Back in the Valley - Threatening Early on His Retreat from Washington - Battle of Snicker's Ferry - Marched to Winchester - Battle of Kearnstown - Our Retreat via. Martinsburg to Halltown - An Incident - R. W. Mahan's Prison Trials - A Large Army Concentrates at Halltown - The Wild-goose Chase Into Maryland.
(465) The next day, the 11th, after our arrival at Hedgesville our brigade which was now united, marched to Martinsburg having had to march from near Back Creek, a distance of 15 miles, on account of the Rebels having torn up the railroad east of that creek. We had now got back to the town from which we had started on April 29th, under Sigel up the Valley. Just before we reached the town our cavalry had driven out of it a small force of Rebel cavalry. According to Col. Curtis when we moved from here under Sigel, the Twelfth had 800 men present, while now we were reduced to 250 men present for duty. The five-sixths of this reduction mainly of sick, it is safe to say was chargable to the Lynchburg raid principally, showing how severe it was on the men, and hardly sustaining Hunter's dispatch from near Ganley Bridge, that the men were in excellent health. But though the command suffered great hardships they could not say that they were not forewarned by Gen. Hunter, that that was what they might expect and so they could not say that they were deceived in that particular.
(466) As before said we were once more in the Valley; once a fair land of peace and plenty, but now a desolate land battle-scarred and laid waste by the conflicts of contending armies; and fated to be the theatre of further bloody battles; when in truth it might be said: "The earth is covered thick with other clay, Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent."
(467) The day our brigade arrived at Martinsburg the Rebel Gen. Early, who had marched from the relief of Lynchburg into the Valley and whose troops had burned bridges and torn up the track of the Baltimore and Ohio road, east and west of Martinsburg, appeared before Washington having gone there to attempt its capture. But he like Hunter at Lynchburg was just one day too late, the Sixth Corps having come to the relief of the capitol that same day, just as Early had come to the relief of Lynchburg the very day Hunter appeared before that city. The next day the 12th, after some sharp fighting with the Sixth Corps, Early, being satisfied by prisoners captured that Grant had sent reinforcements to Washington, withdrew from before the city. It is possible that Early's attempt to capture Washington might have been successful, had not Gen. Sigel wisely withdrawn his troops from Martinsburg on learning that Early was coming and thus frustrating his (Early's) plan to capture them, and marched to Harpers Ferry gathering up some troops on the way, and occupied Maryland Heights just where according to Pond he was not wanted by Early, he having been detained there for a day in a vain attempt to dislodge Sigel intending to make that his (Early's) base in his movement against the capitol, and had he not met with further detention by Lew Wallace's stubborn fighting at Monocacy junction.
(468) The Twelfth remained two days at Martinsburg when the 13th, we marched taking the road leading to Harpers Ferry, reaching there the next day crossing into Maryland, passing down the Potomac and camped about two miles from Harpers Ferry near Knoxville. There were now here about 9,000 troops mainly of Hunter's troops. The 15th, the force here waded the river into Virginia and took the road leading toward Leesburg about 18 miles distant. When about nine miles on the way, we turned to the right and marched to Hillsborough in Londown county and camped for the night. Early's foiled army was now on the way from Washington to the Valley followed by Gen. Wright of the Sixth Corps with a force of about 15,000 men.
(469) The same night that we were lying at Hillsborough, Early was at Leesburg about a half day's march distant having lain there all the day before; but the next morning the 16th, he moved through Hamilton and Purcellville to Snicker's and Ashby's Gaps. Hunter's troops might easily have been thrown across Early's route ahead of him, and would have been no doubt, had the follower's strength been great enough, but his force being too small to risk an attack, it was evidently deemed prtident to not make it. However, Tibbets's small brigade of Duffies cavalry attacked Early's trains and captured one hundred and seventeen mules and horses, eighty-two wagons and 40 or 50 prisoners getting off with thirty-seven loaded wagons and burning over forty others. This attack on the Rebel trains was made near Purcellville as they moved through that town.
