Jessie’s Scouts

Early on Sunday morning, April 2, 1864, soldiers from the 19th United States Colored Troops marched out of Harper’s Ferry bound for Winchester, Virginia. The unit passed through Berryville and soon found themselves marching west along the Berryville Turnpike. The regiment was on a mission. They were out to recruit African American soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley.

As the 19th USCT plodded along the pike several musket shots rang out. “Captain James H. Rickard of Company G recalled that for a moment some confusion prevailed, as it was expected we were intercepted by a rebel force.” The 19th quickly regained its composure and shifted into line along a wooded area on the south side of the pike. The men loaded their muskets and primed themselves for the impending mêlée.

“One of the regiment’s officers noted that the 19th USCT returned the fire and did not flinch.” Subsequent to one of their volleys one of the 19th’s officers “was sent forward to ascertain the cause of the firing.” To everyone’s surprise they discovered that they had been fired upon by “Jessie Scouts.”

As it turned out these Jessie Scouts were out to test the mettle of these black troops, to see if they “would stand” when fired upon. As a result of the exchange one member of the regiment, Private Benjamin Curtis, was wounded. A bullet from one of their opponents struck this man in the forehead and punched out a “piece of his skull as large as a silver half dollar.” Curtis would lose sight in his left eye but would survive his injury.

With the altercation along the Berryville Pike resolved, the 19th United States Colored Troops continued their march toward Winchester. Entering town, they proceeded to Market Square, behind the courthouse, and set up camp near the Bell House. “The residents were shocked to see blacks dressed in Union blue uniforms and when these troops began to shout orders at the civilians to clear the street” the citizens of Winchester were horrified.

Mary Greenhow Lee noted: “I was in my room and hearing the sound of horses feet looked up and saw a white Yankee officer and to my inexpressible horror, a company of negro infantry following him; I was near fainting and more unnerved than by any sight I have seen since the war… there is nothing I have dreaded so much during the war… as being where negro troops were garrisoned.”

Julia Chase logged in her diary on April 3: “We have witnessed a sight today that I never expected to see. A Negro regiment came into town this noon, have just passed by. Their object in coming we learn is to conscript all the able bodied negroes/men in the county. This causes great excitement among the whites and the blacks. I don’t know how we will get along, shall have no one to do anything in the way of cutting wood, tilling the ground, & c. We shall expect anything after this.”

During the 19th USCT’s recruiting drive in the lower Shenandoah Valley the regiment recruited only two men, Henry Woodbury and John Douglas. Most would call the enlistment drive a dismal failure, though it had created a great deal of excitement in Winchester. One thing that the regiment had inadvertently accomplished, however, was the detection of a secret band of Union soldiers known as Jessie Scouts.

Jessie Scouts were, undoubtedly, one of the first embodiments of special forces in the United States military. The troop, itself, had been the brainchild of General John C. Fremont and named in honor of his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont. The initial company was formed in St. Louis, Missouri, early in the war and was part of a plan to create independent reconnaissance units. The first man to command these scouts was Charles C. Carpenter. 

During their assorted covert missions Jessie Scouts wore Confederate uniforms, many times with a white handkerchief over their shoulders to signify their allegiance to the Union cause. When Fremont was assigned to his post in West Virginia in 1862 he brought his Jessie Scouts with him. Soon after Fremont resigned his command, though, the scouts were transferred General Robert H. Milroy’s command. Later they became part of General William W. Averell’s Fourth Separate Brigade, which was composed of various West Virginia regiments.

While clothed in enemy apparel, these volunteers were constantly placing their lives in jeopardy. “The commonly applied rules of war defined his presence within the opposition’s lines.” Wearing the wrong uniform was defined as an act of espionage, punishable by death. Their clandestine service to their country involved hazardous undertakings any one of which could lead to a summary execution if apprehended.

