Saturday, September 29, 2007

Recruit Training -- Mounting Up

I found this account of initial recruit training and thought it worth sharing. The recruits at this point had completed several weeks of dismounted drill, and had just been introduced to their mounts. The author was somewhat small of stature, to the point of initially being enlisted as a bugler and not a regular trooper.

“The riding school was simply a large ring marked out on the ground and a trail following the outside margin in which the horses should always move while marching. Our riding outfit was simply a blanket strapped on the horse’s back with a surcingle and a bridle and then a pair of the small sharp pointed cavalry spurs on the heels. Stirrups were not used with beginners. They had to learn to mount their horses by a vault. Not like the farmer or others generally do by springing up and throwing the breast over the horse’s back and then the legs. In a cavalry vault the right leg must pass over the horse’s back before the cavalryman’s breast passes over the horse’s shoulder. That was not easy for a small fellow like me to do, as Uncle Sam’s horses are of the largest size.

“We kept up the vaulting exercise for several days with tolerably good success, as we supposed, but apparently not quite satisfactorily to our drill-master. The sharp pointed spurs we were obliged to wear gave us endless trouble. To complete the training in vaulting we were finally issued saddles, but without the stirrups and from then on we had to vault into the saddle, which made it even more difficult, and at last we were ordered to appear on drill under arms, with waist belt, cartridge box, saber, carbine and sling belt, and from that time on we had to vault into the saddle with all the rig that belongs to a cavalryman except the revolver, which had not yet been issued.

“If the vaulting exercise had been difficult before, it was now still more so; in fact, it had reached its climax. The heavy carbine was attached to the sling belt by an iron swivel and hung, muzzle down, when the trooper was mounted, but when dismounted and standing to horse ready to mount, it was thrown over the right shoulder and hung down his back. The saber was attached to the waist belt by two narrow straps, one a little longer than the other and always hung loose in them except when worn on foot drill, when it was hooked up on the waist belt.

“With that rig, and in the style just described, we stood the day after the order was given, by our horses, ready to mount if we could, but it certainly didn’t look like it was possible. We had to overcome the difficulties in vaulting into the saddle and believed ourselves well on the way to perfection in that part of mounted drill, but when I stood by the side of my horse that morning looking at the long saber by my left side, the lower part of the scabbard resting on the ground about two and one-half feet behind me and the upper part of the scabbard wit the hilt of the saber projecting out at least one foot in front of me, and the carbine hanging down the middle of my back with the butt end just opposite the back of my head, I wondered if it was possible for me to make a spring with such force as to bring myself and those loose and dangling weapons up on the back of my horse.

“That there was fun on the drillground that morning when the first sergeant, after having explained the rules in the new exercise, gave the necessary commands to mount, can be imagined. Few, if any of us expected to be able to execute the command in proper style, and when the command fell there followed a scramble and a terrible rattling of sabers along the line, but only a few could be seen on top of their horses when the commotion was over. The others were either lying on the ground or standing by their horses with a disgusted look on their faces, I being among the last named. It took several days fo that kind of vaulting exercise before Sergeant O’Connel allowed us to begin exercise in the riding ring. Even then we had to turn out “under arms” at every drill hour and make several vaults with the whole rig on before we were allowed to take off our belts, “stack” carbines and take the ring.” (James Larson, Sergeant Larson, 4th Cav., pgs 96-97)

If this sounds amusing to you, as it did to me, I urge you to attempt the cavalry vault if you have the opportunity. I’m tall and reasonably athletic, and was able to successfully complete the vault without equipment after a few attempts on a well-broken horse. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be in full equipment. The saber Larson describes sounds like the Model 1840 heavy cavalry saber, known as the “Old Wristbreaker”, not the lighter and shorter Model 1860 cavalry saber. The Model 1840 was 42” long overall, and weighed just over 5 pounds. The carbine mentioned was the Sharps, which at least one battalion of the regiment had received during fall of 1860. It was 39” long overall, and weighed 8 pounds. The horses, while broken to the saddle, were not yet trained cavalry mounts and undoubtedly thought little of the exercise.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bates Letters - June 19, 1862

Camp Lincoln Va.
June 19th 1862
Dear Parents,

I suppose you got the letter I wrote two days ago and know the reason of my not writing for the past two weeks. I didn’t care about the confinement in particular, but I [two missing words] of the “battle of Fair Oaks,” a thing I am sorry for; well, if I was out of the fight I was out of danger, too. This is some consolation.