(470) On this same day, the 16th, our division under the immediate command of Gen. Crook marched to Purcellville, five miles from Hillsborough, starting at 4 P. M. At the former town it was reported that Wright's command was only three miles east of there. We stayed all the next day at Purcellville; but the following day, the 18th, we marched taking the road leading to Snicker's Gap. On the way while stopping to rest the Sixth Corps came up. Our division now under Col. Thoburn moved through the gap and passed down the Shenandoah River about two miles below Snicker's Ferry, he, having been ordered by Gen. Crook about 2 o'clock to move his division with the Third Brigade of the Second to Island Ford, cross there and move up to Snicker's Ford to hold it for the army to cross.
(471) Thoburn proceeded to execute this order and thus brought on the engagement of Snicker's Ferry. When Thoburn's men attempted to cross, the enemy having a picket behind bushes, opened a brisk fire; but Wells' brigade finding a good fording some distance below pushed across and captured the Rebel picket of 15 men, and the captain commanding them. Thoburn's force now all moved over, when he, learning from the prisoners that there was a large force of the enemy near, sent word back to Crook to that effect, who now ordered Thoburn to not attempt to march to the ferry, but to await a reinforcement of a brigade from the Sixth Corps.
(472) Before long the enemy attacked in strong force. About this time the Sixth Corps came up, halting within close cannon shot upon the Blue Ridge, which here closely skirts the river, but no reinforcements came to us. Breckinridge attacked on the left and centre and Rhodes on the right. Here on the extreme right was a lot of dismounted cavalry from various regiments under command of Lieut. Col. Young of the Fourth Pennsylvania, who soon gave way retreating across the river. Thoburn quickly changed front to meet the flank attack of Rhodes but after hard fighting, our right was forced across the river some getting drowned. Our left held its ground until ordered back, recrossing the river in fairly good order, considering circumstances. The fight was short but severe. Our loss was 65 killed, 301 wounded and 56 missing. Total, 422. Among the field Officers our loss was heavy. Col. Dan. Frost of the Eleventh, Lieut. Col. Thomas Morris of the Fifteenth West Virginia Infantry and the Colonel of an Ohio regiment were killed, and Col. Washburn of the One Hundred and Sixteenth Ohio Infantry was thought to be mortally wounded, a musket ball having entered his left eye and come out of his right ear, but he recovered. The loss of the Rebels must also have been severe, and the more so since in forcing our men back they brought themselves within range of the Sixth Corps batteries, on the opposite side of the river, which opened and kept up a hot fire upon them for a little while doing good execution, and thus aiding also our men in recrossing the river. The next day the Rebels were busy burying their dead and removing their wounded, and two days later when the enemy had gone the citizens, living near the battle field told us that their loss was heavy.
(473) At the time of this engagement, Thoburn's men regarded the failure of the Sixth Corps to come to their support as resulting from an indifference on the part of that corps, as to how Thoburn's men came out in the fight. However, the true explanation of the matter may be found in this dispatch from Wright to Halleck: "The attempt at crossing was resisted in strong force; and believing it better to turn his position I designed doing so by way of Keyes Cap thus effecting a junction with some of the forces of Gen. Hunter lower down the Valley."
(474) The Twelfth was the last regiment to retreat across the river. According to the account of Col. Curtis, Col. Thoburn having confidence in the pluck and staying qualities of our boys, ordered him to form his regiment in line in front of the ford, and hold it at all hazard till further olders. The position was an excellent one being in a road parallel with the river, the bank of which road inside a good breast work. The regiment held its position until ordered to recross the river doing so in the dusk of the evening, the rest of the force having crossed shortly before. One of the noticeable features of the fight here, observed by our men, was a peculiar way the Rebel skirmishers had. They would advance fire and then turn their backs toward us to load, those seen obliquetly to our left wore a blue-grey uniform, which at a distance looked blue: This fact together with their waving their backs toward us when loading, caused doubt as to whether they were our men or the enemy, and some of the officers gave orders to fire upon them while others, saying they were our men gave orders to not fire; but when it was generally seen which way these skirmishers were firing there was no longer any doubt, and the men were told to let them have it. Here and on our left generally, the Rebels were driven back.