Jessie Scout Arch Rowand in Confederate Uniform

One of the more famous volunteer Jessie Scouts was Archibald Rowand, Jr. He was born in Philadelphia on March 5, 1845. Arch was a Quaker and spent time in South Carolina with his family where he acquired a noticeable southern accent. When war came, he was too young to enlist but managed to join a company in the 1st West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry captained by his uncle Thomas Rowand. With an enlistment date of July 17, 1862, Arch was only seventeen.

After the war Rowand attempted to explain why he made his decision to become a scout during an interview with a Harper’s Weekly reporter.

“Why did you ever begin?”

“It was as I told you – Company K [1st West Virginia Cavalry] had been on detached service – scout duty – for some time. When the company was drawn up in line, and the captain called for volunteers for ‘extra dangerous duty,’ I looked at Ike Harris and Ike looked at me and then we both stepped forward. They took us to headquarters and gave us two rebel uniforms – and we wished we had not come.”

“But why did you volunteer?”

 “I don’t know! We were boys – wanted to know what was the ‘extra dangerous duty,’ and – chuckling to himself at a hidden recollection, when we found out, we hadn’t the face to back down.” And that’s how it all began.

Soon after the battle of Third Winchester, Sheridan adopted these Jessie Scouts as his headquarters troop and grew it into a “full scout battalion.” He assigned its command to Major Henry Harrison Young, an officer from the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry. Sheridan made Young his “Assistant Aide de Camp,” a cover title to permit his chief scout to operate more freely. “Assuming that his Winchester camp was fully penetrated by Confederate spies, Sheridan set the size of his ‘scout battalion’ at five hundred men, an act that was designed to magnify the actual number of scouts, which was never more than sixty men.”

Major Henry Young

General Sheridan soon began to explore some creative uses for his “scouts.” It appears the general helped developed a secret plan to target partisan chief Hanse McNeil during this period. McNeil had become a significant thorn in Sheridan’s side, conducting major raids against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. McNeil had been allowed to remain active with his partisan rangers, along with John Mosby, when the Confederate Congress had ordered some of the other partisan ranger units disbanded.

In October 1864, McNeil was shot in the back by one of his own men while leading an attack on a bridge across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River at Mount Jackson. The man who shot McNeil, George Valentine, had lately been chastised by his commander for stealing chickens. Valentine was later identified as a “Jessie Scout” after the shooting of McNeil. The question remains: “Was Valentine a scout at the time of the shooting, infiltrating the unit to kill McNeil, or did he become a Jessie Scout after killing his commander?” The answer may never be known.

Sign Commemorating the Shooting of John Hanson McNeill

A similar operation, led by Arch Rowand, was conducted against Colonel Harry Gilmor on February 4, 1865. Gilmore, who had commanded the 1st and 2nd Maryland Cavalry, had been ordered to Hardy County to strike the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Once his headquarters had been discovered at the Randolph House in Moorefield, a raid was quickly planned to capture him. Rowand gathered a party of Jessie Scouts, accompanied by an escort of about two hundred cavalrymen. In the middle of the night, “Gilmor and his cousin, Hoffman, were rudely awakened by armed scouts and escorted back to Winchester.” Gilmor was ultimately taken to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor where he was incarcerated for the remainder of the war.

Jessie Scouts, under Henry Young’s direction, would continue to operate in Sheridan’s command for the remainder of the war. Sheridan would later note that “there was little that he did not know about the enemy within fifty miles of his base because of the actions of his scouts.” They were to play a major role in the Shenandoah Valley in early 1865 as Sheridan prepared to move against Jubal Early’s Army. This endeavor would culminate in Early’s defeat at the Battle of Waynesboro on March 2, 1865.

Prior to the action at Waynesboro, General Sheridan had been given discretionary orders to join General Grant at Petersburg. To do so Sheridan would need to maneuver around General Lee’s rear and flank. The attraction of joining with Grant’s army was irresistible, though, and when Sheridan reached Charlottesville, he decided he would ride on. Doing so required he inform Grant of his intentions. To accomplish this Sheridan determined he would send messengers through Confederate lines. Several Jessie Scouts were selected to perform this dangerous mission.

