John Brown’s Body Lies a Mouldering in the Grave

John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,                                                                 John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,                                                                 John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave,                                                                                      His soul’s marching on!

John Brown’s body may have been “mouldering in the grave,” but in May of 1862 the whereabouts of two of John Brown’s sons was anything but certain. The controversy over the disposition of the bodies of Watson and Oliver Brown, to some extent, still remains. The final resting place of Watson Brown, and its connection to the Shenandoah Valley, however, is the focus of this essay.

Watson Brown was born on October 7, 1835, in Franklin, Ohio. He was one of thirteen children born to John and Mary Brown. It has been said: “John Brown ruled his growing household with a rod in one hand and the Bible in the other. He insisted that his small sons learn ‘good order and religious habits’ and refused to let them play or have visitors on the Sabbath.” One could easily assert his opinion on household discipline was as absolute as his posture on slavery and involuntary servitude.

Watson Brown

Watson Brown

By 1859 John Brown had long been conspicuous in the anti-slavery movement in the United States. He first gained attention by leading an abolitionist group during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of 1856. As an advocate of engagement rather than discourse, John and his radical followers attacked and killed five slavery proponents in the Pottawatomie Massacre in response to the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas. Later, in 1856, he commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie.

By October of 1859 John Brown had concluded he would spearhead a slave uprising by leading a raid on Harpers Ferry. He intended to capture the armory and seize the armaments contained within. He would use these weapons to arm escaped slaves. Together, they would fight to establish their own slave-free state. Though Brown would seize the armory at Harpers Ferry, only a small number of slaves would actually join his rebellion.

Watson Brown would himself play a brief but noteworthy role in the drama that played out during John Brown’s occupation of Harpers Ferry. With local residents and militia laying siege to the engine house, John Brown decided he would try to broker a cease-fire. His first attempt failed, however, when co-conspirator William Thompson was captured, along with one of Brown’s hostages, while under a flag of truce. Angered by the failure, one of Brown’s other detainees, acting superintendent of the armory Archibald Kitzmiller, offered to make a second attempt. Brown approved the proposal.

Harpers ferry map

1859 Map of Harpers Ferry

Conspirators Aaron Stevens and Watson Brown volunteered to accompany Kitzmiller under a flag of truce. Stevens and Watson walked out the armory gate, behind their prisoner, and proceeded down Potomac Street toward the Gault House tavern. “Saloonkeeper George Chambers, smashed an upper-story window so he could shoot unobstructed.” He and one other man opened fire on the threesome. Watson was hit in the first volley and went down. Stevens was struck several times and tumbled, insensible, onto the cobblestoned streets. Remarkably, Watson was able to stagger back to the engine house all the while “vomiting blood from a stomach wound.”

Within a matter of hours most of John Brown’s attacking force would be killed or captured. Local residents, militia, and U.S. Marines, under the command of Robert E. Lee, would see to that. Among the slain was Brown’s son, Oliver. Watson, however, would linger on until Wednesday afternoon, October 19. As a result, Watson’s body would not be included with the rest of the deceased assailants. Eight corpses were quickly collected by the citizens of Harpers Ferry and readied for removal.


US Marines Assaulting John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. (Harper’s Weekly)

As residents did not want these men interred in the local cemetery, they paid James Mansfield five dollars to bury the bodies elsewhere. Mansfield chose a spot along the banks of the Shenandoah river about a half mile from town. “Packing them into two large wooded store boxes,” he hastily entombed them. The bodies would remain in this unmarked grave until 1899 when they were exhumed and transferred to the Brown family farm in North Elba, New York.

Two of the deceased, however, were not buried in the common grave. Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson, though fatally wounded, had survived the final assault by Colonel Lee’s marines. When the two of them finally succumbed to their wounds, their bodies were attended to separate from the others. As a result, these two conspirators were not buried in the common grave. Fortunately, a resolution to this omission would soon materialize.

Several medial students from Winchester Medical College had made the journey by train to Harpers Ferry to see if they could take advantage of the carnage. Forced to detrain before they reached the town, the group “happened upon the body of a man.” Determined to be a “fine physical specimen,” the students “put the body in a container and shipped it back to the college. When they examined his papers later, they discovered they had selected one of John Brown’s sons, Watson Brown. Some accounts claim conspirator Jeremiah Anderson’s body was also shipped back to the college.


Wounded son Watson lying next to Oliver’s dead body.

“Body-stealing was a feature of reality at a time when medical schools had trouble acquiring corpses for anatomy classes.”  The so called “doctor resurrectionists” would nab the dead out of fresh graves. “’Scientists’” then boiled off the flesh or used acid to remove the skin and muscle.” Appropriating the bodies of these two deceased would have been easily accomplished as “nobody wanted them.”

The medical college of Winchester, Virginia had originally been chartered in 1826 as the “Medical College of the Valley of Virginia.” The institution was directed by Dr. John Esten Cooke, Dr. Hugh Holmes McGuire, and Dr. A. F. Magill. The college operated for just two years and was closed. The school did not reopen until 1847 when it was revived and newly chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia as Winchester Medical College. “The College was a red brick structure located on the corner of Stewart and Boscawen Streets. It had a surgical amphitheater, two lecture halls, a dissecting room, a chemical laboratory, a museum, and offices.”

When the med students returned to Winchester Medical College with their newly acquired treasures, Watson’s body had the flesh stripped off and was then “dissected, and the skeleton displayed in the college museum.” “The whole was hung up as a nice anatomical illustration.” It was not a dignified end to a person’s life but it would serve as a valuable tool in the education of future surgeons. The practice would, undoubtedly, help save many lives during the Civil War.

According to an article posted in the Richmond Dispatch, Watson’s body, and perhaps Jeremiah Anderson’s, were not the only ones that were brought back to Winchester Medical College. In December, following the trial of John Brown and his accomplices, “Watson’s body would be joined by the recently hung, buried, and disinterred bodies of convicted African American co-conspirators John Copeland and Shields Green.” “They will be interred tomorrow on the spot where the gallows stand, but there is a party of medical students here from Winchester who will doubtless not allow them there long.” There would be no “mouldering in the grave” for these corpses. The resurrectionists would soon have their way with them.

Prior to the town’s seizure Winchester Medical College was being used as a hospital. During May of 1862, in the midst of the town’s occupation by troops under General Nathaniel Banks, however, the institution came under increasing scrutiny due to one of its most infamous residents; Watson Brown. Unfortunately, the future of Winchester Medical College was itself in doubt.

On the evening of May 16, 1862, Mary Greenhow Lee noted in her diary that she had been “startled by the sound of the fire bell.” “In less than hour there was another alarm, & on opening the door, the flames were ascending somewhat in the direction of Selma, but it proved to be the Medical College which is burnt to the ground; what this is the beginning of, we cannot tell, as we are in the hands of a treacherous foe.” Lee believed the fire was “for the purpose of destroying superfluous government stores and preparatory to an evacuation.”

The following day Mary noted: “The explanation of the burning of the college is that a skeleton of Oliver Brown (John’s son) was there, they buried in the yard what they supposed were his bones, but the genuine ones, had been removed by Hunter McGuire, thus foiling their malicious design.” Mary’s assertion that the body was that of Oliver, and not Watson, adds more ambiguity to the deed. It is very possible the body referred to by Mary was actually that of Jeremiah Anderson.

There are some errors, however, in Mary’s statement. First, is the first declaration that Oliver’s body was at the college. Most would argue the body was actually that of Watson. Second, if Hunter McGuire had removed the body buried in the yard, he would have had to have completed the task prior to March 12, when Nathaniel Banks troops first occupied Winchester. McGuire could not have returned to the town until after the 1st Battle of Winchester on May 25, nine days after the burning of the college.

There is also some contention as to who ordered the burning of the school. According to Winchester resident, John Peyton Clark, it was Colonel George Beal of 10th Maine that ordered Brown’s remains recovered and the college burned. True or not, there is no mention of this incident in the 10th Maine’s regimental history. Still, the Maine unit could be held accountable as they were responsible for the military occupation of town at the time of the blaze.

