yorkers rode over and past them.

After a brief melee in which a good number of the mostly unarmed Southerners fled to the woods on Bear Garden Mountain, Bailey tallied up his conquest. Besides inflicting more than 30 casualties on the enemy, the New Yorkers had gathered “a dozen wagons loaded with supplies … many horses and mules, and the two guns.”

A short time later, Capt. Boyd arrived, and the battalion rode west following the Northwestern Turnpike toward Romney. Soon a number of the raiders arrived back in camp and rapidly took up the chase. Imboden later claimed they caught up with Jones and recaptured most of what had been lost. However, an Oct. 5 telegraph telling of Boyd’s success — sent by Col. Andrew T. McReynolds to Gen. George B. McClellan’s headquarters — does not mention this.

Political showdown

On Oct. 6, Robert E. Lee congratulated Imboden on a successful expedition, writing, “The results accomplished, and the judicious arrangements which enabled you to effect them without loss of life on your part, are deserving of high commendation.”

Three days later, while Stuart was riding toward Hedgesville and McCoy’s Ferry, Campbell reported that soldiers from Company A had worked all day on Oct. 5 to repair the telegraph line, adding: “The railroad bridge at Little Cacapon has been repaired and trains will run today.”

But the story does not end there. On Oct. 11, the prisoners from the two companies of the 54th Pennsylvania reached Richmond. The Rebels incarcerated the officers in Libby Prison and the enlisted men on Belle Island. Unbeknown to them, however, they had become pawns in a political showdown.

Because Northern authorities had branded partisans outlaws, the Federals would not exchange any they had captured. As a result, Southern prison officials refused to swap Union soldiers captured by partisans. It also was rumored that some might be executed in retaliation for Rebel guerrillas who had been shot after surrendering in Missouri.

Finally, on Nov. 20, Baer, an influential newspaper editor back home, wrote Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew G. Curtin, asking for help. Baer added, “A six month’s treatment as ours had been, will kill eight out of every ten men.”

A private meeting

Curtin quickly contacted Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about the matter, but his intervention was unnecessary. By that time, Somerset County, Pa., Judge Jeremiah Black, fearing the worst for the men, had met with President Lincoln and Stanton to request their permission for a private meeting with Confederate Exchange Commissioner Judge Robert Ould.

Upon getting the president’s and a somewhat reluctant Stanton’s approval, Black traveled by boat to City Point, Va., and, after a lengthy discussion with Ould, a former acquaintance, finally persuaded him to free the soldiers

On Nov. 30, Confederate authorities released the prisoners. However, it was too late for Pvt. John Lape, who had died from disease a few weeks earlier. The next day, the prisoners arrived in City Point.

Previously, Campbell had written Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin to request that Hite, Baer and Cole “be dismissed from the service for cowardice in the face of the enemy and surrendering … without firing a gun or endeavoring to retreat.” Nothing ever came of it, though, and the officers returned to the regiment.

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

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