I enclose a copy of charges, which my captain sent to me before I was tried. If you can read the writing you will see what I was in the guard-house for. I would like to send you a copy of the proceedings of the court martial too, they would be worth reading. There was some talk yesterday about going to Richmond this morning, but it is so quiet this morning I think it has blown over. Last evening, or rather, in the afternoon there was some lively firing in the direction of New Bridge (underlined), and I hear one hundred of our men got land-torpedoed, but like Davy Crockett’s coon “I am inclined to doubt.” At any rate you will know what was about as soon as I do, probably. For there are so many stories told in camp that nothing is believed untill (sic) we see it in the papers or in reality. An order was given yesterday to the army for five days rations to be packed ready to start at any time. I suppose the Grand Army (underlined) is about to start, for it is time something was being done besides throwing up dirt (underlined).

The weather is terribly hot, I think, but very few men are sick, suppose it is owing to the flies and mosquitoes being so thick and voracious. The mosquitoes are commonly called gallon-sippers (underlined) here and I think the flies should be called two gallon (underlined) sippers, for they have twice the power of suction that mosquitoes have. Perhaps they think the order for rations applied to them and they are getting five days ahead, the torments.

I want to write a letter to Julia today, but I don’t know whether I can or no. I have started to twice and was too lazy to finish. I must get a book and read. Brave spider story; Try Again (two words underlined).

Give my love to all and expect me home when you don’t expect me (underlined).
Affectionately Charles E. Bates

I will write it of myself.
Violation of 9th Article of War
In this, the said Charles E. Bates did positively refuse to take care of a horse belonging to Co “E” 4th Cavalry when ordered to do so by 1st Sergt Edward Fitzgerald C of C Etc.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Development Plans Threaten Brandy Station Battlefield

The following article is re-posted from the Brandy Station Foundation's Autumn newsletter by permission of Foundation President Bob Luddy. The map, unfortunately, wouldn't copy through, but may be found on the Foundation's website, located at left.

Huge Development Proposed Near Battlefield

A Northern Virginia developer has requested a land rezoning in Culpeper County on 513 acres of agricultural land that would result in a 3.4 million square foot development with a 20-year build out. The development is entitled Willow Run and is located roughly half-way (3 miles) between the Graffiti House and the Rappahannock River.

The development (see map below) located at Willow Run near the Culpeper regional Airport would sit on a portion of the Battle of Brandy Station battlefield (June 9, 1863) The development itself doesn’t threaten the core battlefield (it would sit on the far right extension of Wade Hampton’s battle line), but its creation would create added pressure for other development closer to the core battlefield both commercial and residential.

The developer, USA Development, proposes to build office buildings, retail shops, and residential loft units above the shops, commercial structures, restaurants and a theater as well as a private 500 plus-student “international” school. Some of the structures would stand eight to nine stories near the airport and its commercial park. The plan also calls for an equestrian complex and a “fun” water park!

For anyone familiar with Central Park shopping center in Fredericksburg along state Route 3 and I-95, this project would be 50 percent larger and, if successful, create even more traffic on an existing four-lane highway.

The developer has met once with members of the Brandy Station Foundation Board of Directors one time seeking our support. They later provided copies of their plans and proposal to BSF. USA Development is offering, with no way to hold them to it, to set up a battlefield “visitors” center within the development with donations going to BSF. They also offered to run “daily” bus tours to the Graffiti House. Unfortunately, this level of staffing is currently beyond our ability and desire to support.

As an organization, we have serious concerns about the size and scope of this ambitious venture.

The BSF board is studying traffic concerns on US Route 29 and the resulting degradation of the battlefield surrounding this proposal. It is feared that if the rezoning is approved, the developer will sell it off and other uses may occur. The proffers provided don’t limit many uses.

The matter is still before the county’s planning commission, which is conducting public hearings on the plan. We will keep members advised on our plans regarding this development.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Moon blindness"?

Okay, this is a little bit of a teaser for an upcoming post, but has anyone ever heard of a condition known as "moonblindness"? It can apparently be caused by malnutrition, and was sometimes a malady afflicting prisoners of war.

And For Those Who Like Pictures...

Take a look at Brian Downey's Behind Antietam on the Web (see links at left) for a post on the Exodus From Harper's Ferry. Brian has added pictures of the principal leaders, and a map attempting to portray the route of the column. Nice post, Brian!

The Cavalry Escape From Harper's Ferry, Conclusion

A Few Words on Sources

Why has such an exploit received such little attention from historians? The primary reason is that it is often lost in the clutter of the battles at Crampton’s and Turner’s Gaps and the larger battle of Antietam a few days later. A second is the attention focused on the surrender of the Harper’s Ferry garrison and the subsequent official inquiry. A third is the lack of an official report of the escape. Colonel Davis never made a report, or if he did it was lost. There is information in Volume 19 of the Official Records, but it is contained in other reports on the campaign, not specifically reports on the escape.