A second story, involving Dr. Jarvis Jackson Johnson of the 27th Indiana Infantry, claims that he was responsible for the retrieval of Watson’s remains. Johnson declared “that while serving as commander of a military hospital in Winchester, he acquired Watson Brown’s body from the museum of the medical college, then shipped it on a train to Franklin Indiana, the nearest railroad depot to his home in Indiana.”

Following the war, it is said Johnson kept the bones on display in his medical office. Twenty years after their acquisition, however, an article appeared in the Indianapolis Journal, on September 11, 1882, claiming Dr. Johnson had obtained the remains of Brown “immediately after the evacuation of the place by the Confederates.” Upon entering the medical college, he observed “an admirably preserved body, and obtained permission from General Banks to ship it home.”

According to Johnson the “anatomical preparation of the body was perfect, and it was for this reason, an exceedingly valuable piece of property for the physician and the physiologist. Dr Johnson was moved by no desire to get possession of it because it was the body of one of John Brown’s sons, but because it would be of practical value to him.”

According to the Indianapolis Journal: “The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill-usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects.”

John jr

John Brown, Jr.

Though John Brown, Jr. was not one of the conspirators that had attacked Harper’s Ferry, his father had sent him there on a scouting mission prior to the raid in 1858. During the war he was a Captain in Company K of the 7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. John Jr. would survive the war and in September of 1882 he was living in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, raising grapes for a family owned wine business. When John learned his brother’s body was being stored in Martinsville, Indiana he took the opportunity to visit the town to see if he could identify the remains.

After picking up and poring over skeletal fragments and examining the shape of a half-missing skull John pronounced: “Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver”. Yet the more he looked, the more he came to think he was looking at his other brother, Watson.

On closer examination “A large bullet hole in the muscles of the back, beside the spinal column, is visible in a front view, but the course of the ball was not directly through. This coincides with the wounding of Watson Brown, who was shot in the region of the lower part of the stomach. The wound is below this organ, but was evidently received while in a stooping posture, and the exit of the ball bears out this conclusion.”

Twenty years after its capture, Dr. Johnson turned the body of Watson Brown over to his brother John. In October 1882, “Watson Brown’s strange post-mortem odyssey had finally come to an end.  On an autumn day in the Adirondacks, he was laid to rest in a patch of soil near his famous father, who — as the old Union song put it — had long lain ‘mouldering in the grave.’” Watson’s journey had finally ended.

Browns stone

Marker Dedicated to John and Oliver Brown.


Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. Henry Holt and Co. New York, N.Y. 2011.

Oates, Stephen B. To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown. University of Massachusetts Press. 1984.

Straader, Eloise C. The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee. Winchester County Historical Society. Winchester, Va. 2011.

Redpath, James, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown. Thayer and Eldridge. Boston, Ma. 1860.

The Union Hotel and Unconditional Release

By the summer of 1861, as secession and the anticipation of war overtook the town of Winchester, the communal divide deepened over the name of one of its most prominent guesthouses. Located in the northeast corner of Market (Cameron) Street and Fairfax Lane, the “Union Hotel” had come under scrutiny. “Many residents, who had been unsure about secession, became caught up in wartime enthusiasm.” The Union Hotel’s crest was seen by most as an embarrassment. The town’s citizens determined that the name had to be revised. Soon the sign on the front of the building “was modified removing the U and the N, making it the ION Hotel.”

Following the 1st Battle of Kernstown, several of Winchester’s prominent structures were designated as hospitals and were soon teeming with wounded from both sides. It was soon apparent, however, that the town’s temporary medical facilities were being overwhelmed. They were simply unable to handle the volume of injured soldiers. The women of Winchester soon found themselves being drawn to these facilities to assist with critical care.

Noted “demon diarist” and resident of Winchester, Laura Lee, soon discovered the magnitude of this medical crisis. Laura had stated before the war that she “thought nothing would induce us to enter the hospitals, but we have never thought of having our own troops and their wounded and dying together.” Accompanied by Mary Greenhow Lee, the two women visited the Union (ION) Hotel on the afternoon of March 24, 1862, and “found everything there in utter confusion. The Yankees had taken over the facility shortly after midnight and converted it into a hospital. It was said the “shrieks & groans had been awful.” Mary located a close friend, George Washington, who had just had his leg amputated. Mary admitted there “was little hope of his recovery.”

On March 25, just two days after the battle, Mary Greenhow Lee, a woman who had repeatedly acknowledged she could barely stomach the sight of Yankees, went to the Union Hotel to take care of injured Southern soldiers. “The dead, the dying, the raving Maniac, & agonizing suffering, in its revolting forms, were before us; our men and the Yankees, all mixed together. She found herself “down on the floor, by the Yankees, feeding them. Mary discovered her humanity in this facility. She found she “could not give to one sufferer, and pass another by in silence.”

Mrs. Lee would return to the hotel the following day. She observed: “The poor men are neglected as the doctors are overwhelmed with the numbers of patients they have to contend with.” “The surgeons do not dress their wounds, even once a day, and there is no one to hand them a cup of water, after the ladies leave; they promise things will be better tomorrow;” but they never are.

Mary soon avowed that it “made no difference between Yankees and Rebels, when both were wounded and helpless.” “The dreadful scenes of the day, are before me so vividly, that I fear they will haunt me again to-night.” These visions would certainly preoccupy her mind that evening, and for many evenings to come.

Care for the wounded would continue, seemingly without end. A week after the battle Laura Lee was still making daily trips to the Union Hotel. At one point she overheard the surgeons saying “the army has been more demoralized by the kindness which have been shown the wounded than by the battle. They say they are sorry they allowed the women to enter the hospitals.” “When are these horrors to end?”

The horrors would not conclude any time soon. Mary Greenhow Lee would assert she was “so tired of the Yankees. They are more unendurable every day & then I so much dread the battle that will have to be fought before they are driven from the valley.” Unknown to Mary there were many more battles, and unnamed skirmishes, the residents of Winchester would have to endure. The town, itself, would prove to be one of the most contested in the Confederacy. It would change hands more than seventy times during the course of the war.

Following the 1st Battle of Winchester, on May 25, 1862, the town fell, once again, into Confederate hands. This time the senior Confederate surgeon was Doctor Hunter McGuire. McGuire was a native of Winchester, having been born there on October 11, 1835. He had spent a great deal of his youth accompanying his dad, who was one of the town’s foremost practicing physicians and educators, on many of his medical errands. After graduating from high school, Hunter decided to study medicine at the Winchester Medical College.

When war visited the Shenandoah Valley, however, McGuire returned to Winchester from Tulane University in New Orleans, where he had been schooling future surgeons. Here he joined the Winchester Rifles as a private, prepared to fight for the confederacy. The unit would later become Company F of the 2nd Virginia Infantry.

It was soon obvious that Hunter McGuire’s services were more valuable as a surgeon and he was soon ordered to report to General Thomas Jackson in that capacity at Harper’s Ferry. Far more skillful than his age would have signaled, within a year he was promoted to chief surgeon in Jackson’s Valley Army.

Shortly after the victorious Rebel throng entered Winchester, Private John Worsham, a member of Company F, 21st Virginia Infantry, noted: “Gen. Jackson captured vast stores: several hundred beef cattle, several hundred wagons with their teams, eleven thousand new muskets in boxes that had never been opened, a large amount of ammunition, and over three thousand prisoners.”

Hunter Mcguire

Doctor Hunter McGuire

In addition to all of the supplies mentioned by Private Worsham, a huge store of medical provisions had also been captured by the Confederate Army. Jackson’s medical director, Hunter McGuire, was suddenly in receipt of more medicinal provisions than he “had seen in one place since the beginning of the war, maybe even in his entire lifetime.” Additionally, seven Union doctors, all of whom had been treating the sick and wounded at the Union Hotel, also found themselves captives of the Confederate Army.

Doctor McGuire soon began to ponder the issue of how captured doctors should be treated when prisoners of war. McGuire felt that the skills these individuals possessed should require them to be handled differently from detained combatants. He began to think the situation “presented an opportunity to help define how captured military doctors and nurses should be treated, ensuring more consistent care for the sick and injured.”

