“Our men did not retreat, but held their own”

I’ll admit it. I’m terrible at remembering anniversaries. I really wanted to do an in depth, day-by-day account of the various Home Brigade regiments during the Gettysburg Campaign. That’ll have to wait at this point. Instead we’ll turn our attention from Lee’s second invasion to that other July campaign – Early’s Maryland campaign in 1864. It won’t be a true day-by-day account (I’m still pretty pressed for time at this point) but I will walk through some of the Home Brigade involvement in the protection of their home state.

Before we get to the Battle of Monocacy – the culminating action of the campaign if you ask me – we’ll take a look at the actions in the preceding days and how they affected the campaign. The 1st and 3rd PHB Infantry would both play important roles in the fighting around Frederick, and Cole’s Cavalry would lend their support as well.

As Jubal Early’s rebel army marched northwards from Winchester, Virginia towards some of the first Federal soldiers they encountered were troopers of Cole’s Cavalry. Through the summer of 1864 a provisional brigade of dismounted cavalry was operating in the lower Valley, under the command of Lt. Colonel George Vernon of Cole’s Cavalry. A portion of this force was made up of new recruits – companies raised to augment Cole’s to full regimental strength. They ranged through Jefferson County,  serving as scouts and pickets while waiting to be fully mounted.

Under the command of Lt. Samuel Sigler of Company D, a section of 65 men scouted for the advancing Confederates along the roads running between Winchester and Charlestown. This same group of scouts returned to their camp at Leetown early on the morning of July 3rd, right as the advancing rebels arrived. A skirmish ensued and many of the newly recruited troopers got their first taste of battle that day (1). The raw recruits acquitted themselves well. A veteran related how “they behaved most admirably, forming line of battle in face of an artillery fire with promptitude that would have done credit to older veterans”(2). The cavalrymen, along with their supporting infantry in Mulligan’s Brigade, fell back on Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry in good order.

The garrison in Harper’s Ferry had an important choice to make. Would they try to hold the lower town, as they had in September 1862, or abandon it to the rebels and hold the heights above? The former had led to disaster, and many of the veterans of the Home Brigade had been there and knew it. After skirmishing throughout the day with the rebels, the garrison under General Max Weber opted for the latter option, and retreated across the Potomac to Maryland Heights, destroying the bridges in their wake.

A handful of men were killed or wounded in the skirmishing, including John Harmison of Company F, 1st PHB Infantry. John was born and raised in Morgan County, (West) Virginia and had enlisted in the Home Brigade in August of 1863. He gave his age as 18, but census records indicate that he may have only been 16 when a rebel bullet pierced the right side of his chest at Harpers Ferry (3). The young West Virginian lingered for nearly three weeks in a military hospital in Frederick before succumbing to his wound. Initially interred in the hospital cemetery, he was moved to Antietam National Cemetery, where he is buried among the Maryland troops.

32709_b041213-00542

(Library of Congress/Ancestry.com)

The survivors watched from Maryland Heights at the rebels occupied the town below. They were soon joined by the rest of General Sigel’s command who had been driven from Leetown the day before.

Meanwhile, news of Early’s advance had reached Frederick, causing widespread panic. “The news that the rebels were at Boonesboro, about 16 miles west of Frederick, spread like wildfire, and Union citizens who were afraid to remain hurriedly packed their valuables and prepared to leave as quickly as possible for Baltimore or, if need be, further north, for safety.” wrote one eyewitness (4). The city provost guard was under the command of 24 year old Major John Israel Yellott of Baltimore. He was a three year veteran of the 1st PHB Infantry at this point and was well acquainted with Frederick. A quick perusal of the Official Records shows his continual messages to surrounding officers asking for any and all information on the invading rebel force (5).

Major Yellott did his best to control the situation, but things were dire. Reports coming into Frederick indicated that Early might have 30,000 men or more on the way (in truth the rebels numbered little more than half that). Relief for the beleaguered Major arrived on July 6th in the form of Major General Lew Wallace. The general took charge of the situation and from his headquarters at Monocacy Junction he organized the motley assortment of veterans, 100-days men, and Home Brigaders that were tricking in. As the rebels once again threatened Frederick it was up to these men, many of whom had never seen combat, to hold them back.

Two of the first organizations on the scene were the 1st and 3rd PHB Infantry Regiments. About 200 men of the 1st, under the command of Captain Charles Brown, were on hand from the various garrisons between Harpers Ferry and Frederick; the 3rd, under the command of Col. Charles Gilpin, had been spread out along the B&O between Monocacy and Relay House (6). They took up positions along the Monocacy River east of Frederick on the 6th. So where was the 2nd PHB Infantry in all this? They were helping to hold the western part of the B&O open for Union passage. While Early was advancing into Maryland Confederate cavalry attempted to cut the vital rail link. Captain Petrie and his ironclad rail cars spent early July rushing back and forth between Cumberland and Sir John’s Run trying to repel these raiders (7).