There are sources available, however, it just takes a bit of digging to find them. Since one of the purposes of this blog is education, I thought I would include a few clues on where to look for those interested in more information on the escape.

Among the primary sources:

“The Surrender of Harper’s Ferry”, by Brigadier General Julius White, in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II. White provides a first-person account of the movement of his command from Martinsburg to Harper’s Ferry, and the events leading up to the departure of the cavalry.

“The March of the Cavalry from Harper’s Ferry, September 14th, 1862,” by Captain William M. Luff, in Military Essays and Recollections: Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume 2, A.C. McClurg and Company, 1894. Luff provides the best first-person account that I’ve found on the escape so far. Luff commanded Company A during the escape as a lieutenant because his commander had been wounded during the fight at Darkesville the week before.

There were two other first-person accounts that I haven’t yet been able to locate. These were accounts by the chaplain of the 12th Illinois (The Private Journal of Abraham Joseph Warner, ed.Herbert B. Enderton, San Diego: Colonel Herbert B. Enderton, 1973) and a corporal of Company B, 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry (“The Cavalry Column from Harpers Ferry in the Antietam Campaign” in Civil War Catalog Number Twenty Two, ed. Dennis E. Frye, Dayton, OH: Morningside Press, 1987).

The best secondary source I have located so far is Samuel M. Blackwell’s excellent history of the 12th Illinois Cavalry, In The First Line of Battle. Blackwell presents a detailed and well-researched look into the escape, including a couple of maps.

Other secondary sources:
Bailey, Ronald H. The Bloodiest Day. Alexandria: Time-Life Books Inc., 1984.

Frye, Dennis E. “The Siege of Harpers Ferry.” Blue & Grey Magazine (September 1987)

Norton, Henry. Deeds of Daring: or History of the Eighth New York Volunteer Cavalry. Norwich, NY: Chenango Telegraph Printing House, 1889.

Sears, Stephen W. Landscape Turned Red. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1983.

Starr, Stephen Z. The Union Cavalry in the Civil War, Volume I: From Fort Sumter to Gettysburg. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1979.

Tischler, Allan L. The History of the Harpers Ferry Cavalry Expedition, September 14 and 15, 1862. Winchester: Five Cedars Press, 1993. This is the only book-length study of the expedition that I’m aware of. It’s probably an excellent source, I just haven’t yet obtained a copy.


I think I’ve learned more compiling this series of posts than I have on any of my other projects to date. This started as a simple summary post that I had intended to post commemorating the anniversary of the escape, but has taken on a life of its own. As with most small Civil War research projects, one thread led to another thread, which led to another source, etc. And so this project has become a work in progress. I'm relatively happy with what I've turned up so far, but the cave has proven deeper than initially expected since I turned on the flashlight. I believe there is still more to be unearthed on the escape, and will continue to investigate as time and resources permit.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Cavalry Escape From Harper's Ferry, Part IV

Following the Route Today

I tried the follow the route of the escape earlier this summer. As best I can determine, the following directions will lead the interested traveler in the footsteps of the escaping cavalrymen.

While the pontoon bridge in Harper’s Ferry is gone, one can still visit the opening in the seawall and the ring bolts embedded in it where the bridge was anchored. Once across the river, Highway 65 still generally follows the route of the Harper’s Ferry–Sharpsburg road. One can see the place where the road rises in a steep climb to the top of Maryland Heights and picture troopers spurring their mounts up it in the dark.

At Sharpsburg, the route is lost for a while, as it is of course impossible to drive through the farmer’s fields from Sharpsburg north to near Tilghmanton. North of Tilghmanton, one picks up their path again on the old Boonsboro-Williamsport turnpike (Highway 68) at Lappans and follows it northeast to Williamsport.

Just north of Williamsport, turn onto the old Williamsport-Hagerstown turnpike (now Highway 60). A short distance to the northeast one can find the Maryland state historical marker erected on the site of the capture of Longstreet’s ammunition train.

After the capture of the wagon train, the route of the Greencastle road is most closely followed today by Highway 63 from Williamsport north to Greencastle, Pennsylvania.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Cavalry Escape from Harper's Ferry, Part 3

Units and Leaders

One of the things that makes the cavalry escape such a remarkable exploit is the inexperience of the units and leaders involved. Keep in mind that popular wisdom at the time was that it took a minimum of one to two years to properly train a cavalry regiment and prepare it for combat. None of the units involved had been in existence for more than ten months before the escape.

