- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008


By Steve French

Morgan Messenger

$20, 257 pages, illus.


Conversations about the Battle of Gettysburg normally focus on key players such as Gens. Robert E. Lee, George G. Meade and George E. Pickett.

Popular books and films also brought to the public’s attention others who served in supporting roles, such as Gens. John Buford and James Longstreet, as well as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

With the exception of students of the battle, however, few people would recognize the name John Daniel Imboden, the subject of “Imboden’s Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign.”

There are good reasons for this, since Imboden was a decidedly behind-the-scenes performer during this climactic confrontation in the Pennsylvania countryside in July 1863. That is, until after the Battle of Gettysburg, when Lee gave Imboden the most important assignment of his wartime service The manner in which he performed this duty would ensure that Imboden would carve a niche in the annals of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Author Steve French is a high school history teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and it makes sense that he would have a keen interest in a Civil War participant whose normal area of operations was within his home state.

Mr. French learned of John Imboden while attending a lecture by eminent Civil War historian Ed Bearss. While speaking about Lee’s advance northward toward Pennsylvania, Mr. Bearss commented, “And out in the mountains to the west, Imboden’s men are stealing cattle and horses and pillaging the countryside.” This caught the author’s attention, and, wanting to learn more, he soon discovered that sources of information about Imboden were sparse.

To remedy this situation, Mr. French “began traveling the back roads of West Virginia,” as well as Maryland and Pennsylvania, tracing the route that Imboden’s brigade took during the Gettysburg Campaign, and “visiting the archives of various local historical societies, libraries and museums along the way.” His efforts were rewarded with a “wealth of first-hand information” that described the local population’s encounter with what they termed this “guerrilla chieftain” and his “land pirates.”

These epithets were well earned. At the outset of the Confederate invasion of the North, Lee ordered Imboden to destroy bridges and “obtain all the cattle you can” in Hampshire County, W.Va., the region adjacent to where Lee planned to march his troops northward down the Shenandoah Valley toward the Potomac River. This activity naturally did not endear him to the citizens of the Mountain State.

Imboden was a practicing lawyer in Staunton, Va., when the national conflict began in 1861. A staunch secessionist, he recruited mounted infantry, cavalry and artillery units and led them into battle under “Stonewall” Jackson’s command early in the war. Now Imboden’s independent brigade took its orders directly from Lee.

The author describes a path of destruction and pillage as Imboden’s horsemen moved through the West Virginia and Maryland countryside. Although Lee cautioned Imboden “to suppress all marauding, [and] take only the supplies necessary for your army,” his men confiscated horses and cattle while at the same time looting stores and warehouses.

Pleased that Imboden was able to do serious damage to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad so vital to the Union Army’s communications and supply, Lee ordered the brigade to move toward Pennsylvania and guard the invading Confederate army’s left flank.

Imboden’s adventures continued as he confronted Union defenders in Pennsylvania at Bloody Run. However, the rowdy Southern troopers were not always available for duty, especially when they happened to come across a supply of liquor or brandy.

Their nefarious behavior during this expedition into Pennsylvania was compounded by the capture of blacks living in the area, most of whom had been born in the North. Their unhappy fate was to be bound and ignominiously marched into the South with the likelihood of being sold into slavery. Capt. John H. McNeill’s Rangers, a small, undisciplined unit that had joined Imboden en route, were particularly active in this work.

The author points out that the clash of Union and Confederate forces at Gettysburg on July 1 generated new orders for Imboden. He was to replace Maj Gen. George E. Pickett’s division that was protecting the army’s rear at Chambersburg, thus relieving it to march to its date with destiny two days later.

On July 3, following the disaster of Pickett’s Charge and Lee’s crushing defeat on the fields of Gettysburg with horrendous losses, Lee sent for Imboden and gave him an important and dangerous assignment. He was to lead a wagon train carrying thousands of wounded soldiers back to the safety of Virginia.

The author describes how neither the horrid, rainy weather nor the Union cavalry cooperated with this seemingly impossible task. The compelling narrative takes the reader along on this venture through unfamiliar territory where unsuspecting Pennsylvanians and Marylanders came face to face with this humanitarian nightmare. It proved to be a traumatic experience for everyone involved; one that Imboden would describe as a “vast procession of misery.”

While the wagon train of wounded is the most poignant segment of this story, Mr. French provides a detailed account of the crucial cavalry battle that took place at the river-crossing town of Williamsport, Md., in which Imboden gained considerable laurels. The author then diligently describes the aftermath, including the marching of thousands of Union prisoners up the Shenandoah Valley into eventual imprisonment.

The extensive inclusion of maps, photos and illustrations enhances the reader’s comprehension of the various events taking place. Three appendices also expand on the narrative. Unfortunately no index is included; however, there is an in-depth bibliography for further investigation.

This book can be purchased online at bchs.org (Berkeley County Historical Society) or butternutandblue.com (Butternut and Blue Bookstore in Baltimore).

“Imboden’s Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign” is a unique view from the periphery of Lee’s second and last invasion of the North. It broadens our perspective on how this invasion affected the people throughout the countryside, and how these frightened and mostly helpless citizens coped with the unwelcome intrusion. This all occurs through the actions of a citizen soldier whose mettle was tested during the arduous days of Robert E. Lee’s campaign into Pennsylvania.

Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is past president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table. Comments can be sent to [email protected]

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