Dr. McGuire decided the plight of these individuals needed to be resolved. He connected with General Jackson, and Dr. Daniel S. Conrad of the Stonewall Brigade, to settle the issue. In the course of their deliberations the three men decided they would attempt to set a precedent which they hoped would be adopted by the U.S government as well. Together they authored a document outlining the conviction that “doctors should be regarded as noncombatants, and ought to be released as soon as possible that they might continue saving lives.”

The seven captured doctors agreed to Doctor McGuire’s proposal and signed the document. A copy of the agreement is presented below.


WINCHESTER, Va., May 31, 1682.

We, Surgeons and Assistant Surgeons United States Army, now prisoners of war in this place, do give our parole of honor, on being unconditionally released, to report in person, singly or collectively, to the Secretary of War in Washington City, as such; and that we will use our best efforts that the same number of medical officers of the Confederate States Army, now prisoners or who may hereafter be taken, be released on the same terms.

And, furthermore, we will, on our honor, use our best efforts to have this principle established, viz.: The unconditional release of all medical officers taken prisoners of war hereafter.

  1. BURD. PEALE, Surgeon, First Brigade, BLENKER’s Division.

T.E. MITCHELL, Surgeon, First Maryland Regiment.

J.J. JOHNSON, Surgeon, Twenty-seventh Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, Gen. WILLIAMS’ Division.

FRANCIS LELAND, Surgeon, Second Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers.

PHILIP ADOLPHUS, Assistant Surgeon, U.S.A., in charge of Fourth Artillery.

LINOT B. STONE, Assistant Surgeon, Second Massachusetts Volunteers.

JOSIAH F. DALY, Jr., Assistant Surgeon, Tenth M.E. Regiment Volunteers.

EVELYN L. BISSELL, Assistant Surgeon, Fifth Connecticut Volunteers.


Medical Director, Army Valley, Va., C.S.


WINCHESTER, Va., May 31, 1862.

This is to certify that I, BURD PEALE, Surgeon First Brigade, BLENKER’s Division, T.E. MITCHELL, Surgeon First Indiana Regiment, J.J. JOHNSON, Surgeon Twenty-seventh Indiana Regiment, FRANCIS LELLAND, Surgeon Second Massachusetts Regiment, PHILIP ADOLPHUS, Assistant Surgeon U.S.A., L.R. STONE, Assistant Surgeon Second Massachusetts Regiment, J.F. DAY, Jr., Assistant Surgeon Tenth Maine Regiment, and E.L. BISSELL, Assistant Surgeon Firm Connecticut Regiment, having given their parole of honor to report themselves to the Secretary of War, in Washington, as prisoners of war, and to use their best endeavors to effect an exchange for a like number of surgeons and Assistant-Surgeons now held by the United States, are permitted to go at large. It is further understood that the above-named surgeons and assistant-surgeons are to endeavor to make this a principle for exchange of medical officers in the future.


Lieutenant-Colonel Commanding Post.


The agreement was successfully transferred to the U. S. Government and the results were almost immediate. On June 6, 1862, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued Special Orders No. 60 which “immediately and unconditionally” freed all Confederate doctors held prisoner. “Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan communicated officially, regarding the release of captured doctors during the Peninsula Campaign. This proposal would become the rule regarding prisoner doctors, assistants, and nurses throughout the remainder of the Civil War.” Some elements of this agreement can even be found in the current version of the Geneva Convention’s agreement on the Treatment of Prisoners.

As a result, the Union, or Ion Hotel, in Winchester would prove to be a major contributor to the conduct of civilized warfare. The facility itself would, over the next two years, be constantly utilized as both a Union and Confederate hospital. As mentioned before, soldiers from both sides would even be treated simultaneously in this facility.

Unfortunately, in spite of its historical significance, the Union Hotel’s days were numbered. Between the eighth and thirteenth of December, 1864, more than a foot of snow had fallen in Winchester. Temperatures had tumbled well below freezing as well. On the 16th “the impact of snow building up upon a dilapidated building’s roof” came to the forefront.” Mary Greenhow Lee chronicled: “There has been a fall this evening which has been disastrous to the Yankees; the poor old Union Hotel fell down and seven Yankees were crushed in the ruins. It is said 25 are suffering a righteous retribution.” The facility was never rebuilt.

McGuire would continue his services as a physician throughout the course of the war. As chief medical surgeon in Jackson’s 2nd Corps, it fell upon Dr. McGuire to treat General Stonewall Jackson following his wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. It was he who amputated Jackson’s left arm in an attempt to save his life. The endeavor was in vain, though, as Stonewall would soon succumb to pneumonia. Dr. McGuire would be by his side when he expired, though, and would record Jackson’s famous last words: “Let us cross over the river and sit beneath the shade of the trees.” McGuire was a pallbearer at the General’s funeral.

As for Dr. Hunter McGuire, his proposal on the treatment of surgeons as non-combatants would serve him well in the final days of the war. Having been captured at the Battle of Waynesboro in March of 1865, Doctor McGuire was taken to General Philip Sheridan’s headquarters. Here McGuire found that his reputation had preceded him. Sheridan treated him courteously and offered him an immediate release and a two-week parole. The doctor accepted the offer and spent his two weeks of liberation in Staunton. Some say he spent the time courting his future wife. Regardless, he rejoined the Confederate army just in time for its surrender at Appomattox Court House.

The legacy of Doctor McGuire was very much venerated following the war. Most viewed McGuire as “the foremost leader of medical progress in Virginia and in the nation.” Late in his life Hunter McGuire founded St. Luke’s Hospital in Richmond. It would become one of the leading schools for instructing nurses in the nation. McGuire would also help found the Medical Society of Virginia.

St Lukes Hospital

St. Luke’s Hospital in Richmond

When President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in March of 1865, “he the laid the cornerstone of what would become the largest healthcare organization in the country; a system solely dedicated to serving Veterans.” Following World War II, the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center was built and dedicated in Richmond, Virginia. As such, it is committed to the healing of men and women who have served their nation in the military. Naming the facility after Doctor McGuire perfectly acknowledges and celebrates the values he had championed during his life.

McGuire VA Hospital

Hunter Homes McGuire V. A. Medical Facility in Richmond, Va.

If you look around Richmond you will find even more evidence of McGuire’s contributions to medicine and humanity. American sculptor William Couper “immortalized Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire with a statue, placed on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol in 1904, two blocks from his beloved hospital.” The inscription upon the monument proclaims: “Hunter Holmes McGuire, M.D., L.L.D. President of the American Medical and of the American Surgical Associations; Founder of the University College of Medicine, Medical Director, Jackson’s Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, An Eminent Civil and Military Surgeon and Beloved Physician. An Able Teacher and Vigorous Writer; A Useful Citizen and Broad Humanitarian, Gifted in Mind and Generous in Heart, This Monument is Erected by his Many Friends.”

Hunter McGuire’s dedication to humankind and its welfare continues to service the lives of the public and those dedicated to the protection of our country. Certainly, his, was a life well lived. Like his close friend, Thomas Jackson, Hunter Holmes McGuire would die from pneumonia. McGuire passed on September 19, 1900, on the 36th anniversary of the 3rd Battle of Winchester.

McGuires Statue

Hunter McGuire’s Statue at the State Capitol in Richmond.


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

Bonnell Jr., John C. Sabres in the Shenandoah. The 21st New York Cavalry, 1863-1865. Burd Street Press. Shippensburg, Pa. 1996.

Straader, Eloise C. The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee. Winchester County Historical Society. Winchester, Va. 2011.


Burn Newtown to the Ground!

Harry Ward Gilmor was born into a life of luxury and affluence on January 24, 1838. He was one of eleven children. Harry and his family lived at “Glen Ellen Castle” in Towson, Maryland. His home was a three-story early Gothic Revival mansion, with towers on three corners, meant to resemble Abbotsford, a Scottish castle owned by Sir Walter Scott. It sported a guest house constructed in the likeness of a Greek temple and a gatehouse that was designed to look like a Gothic ruin.