The most experienced of the units, and the senior organization by one day, was “Cole’s Cavalry”. This was a battalion of the 1st Maryland Cavalry comprised of Companies A, B, C and D under the command of Major Henry A. Cole. Their first fight had been against forces under Stonewall Jackson in January 1862, and they had spent the entire year in western Maryland and northwestern Virginia. Most of the men in Cole's Cavalry were from western Maryland, with a number of men from Virginia and Pennsylvania as well. Most of these men were farmers and planters, young, unmarried, accustomed to the use of both firearms and riding, and most of them brought their own horses with them. Their extensive knowledge of the area served as a great asset during the escape.

The 8th New York mustered in November 28, 1861, but spent the first seven months fighting as infantry under General Banks in the Shenandoah Valley. They were finally mounted in July 1862, and ordered to Harper’s Ferry on August 29th. Their commander, a Regular officer on his first assignment with volunteers, had been with the regiment for less than a month. Colonel Davis requisitioned carbines for his regiment as soon as they arrived at Harper’s Ferry, but there weren’t any carbines available in the armory to fill his request.

The 12th Illinois’ first fight had been at Darkesville, Virginia on September 7th, only a week before the escape. Only a portion of the regiment participated in the fight, led by regimental executive officer Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis. This regiment did possess several hundred Burnside carbines, which the regimental commander, Colonel Arno Voss had successfully procured in Washington in July 1862.

The 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry was nicknamed the “college cavaliers” because nearly all of them were students from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Norwich University in Vermont. A three month volunteer regiment, they mustered in at Providence on June 24, 1862. They had served in the Military District of Washington until the month before the escape. Their first engagement was on Maryland Heights on September 13th. The regiment mustered out on September 26, 1862 at the expiration of its term, less than two weeks after their exciting ride. Many of the unit's members later served in the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry.

The leadership wasn’t much more experienced than the units. The senior officer, Colonel Arno Voss of the 12th Illinois, was a politician with no combat experience. His executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis, was a lawyer before the regiment formed, and fought in his first engagement the week before. Major Corliss of the 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry was unblooded until the skirmishing on Maryland Heights.

The only two leaders with combat experience were Major Cole and Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis. Cole had been fighting in the area for the previous several months, leading first Company A, then the battalion. A Regular officer from the 1st Dragoons, Davis had fought Indians before the war. He was commended for his leadership of a squadron during the battle of Williamsburg during the Peninsula Campaign, but had never led more than two companies prior to the escape. I don’t include Major Russell of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, known later in the war as “The Fighting Parson,” because he escaped the night before the column did.

This is the force that broke out of the encirclement of Harper’s Ferry and rode over fifty miles through enemy forces at night to join the Army of the Potomac with no losses save stragglers.

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.”

The Cavalry Escape From Harper's Ferry, Part I

Setting The Stage

On the September 8, 1862, Brigadier General Julius White reported to Major General Wool that enemy forces numbering 15,000 to 20,000 were approaching from the north and asked for instructions. White was commanding a garrison of approximately 2,500 men at Camp Wool near Martinsburg, Virginia. Wool replied that if the enemy approached in those numbers, he should move his force to Harper’s Ferry. After some reconnaissance and skirmishing with the Confederate advance, White determined they were too many to fight and evacuated Martinsburg on September 11th. Late that night the men of his regiments boarded trains and rode the Baltimore & Ohio railroad to Harper’s Ferry. They reached Harper’s Ferry about 2 am on Friday the 12th.

The town of Harper’s Ferry had virtually ceased to exist by 1862. The once thriving town that had profited from the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had been reduced to a population of less than one hundred people. Federal forces had burned the armory and the arsenal at the outbreak of the war to keep them from falling into Confederate hands. Churches had become hospitals, gardens had become graveyards, and residences were barracks for the garrison. The town’s desolation was complete.

The garrison at Harper’s Ferry was commanded by Colonel Dixon S. Miles, the colonel of the 8th US Infantry regiment and a veteran of some forty years of service. General White, though superior in rank to Colonel Miles, declined to take command of the garrison based on a dispatch from General Halleck to Colonel Miles directing him to defend the post. He was instead placed in temporary command of all of the garrison’s cavalry.

At this point, the cavalry assigned to the garrison included the 8th New York Cavalry, Colonel B.F. Davis, a squadron of the 1st Maryland Cavalry under the command of Captain Charles H. Russell, the 7th Squadron of Rhode Island Cavalry under Major Augustus W. Corliss, and a squadron of the First Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry under Captain H.A. Cole.

White’s forces had been closely followed by those of Stonewall Jackson. He crossed the Potomac at Williamsport on the 11th, arrived in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry on the 13th, and took up positions near Bolivar Heights. Bolivar Heights was a small community about five hundred feet above Harper’s ferry to the west. Other forces under General Walker made their way via Point of Rocks to Loudoun Heights, a summit of about eleven hundred feet south of town. A third force under General McLaws marched from Frederick via Crampton’s Gap to Maryland Heights, the highest point in the area at fourteen hundred feet. The highest point in Harper’s Ferry was about five hundred feet, so artillery on the surrounding heights was sure to dominate the Federal defense. If the Confederates successfully placed artillery on any of the three heights, they would be able to fire downhill into Harper’s Ferry at a range of just under a mile.