(475) One of the especially sad and lamentable results of this fight was, that some members of the Fourth West Virginia Infantry whose time had expired were killed in it. They had been waiting before starting home until a sufficiently strong force should be going to the rear to make it safe for them to start. In the meantime this Snicker's Ferry fight came on, and the Fourth boys being plucky fellows generally, these discharged men said that they would not stand back while their comrades were going into a fight, and so some of the poor fellows were killed with discharges in their pockets.
(476) The next day after the battle our forces lay on one side of the river and the enemy on the other, our sharpshooters getting a shot at them once in awhile. One division of the Nineteenth Corps came up this day. Generals Averell and Duval were now moving up the Valley toward Winchester from Martinsburg with 2,700 troops, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, getting in Early's rear. In the morning the 20th, his force was gone from our front. Averell's movement no doubt, compelling this withdrawal, and during the day we crossed the river and camped in some woods. Before the troops here crossed the river, however, we heard considerable commanding away to the west of us. There was much conjecture among the rank and file as to what that meant. This proved to be a battle between Averell's force, Duval commanding the infantry and a superior Rebel force, the fight being near Winchester, in which Averell won a complete victory.
(477) That evening the 6th, and the Nineteenth Corps recrossed the river and took the road leading through Leesburg to Washington, Wright thinking it seems that Early was on his way to Richmond and expecting it appears, that he Wright would be returned to Grant at Petersburg. But he had made a mistake in his inferences, for his troops did not go farther than Georgetown, D. C., and it will presently be seen that Early was not yet ready to leave the Valley.
(478) The 22nd, we marched passing through Berrysville to Winchester, and camped about two miles beyond the town on the Strasburg road. The purpose of Gen. Crook in this movement was to watch Early's movements and if possible ascertain his purposes. He did not have to wait long to find them out. Early did not retreat farther up the Valley than Strasburg, and learning there that Wright's force had returned to Washington, he concluded to attack Crook, which he did, and this brought on the battle of Kearnstown. The next day after our arrival at our camp near Winchester, the enemy drove in our pickets, but after some skirmishing the Rebels were driven back. The day after this affair with the pickets. Early attacked Crook with his whole force at Kearnstown. The Twelfth had been formed in line that Sunday forenoon, July 24th, for inspection, at least the men had received orders to get ready for that purpose; but suddenly without there being any inspection the men were ordered to load at will.
(479) A half hour later perhaps our brigade was marched toward Kearnstown. Before starting we had heard for some time considerable skirmishing in that direction, and it was still kept up. It was the season then for ripe blackberries, and as we moved toward the firing we passed through fields where these berries were plentiful. Some of the men could not forego stepping a little out of ranks and picking a few of them. Col. Ely of the Eighteenth Connecticut, commanding the brigade, noticing the men commanded them: "Keep in ranks, men, it is no time to be gathering black berries." In truth it was not the most propitious time imaginable for that purpose. It seems that anything said or done at all noticeable in a critical and perilous time is apt to make a strong impression and be remembered, and the boys for some days afterward were in the habit of repeating the Colonel's command, "Keep in ranks men, it is no time to be gathering blackberries."