Arch Rowand and Jim Campbell were given messages, wrapped in tin foil, which were to be swallowed if they were captured. These two men headed out on horseback with the goal of crossing Confederate lines and notifying General Grant of Sheridan’s intentions. “To insure the message got through two more Jessie Scouts, Dominick Fannin and Frederick Moore, were placed in a row boat and ordered to float downstream to Richmond.” They were to “walk on to Petersburg where they were to enter the Confederate trenches to fight against Grant’s army. They were ordered to desert at the first opportunity and deliver their message to Grant.” Rowand and Campbell would, however, arrive at Grant’s headquarters first.

True to his dispatch, Sheridan soon arrived with his giant cavalry force at White House, east of Petersburg. After refitting and resupplying his troopers he was ordered back into the field. Before long he found himself attempting to find Lee’s right flank at Five Forks. His arrival would force a breach in Lees lines denoting the beginning of the end for the Army of Northern Virginia. During the final stages of the Battle of Five Forks, Young and some of his men “rode up to a Confederate officer, General Rufus Barringer, and reported that they had located a camp for him and his staff for the night. Once the Confederate general and his staff was separated from their brigade, these scouts pulled pistols and captured all of them.”

Rufus Barringer (cropped).jpg

General Rufus Barringer, Captured by Jessie Scouts at Namozine Church on April 3, 1865.

Significantly, Jim White, another one of Young’s Jessie Scouts, helped ensure General Lee’s defeat at Appomattox. On April 8, “White had captured one of Lee’s couriers with a telegram ordering trains to move from Lynchburg with rations to meet the army near Appomattox. White kept the telegram and intercepted the first train, impersonating Lee’s courier, and told the train engineers to follow him down the tracks where all four trains were captured by cavalry under General Custer. This also placed Custer, and the rest of the Union cavalry, solidly in front of the Confederate advance.” Lacking food and supplies and with his route to safety blocked, Lee chose to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia.”

As we all know wars require the movement and disposition of large armies. The development of the strategies needed to orchestrate large campaigns, however, requires extensive knowledge of the plans and goals of opposing forces. In order for generals to formulate such operations during the Civil War, the intentions of their opponent were constantly required. This work involved spies, espionage, and a great deal of pluck. It required willing, covert partners, recruited from the Union Army, to operate behind enemy lines. Men serving as Jessie Scouts helped fill this void and shortened the war appreciably.

Ackinclose, Timothy. Sabres & Pistols: The Civil War Career of Colonel Harry Gilmor, C.S.A. Stan Clark Military Books. Gettysburg, Pa. 1997.

Mahon, Michael. Winchester Divided: The Civil War Diaries of Julia Chase and Laura Lee. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Pa. 2002.

Patchan, Scott. The Last Battle of Winchester. Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign August 7 to September 19, 1864. Savas Beatie. El Dorado Hills, Ca. 2013.

Strader, Elois C. The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee of Winchester Virginia. Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society. Winchester, Va. 2011.


2 thoughts on “Jessie’s Scouts

  1. Hi Pete –

    Thanks for sending; another great article! Hope you and the Mrs. are doing fine.

    Our Louisville Civil War Round Table recently got back into business with a Zoom meeting. We had Gary Ecelbarger lecture from his book about the Battle of Atlanta. Very successful!

    Maybe you should consider doing the same? Interest is still high; our club leadership said we had about the same number attend the Zoom as show up for the dinner meetings.

    Best wishes to you and yours,

    Otis and Lois Fox


  2. Excellent article, Peter. I read with interest in an Appomattox campaign book the role that the Jessie Scouts played during Lee’s retreat. Two scouts were captured; I believe Lee kept them from being shot.


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