A New Year’s Day Disaster

Confession time. I really don’t like New Year’s as a holiday.  I’ve always been more comfortable looking back in time than looking forward to the future. Maybe it’s the post-holiday hangover, or some sort of fear of the unknown, or knowing that I’m one year older. I’m never in the mood to celebrate the passage of time. As bad as my dread can be, though, it pales in comparison to the New Year’s Day surprise that was in store for the men of Cole’s Cavalry in 1864.

As 1863 passed into 1864 the American Civil War was about to enter its third year and there was some reason for hope throughout the north. The outgoing year had seen great victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. The Federal grip on the Confederacy was tightening, accelerated by the taking of the Mississippi. Still, the Confederacy remained resilient. The campaigns to take Atlanta and Richmond had yet to begin, so both the capital and the rebel heartland were unconquered. Along the Potomac frontier things remained much as they had since the beginning of the war. Control shifted almost daily as raids and counter-raids swept across the region. Much of the area south of the river was earning a reputation as “Mosby’s Confederacy” as the elusive rebel cavalryman perfected his hit-and-run tactics.

Federal commanders retaliated with cavalry raids of their own, and one of the most effective units in their border war was Cole’s Cavalry. Like their opponents, many of Cole’s men were intimately familiar with the region – most had grown up on the Maryland side of the Potomac, but there were at least 50 men in the ranks who were natives of “Mosby’s Confederacy.” Most came from Loudoun or Jefferson Counties, but there were a handful from Fairfax, Clarke, Fauquier, and Warren Counties as well. Knowledge of the local terrain and population is always advantageous, and Cole’s men were able to use this to good effect. They had been bloodied by the rebels before – notably at Leesburg in 1862 – but the regiment was considered one of the more useful forces for reconnaissance and raiding in the area. The History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers described their service:

The personnel of the Old Battalion included loyal Virginians and Pennsylvanians
from the border land; nevertheless, they were almost exclusively from Western Maryland. They were farmers’ and planters’ sons, mainly, in good circumstances, who owned good horses, which they brought with them into the military service.

They were, in the main, young, unmarried men, intelligent, enthusiastic, accustomed
to the use of firearms, of fine physique—in fact, the very best material for cavalrymen.

Their thorough knowledge of the topography of the country, which became, to a great extent, the seat of the war in Western Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, rendered their services to the Union cause invaluable. During the four long years of war from 1861 to 1865, they were almost constantly in the saddle, and from Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, to Lynchburg, on the James, in Virginia, they scouted and fought with untiring zeal. (1)

In late December 1863 Cole’s Cavalry was sent up the Shenandoah Valley on a two week long raid which culminated in the brief occupation of Harrisonburg. The raiders, led by Cole’s men, wrecked telegraph lines and captured over 100 prisoners (2). Flush with success the troopers returned to  Harper’s Ferry before going into winter quarters across the river at Loudoun Heights. While the majority of the regiment went about setting up camp a group of approximately 60 men were selected to go on yet another reconnaissance. This raid would take them deep into the heart of “Mosby’s Confederacy” and into a disaster.

Captain Albert Hunter was selected to command the raid. He was a native of Adams County, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a prosperous farm in Liberty Township. He enlisted in 1861 as the bugler for Company C but was soon promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and eventually Captain of the company.

Hunter, Albert 2.jpg

Captain Albert Hunter, Cole’s Cavalry. (US Army Heritage and Education Center)

On December 30 Hunter and his men left camp and headed south towards Hillsboro, but knowing that rebel spies were prevalent in the area “between the hills” the cavalrymen doubled back after nightfall. As darkness covered the valley they set off overland and arrived in the Unionist bastion of Lovettsville around 9 PM. The following morning they left the friendly confines of the German Settlement and rode south as the weather turned bad. Hunter related how “By 10 o’clock Snow began to fall and later sleet and rain. By dusk we were 3 miles from Middlesburg, wet and very cold” (3). Their ultimate objective, the hamlet of Rectorstown, was still several miles distant, so the exhausted cavalrymen spent that cold and wet night on a nearby farm. The night passed in relative comfort…

We found a large house and a barn a few hundred yards from the road. We conclude it would be a very good place to spend the night, whether the occupants were of the same opinion or not made very little difference. This place seemed inviting and we turned in, found everything in plenty even a large wood pile.

We found two or three women the sole occupants. We treated them with becoming litenss. Many of us spread our blankets on the floor and slept well. I remember sleeping in a parlor with my feet to a blazing fire, in a fine large fireplace (4).

The next day – New Year’s Day, 1864 – dawned cold and clear. Upon entering Middleburg the troopers were greeted with gunfire. One man, Private Jason McCullogh of Frederick County, was wounded in the skirmish. Hunter’s men managed to capture three of their assailants, and Hunter sent the wounded McCullough and the prisoners back towards Harper’s Ferry under a small escort. Unbeknownst to Hunter at the time this small party was overwhelmed by Confederate scouts and all but one were taken prisoner; Private McCullough would die in Andersonville on August 30, 1864 (5).