Early on July 7 trouble was brewing just 10 or so miles west of Frederick. Early had crossed South Mountain and was heading east up the National Road. Just outside of Middletown the rebels ran into Wallace’s first line of defence – elements of the 8th Illinois Cavalry and two guns Alexander’s Baltimore Battery. They skirmished across the valley and up the western slope of Catoctin Mountain, through what is now Braddock Heights (8). Major Oliver Horner of Cole’s Cavalry was acting on detached service that day when his horse was shot and he was captured. The lucky Major was able to make an escape, however, and hid himself in a nearby slave cabin before sneaking through the rebel pickets and back to Monocacy (9).

As the Union skirmishers fell back eastward Wallace rushed to throw together a defensive line on the high ground west of town. The man he chose to take direct command that defense was Colonel Gilpin of the 3rd PHB Infantry. Gilpin was to take his 250 men, some 100-days men from the 159th Ohio, and the remaining troopers of the 8th Illinois, along with the rest of Alexander’s Battery. This scant force would delay the rebels for as long as possible and buy precious time to get further reinforcements to Monocacy.

Colonel Gilpin was a native New Yorker who was working as a merchant in Flintstone, Maryland when the war broke out. At 50 years of age he was older than many of his fellow company commanders. He took command of the 3rd PHB Infantry in the fall of 1862, following Stephen Downey’s departure. Over the next few days he would lead the regiment through as much combat as they had seen in the previous two years. The defense of west Frederick would be his first test.

As the rebels filed down from the hills west of town that afternoon the men of the 3rd PHB Infantry arrayed themselves along a low ridge. After the war a veteran of the action drew a map showing the troop dispositions:

 

Capture

“Early’s Great Raid” National Tribune. 13 April 1893

Many of the landmarks are still recognizable today, even if the area has seen considerable development. Let’s compare (north is to the right)…

 

Capture.JPG

Prospect Hall, wartime home of William Maulsby, is shown on both maps. The old Hagerstown Pike is now Alternate 40, while the Harpers Ferry Road is modern Jefferson Pike. “Burnt Mill Lane” on the battle map corresponds with modern Baughman’s Lane, and the Almshouse Road is modern Rosemont Ave. Using this map as a guide we can see that the majority of the fighting that day was done roughly where the Rt. 15 bypass skirts the west side of downtown Frederick. Now that we’ve set the scene lets get into the action.

Gilpin got his men into position and the fighting opened around 4:00 PM. Six regiments of Virginia and Maryland Cavalry, under the command of Frederick native General Bradley Johnson charged across the fields towards the Union defenders. The action that followed was succinctly summarized by one of the officers present:

“After a sharp engagement of about four hours, during which the rebels threw a number of shells into Frederick City, our battery dismounted one of the rebel guns and silenced their artillery, and they were driven back to the mountain by a charge by the 3d Md. P.H.B. under Col. Gilpin. (10)”

Gilpin had won the day. Wallace was so impressed with Gilpin and his conduct that in his dispatch that day he wrote “Think I have had the best little battle of the war. Our men did not retreat, but held their own”(11). The “little battle” cost the Union forces two men killed and one officer and 17 men wounded.

Skirmishing continued the next day, as the Union cavalry and mounted infantry sparred with their rebel counterparts along Catoctin Mountain and near the Rocky Spring Schoolhouse. Federal artillery north of the Hagerstown Pike “had a spirited fight with a rebel battery on Hagan’s Hill, about a mile west of the city” (12). The main defensive lines drew back towards modern Jefferson Street.

Capture

National Tribune

As evening fell on the 8th the defenders of west Frederick quietly withdrew through the town that they had so ably defended for the last two days. Their stand had held up the rebels long enough to evacuate the wounded in the city and move or destroy the military supplies there. More importantly they had bought more time for General Wallace to bring up much needed ammunition and reinforcements, including veteran elements of the 6th Army Corps that would prove crucial in the coming days.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy. I probably won’t get around to writing then, but sometime in the next few days we’ll take a look at the 1st and 3rd PHB Infantry and the role they played in that battle.

 

 

  1. OR Series I, Volume 37 (II). pp 17-18; Newcomer, Christopher. Cole’s Cavalry, or, Three years in the saddle in the Shenandoah Valley. Cushing &Co. Baltimore. 1895. pp 127-129
  2. Newcomer, p 129
  3. NARA M384. Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to the State of Maryland. Rolls 0190 and 0225
  4. “Early’s Great Raid” National Tribune 13 April 1893
  5. OR Series I, Volume 37 (II). pp 24-25, 41
  6. “Early’s Great Raid” National Tribune 13 April 1893
  7. OR Series I, Volume 37 (II). pp 27-46
  8. Wild, Frederick. Memoirs and History of Capt. F. W. Alexander’s Baltimore Battery of Light Artillery, U. S. V. Press of the Maryland School for Boys. Loch Raven, Md. 1912. pp 118-120; “Early’s Great Raid” National Tribune 13 April 1893
  9. Newcomer, pp 129-130
  10. “Early’s Great Raid” National Tribune 13 April 1893
  11. OR Series I, Volume 37 (II). p 110
  12. “Early’s Great Raid” National Tribune 13 April 1893
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