On September 12, McLaws’ troops occupied Pleasant Valley in considerable force and advanced up the eastern slope of Maryland Heights. They skirmished heavily with Union forces under Colonel Ford. On the morning of the 13th, General Walker’s forces reached the foot of Loudoun Heights and occupied and occupied them without opposition. By this time Jackson was in possession of Bolivar Heights, and pressure on Maryland Heights intensified.

Over the course of these two days, the Union cavalry units were actively engaged in reconnaissance and skirmishing duties. Captain Russell’s squadron of the 1st Maryland and the 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry distinguished themselves on Maryland Heights with stubborn skirmishing until Colonel Ford abandoned them on the afternoon of the 13th. The 12th Illinois was in town for less than ten hours before they were tasked to scout the surrounding area and report the positions of the advancing Confederate columns.

Colonel Miles in the meantime became increasingly anxious to open communications with General McClellan. Captain Russell volunteered to attempt to slip through the Confederate lines, and Miles consented. Russell selected nine volunteers from his command and slipped through the Confederate pickets on the Virginia side of the Potomac. He marched down the river on that side until he reached Shepherdstown, and crossed the Potomac near the mouth of Antietam Creek. He again passed through the enemy’s pickets in this area before passing on to South Mountain by back roads. He evaded Confederate pickets there by going directly over South Mountain to Middletown, where he found General Reno. Reno, upon receiving his report, gave him a fresh mount and sent him on to McClellan’s headquarters near Frederick, Maryland. Russell arrived there about nine in the morning on the 14th, and relayed Miles’ message about the situation at Harper’s Ferry.

McClellan sent a dispatch to General Halleck on the 14th stating that if Miles could hold out for that day he could probably save him. Miles did hold out that day, but the majority of McClellan’s army was moving in the opposite direction.

Maryland Heights was abandoned to the Confederates before 4pm on the 14th through a miscommunication, and General McLaws immediately moved his batteries into position. Walker’s command reached the summit of Loudoun Heights on the morning of the 14th, and Union defenders could clearly see them signaling to General Jackson’s soldiers on Bolivar Heights during the late morning.

At 2 p.m. on the 14th, the Confederate artillery began to fire from Loudoun Heights. Their initial target was the cavalry camp below Bolivar Heights, it being a conspicuous target. Fires were quickly added from Maryland Heights and batteries on the Shepherdstown Road.

The 12th Illinois Cavalry was bivouacked near Virginius Island on the west end of Shenandoah Street in town, across the river from Loudoun Heights. Lieutenant William M. Luff, acting commander of Company A, 12th Illinois during the siege, described the initial artillery fire in the following manner: “The 12th Illinois had been in the saddle since daylight and were now resting. Horses were unsaddled, and officers and men were sitting about watching the enemy and discussing the situation, when suddenly a puff of smoke appeared on Loudoun Heights, and the next instant a shell came screaming into camp. It was followed by other sin quick succession, and they soon came thick and fast. There was no time to ask for orders, and calling to the men to “Saddle up,” the writer turned his attention to his own horse.” The regiment moved onto Virginius Island, where they were temporarily able to find some concealment in the trees.

There was no respite for the cavalry regiments during the remainder of the day. They would be shelled out of one position and seek new shelter, only to be forced to move again ten minutes later. Unsurprisingly enough, the minds of officers and enlisted men alike soon turned to escape. They could do little in the face of an artillery siege, and were having extreme difficulties simply trying to protect their horses from the Confederate cannon fire. The majority of them didn’t even have carbines, and were armed only with pistols and sabers. Fortunately there were few casualties, as the percussion shells the Confederates were using often failed to explode in the sandy soil of the town.

Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis, the commander of the 8th New York Cavalry, and Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis, the executive officer of the 12th Illinois Cavalry, developed a plan for the cavalry’s escape. Davis proposed that the Union cavalry attempt to break out of the encirclement. He argued that the cavalry were of no use defending the post, given their lack of armament, and their departure would deprive the Confederates of their mounts and equipment should the garrison surrender. Additionally, the garrison’s supply of forage was nearly exhausted. They presented the plan initially to General White, under whom both had served earlier in the summer in Martinsburg. White approved the plan and arranged for them to meet with Colonel Miles. Miles initially rejected the plan, considering it too risky, and a heated discussion ensued. After consulting with General White and others, however, he conditionally agreed to the plan if a suitable escape route could be identified. He assigned command of the column to Colonel Arno Voss of the 12th Illinois Cavalry, who was senior to Davis. General White, at his own insistence, would remain in Harper’s Ferry with the garrison.