In harmony with his upbringing, Harry spent his childhood dreaming of knights, noblemen, chivalry, and glory in battle. Much of his early adulthood, however, was spent homesteading in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, when the threat of civil war loomed in early 1861, Harry returned to Baltimore to do his duty.

Upon his return, Gilmor joined the newly formed Baltimore County Horse Guards as a corporal. In consequence to the efforts of the residents of Baltimore to prevent the passage of Federal troops through the city, the Horse Guards were given orders to burn several bridges north of the municipality to prevent Northern troop movements through Baltimore.

Harry Gilmor’s activities did not endear him to the Federal occupation troops in Baltimore commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin Butler. Gilmor was one of several individuals arrested and imprisoned in the “Baltimore Bastille,” commonly known as Fort McHenry. Marylanders, suspected of being Confederate sympathizers, were imprisoned there. Most were never charged with a crime and many were never brought to trial. Others were released after pledging not to “render any aid or comfort to the enemies of the Union,” or by taking an oath of allegiance.

Following Gilmor’s release in August 1861, he journeyed south and joined the command of Colonel Turner Ashby. Harry would serve with Ashby in the 7th Virginia Cavalry throughout Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign. On several occasions he was even placed on special assignment to General Stonewall Jackson.

General Jackson had always dubbed Turner Ashby’s cavalry command “a mob.” Whereas most cavalry regiments had ten companies, Ashby’s 7th Virginia regiment had twenty-five. On April 24, 1862, General Jackson attempted to divide Ashby’s oversized command into more manageable pieces. Jackson assigned thirteen companies to Brigadier General Charles Winder’s Brigade. Companies A through K were placed under the direction of Brigadier General William Taliaferro. Ashby was to retain command of only a small fragment of his original regiment, and this was only to act in the role of both advance and rear guards.

Colonel Ashby was so outraged by the incident he submitted his resignation. Ashby even considered challenging Stonewall Jackson to a duel. Fortunately, calmer minds prevailed, and Colonel Ashby was allowed to retain his command. Jackson would write to General Robert E. Lee on the subject stating: “Such was Ashby’s influence over his command that I became well satisfied my attempt to increase the efficiency of the cavalry would produce the contrary effect.”

On June 16, 1862, ten days after Turner Ashby’s death, “the long awaited” reorganization of Turner Ashby’s cavalry command took place at Conrad’s Store. Ten companies were retained to constitute the 7th Virginia Cavalry; also known as the 1st Regiment of Ashby’s Cavalry. Ten more companies were designated as the Twelfth Virginia Cavalry, or the 2nd Regiment of Ashby’s Cavalry. Harry Gilmor would be commissioned Captain in Company F of this unit. The remaining five companies would be designated as the 17th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry.

On May 27, 1863, Harry Gilmor was promoted to the rank of Major and asked to raise an independent battalion of cavalry. Before he could complete this assignment, though, the Gettysburg campaign interceded. During the battle, Major Gilmor was assigned command of the First and Second Maryland Cavalry, in General George Steuart’s Brigade. Major Gilmor was delegated the job of Provost Marshal for the town of Gettysburg during its brief occupation.

By the Spring of 1864, Harry Gilmor was assigned to independent command in the Shenandoah Valley. Gilmor recognized that in order for his 2nd Maryland Cavalry to survive in occupied territory he needed the support of local citizens. Without safe hiding places, and other means of support, Gilmor’s effectiveness would be severely weakened. It was during the month of May that Harry found himself operating behind enemy lines in the region outside of Winchester near Newtown, or what is now Stephens City, Virginia. It is the second oldest town in the Shenandoah Valley, trailing only behind Winchester.

In his memoir, written forty-one years after the war, John M. Steel characterized the wartime situation of the town as being “between the lines. Newtown became a no-mans-land for much of the war. It was close enough to suffer the effects and disruptions to daily life that came with the Federal troops’ occupation of Winchester and the surrounding region, but distant enough to return to limited Confederate control after nightfall.”

Harry Gilmor

Harry Gilmor

An incident that had occurred in Newtown on May 30, 1864, threatened the continued existence of the town. Major Gilmor had received a report on the 29th that Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Root of the 15th New York had left Martinsburg, West Virginia, southbound, as part of an escort detail for sixteen Union supply wagons. Noted Winchester diarist Mary Greenhow Lee had observed the passage of these wagons through town on the afternoon of May 30. Someone passed this information on to Gilmor, who decided an attack on the wagon train was essential. Newtown, with its narrow main street, was the perfect place for an ambush.

Gilmor and his men concealed themselves in the woods near Bartonsville, just north of Newtown. As the train of wagons passed, Gilmor and a detachment of his 2nd Maryland Cavalry Battalion pounced on the rear of the formation, and charged south along Main Street. Gilmor hoped the unexpected attack would cause the wagons to stampede and neutralize any soldiers that might have been concealed in the wagons.

Surprised, Root’s men retreated south through town and setup a defensive position behind the house belonging to Dr. McLeod. In the process two of the wagons upset and blocked the bridge across Steven’s Run along the Valley Pike. Several of the wagons, however, were still able to race on toward Middletown.

Gilmor Map

Region of the Shenandoah Valley in which Gilmor Operated.

In the assault, Gilmor’s horse bolted in the excitement and carried him down the pike in the direction of the lead wagon. As he passed through the wagon train in his mad dash, several members of the 15th New York Cavalry took the opportunity to swing their sabers in his direction. Though Gilmor received several saber cuts he was not seriously wounded. Fortunately, all of the pistol shots directed at him missed as well.

When Gilmor reached the lead wagon he swung his sword at the lead horse and was able to disable it, causing the wagon to bound off the pike. All of the wagons following it were forced to abort their dash toward safety. Having stopped the train and having regained control of his horse he jumped the stone wall that paralleled the Valley Pike and headed back into town.

Gilmor’s men had fared very well. They had skirmished with members of the 15th New York and routed them. The defenders, having gathered near Dr. McLeod’s home, had been defeated as well and many men in blue had been captured. The Confederates pilfered everything of value from the wagons and then proceeded to set them on fire. After tending to the dead and wounded, Gilmor retreated with four wagons, forty prisoners, and seventy horses.

Newtown fight

As Gilmor rode out of town with his bounty, a train of sixty wagons escorted by six hundred infantry rolled in. Mary Greenhow Lee apparently entered town on the heels of this second wagon train. She was passing through the community in order to attend a funeral at the Barton’s home at Vaucluse. She noted: “Four miles from town there was a cry of Yankees ahead. As we approached, we found it the advance guard of a double wagon train – about 200 wagons & an escort of 500 men. We passed the houses Hunter had burned last week, & then saw some horsemen ahead of us; I saw at a glance they were Confederate & we stopped to talk to them. Told us Gilmor had captured the whole wagon train that had passed through yesterday evening.”

As the group continued through town one of the Confederate soldiers stopped them and informed them they had captured a Union soldier in the act of burning a local house. He was caught “firing a house … in retribution for Mosby’s shooting at the wagons.” The ladies, not wishing to witness the act, scooted through town and on toward their destination..

Mrs. Lee noted as they “passed out of Newtown, we drove by 16 wagons burning on the road; several dead horses &, to my infinite horror the bodies of two dead Yankees who had been shot this morning; involuntarily I covered my eyes that the sight might be excluded.”

Major General David Hunter, commanding Union forces in the area, had previously ordered three houses burnt in Newtown in retaliation for the attacks that had taken place earlier in the week. Hunter was informed of the second attack in Newtown that same evening. General Hunter, tired of the repeated assaults on his supply trains in the area, determined something had to be done right away.

Newtown Burning

                       Sign Noting the Orders to Burn Newtown, now Stephens City.                         Major Stearns Last Name is Misspelled on the Sign.

On the 30th General Hunter dispatched Major Joseph Stearns and a detachment of 200 men from the 1st New York Cavalry Regiment from his army at New Market. Their orders were to “proceed to Newtown tomorrow morning at 3 o’clock, for the purpose of burning every house, store and out-building in that place.” He was only to spare “churches, and the dwelling of Doctor Owens, who had been kind to the Federals.”

