Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Cavalry Escape From Harper's Ferry, Part II

The Escape

In accordance with the light marching order, all excess equipment was left behind. For the 12th Illinois, this meant leaving their tents, baggage, and even the instruments of the regiment’s brass band. As Lieutenant Luff later put it, “we missed the tents afterward, but managed to get along without the band.” The garrison’s sutlers distributed the last of the forage for the horses, and even some tobacco for their riders.

The horsemen began forming up shortly after dark, facing the pontoon bridge in a column of twos. Two guides took the lead of the column, a civilian named Tom Noakes who’d been serving for some time with General White’s command, and Lieutenant Green of the 1st Maryland. At the rear of the column, Major Corliss addressed his men of the 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry as they tightened their saddle girths, assuring them that by the next morning they would either be free, or prisoners or dead.

About 9 pm, the column started moving. Luff described the beginning of the ride: “The bridge was necessarily crossed at a walk; but each company on reaching the further shore took the gallop, and, turning to the left, passed between the canal and the high ground near the river, and then, turning to the right, took the road over the Heights toward Sharpsburg, closing up as rapidly as possible into column of fours.”

Fortunately for the escaping troopers, it was a pitch black night. The lack of illumination was both a help and a hindrance, as units were only able to maintain their interval by the noise of rattling equipment and sparks from horseshoes striking rocks. The pickets that Colonel Davis fully expected to find blocking the road at the base of Maryland Heights weren’t there. Most of General McLaws’ forces had been pulled away by General Franklin’s attack at Crampton’s Gap that day, and the road was very lightly defended. Interestingly enough, it was the same road John Brown had used when he seized Harper’s Ferry in 1859. The column was stung out over several miles by the time the last man crossed the bridge.

The escape was nearly compromised during the first hour. Riding at the head of his company, Captain George H. Shears of Company D, 12th Illinois turned right instead of left once they crossed the bridge and accidentally departed the column. Within minutes, they stumbled into Confederate pickets just outside the tiny hamlet of Sandy Hook. A hail of gunfire turned the errant company back to the column, fortunately without any casualties.

Despite the steep, rocky condition of the road, the column held to the gallop for nearly an hour, reaching Sharpsburg about 10 pm. They nearly collided near Sharpsburg with Confederate forces withdrawing from Turner’s Gap. Avoiding them, the head of the column encountered cavalry pickets on the outskirts of town, and drove them back into town. The Confederates fell back on supporting infantry within the town, however, and a decision was quickly made to pull back from the town and try another route. They took a road leading west from the town, toward Falling Waters on the Potomac.

Given the large numbers of Confederate troops in the area, the column’s scouts kept them maneuvering on country lanes and off of the main roads. They wound their way silently but steadily between sleeping camps until they struck the Hagerstown – Williamsport turnpike about two miles outside of Williamsport. The column had moved at a walk from Sharpsburg to this mount, but men and mounts were both weary. They had traveled over twenty miles to this point at a grueling pace through the dark, a physically and emotionally draining ride. Some troopers dozed in the saddle. Whenever a horse gave out, the rider doubled up with another trooper.

Just before dawn, the weary troopers struck the Hagerstown turnpike. Moments later, members of the lead regiment, the 8th New York, heard the sounds of approaching wheels. Unsure if the approaching train was composed of wagons or artillery, Davis quickly determined to seize it regardless and arrayed his forces.

There were trees on both sides of the road at this point, and the road curved to the left just past the intersection. The 8th New York immediately formed in a line formation on the north side of the road facing it, and the 12th Illinois did the same thing on the south side. He held the Maryland and Rhode Island Cavalry in reserve on the road approaching the intersection. The sun was not yet up, and it was too dark to make out the troopers concealed in the trees.

The approaching sounds turned out to be a train of army wagons with a small escort. Four or five infantrymen walked by each wagon, and a small detachment of cavalry at the rear. Davis boldly rode into the road to halt the lead wagon. He warned the teamsters of Federal cavalry in the area and told them to turn right at the next fork in the road. Fooled by his deep southern drawl and unable to see the color of his uniform in the darkness, the teamsters complied. As each wagon passed, troopers of the 8th New York fell in alongside the wagon while the 12th Illinois whisked the surprised escorts off into the woods to the south. In this manner the entire train was captured without a halt, and most of the teamsters didn’t realize until the sun rose that they were being escorted by Union cavalrymen with drawn pistols.

Davis ordered Captain William Frisbie of the 8th New York to take charge of the lead of the wagon train, turn it on the Greencastle road and move it there at an eight mile per hour pace. When Frisbie confessed that he had no idea of either his location or that of Greencastle, Davis tersely ordered him to figure it out and get moving. A guide was furnished from the 1st Maryland, and the column quickly located the road. The 8th New York led the wagons accompanied by the Rhode Island and Maryland troops, and an unencumbered 12th Illinois smoothly interposed itself between the last wagons and the cavalry escort. As the sun came up, the Confederate cavalry escort realized that the train was headed north instead of south and moved forward to investigate. Davis ordered the 12th Illinois to charge them, and they were dispersed and driven off without any casualties. Badly outnumbered, they soon broke off the pursuit. Amongst the wagons of the train proved to be Longstreet’s reserve ammunition train of approximately forty wagons. The total number of wagons varies by report, but was most likely somewhere between sixty and ninety seven.