Colonel Miles called a meeting of the commanders of all the cavalry units in the garrison to discuss the best route. Colonel Davis suggested moving north along the west side of the Potomac to Kearneysville, then crossing the river at Shepherdstown, but the garrison had received reports of Confederate cavalry activity in the area, and Miles feared the escaping column would be discovered. Another suggestion was to cross the Shenandoah near its junction with the Potomac and then march down the Potomac to Washington, but the ford was found to be full of holes and dangerous to cross. About 7 pm, the officers finally agreed on a plan. The route eventually agreed upon was to cross the Potomac on the pontoon bridge at the base of Maryland Heights and attempt to move north to reach McClellan’s army.
Lieutenant H.C. Reynolds, Colonel Miles’ aide-de-camp, issued Special Orders Number 120, which provided instructions for the cavalry’s exodus. “The cavalry force at this post, except detached orderlies, will make immediate preparations to leave here at 8 o’clock tonight, without baggage wagons, ambulances or led horses, crossing the Potomac over the pontoon bridge, and taking the Sharpsburg Road. The senior officer, Col. Voss, will assume the command of the whole, which will form the right at the quartermaster’s office, the left up Shenandoah street, without noise or loud command, in the following order: Cole's Cavalry, 12th Illinois Cavalry, 8th New York Cavalry, 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry, and the 1st Maryland Cavalry. No other instructions can be given to the Commander than to force his way through the enemy’s lines and join our own army.”

It was a plan fraught with risk. Over a thousand horsemen were to cross an improvised bridge in single file under the mouths of the enemy’s guns in the dark. If detected, they would be close enough to the guns for the Confederate artillerymen to use cannister shot against them. Once across the bridge, they had to turn left and climb a narrow road between the canal berm and the edge of Maryland Heights toward Sharpsburg. Ironically, it was the same road John Brown used to approach Harper’s Ferry in 1859. The pontoon bridge was constructed during the early days of Union reoccupation of Harper’s Ferry, anchored in a breach of the seawall that surrounded the town. They were forced to construct the bridge after the Confederates burned the railroad bridge between Maryland Heights and Harper’s Ferry before they departed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bates Letters - June 14, 1862

Note: It's interesting to read an enlisted soldier's thoughts on how McClellan is conducting his campaign. And after the rains came later in the month, we have the battle of Gaines' Mill. Good prediction, Charlie.

June 14th 1862
Dear Father,

As you will see by the heading of this letter we have again changed camp, and now occupy a most beautiful location on the Richmond side of the Chickahominy, that most famous natural defense to the capitol of the would be Southern Confederacy, which General Magruder said would be the grave of McClellan’s army, but Little Mac is slowly but surely digging into Richmond. The secesh make but little noise now-a-days, indeed they are too quiet to suit me for it seems to be the quiet of conscious strength, and I expect if the rains happen to raise the Chickahominy again, we shall “Fair Oaks second edition.” I don’t think, however, there is any danger for “Mac” is making breastworks and intrenchments (sic) all along the lines on this side and will most likely advance when the works are completed, so “wait a little longer.”

The health of the troops is not as good as I should wish, but it will improve with the change of location, I suppose. I hope so, anyway.

I am going to send some money home to you and I want you to keep it for me untill (sic) I come home, or if you don’t like to leave it lying idle you can invest it in something that is convertible, and keep it that way. I shan’t (sic) send enough to buy out the county, but think I may send two or three hundred dollars, about seventy is in the old kind of treasury notes. I believe there is a premium on them, I will put them all in this if it will hold them.

I have cut my fingers about half off opening a box of sardines, so I can’t write much it hurts so, but must mention that I saw Ammi Hull a couple of days ago, he is just the same fellow he was five years ago, not a bit bigger.

You must remember me to all the relations for I probably shant (sic) write again untill (sic) my finger gets well so goodbye and give my love to all.
I am
Your affectionate son
Charles E. Bates

P.S. I enclose sixty dollars in this. You must direct it to Camp Lincoln next.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In Honor of Antietam week

In honor of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam this weekend, the majority of this week's posts will be devoted to a Union accomplishment that was greatly overshadowed by the battle --- the escape of the Union cavalry from the siege of Harper's Ferry. Tomorrow's post will be a Bates letter as I put the finishing touches on a couple of entries, and the coverage will start Wednesday or Thursday. I plan to post entries on setting the stage, principal cavalry leaders, and the escape itself. Stay tuned. I'm considering posting the events themselves on the anniversary of the days they actually happened, but haven't quite made up my mind about that yet.

