Following the debacle at Winchester Cole’s Cavalry would be among the last Union troops back across the Potomac River. Within days they would become among the first to meet their enemy on their native soil.
The action would begin far to the west near Williamsport. The weary men of Captain Firey’s Company B had ridden across to the Maryland shore at midnight on the night of the 14th-15th after skirmishing far into the evening with rebel vanguard. They wouldn’t have much time to rest, however. Early on the 15th Captain Firey received word that Confederate cavalry was planning to cross the Potomac at Dam No. 5, about 5 miles up river from Williamsport. The Captain took off to investigate with 25 men in tow (1). As they rode westward it would have been familiar surroundings for most of the men, many of whom had been born and raised along that particular stretch of the Potomac. Now here they were ready to fight for their homes and families.
On the road to Dam No. 5 they ran into a small patrol of rebel cavalry and began to give chase. Whether this was a chance encounter or a planned ruse is anyone’s guess, but the retreating rebels lured Firey and his men straight into a larger Confederate column hidden behind a hill. In the ensuing skirmish one of Firey’s officers, 2nd Lt. Jacob Metz went down, shot dead. Firey himself was captured but managed to escape and rejoin his command.
A native of Franklin County, PA, Lt. Metz had lived in Washington County, MD for at least a decade before joining Company B in the summer of 1861. When the 35 year old Lieutenant was killed he left behind a wife and four young children. Robert Moore has done some more in depth digging on the man over at his blog.
Further east in Frederick County the rest of Cole’s Battalion, along with Capt. Summer’s Company were about to see some action of their own. Having made it across the Potomac the battalion was ordered to Maryland Heights, along with whatever troops could be assembled to hold that position. It seems that the Union command had learned their lesson from the previous fall, when the failure to hold Maryland Heights doomed the Harper’s Ferry garrison stuck in the town below. General John Kenley, a Baltimore lawyer and former commander of the 1st MD Infantry, led the defenses there. He found the presence of Cole’s men very useful during the chaotic days of mid June, and the Maryland troopers were almost constantly in the saddle scouting the river crossings near the Ferry.
One such patrol set out on June 17th in the direction of Point of Rocks, MD to guard the river crossing there. Consisting of Company A of Cole’s and Summer’s Company they set off in the direction of Petersville before turning southeast towards Point of Rocks. Unbeknownst to them they were heading into the midst of a group of Confederate raiders.
The 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, known as the “Comanches,” had a fearsome reputation along the Potomac frontier. Under the command of Elijah White they had perfected the art of guerrilla war, and were a constant thorn in the side of the US troops garrisoning the river crossings. Cole’s men had clashed with White’s before, so there was probably a certain amount of familiarity between them. This may have be helped by the presence of so many Virginians in Cole’s ranks and the many Marylanders among White’s Comanches.
The Comanches crossed into Maryland early on the 17th, taking the ford below Berlin (modern Brunswick) and splitting into two columns. The majority of the rebel horsemen followed White down the towpath of the C&O Canal, while a company of 60 or so headed north under the command of Lt. J. R. Crown. The plan was to surprise the garrison at Point of Rocks and cause as much chaos as possible. White would lead the direct attack while Crown’s men would cut around behind the garrison and prevent their escape.
As Crown’s detachment rode towards their appointed position they saw a column of horsemen in front of them, which proved to be Vernon’s command. Firing broke out when the rebels attempted to capture some stragglers, and the blue-coated troopers rode across the Catoctin Creek Bridge and formed a battle line on the high ground on the east side of the creek (2). The Confederate commander “discovering that the advantage in position, numbers* and arms, was all greatly against him” ordered a charge. A short melee ensued in which at least one of the Union horsemen was killed – Morgan County, (West) Virginia native Joseph Michael – and nine others were taken prisoner. Confederate casualties are harder to ascertain, but it appears that at least one rebel was captured and an unknown number wounded (3). The two sides quickly disengaged and Lt. Crown continued his ride to Point of Rocks. When he arrived he found that White’s column had caught the town by surprise, driving off the small garrison and capturing and destroying 23 rail cars (4).
The fight at Catoctin Creek proved to be a temporary setback for Cole’s Cavalry, and the very next day they continued their task of scouting and skirmishing with the advance portions of Lee’s army. Major Cole transferred his headquarters to the small town of Burkittsville at the base of South Mountain – a central position for him to coordinate with the troops at Harper’s Ferry. Company A of Cole’s (along with Summer’s Company) operated east of the mountains, while Companies C and D ranged to the west (5). Much further west Capt. Firey’s Company B was shadowing Lee’s army into Pennsylvania. Around this time Company D scouted towards Sharpsburg, clashing with rebel pickets near the old Antietam battlefield. Private Christopher Newcomer was among those involved, and later recalled “we were now acting as partisans and constantly annoying the enemy, capturing their pickets and picking up stragglers, and were on the move day and night” (6).
On the 18th Vernon and Summers rode to Frederick, where they encountered Confederate cavalry and three of Summer’s men were taken prisoner “after desperate resistance”(7). The Union cavalrymen remained in Frederick at least until the 19th, as indicated by the bizarre episode involving the shooting of Sgt. John Hudson in Bentztown that I’ve examined before. At this point Summer’s Company was finally split away from Cole’s command and ordered to Berlin, where they would remain for the rest of the month.
Captain Vernon and Company A returned to Frederick again on the 22nd of June, and again they would find the city occupied by Confederate horsemen – supposedly pickets from Harry Gilmore’s 1st MD Cavalry CSA. Although Company A only numbered some 30 men they charged up Patrick and Market Street with Lieutenant Daniel Link at their head.