(480) Our brigade had been moving forward on the right of the pike. Finally we took a position and made a breast work of rails - a thing of little use in an open country like that, for a breast work there can easily be taken in flank. It was not long until we were moved from this position and placed in line, still on the right of the pike with the other troops. About 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon Early attacked with his whole force. There are no data at hand showing Crooks strength; but it was much inferior to that of Early, the latter having force enough to fight us in front and to flank us on both flanks. In fact, it was his expectation to cut off our retreat and capture our whole force. Our left was struck in flank and doubled up and at the same time the centre being hard pressed, the left and centre gave way. Crook seeing this and knowing that he had not force enough to fight Earlys whole army ordered a retreat at about 3 o'clock, an hour or so after the battle began. The Twelfth changed front once during the battle but did not otherwise give ground until ordered off the field. Col. Ely giving the order, saying to Col. Curtis, "Move your men off the field by the right flank."
(481) The Rebels followed us sharply for six or eight miles. After passing Winchester our brigade, halted at times and skirmished with the enemy. Just as night was coming on while we were in a piece of woods, a squadron of Rebel cavalry came in view riding within close range. They were going in an opposite direction from us at a distance to our right. When near us they halted. It being near night it was hard to tell whether they were friends or enemies; but many of the men of the brigade especially of the Second Maryland regiment began firing on them, being satisfied that they were Rebels; and they retreated toward Winchester, their horses prancing under the fire. Our brigade became separated from the rest of the troops and for some reason instead of following the direction of the pike toward Martinsburg, as did the other troops, we turned toward North Mountain. Part of the way toward the mountain we passed through rough stony woods, and it being a pitch dark night - so very dark that you could scarcely see the man next you - the men stumbled considerably, falling sometimes while in the woods.
(482) By reason of the darkness we had to get a guide to pilot us; and for the same reason Col. Thoburn and Col. Curtis got separated from the command, for some days we did not know what had become of them. We camped at the village of Gerardstown at the base of the mountain. The main portion of Crook's infantry camped at Bunker Hill. Before daylight the next morning we marched for Martinsburg, there meeting the rest of our force. Our brigade was detailed as a guard for our wagon trains. Before leaving with the trains, however, cannonading had begun south of the town, Crook was holding the enemy back till he could get his trains away. We arrived opposite Williamsport, Washington county Maryland, in the evening and camped for the night.
(483) In the morning the 26th, we crossed over to the town and marched first to Sharpsburg, then to Sandyhook and next, passing through Harpers Ferry to Halltown arriving there the 28th. On this day Cols. Thoburn and Curtis returned to their commands. The boys were all heartily glad to see them, giving them rousing cheers on their return, and they no doubt were no less glad to be once more with their commands. Col. Curtis says that when he and Thoburn became separated from their commands they were surrounded by a squad of "Rebel cavalry, who fired upon them, compelling them to abandon their horses and take refuge in a corn field. The next morning they found the entire Rebel force between them and their commands. They made their way to North Mountain. By traveling at nights and sleeping in the day time, living on black berries part of the time they, through the assistance of the colored people and loyal whites at last returned to their commands to report for duty, being four days absent without leave.
(484) Recurring to the battle of Kearnstown, Crook went to that town as before mentioned to learn of Early's movements; but it is believed that a battle there could have been avoided with little or no loss to us; and in view of the fact that Crook knew that he did not have force enough to meet Early's entire army, he should have declined an engagement. The sacrifice of 1,200 men. Col. Mulligan commanding a division was killed in this engagement. Crook's estimated loss was too great simply to get information as to the enemys purposes, when the knowledge might have been got otherwise. The loss of the enemy has been supposed to be light.