Coming Soon: Sergeant Larson, 4th Cav.

My long-awaited copy of Sergeant Larson, 4th Cav. arrived yesterday via InterLibrary Loan. I've been waiting for this one for a long time, as the book is nearly impossible to find. Upon opening the cover, I found out why. Only 300 copies were printed, and that was in 1935. The majority of the remaining copies are in small southwestern libraries, and the few available on the internet are several hundred dollars.

I hope to have the book read and a review ready by the end of next week, but at first glance the book appears to be a treasure. Sergeant Larson served the entire war in the western theater with the 4th US Cavalry, and participated in all of the major campaigns with his regiment. The book promises to do for the western regular cavalry what Sidney Davis Morris' Common Soldier, Uncommon War does for the 6th US Cavalry and the Regular Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. I'm especially looking forward to the Chickamauga section, but that's a rant for another time.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bates Letters - June 13, 1862

Note: In which we find out that Charlie's managed to get in trouble again, although not exactly why yet.

Camp near Richmond
June 13th 1862
Dear Parents,

Two Sundays have passed and the third has arrived since I last wrote to you. I have received two from Johnson within that time, one of them I got yesterday, the other over a week ago, but I have been in durance vile (underlined) since the first of the month until last Friday so I had no chance to write before. I suppose you were anxiously looking for letters every day, and thought I had been put out of the way by some evil minded rebel, or else had forgotten you, but accidents will happen, and I was the victim to the extent of fourteen days confinement. I was consoled in my captivity by a visit from Ammi Hull. What ever change may have come over the rest of creation, he is the same old-fashioned Ammi. We had a long talk about old times and new times.

One remarkable effect of my confinement was a change of mind. I have determined not to reenlist until I try citizens life for a while. I have been trying to imagine how I could go home next September but have not hit on a plan yet. Perhaps I might get a furlough, but it is only perhaps, yet.

You need not keep that money for me. I sent it home for you to use and I want you to do it. I shall have as much as I want to when I am discharged, all I want to do is just to send enough money home to pay my board and lodging for a few weeks when I come home and a little to spare if I have it.

I wonder if the weather is as hot down your way now as it is here now. I feel like taking off my flesh and sitting in my bones in the shade to keep cool, I don’t see how the soldiers manage to work on the fortifications this day for it is just about boiling hot.

The Officers are getting better now. Instead of putting a guard on the secesh cherry trees and strawberries, they let us eat all we want, bully for them. The rebels are sure of whipping us here but our boys are just as sure they won’t, and I think the same. It will be some time before the trial comes if the secesh don’t attack us first.

I have been having a sort of day-dream about home, trying to think how everything will appear when I see it, but can’t form any idea. I can remember how it was the last time I was at home but there has been changes since. It is nearly seven years, one third of my life almost. I think if I could go up to Herds Hill after berries, and through the fields by spruce bank and down there awhile, it would do me a thousand dollars worth of good. If I don’t come home till January, Mother must have lots of apple sauce made for me.

I have to stop writing now but shall write again in two or three days so
Charles E. Bates

I received the postage stamps. I also send you home more money, use it.
Charles E. Bates

Monday, September 3, 2007

Fiddler's Green: William Forwood

William Henry Forwood was born on September 7, 1838 at Brandywine Hundred, Delaware. He received his early education in local schools before attending Crozier Academy in Chester, Pennsylvania. He received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1861 as the war was beginning. Forwood received an appointment as a regular army Assistant Surgeon from civil life on August 5, 1861, and accepted the appointment on August 23.

Forwood was initially assigned to Seminary Hospital in Georgetown, District of Columbia, where he served as the hospital’s executive officer until December. Over the next ten months he served initially as the regimental surgeon of the 14th U.S. Infantry and then acting medical director of General Sykes’ division, V Corps, Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula campaign. He took part in the battles of Yorktown, Williamsburg, Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill before he was reassigned to the office of the Medical Director, Washington, D.C. in October 1862.

In February 1863, Forwood was assigned to the 6th U.S. Cavalry as an assistant surgeon. Although he served in the regiment for only eight months, it was a very lively time for him.

On May 13, 1863, Forwood was accompanying acting regimental commander George C. Cram and two enlisted orderlies from General Buford’s headquarters back to their camp when they were captured by a band of Mosby’s guerillas. The group’s leader, Lieutenant Fairchild, after securing their horses and equipment, offered to release them if they would give their parole. Cram and the two soldiers did so and were released. Since medical officers on both sides had the right to be released without parole if captured, Forwood refused. Fairchild refused to release him without it, and turned him over to a guard detail as a prisoner of war. Forwood escaped into the brush while being marched away and returned to the regiment later that evening. This was quite an embarrassing incident for Captain Cram, and might be the reason Forwood spent the rest of the month on detached service at the Cavalry Corps’ dismount camp near Dumfries, Virginia. He returned to the regiment before the battle of Brandy Station.