Noted Frederick diarist Jacob Englebrecht had a front row seat for what happened next :
In the afternoon about 25 of Cole’s Cavalry came to town & gave them a fighting race through the town at the bend of Patrick Street. They came near enough to fire at the hindmost and shot at least 20 or 30 rounds at him. He was taken prisoner in Bentztown after being wounded 3 or 4 times. I happened to be at the bend just as they came by in full speed firing as fast as they could (8).
As Cole’s men charged through their home town they were cheered on by a number of civilians. After the war Private Newcomer recalled
The citizens, seeing it was Cole’s men that had made the dash into the town, raised their windows and cheered, and the ladies waved their handkerchiefs as we went through. Lieutenant Link of Company A, deserves special mention for his bravery on this occasion. Gilmor lost one man killed and one wounded, besides three men captured (9).
Another post-war account stated that “This brilliant dash was executed amid the plaudits of the parents, wives, and friends of many of the men. While the bullets whistled, these patriotic friends waved their handkerchiefs and cheered the men on to victory” (10).
The only confirmed Confederate casualty I could tie to this action was the one mentioned by Englebrecht. The diarist identified him as “Carder of Page County, Virginia” – likely Benjamin Cader of the 11th Virginia Cavalry, who was admitted to a Frederick hospital on the 22nd with gunshot wounds to his pelvis and thigh (11).
While Company A was operating near Frederick Company C under the command of Albert Hunter was still to the west, nipping at the flank of Lee’s army. Nicknamed the “Keystone Rangers” this company had been raised along the Mason-Dixon line and included a fair number of Pennsylvanians from Adams and Franklin Counties. Like their comrades in Companies A and B they were on familiar ground as Lee’s men crossed into the Pennsylvania.
On the 24th they struck out through Wolfsville and Sabillasville in northern Maryland and across the border, taking several prisoners (12). Just a few days later the Keystone Rangers were at it again. A dozen men of Company C under the command of Lt. William Horner set out from Boonsboro and snuck through Confederate lines and across the Mason-Dixon to Waynesboro, PA. From there they turned eastward, to the small village of Fountaindale.
A Confederate foraging party was at that very moment scouring the area, in desperate need of fresh mounts and artillery horses. Lt. John Chamberlayne and 20-odd artillerymen of Purcell, Crenshaw, and Lecture’s Batteries had just arrived outside of a Lutheran Church near Jack’s Mountain Road. Church was in service that Sunday morning so 20 fresh horses were tied up outside – ripe for the taking.
As they collected their “impressed” horses from the startled churchgoers Chamberlayne received word that Federal cavalry was approaching from the west along the Waynesboro Road. The Rebel Lieutenant sent off the newly acquired horses with the bulk of his force and turned to face the oncoming Bluecoats with six picked men. This proved to be a mistake, and Lt. Chamberlayne and all six of his men were captured by Horner’s force (13). Some of the remaining rebels were caught later as they fled to the east and south. Horner’s commander, Captain Hunter, summed the affair up, writing that “he encountered a squad of Johnnies gathering up horses and provisions. He charged them, captured several and ran the rest in Fairfield and then to Emmitsburg” (14). With the rebels captured or driven off the stolen horses were soon reunited with their owners.
As June drew to a close and the main armies converged on Gettysburg the men of Cole’s Cavalry were still widely scattered. Company B was in Pennsylvania, while Companies A, C, and D were strung out across Frederick and Washington Counties in Maryland. Individuals and small groups were detached to work as guides, scouts, and couriers for the main army. One account declared that “From the time the enemy entered until he withdrew from the State, many of Maj. Cole’s command, both officers and men, were detailed as guides, couriers, etc. to the various corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac. In this capacity they rendered most valuable service, their familiarity with the country being thus turned to good account”(15).
On June 30th Companies A, C, and D were ordered first to Knoxville and then on to Frederick, where for the next several weeks Henry Cole would serve as Provost Marshall. With him were about 60 men, the remainder being portioned out to the Army of the Potomac. Although their involvement in the Gettysburg campaign was not completely finished, this time in Frederick was by and large one of respite for the weary horsemen. Captain Hunter wrote of this time fondly:
Major H. A. Cole was made Marshall and he appointed me his assistant and our men as city patrols. We had a fine jolly time for about a month. Our duties were not numerous, and we had plenty of time to play the gallant with the ladies. Shoulder straps, brass buttons and blue clothes were an open sesame to the heart of almost any fair maiden. Then the liberality of soldiers went far in winning them a fair companion (16).
Sounds like a welcome break for men who had been in the saddle almost non-stop for two weeks! Next time we’ll pick up the story with the infantry of the Home Brigade and their role in the summer of 1863.
*note – the numbers were likely closer to even, given the weakened state of Vernon and Summer’s companies, and certainly nowhere near the 200 Union horsemen that some post-war sources attribute.
- Scharf p. 269
- Myers, Frank. The Comanches. p. 188-189
- Scharf p 277
- Englebrecht p. 970
- Scharf p. 278
- Newcomer. p 51
- OR Vol. 27 Part 2. p. 203-204
- Englebrecht p 971
- Newcomer. p. 51
- Scharf 278
NARA M324. State:Virginia Roll:0110
- Scharf 278
- Albert Hunter’s Account of the War Between the States. Emmitsburg Historical Society
- Scharf 278
- Hunter. Emmitsburg Historical Society