(485) The loss of the Twelfth in this battle was inconsiderable mainly in prisoners taken. It was perhaps twenty-five or thirty in all. At the beginning of the fight Lieut. Col. Brown was ordered on to the skirmish line with two companies. It was from these companies principally that the prisoners were taken. When our main force retreated, these skirmishers received no order to fall back, the order not reaching them, and, they being left behind were surrounded and a part of them, mostly from Company K, were captured. Lieut. Col. Brown, then major, and Lieut. John A. Briggs, of Company K, were among the prisoners. These two officers, however, managed to escape at Harrisonburg from their guards while the latter were asleep and made their way from there to North Mountain reaching there about daylight one morning a few hours after their escape. As day was breaking they hid in woods. It was not long till the Rebel cavalry were seen coming in search for them. They came so near that they could be heard talking. Fortunately, however, the fugitives were not discovered. The particulars of how Lieut. Col. Brown and Lieut. Briggs made their way to our lines, are not known, but some how they succeeded in getting safe through to New Creek on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. Lieut. Col. Brown says that after his capture he with some other officers was brought before Gen. Breckinridge, who, he says was a fine looking man, thus concurring with the popular opinion. The general questioned the prisoners, as to the strength of Crook's command and so forth, but they gave him no satisfaction in the way of information.
(486) Col. Curtis tells of an incident of Crook's retreat, about a colored boy, his servant. When the retreat began the boy had charge of a mule having all the Colonel's cooking utensils and other camp equipage strapped upon him. After awhile the regiment came to a fence, the men climbed over, the Colonel jumped his horse over and the boy tried to get the mule to jump, but be refused. The case was urgent, as the bullets were flying all around us; but the boy held on to the mule trying to get him to jump. The mule was still stubborn. In the midst of the boy's efforts a ball struck him in the neck, bleeding him freely. This caused him to free his mind. He said: "Well a d----d mule and a nigger are two of the most contrary things in the world." It is not known whether the boy's vigorous expletive had any effect upon the mule, but about this time he jumped the fence and the boy brought off the mule and traps in safety.
(487) Richard W. Mahan of Company K, who was captured in this engagement tells the story of his capture and prison trials as follows:
(488) As soon as our regiment was brought up my company (K) and Company E, were filed out without halting the regiment, and deployed on the right as skirmishers. This was the last I saw of the regiment for ten months. I have always thought that we were sacrificed in this engagement - I mean the skirmishers. We commenced to fall back after it was too late, very slowly too, firing in retreat. Our army by this time had fallen back out of sight; and the Forty-fourth Virginia (Rebel) cavalry was close on our right and in our rear. So after a short, but brisk home stretch, we surrendered in the open field and hot sun, with no apple tree near to make the terms under. Seventeen of our regiment, including two officers Maj. R. H. Brown and Lieut. John A. Briggs eight of them being of my company were captured here.
(489) We were guarded the first night in an old school house. The next morning we were taken to Winchester and kept there about two days with nothing to eat until the third day when they started us off on the march for Staunton, one hundred and eighty miles away. We were there loaded into cars that were already loaded with pig metal and taken to Lynchburg, and kept there ten days. Thence to Danville, Va., arriving there on the llth day of August, having traveled in closed box cars that had been used in shipping charcoal and tar; and when we were taken from the cars into the light we were so black that we could scarcely recognize each other.
(490) From the depot here we were marched to the prison. Halting in front while the doors were thrown open, five dead soldiers were brought out in plain pine boxes. This incident opened our eyes as we thought there must be something terrible inside for death to make such a detail at one time from one of six buildings, containing about 600 prisoners each. We marched in and up to the garret where there were already about fifty prisoners quartered, who had no clothing on except a blouse tied around the waist, it being so excessively hot from the heat of the tin roof which came down to the floor on each side. The roof was so hot that you could not bear your hand on it while the sun shone.
(491) We were kept here until the 17th of February, 1865, suffering the usual ills of prison life. And the great trouble with most of us was short rations, which was a half pound of corn bread each morning at 9 o'clock. The Johnnys proposed that if we would go out and work on their fortifications, they would give us extra rations. A few accepted this proposition as workers were called for each morning for two or three days; but they were punished severely by the other prisoners for their disloyalty, and soon no one would respond when the call would be made. "All right," said Johnny. "You all will come at the next call." So they reduced our rations to make us yield.