During the Gettysburg campaign, Forwood was captured again. He was left in charge of the regiment’s wounded following the battle of Fairfield, among whose numbers was the other assistant surgeon, William H. Notson. This time he was released without incident, however, and rejoined his regiment for the remainder of the campaign.

On October 11, 1863, the 6th U.S. Cavalry was caught in an exposed position near Brandy Station and engaged by superior numbers of Confederate cavalry. They were able to fight their way back across the Rappahannock, but among the wounded was Assistant Surgeon William Forwood. The severe gunshot wound to the chest that he received in this encounter ended his field service during the war.

Following his recovery from this wound, Forwood was assigned as the executive officer of Satterlee General Hospital in Philadelphia and served there until April 1864. He spent the next two months in charge of the medical stores ship Marcy C. Day in Hampton Roads, Virginia. In June 1864, Forwood organized and built Whitehall General Hospital near Bristol, Pennsylvania. He commanded the two thousand bed hospital through the end of the war, until September 1865. On March 13, 1865 he was given brevet promotions of captain and major for faithful and meritorious service during the war.

After the war, Forwood was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he served until June 1867. He was promoted to captain on July 28, 1866, and fought a severe epidemic of cholera there later in the year. His service at Fort Riley was punctuated by several field expeditions of the 2nd Cavalry against hostile Indians along the upper Arkansas River.

Forwood was transferred to Fort Larned, Kansas in June 1867, where he served until July 1870. There was an incident at Fort Larned that says something about Forwood’s character. He apparently kept a wolf and a buffalo as pets. The post commander ordered him to get rid of the buffalo, terming it a “public nuisance.” On January 31, 1869, the post adjutant informed Captain Forwood that “complaints have also been made of the howling of the wolf at night. It is therefore directed that you have the animal removed to someplace where it will not be an annoyance to the garrison.” It is unknown what Forwood’s response was to this directive, but apparently he complied.

He was assigned to Fort Brady, Michigan until October 1872, but a good part of this period was spent on a leave of absence studying yellow fever at a quarantine station near Philadelphia. He was also married during this leave, to Mary Osbourne on September 28, 1870. He was then assigned to Fort Richardson, Texas until September 1876. The next three years brought brief assignments to Raleigh, N.C., Columbia, S.C. and Fort McPherson, Georgia.

In December 1879, Forwood was transferred to Fort Omaha, Nebraska as the post surgeon. During the next three years, he served as a surgeon and naturalist for the annual military reconnaissance and exploring expeditions ordered by General Sheridan. In November 1882 he was assigned to Chicago as the attending surgeon for the headquarters of the Division of the Missouri. He again accompanied the exploring expedition in the summer of 1883, this time in the company of President Arthur and Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln. He published his observations from these expeditions in 1881 and 1882. He remained at Chicago until December 1886. Following another leave of absence, he then served for three years as the post surgeon for Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

On May 27, 1890, Forwood was assigned as n attending surgeon at the United States Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C., where he remained until December 12, 1898. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on June 15, 1891, and was appointed the professor of military surgery when the Army Medical School was organized in 1893. From 1895 to 1897 he chaired the departments of surgery and surgical pathology at Georgetown University. On May 3, 1897, he was promoted to colonel, ranking only behind the Surgeon General in the Medical Corps. He chaired the department of military surgery at the same university from 1897 to 1898 and received and honorary degree of LL.D. for his contributions.

Forwood departed the university in the summer of 1898 to establish a large hospital and convalescent camp at Montauk Point, N.Y. to deal with the huge numbers of sick soldiers returning from Cuba. He selected the site and oversaw the construction of a similar facility at Savannah, Georgia later in the same year. In December 1898 he was transferred to San Francisco as the chief surgeon of the Department of California.

In 1901 he was assigned to duty in the office of the Surgeon General in Washington, and that fall was made president of the faculty of the Army Medical School. When Surgeon General Sternberg retired in June 1902, Forwood was promoted to the post on June 8. He served as the Surgeon General for his last three months before compulsory retirement for age on September 7, 1902. He lived the rest of his life in Washington, dying after a prolonged illness on May 12, 1915.

Author's note: Regular cavalry regiments were not authorized a surgeon of their own, but were authorized two assistant surgeons who were doctors. I’m treading a little close to Jim Schmidt’s territory here, but Forwood was a cavalryman before he was the Surgeon General and served with two different regular cavalry regiments.