As the cavalrymen trotted north along the Valley Pike, they could not help but notice the exposed graves of the Union dead on the New Market Battlefield; a contest that had taken place just two weeks before. It was evident many of the “confederate burial details were tired, and the ground was muddy from all the rain. Some of the dead had only been covered with a few inches of dirt. The rains had washed what little soil had been scuffed over them. The smell of decaying bodies was overwhelming.”

As the New Yorker’s neared Newtown, Major Stearns revealed their mission to his troopers. “The men became sullen and talked of refusing to obey the order. The children and elderly of the town, aware of Hunter’s threat, helplessly stood in their doorways. Major Stearns met with the elders of the town, who protested that they had no control over the Confederate raiders and that they had cared for Federal wounded from the attack.”

In addition, Major Stearns spotted a note which had been posted as a warning to General Hunter. The note advised him not to burn the town. Gilmor promised to retaliate by hanging “thirty-five men and six officers and send their bodies to him in the valley.”

Stearns consulted with his troopers and it was decided they would spare the town. Stearns determined he would risk Hunter’s wrath and his own military career rather than burn the homes of civilians. He spared the town on the provision the local citizens would take the Oath of Allegiance. This they did.

Major Stearns returned to face a searing reprimand from General Hunter. It was General Hunter’s Chief of Staff, David Strother, however, who saved Stearns from dismissal for disobeying orders. Hunter let his actions stand and allowed him to retain his command. The historic buildings, which can still be seen in Stephens City today, are a testimony to a different kind of Civil War heroism; the gallant act of compassion.

Harry would go on to distinguish himself with several significant cavalry excursions. His most famous raid, known as the Magnolia Train Raid, occurred later in July 1864, during General Jubal Early’s assault on Washington D.C. During his raid on Baltimore, Gilmor and 135 troopers disrupted telegraph communications, destroyed railroad tracks and trestles, and captured two trains. One of the train passengers, and subsequent detainees, was Major General William B. Franklin. The raid was extremely successful, and Gilmor always claimed he could have captured Baltimore itself if he had desired.

Following the war Harry would return to Baltimore. He would serve as police commissioner for five years and later as the city’s mayor. He died in March of 1883, a war hero, from complications caused by a wartime injury to his jaw. “Gilmor’s funeral was a large local ceremonial event with many dignitaries present to honor this war hero.” Prior to his passing, he wrote and published a war memoir entitled Four Years in the Saddle. It is well worth read.



Armstrong, Richard L. 7th Virginia Cavalry. H. E. Howard. Inc. Lynchburg, Va. 1992.

Bonnell Jr., John C. Sabres in the Shenandoah: The 21st New York Cavalry, 1863-1866. Burd Street Press. Shippensburg, Pa. 1996.

Brown, Peter A. Mosby’s Fighting Parson: The Life and Times of Sam Chapman. Willow Bend Books. Westminster, Md. 2001.

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

Straader, Eloise C. The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee. Winchester County Historical Society. Winchester, Va. 2011.

Walker, Gary C. Hunter’s Fiery Raid through Virginia Valleys. Second Edition. A & W Enterprise. Roanoke, Va. 2004.

Civil War, 1861-1865

Stephens City Virginia historical marker

Those Wharf Rats from Louisiana

On May 4, 1863, situated on a rise overlooking the field of battle at Salem Church, Generals Jubal Early and Robert E. Lee stood side by side monitoring Early’s Division as it spearheaded an attack on General John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps. The two were witness as a Brigade of Louisiana Tigers charged into the Federal line.

“The air was fairly hissing with round shot, shell, grape, canister and minie balls.” Still, the Louisiana Tigers pushed forward, seemingly impervious to enemy fire. Soon contact was made and the federal line appeared to crack; and then it collapsed all together. The Tigers swept on to a second line, which similarly buckled. Soon the whole Union position appeared to be crumbling. Jubal Early was so electrified by the outcome he threw his hat to the ground, and yelled: “Those damned Louisiana fellows may steal as much as they please now!” Lee sighed and responded by saying: “Thank God! The day is ours!”

Salem Church map

Charge of the Louisiana Tigers at the Battle of Salem Church

The first commander of these renowned warriors was a southern planter named Richard (Dick) Taylor. Born January 27, 1826, on the family’s Springfield Plantation in Jefferson County Kentucky, he was the only son of Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States. Much of Richard’s early life had been spent in frontier forts as his father was a career military officer. When apart from his dad he spent a good portion of his early life attending private schools in both Kentucky and Massachusetts. He would later pursue academic studies at both Harvard and Yale.

Dick Taylor

Richard (Dick) Taylor

During the Mexican War Richard Taylor would serve, voluntarily, as his father’s aide-de-camp. Forced to leave Mexico due to a bout with rheumatoid arthritis, however, Richard would return home to manage the family’s estate. In 1850 he persuaded his father, then President of the United States, to purchase a moderately sized cotton plantation for him, in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. In so doing Taylor’s connection to that state was established.

When the Civil War broke out General Braxton Bragg asked Dick Taylor to come with him to Pensacola, Florida to assist with the training of Confederate troops. Though Taylor had been opposed to secession, he agreed to do so.

Dick Taylor’s stay there would be brief. When the 9th Louisiana Regiment was organized in early 1861, Taylor was elected colonel of the regiment. Members voted for him in the believe that his connection to President Jefferson Davis would allow them to be rapidly dispatched to a combat zone. Until the time of her death, Davis had been married to Dick Taylor’s sister, Sarah.

The connection seemed to work as the regiment was promptly shipped off to Richmond. The unit would arrive at Manassas on July 21, 1861, on the very day of the First Battle of Bull Run. Unfortunately for them, though, they would arrive too late in the day to participate in the first major clash of the Civil War.

On October 21, 1861, Dick Taylor was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of the Louisiana Brigade. Assigned to General Richard S. Ewell’s Division, this new posting would allow them to become a key element in Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign.

Dick Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade

6th Louisiana Infantry – Col Isaac G. Seymour

7th Louisiana Infantry – Col Harry T. Hays

8th Louisiana Infantry – Col Henry B. Kelly

9th Louisiana Infantry – Col Leroy A. Stafford

Wheat’s Battalion (“Louisiana Tigers”) – Maj C. Roberdeau Wheat

Wheats batallion

Wheat’s Battalion of Louisiana Tigers

The fierce reputation the Louisiana Tigers would soon earn was well deserved. Author Terry Jones would note: “Louisiana probably had a higher percentage of criminals, drunkards, and deserters in its commands than any other Confederate state…” Though it was Major Roberdeau Wheat’s Battalion from which the Louisiana Tigers would get their name, their reputation for “wholesale rioting, looting, and robbery” they earned on their own.

Jackson would rapidly find a use for Taylor’s brigade “as an elite strike force that set a rapid marching pace and dealt swift flanking attacks.” On May 21, 1862, they were attached to General Stonewall Jackson’s command and were destined to be a key component in the Rebel victory at Front Royal. Here they would distinguish themselves by traversing a burning bridge over the Shenandoah River while under enemy fire, and by seizing a large Federal supply train.

By late evening on May 24, General Richard Taylor’s Brigade of Louisianans was exhausted. They had marched, and countermarched, more than twenty miles. They had fought a skirmish at Middletown, and they had looted captured wagons belonging to “Commissary Banks.” Their motion had been constant and they would not settle in to rest until nearly 3:00 a.m. the following morning.

By sunrise on May 25, battle seemed imminent. The first soldiers roused and placed into line to oppose General Nathaniel Banks’s Army at Winchester, was General Charles Winder’s Stonewall Brigade. More than fifteen hundred strong, and with little more than two hours rest, these soldiers were ordered to advance and form a skirmish line near Hollingsworth’s Mill along Abram’s Creek. Here two farm lanes pushed off to the west circling around the Federal position at Bower’s Hill. Two sections of Union artillery and seven regiments of infantry had been placed there, and were currently raising havoc with Rebel forces.

1st Winchester map

Map Showing Dick Taylor’s Flank Attack at the 1st Battle of Winchester

By 7 a.m., Jackson had massed fifteen regiments on the west side of the Valley Pike, opposing Colonel George H. Gordon’s 3rd Brigade. Colonel John Campbell and Colonel William Taliaferro’s brigades were soon added to reinforce and extend the Confederate line farther to the left.