(492) In the meantime an organization was proposed and effected among the prisoners of one hundred members to respond to the next call with the intention of capturing the guard at the fortifications and making their escape. This was in the month of October, and we that in the event we should escape we could subsist on the mast of the woods of the mountains on our way north. All arrangements were completed, and the signal word (which was Corn-Dodger) for combined action in making the attempt at escape was to be given at 4 P.M., which was the hour they would form us into two ranks for a ration of soup; then take us back to prison. So in the morning when the call was made we responded liberally, but unfortunately for myself and twenty-four others the door was closed on the rear of the column and no more than seventy-five would be received. Being greatly disappointed those of us left in prison went back up stairs and gazed longingly across the Dan River at our boys working on the fortifications. At 4 P. M., approached we watched through the garret window in breathless silence to see the boys execute the plan. Sure enough the signal is given, the guards are clinched and their guns taken from them, and every prisoner there takes to his heels due north. The Johnnys fired an alarm from the fort, and their reserve citizens and dogs were soon in pursuit. They were nearly all captured in the course of a month or six weeks and brought back. Some who got near the Union lines and became careless were picked up.
(493) The mortality among the prisoners here during the time mentioned was 1,300 of the 3,500 in all. We were taken from here to Libby prison and kept there three days and exchanged on the 22nd of February - a day for us to celebrate for two reasons.
(494) The next day the 29th, after our arrival at Halltown, the Sixth Corps and one division of the Nineteenth Corps arrived there from Washington having been ordered back to the lower Valley on account of Early's continued presence there. The authorities, it seemed, had now become convinced that he had no notion of vacating that place just then. And a longer army was now concentrating at Halltown for the purpose of attacking him. The Twelfth heretofore had belonged to a small army; and for the past three months had had very hard service generally, and during that time the regiment had been in five engagements: but now for the first time we were to be placed in a comparatively large army, and from this time to the end of the war we belonged to a large one. We found our service much easier from this time on with a large force, than it had been for past three months with a small force. Gen. Hunter was in command of the army concentrating at Halltown.
(495) On the 13th, there being a force of the enemy at this time, of uncertain strength operating in Pennsylvania and there being a belief or apprehension that Early's whole army was north of the Potomac with a general condition of uncertainty as to the situation of affairs with respect to his force and operations, the troops at Halltown soon after receiving the orders, crossed the Pototmac at Harpers Ferry on a pontoon bridge and started on what Greely calls a wild goose chase into Maryland, to head off a possible attempt by the enemy against Washington. The whole force started in the direction of Frederick City; but after marching some distance, our division turned to the left, the Sixth Corps and Nineteenth going toward that city. We marched about, in a halting uncertain way for three or four days when the Rebel invasion proving to be nothing but a cavalry raid, we marched to rejoin our other troops at the Monocacy, near Frederick City. Hunter's headquarters were in this city.
(496) The Twelfth remained in camp at the Monocacy two days the 4th and 5th of August. On this latter day, Gen. Grant, who had left his army before Petersburg, on account of the unsatisfactory military condition in the Valley, arrived at Frederick City to have a conference with Gen. Hunter and to give him orders as to future operations. He gave him an order dated "Headquarters in the field, Monocacy Bridge, Md., August 5, 1864," which embraced a direction to concentrate his forces at Harpers Ferry just where Hunter had been concentrating his army a week before. The order stated with other instructions, "Bear in mind the object is to drive the enemy south." Grant informed Hunter that a large force of cavalry from the Army of the Potomac was on the way to join him.
(497) Hunter began at once to carry out the order. That same night part of Crook's command crossed tire Potomac and occupied the old lines at Halltown. As it happened this same day, the day of Grant's order, Early crossed into Maryland from Martinsburg in force. But the next day Early recalled his army to Martinsburg, being influenced no doubt, by Hunter's move to Halltown, which threatened Early's rear. The 6th, the Twelfth marched from the Monocacy to near Harpers Ferry. On the 8th, we marched across the Potomac to near Halltown where the army was massing.