Fortunately for Davis and his men, Greencastle was only twelve miles away over good road, and no more Confederates were encountered. They reached the town about 10 am, where they were enthusiastically greeted by the populace. Citizens lined the road to hand up food to the weary troopers, and houses and farms hosted them for breakfast once they reached the town.

As his weary men ate and attended to their horses, Colonel Voss sent his report to department command General Wool in Baltimore. “Harper’s Ferry is from all sides invested, by a force estimated at thirty thousand. By order of Colonel Miles, I left it last evening at eight o’clock, with the cavalry, fifteen hundred strong, to cut my way through enemy’s lines. I succeeded in reaching this place about nine this morning, having passed the enemy’s lines about three miles northward from Williamsport, and captured a wagon train of over sixty wagons loaded with ammunition, and six hundred and seventy-five prisoners. Colonel Miles intends to hold the Ferry, but is anxiously looking for reinforcements.”

After their arrival, Pennsylvania Governor A.G. Curtin sent a message to Secretary of War Stanton. “United States cavalry, from Harper’s Ferry, has arrived at Greencastle, under command of Colonel Davis, Eighth New York. It consists of Twelfth Illinois, under Colonel Voss; Eighth New York, Colonel Davis, and two companies each of Rhode Island and Maryland cavalry. The force is 1,300 strong. They left Harper’s Ferry at 9 o’clock last evening, and cut their way through. One mile out from Williamsport they captured Longstreet’s ordnance train, comprising 40 wagons; also brought in 40 prisoners. Fighting has been going on for two days at Harper’s Ferry. The enemy occupy Maryland and Loudoun Heights, and were planting their cannon in front of Bolivar Heights all day yesterday. Colonel Davis says he thinks Colonel Miles will surrender this morning. Colonel Miles desires his condition made known to the War Department.”

Davis’ column had marched between fifty and sixty miles through the dark over a thirteen hour period. Despite several encounters with the Confederates, they had suffered no casualties. The majority of the 178 men initially reported missing later straggled in with crippled or missing mounts. His command had snatched one of the greatest Union cavalry successes of the war from the army’s greatest defeat of the war. In a message to General-in-Chief Halleck on September 23rd, General McClellan wrote: “The conspicuous conduct of Capt. B.F. Davis, First Cavalry, in the management of the withdrawal of the cavalry from Harper’s Ferry at the surrender of that place, merits the special notice of the Government. I recommend him for the brevet of major.”


Brian Downey said...

This is great stuff, Don. Thanks very much for getting it up.

You asked earlier if I had a map of the route. When you asked I didn't, but I do now. It's not going to be much help, though.

I was held up at gunpoint at the SHAF tent on Saturday at Sharpsburg, and forced to buy the last available copy of Allan L. Tischler's History of the Harpers Ferry Cavalry Expedition (Winchester: Five Cedars Press, 1993). I'm kidding about the force used, of course.

The book contains a very simplistic foldout map, which, unfortunately, ignores all the twists, turns, and farm lanes. It shows the route as the Harpers Ferry Road to Sharpsburg, then the Hagerstown Pike to the big bend in the Potomac just north of town. There the map ends, well short of Greencastle.

Thanks a bunch, right? I'm hoping the rest of the book is of considerably more use. We shall see.

Don said...


I'm glad you're enjoying it. There still a couple of posts to go, then I need to re-package it and send it along for your site.

The more I've written on it, the less happy I've been with the product, but have reconciled myself to the fact that it's a work in progress and can be revised as more sources surface. "Sources" is actually the subject of one of the upcoming posts.

Wish I'd know the Tischler book was available, I'd have asked you to grab a copy for me also. It's on the (rather long)list of October Amazon purchases. I haven't been able to get my hands on it or the pre-1900 8th New York history.

This is another of those projects that looks like a relatively small ball of string until you start pulling threads.... 8^)

Unknown said...

Gents: The map used in the book was simplistic in that printing a more detailed map would have only drawn criticism from those who would have asked, "how do you know?"
The main theme is still the same, that Col. B.F. Davis was only one of several interactive participants, and that he most surely was not the main one who captured what proveably was the combined Reserve ordnance train belonging to Jackson and Longstreet. The premise of the book remains the same today, in 2008, as in 1997: Davis was glorified by numerous secondary accounts, and still is. Such is history. I have accrued some other data, and one day hope to reprint the book, correcting a number of editorial errors I caused, and cleaning up some portions and introducing the new, or should I say, before unfound material. It does not serve any prudent purpose to grind on this, but it is all the same ... Davis was a great cavalry leader, however there were several subordinate, volunteer officers who were equally vital to the drama, and they together captured the trains near Halfway, not only Davis.

Allan Tischler 207 E. Pall Mall St. Winchester, VA 22601

Don said...


Thanks for stopping by, I'd been curious as to how to contact you.

While the map would have undoubtedly drawn critics, it seemed to me from reading your book that you had a much better idea of what the route was than your map showed. I think that is what colored Brian's description.

The book is a fantastic reference --- I'm still trying to locate some of the sources cited, and it's been months now. You definitely considered the event from all angles.

I would have to agree with you that Davis definitely had help, and I think I would charatcerize him more in the "good" than "great" category, though his career was cut short.

What I still don't understand is why he received all of the credit for the escape and capture of the wagon train. Had his death occurred closer to the event it might be more understandable, but there really wasn't a reason to credit him for the whole thing.

I hope you do decide to write a second edition of the book, though I personally would prefer more of a history of the event than a historiography.