It was Brigadier General Charles Winder, commander of the Stonewall Brigade, who suggested the army’s next move. McHenry Howard, aides-de-camp to General Winder recalled: “General Jackson presently came on the scene and asked how the battle was going on. General Winder told him the enemy ought to be attacked on his (the enemy’s) right flank. ‘Very well,’ Jackson said, ‘I will send you up Taylor,’ and rode off.”

McHenry Howard

McHenry Howard

General Taylor’s men had also been awakened by 5:00 a.m. and had been ordered to prepare for battle. Within minutes, however, one of Jackson’s orderlies came riding through the heavy morning fog and told Taylor he must advance immediately. Taylor rode ahead and found General Jackson with his artillery. At that very moment they were “being pounded in a duel with federal guns placed on a hill anchoring the Union right.” “Jackson pointed to the enemy battery and told Taylor he must circle around to the left and silence the guns before they decimated the Confederate artillery.”

Taylor rode back to his brigade and began pushing his men toward the enemy’s guns. Soon General Jackson appeared at his side. The Tigers let out a cheer upon seeing him which was immediately hushed by Taylor so that their position might not be compromised. Instead, the Louisianans lifted their hat in salute, a gesture which was immediately returned by Jackson.

It was soon apparent the commotion had been detected by federal artillerymen as Taylor’s men began to receive cannon fire. Several men were hit by the projectiles which caused many others to duck reflexively. Witnessing this as an act of cowardice, Taylor screamed at his men. “What the hell are you dodging for? If there is any more of it, you will be halted under this fire for an hour.” Most of them straightened themselves up “as if they had swallowed ramrods.” Jackson scolded Taylor saying, “I am afraid you are a wicked fellow.”

With the morning fog serving as cover, Taylor was able to deploy his men unseen. About 7:30 Taylor motioned his men forward which was executed in “a steady walk” and without firing a shot. Suddenly the sun broke through the fog. Off to the left of the line a squadron of 1st Michigan cavalry was spotted. When the cavalry charged, Colonel Kelly’s 8th Louisiana fired a quick volley routing them completely.

John Worsham

John Worsham

Private John Worsham, a member of Company F, 21st Virginia Infantry recalled: “General Taylor rode in front of his brigade, drawn sword in hand, occasionally turning his horse, at other times merely turning in his saddle to see that his line was up. They marched up the hill in perfect order, not firing a shot. About half way to the Yankees he gave in a loud and commanding voice, that I am sure the Yankees heard, the order to charge!”

Rather than redeploying his men to counter the Rebel buildup on his right flank, Union Colonel George Gordon ordered Major Wilder Dwight to go the right to count the enemy. By the time Dwight complied with his orders and reported back to Gordon, it was too late. General Taylor and his Tigers were already pitching into Gordon’s troops.

Henry Kyd Douglas, the youngest member of General Jackson’s staff, was an observer to the assault rendered by the Louisianans. He wrote: “General Taylor threw his brigade into line where directed, and it moved forward in gallant style. I have rarely seen a more beautiful charge. This full brigade, with a line of glistening bayonets bright in that morning sun, its formation straight and compact, its tread quick and easy as it pushed on through the clover and up the hill, was a sight to delight a veteran.”

John Worsham noted “there was all the pomp and circumstance of war about it that was always lacking in our charges; but not more effective than ours which were inspired by the old rebel yell, in which most of the men raced to be foremost.”

Taylor’s charging Louisianans easily overwhelmed the 27th Indiana, and  29th Pennsylvania. This forced Lieutenant Colonel George Andrews to withdraw the 2nd Massachusetts as well. Soon every federal soldier was running for his life. The federals desperately tried to reform their line to resist the attack but it was hopeless. The whole Union force was routed back into the streets of Winchester.

Jackson was surprised by the quick success of Taylor’s men. He turned to Douglas and said: “Order forward the whole line, the battle’s won.” As Taylor’s men came sweeping by, Jackson cried out: “Very Good! Now let’s holler!” Jackson “raised his old grey cap, his staff took up the cheer, and soon from the advancing line rose and swelled a defining roar, which born on the wind over Winchester told her imprisoned people that deliverance was at hand.”

For the troops from the Pelican State, who had sacrificed their lives to free Winchester, their deeds were promptly recognized. Taylor’s Brigade “was the toast of the army.” “Jackson galloped up to Taylor and gratefully shook his hand in a silent gesture, which the Louisianian claimed was worth a thousand words from another.” Taylor wrote: “All the Virginia troops in this Army say that we beat any body they ever saw in a charge and now they say we can stand as long under a murderous fire as any troops in the World.”

Private Worsham noted: “Gen. Jackson captured vast stores: several hundred beef cattle, several hundred wagons with their teams, eleven thousand new muskets in boxes that had never been opened, a large amount of ammunition, and over three thousand prisoners. Jackson lost a very small number of men, but he had led us for three weeks as hard as men could march. In an order issued to his troops the next day, he thanked us for our conduct, and referred us to the result of the campaign as justification for our marching so hard. Every man was satisfied with his apology; to accomplish so much with so little loss, we would march six months! The reception at Winchester was worth a whole lifetime of service.”

Though the battle had taken place on a Sunday, when Jackson and his troops entered Winchester the church bells remained silent. “The streets were lined with people, but not on their way to sanctuaries; they had come to meet their own troops, who soon forgot their fatigue in the joy of their reception.” The residents of Winchester “were in a state of jubilant excitement.”

The cost of the victory to the troops from Louisiana was profound. Fourteen men were dead and eighty-nine wounded. Several officers were included in these numbers. Major Arthur McArthur of the 6th Louisiana was killed, and Lieutenant Colonel Francis would lose his left arm to amputation when his elbow was shattered by a minae ball.

Courage and obstinance in battle would be part of the legacy left behind by the Louisiana Tigers. In less than a month they would be the ingredient whose costly charge enabled the capture of the Coaling and secured victory at Port Republic. There would also be numerous other Confederate victories over the remaining three years of war in which the Tiger’s would play a pivotal role.

During the course of the war over three thousand Louisiana soldiers were killed in battle. Their mortality rate was nearly twenty-five percent. Their sacrifice was great. When the two Louisiana Brigades, ten regiments in all, finally surrendered, there were only 373 men left in the ranks. The 10th Louisiana had just sixteen men present at the surrender while the 9th had only sixty-eight.

“They were a rough and tumble lot – eager to fight, even more eager to drink and play. Cursed and branded as devils by civilians, welcomed as a godsend by cornered generals, the Louisiana Tigers contributed a colorful chapter to that era of American history known as the Civil War.” General Dick Taylor would play a major role in that legacy.


Douglas, Henry Kyd. I Rode with Stonewall: The War Experiences of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff, The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, N.C. 1968

Ecelbarger, Gary. Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Ok. 2008.

Jones, Terry L. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. La. 1987.

Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC. 1992.

Taylor, Richard. Destruction and Reconstruction. Da Capo Press. 1995

Worsham, John H. One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry, his Experience and what he saw During the War 1861-1865. Wentworth Press. 2016

Stonewall Back in Town

Battling Along the Back Road

burning of Valley

Custer’s Division Retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, October 7, 1864, by Alfred R.Waud (Library of Congress)

Between September 26 and October 9, 1864, the Shenandoah Valley’s agricultural production and processing capacity was targeted and demolished. Author Jeffry Wert would note: “Americans had never before seen such demolition, executed with such skill and thoroughness.” The event, which would become known as “The Burning,” would be a methodical two-week crusade to destroy the Shenandoah Valley as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” Crops, barns, farm buildings, mills and even dwellings would be incinerated. Stores of grain, crops, and livestock would be destroyed or appropriated for the use of the Union Army. This was “total warfare” brought to the doorsteps of a civilian population.

General Ulysses Grant advised Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck to see to it that General Jubal Early’s Army was shadowed by “veterans, militia men, men on horseback, and everything that can be got to follow,” with explicit orders to “eat out Virginia clean and clear as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender with them.”

