June 11-16th, 1863 – Cole’s Cavalry Opens the Fight

When we last left off I gave a general disposition of the various Home Brigade units at the start of June 1863. Just in case you need a refresher – the 1st PHB Infantry was in southern Maryland, the 2nd PHB Infantry (minus its mounted company) was strung out along the B&O between Cumberland and Paw Paw, the 3rd PHB Infantry was near Annapolis, and Cole’s Battalion (plus Co. F of the 2nd) was in the lower Shenandoah Valley.

Capture

The Home Brigade at the beginning of June, 1863

Over the next two months every unit of the Home Brigade would be drawn into the campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia in some capacity. Today’s post is going to focus on Cole’s Cavalry and their role in the lead-up to Gettysburg. They were the first Home Brigade unit to be caught up in the fighting and up until July 2nd were the most heavily engaged.

The position of Cole’s men in the lower Shenandoah would put them squarely in the path of Lee’s advancing army, and they made their first contact with the advancing rebels on June 13th. This would mark the start of more than two weeks of near constant action for the Marylanders.

Cole’s men had been stationed in the lower Valley since the previous fall, maintaining a defensive cordon around Harper’s Ferry, Martinsburg, and Charlestown. On June 12th Companies A and D, under the command of Captain Vernon, were sent out of Charlestown on a scout into Loudoun County to ascertain the position of the advancing Confederates (1). The following day as they returned by way of the Berryville Pike they found what they were looking for – advance elements of Rhode’s Division of the ANV. Overwhelmed by the numerically superior enemy infantry Vernon’s horsemen fell back in a fighting retreat. With firm evidence that the enemy was on the move in force Vernon sent scouts off in the direction of Winchester to warn the garrison commander there – Major General Robert Milroy – of the coming danger.

220px-Robert_H._Milroy_-_Brady-Handy.jpg

General Robert Milroy. The Hoosier had just turned 47 a few days before the Second Battle of Winchester

The ensuing battle – known as the 2nd Battle of Winchester – was an unmitigated disaster for Milroy and his command of some 7,000 men. I won’t go into too much detail on the battle itself, as there are whole works on the subject – but in effect Milroy chose to stay in Winchester and put his faith in his fortifications, allowing Ewell’s Corps of the ANV to effectively encircle the garrison on June 14th. At least 4,000 men were captured, and the rest scattered in any direction they thought offered safety.

While the men in Winchester were being surrounded the men of Cole’s Cavalry were desperately skirmishing with the enemy throughout the area. On the 14th Vernon’s Squadron was back in the saddle, skirmishing all day with rebels “on the roads leading from the Potomac to Winchester”(2). That same day they were joined by Company F of the 2nd PHB Infantry, under the command of Captain George D. Summers of Washington County, MD. Although belonging to an infantry regiment, this company – made up predominantly by men from Morgan County, (W)VA – had been mounted and detached from its parent regiment. Captain Summers recalled that

“I had a skirmish at Berryville on Sunday, the 14th day of June. My advance ran into a large body of cavalry near Berryville. I lost 1 man wounded and 2 captured and was forced to fall back to Charlestown, and then to Halltown, contesting every inch of ground with the enemy’s skirmishers” (3).

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Berryville is in the lower left, with Charlestown and Halltown in the upper right. Map of portions of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland…(Library of Congress)

While Vernon and Summers skirmished on the 14th Company B of Cole’s command found the rebels in the vicinity of Martinsburg. Rhode’s division was again in the vanguard, sent north around Winchester to cut off Milroy’s retreat, and they reached the town around 4 PM. A small force of 2 Infantry regiments, Company B of Cole’s Cavalry, and one artillery battery garrisoned the town – not nearly enough to stave off an entire Confederate division (4). Rather than surrender the beleaguered Yankees held out until dark before attempting to make their escape. While the infantry headed east to Shepherdstown the artillery and cavalry went north along the Valley Turnpike to the Potomac.

Company B, under Captain Firey, “acquitted itself with its accustomed gallantry” that evening.

Having skirmished nearly all day with the enemy’s cavalry, it was confronted in the evening by a heavy force massed on the Winchester road to turn the right of the Federal line. With great impetuosity the enemy charged up the pike, and despite a stubborn resistance by the company and some infantry (not over one hundred in all) he pushed forward, and a running fight was kept up through the town, Captain Firey bravely contesting every inch of the ground. Taking the Williamsport road, the company hurried in retreat towards the river, which was crossed before midnight (5)

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The ground between Martinsburg and Williamsport that Captain Firey’s Company contested in June, 1863 (Library of Congress)

The remaining company of Cole’s battalion, Company C, was the westernmost along the extended picket line that screened Harper’s Ferry. When news of the Confederate advance came they were in the vicinity of Hedgesville, (West) Virginia. They quickly moved east and throughout the 14th and 15th they scouted the roads from Kerneysville, Shepherdstown, Hallstown, and Harper’s Ferry.

As the shattered remnants of Milroy’s command streamed northwards the men of Cole’s Cavalry did their best to cover their retreat. Captains Vernon and Summers continued to operate in the vicinity of Charlestown throughout the 15th and 16th. When the rebel army reached Charlestown they demanded Vernon’s surrender, to which the irrascible Marylander replied “I did not come to Charestown to surrender, but to fight to the best of my ability, and I propose to do it” (6). And the Marylanders did just that, skirmishing their way to the Potomac and the relative safety of Maryland Heights.

As of June 16th all of the portions of Cole’s command, including Summer’s company, had successfully completed their fighting withdrawals and were on the north side of the Potomac. Companies A, C, and D of Cole’s Battalion, along with Summer’s company were in the vicinity of Maryland Heights, while Company B was near Williamsport, MD at Dam Number 5. After the war C. Armour Newcomer of Company C recalled how “the Battalion, with Major Cole in command, covered [Milroy’s] retreat and were the last Union soldiers to reach the Potomac River” (7). Similarly Captain Summers claimed that on June 16th “I was ordered to fall back to Maryland Heights, which I did without further loss, being the last soldier in this command that left Dixie” (8). They were back on their home soil, but the fighting was far from over.

 

  1. Scharf p. 268
  2. Ibid. p. 268
  3. OR Volume 27, Part 2. p 203
  4. Scharf p. 269
  5. Ibid p. 269
  6. Ibid p. 268-269; OR Volume 27, Part 2. p 203
  7. Newcomer p. 51
  8. OR Volume 27, Part 2. p 203

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