Undaunted by the skirmish Captain Hunter and his men pressed on southward towards Rectortown. At the same time Mosby had ordered a rendezvous at that very place in preparation for a raid on the Federals near Harper’s Ferry. As the rebel partisans arrived they found the town occupied by Cole’s men, so they began to take up positions along the ridges outside of the village (6). Deciding that “it would not be healthy to protract our stay” Hunter ordered his men out of town. Rather than heading directly north, however, he attempted to throw off the watching rebels by riding south along the Salem Road (modern Rectortown Road). A local slave pointed out a farm path that cut north across country towards Middleburg, and Hunter was certain that he and his men could use the route to escape their pursuers (7).

Mosby and his men had other ideas. This area was literally the birthplace of his command and his men knew the land better than anyone. Numbering some 35 men by this point they headed Hunter’s men off and prepared an ambush at Five Corners, between Rectortown and Rector’s Crossroads.

Capture.JPG

The area of the New Year’s Day fight from the Preliminary Map Of Northern Virginia (Library of Congress)

The outnumbered Confederates charged Hunter’s column and were initially repulsed. They were more successful in their second attack, as much of the Yankee’s ammunition had been soaked by the previous day’s rain (8). The Union line wavered and broke as Captain Hunter went down, presumably dead. Adding to the confusion was the presence of a number of Confederates wearing captured Federal uniforms. The panicked men of Cole’s Cavalry scattered across the countryside in an attempt to flee Mosby’s men. What had begun as a routine scout had now become one of the war’s worst defeats for Cole’s Cavalry.

When the firing stopped Mosby took stock of the damage his command had inflicted. His report stated that they had killed, captured, or wounded 57 men (9). James Williamson reported the Union casualties as four killed, 10 or 12 wounded, and 41 men and 50 horses captured a the cost of two Confederates wounded (10). Federal reports vary but seem to match closely with Mosby’s report. At least two men were killed outright during the skirmish. Privates Jeremiah Wiley of Franklin County, Pa and George Young of Germany died in the initial clash. Among the wounded were Privates John Sponcler, George Heilner, and William Millholland, along with Sergeant Lewis Zimmerman. Millholland was wounded on the ground when a Confederate rode up to him and emptied his revolver into him. Left for dead on the battlefield he managed to crawl to a nearby house, where the sympathetic occupants cared for him until a passing Union patrol was able to bring him to safety (11). At least 31 men in Hunter’s command were captured that day. Astonishingly 24 out of those 31 men would die at Andersonville or other rebel prisons before the war ended (12). Among those who died in captivity were a handful of Virginians native to the region. Adam Turner of Berkeley County died of pneumonia at Andersonville on May 11, and Joseph Scarlett of Loudoun County succumbed to disease there eleven days later. Jefferson County native Thomas Hank survived until August before he too died of disease.

As the victorious rebels gathered up their prisoners and equipment dropped by the fleeing Federals the defeated men of Hunter’s command streamed northward to the safety of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry. Along the way they had to cross a number of swollen creeks in temperatures well below freezing. Many had to have their toes and even feet amputated as frostbite took its toll (13). One of those who didn’t return to Harper’s Ferry was Captain Hunter. It was assumed that he was shot and either killed or captured in the initial Confederate charge. His men had seen him fall but lost track of him in the chaos. Unbeknownst to them their Captain was indeed injured but alive, but his ordeal was just beginning…

Notes

1 Wilmer, Jarrett, and Vernon. History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-5. pp 655-656

2 Newcomer, Christopher. Cole’s Cavalry, or, Three years in the saddle in the Shenandoah Valley. Cushing &Co. Baltimore. 1895. pp 86-89

3 Hunter, Albert. Captain Albert M. Hunter’s account of the War between the States (Part 3). Emmitsburg Area Historical Society.

Ibid

5  NARA M384. Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to the State of Maryland. Roll:0025

6 Williamson, James Mosby’s Rangers. Ralph Kenyon, Publisher. 1896. p 118.

7 Hunter, Albert. Captain Albert M. Hunter’s account of the War between the States (Part 3). Emmitsburg Area Historical Society.

Ibid

OR Series 1, Volume 33. p 9.

10 Williamson. p 119.

11 Newcomer. p 91.

12 NARA M384. Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to the State of Maryland

13 Newcomer. p 90.

2 thoughts on “A New Year’s Day Disaster

  1. Pingback: Blood on the Snow- Cole vs Mosby on Loudoun Heights | A River Divided

  2. Pingback: Moving forward while still looking backwards | A River Divided

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