On October 6, George Custer’s 3rd Division broke camp at Dayton, Virginia near dawn, and proceeded in a northerly direction along the North River until they reached the Back Road in the town of Spring Creek. Here fiery destruction was expected to begin in earnest. The targets, however, were to be the “farms inhabited by peaceful Mennonites and Dunkards.” General Custer was sympathetic to the plight of these people and there is no indication that he allowed any of their farm buildings to be torched. Only the grist mills were targeted.

Once Custer’s men crossed the Dry River, however, having left the farms of the Mennonites and Dunkers behind them, the burning began in earnest. Custer’s troopers pushed on gathering livestock of every variety; slaughtering those they could not secure. Union troopers were told “to take all the stock, and to destroy all the supplies on the back road.”

Back Road

Map Showing the Back Road and the Battlefields of Brock’s Gap and Mill Creek.

Cavalry leader General Thomas Rosser commanded the Laurel Brigade, as well as that of General Williams Wickham’s. Evidence of the magnitude of Custer’s efforts would begin to show itself shortly after sunrise. It did not take long for Rebel troopers to mount up and commence their pursuit of Union cavalry. Private Beverly Whittle of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry was involved in the chase. As he progressed along the Back Road he noted: “All along our route were burning barns houses the very air is impregnated with the smell of burning property.” The “Fertile Valley of Virginia is one vast cloud of smoke.”

Newton Burkholder had, early in the war, been a Confederate soldier and later, since January of 1863, a telegraph operator in Harrisonburg. When Union occupation had forced his office to close, Newton had joined a group called the “Winfield’s Guerillas.” As a result, Newton would be a witness to the destruction that was unfolding in the valley. On October 6, 1864 he noted: “Now the whole vale is red with fire mile on mile, and enveloped in smoke high overhead, twisting and writhing, dissolving. See! Yonder goes right at Broadway, John J. Bowman’s mill, Sam Cline’s great stone barn! A sense of our powerlessness oppresses us. Stupidity lays hold on the mind, succeeding consternation. Is the world being set on fire?”

Scores of the men in Rosser’s force had property and family in this part of the Valley. The further they rode the more incensed they became. Confederate troopers were “understrength, underfed and in many cases mounted on horses past their prime.” Enraged, these men were eager to close on the enemy and seek revenge. It did not take long for an opportunity to arise.

James Taylor, who was an artist with Leslie’s Illustrated News, was currently riding with General Custer’s men. In addition to his drawings, Taylor described engagements ascribed to Federal cavalrymen as they burned farm buildings in the Shenandoah Valley. “The main body in columns of fours was in the rear detaching parties to the right and left to burn every mill, barn and haystack to be seen… When the enemy pressed too close, the men would halt and face about, a brisk fullisade would last a few moments, when the graycoats would be off, then trotting on, the rear guard would halt at the edge of the next hill or belt of woods to repeat the operation.”

Battle of Brock's Gap

Map of the Battle of Brock’s Gap

Late in the day on October 6, the 18th Pennsylvania and 5th New York Cavalry had gone into camp near Cootes’ Store at Brock’s Gap. This is the spot where the North Fork of the Shenandoah River pushes through North Mountain at Gap Rock. Here a lane also leads east toward Broadway and New Market. Custer’s men had been held up here for a bit while attempting to drive hundreds of heads of cattle and other livestock across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. As a result of the delay, Union and Confederate troopers would come into contact.

About 3:30 in the afternoon, troopers in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry were ordered dismounted by Colonel Thomas Mumford and flung against Union cavalrymen who had been posted as skirmishers near Key’s Mill, southwest of the river. When the 4th Virginia Cavalry was added to the attack the Union line began to waver. According to Private Beverly Whittle, as the fighting intensified, the Yankees “broke + ran in confusion.”

Colonel Mumford continued to press his advantage. Custer’s men were soon forced back across Dry River and then across the Shenandoah itself. Some of the New Yorkers panicked and some seventy of them fled to the protection of North Mountain. Rebel horsemen appeared to be on the verge of a significant victory.

Fearing the worst, however, General Custer sent a request to his artillery commander for support. Captains Charles Pierce and Dunbar Ransom brought up their “artillery and posted it on a high hill.” With Union artillery added to the mix, Custer’s retreat was quickly halted and order was soon restored. Even the New Yorkers, who had fled westward into the hills in panic, soon return to the ranks. As Confederate cavalry had no artillery support available, they too withdrew.

The following morning General Rosser continued to nip at the heels of Custer’s troopers as they continued to burn the farms along the Back Road. Custer was now operating in Shenandoah County. The further the men of the Laurel Brigade rode, the more complete the destruction became.

Most of the mills, excluding Zerkel’s Mill at Forestville, were soon consumed by fire. The owner, Samuel Hockman, anticipating impending destruction “ran to the top floor of the mill, leaned out a window under the eaves of the structure, and nailed a United States flag to the peak of the roof.” By acting quickly, and by welcoming Union Cavalry, he was able to save the structure.

Zirkel mill.png

Current Photo of Zerkel’s Mill in Forestville.

Colonel James H. Kidd of Custer’s brigade described the scene as they continued to set fire to Valley structures: “What I saw there is burned into my memory. The anguish pictured in their faces would have melted any heart not seared by the horrors and ‘necessities’ of war. It was too much for me and at the first moment that duty would permit I hurried from the scene.”

Rosser’s men continued to pursue the enemy. George Pond believed the Confederate “zeal was due in part to the excitement of his men at seeing their farms and homes in flames; for many of Early’s cavalrymen were from the region. Their eagerness to extract retribution brought upon them double mortification and suffering.”

Battle of Mill Creek

Map showing Troop movements During the Battle of Mill Creek.

About 3:00 in the afternoon of October 7, the Laurel Brigade reached Mill Creek along the Back Road in the area known as Mount Clifton. Here he found Custer’s men on the opposite bank, once again, stalled just north of the ford by hundreds of heads of livestock, and human refugees. Still lacking artillery support, Rosser quickly ordered Colonel Richard Dulany to take Elijah White’s Battalion of the 35th Virginia, and the 7th Virginia Cavalry downriver to the lower ford and attack Custer on his left flank. Dulaney, encountering Union scouts as soon as he crossed Mill Creek, continued to push on. He quickly ordered the 7th Virginia, with 220 troopers, to charge.

Lieutenant Colonel John Bennett’s 1st Vermont Cavalry, about four hundred strong, were there to greet the charging Virginians. Many of these Green Mountain boys were raw replacements, newly arrived from Vermont. Though a request was sent out for reinforcements only a small detachment from the 8th New York and the 1st New Hampshire Cavalry answered the call. Though the odds were in Federal’s favor, enthusiasm and the desire for revenge was on the side of the Confederates.

While Captain Dan Hatcher led the 1st Squadron of the 7th Virginia Cavalry on its flank attack, Delaney conferred with Captain Frank Myer of White’s Comanches. Myer’s asked for orders, but due to the noise and confusion of the moment, it was impossible to understand each other. Myer’s returned to his men and would act on his own impulses.

On his return, Union troopers were putting up a heavy rifle fire with their Spencer and Henry repeating rifles. “Knowing that his men could not remain in that position a minute longer, Myer’s gave the order to charge, which was performed in the most brilliant style. This he did “with his customary dash.” Just as Hatcher began his attack, General Rosser ordered the 11th and 12th Virginia to charge directly across the stream.

The Comanches now numbered less that two hundred men. “In a very brief space the battalion was among the Yankees. Neutralizing their superiority in numbers and carbines by a very free use of their pistols and sabers.” Custer’s men “put forth a feeble resistance and quickly fell back to their main force.” Though the Confederates “could not get within sword’s distance of their enemy”, the Federals could not withstand the power of the attack.

Custer was soon forced to withdraw north and west along Mill Creek. The fighting would continue until nightfall when Rosser’s men drew back. Overwhelmed, Custer’s troopers retreated under cover of darkness. Casualties were light for both sides. The 7th Virginia had two men killed and one captured. The Comanches “had several men wounded, among them Captain Myers, but none were killed or very badly hurt.”

Mill Creek Sign

State Sign for Battle of Mill Creek.

Rosser would recapture several hundred head of sheep and cattle following the Battle of Mill Creek. He would attempt to return the livestock to the locals. The effort was well received by the residents of the Valley. They would label General Rosser the “Savior of the Valley” as a result of his efforts. It was a brand Rosser would savor for the rest of his life.

Late on October 7, Sheridan would report to Grant: “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over 70 mills, filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep.”

Mill Creek Battlefield

Current Day Photo of Mill Creek Battlefield.  Mill Creek Runs Left to Right Just Beyond the Trees at the End of the field.

On the morning of October 9, 1864, General Custer and six thousand cavalrymen would sit opposite General Rosser’s thirty-five hundred troopers at Tom’s Brook. Many of these men were posted along the borders of the Back Road. Battle was imminent. Private George W. Hunt of the 15th New York Cavalry watched as General Custer rode beyond his line and addressed his opponent. “In plain view of both armies…Sweeping off his broad-brimmed hat, he threw it down to his knee in a profound salute to his foe.” “Custer replaced his hat, turned to his line of men and the next moment the 3rd Division was sweeping on at a trot, the flaming neck tie and bright curls of Custer before all…” Rosser’s cavalrymen were quickly routed. As a result he battle would be dubbed “Woodstock Races.”

Toms Brook Map

Battle of Tom’s Brook or Woodstock Races

Following the war, General Rosser would divulge his feelings about the enemy and the burning of the Valley. “The soldiers who were required by Gen. Sheridan to lay waste the beautiful Shenandoah Valley with the torch were brave, good men, and were blameless in the part they took, for they only did as they were ordered, and every prisoner seemed heartily ashamed such a cowardly means had been employed in the endeavor to crush a brave people who never declined battle. And who could at all times have been met on the field under the rules and customs of civilized war.”

Warfare in the Shenandoah Valley would soon terminate following the decisive Battles of Tom’s Brook and Cedar Creek. The families, and their descendants, however, would long remember the acts perpetrated by General Sheridan’s troopers. The scars are still evident. Some of the ruins are still visible. In the end, total war, though seldom executed prior to the Civil War, would, regrettably, become the standard for modern armies.

Armstrong, Richard L. 7th Virginia Cavalry. H. E. Howard Inc. Lynchburg, Virginia. 1992.

Barringer, Sheridan. Custer’s Grey Rival: The Life of Confederate Major General Thomas Lafayette Rosser. Fox Run Publishing. Burlington, N.C. 2016.

Burkholder, Newton. The Barn Burners: A Chapter of Sheridan’s Raid up the Valley. Southern Historical Society Papers. Volume XXVIII. Richmond, Va. 1900.

Miller, William J. Decision at Tom’s Brook: George Custer, Thomas Rosser, and the Joy of the Fight. Savas Beatie. El Dorado Hills, Ca. 2016

Myers, Frank M. The Comanches: A History of White’s Battalion, Virginia Cavalry. Kelly, Piet & Co., Publishers. Baltimore, Md. 1871.

Taylor, James E. With Sheridan Up the Shenandoah Valley. Morningside House, Inc. Dayton, Oh. 1989,

Death and Carnage at the Coaling

Battery H.png

Members of Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery

Their line of battle was being shredded by a “fierce fusillade.” Captain Daniel Wilson of the 7th Louisiana noted that Union cannon “belched forth one incessant storm of grape, canister and shell, literally covering the valley, so that the work of attack on our part seemed almost hopeless.” Still, these soldiers marched resolutely on “across the low grounds, right after the battery. From its mouth now, with renewed violence, poured streams of shell and shot, mowing down our men like grass. The earth seemed covered with the dead and wounded.”

Gazing out upon the fields on that warm June morning, Union cannoneers had a nearly unobstructed view to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River to their right. To their front they could see more than a mile over open grasslands. The rooftops of the structures in Port Republic were clearly visible. With Confederate troops swiftly overrunning these open meadows, the acreage to their front was quickly becoming a target rich environment. Over the next few hours it would become a virtual killing field.

Seven Union artillery pieces had positioned themselves on “the edge of a spur, on a plateau that had once served as a coaling, a shallow pit used for making charcoal.” The Samuel Lewis family had used this resource to power their blacksmith shop and the family’s nearby iron furnace at Mount Vernon. Here, seventy-five feet above the surrounding plains, artillery pieces were adeptly positioned to sweep “the wheat fields with blasts of deadly grapeshot.”


View from the Coaling Toward the Battlefield at Port Republic. (Brian Swartz)

Captain James F. Huntington, who had charge of Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery, noted that the artillery pieces were placed “on a low ridge near where it began to descend to the brook – Clark’s Battery in the coal pit, and a 12 pounder howitzer of Robinson’s in the space between the coal-pit and the road; my left piece in the road itself, and the others extended in the field on the right. The infantry was concealed in the woods along the main ridge to the rear.”

With Jackson’s infantrymen arriving “under cover of the wood on the right as if intending to attack from that direction,” General Erastus Tyler redeployed his thin blue line, into the wheat field to their front, parallel to Lewiston Lane. The right of the line now extended “nearly to the river.” Huntington noted “three of Clark’s and two of my pieces” went with them. Only the 66th Ohio would remain with the artillery for support some fifty yards to the rear. “A few less than 100 men deployed as skirmishers in the woods on the left practically without support.”

Battery H had mustered in at Camp Dennison near Cincinnati, Ohio on November 7, 1861. It consisted of six rifled brass ten pounder cannons. The unit had been assigned to General James Shields’ 2nd Division of Banks’ V Corps, and the Department of the Shenandoah until May of 1862. They were then reassigned to Shields’ Division, Department of the Shenandoah through June of 1862.

Captain Huntington noted the final Union “line of battle, so far as we had one, was formed into two distinct and unconnected parts – on the right the infantry and five guns; then a vacant space; the remaining guns were on the extreme left and really held the key of the position.”

Coaling Map Topographic new

Union Artillery and Infantry Placements (Map Sketch: Peter Dalton)

One of the men manning the guns for Battery H was a thirty-six year old laborer from Cincinnati named John Harrison. Born in Westmoreland County, England, Harrison had emigrated to Boston around 1849 where he met and married a young Irish immigrant, named Anastasia Heffernan. At the time of his enlistment John had fathered three children. One can be sure when John migrated to this country, he never thought he would find himself manning an artillery piece, let alone hammering away at Rebel infantry; and yet, here he was.

By six a.m., John’s commander, Captain Huntington, observed some of Jackson’s infantry and artillery as they began to arrive on the battlefield. “An artillery duel ensued, greatly to our advantage, for although our guns were on higher ground, most of the enemy’s shot passed over us, while our shells exploded among them with deadly effect.”

Schenkl artillery shell 2

As it turned out Huntington’s Battery may have been tardy in firing its first rounds. Their artillery pieces discharged what was known as a Schenkl shell. The sabot, which encapsulated part of the projectile, was designed to ensure the correct positioning of the shell in the barrel of the artillery piece. In this case, however, the sabot on the shells were constructed of papier-mâché. Due to all the rain and moisture, the papier-mâché had swollen and some of the shells could not be rammed into the barrels of the guns.

Captain Huntington reported that the rainy weather “has so swelled these sabots that about every other shell would stick in the muzzle of the gun.” Huntington was forced “to set all who could be spared from other duty at paring down the sabots with jack-knives. The artificers and forge drivers were thus employed, and so taken away from the forge they would have otherwise have looked after.”

Meanwhile, General Jackson had dispatched General Charles Winder’s Stonewall Brigade directly into the center of the attack. On the right he forwarded the 2nd and 4th Virginia into the trees along a spine of the Blue Ridge. Their assignment was to dislodge Union artillery situated on the high ground at the Coaling. Though they would mount a direct assault on the position, they would fail in achieving their goal.

Earlier that morning, General Richard Taylor’s Brigade of Louisianans had crossed over a temporary footbridge in Port Republic and gone into camp so they might prepare breakfast. Recognizing that the fighting was intensifying, Taylor rode out ahead of his men in search of General Jackson. “Taylor witnessed the stunning spectacle of the enemy’s artillery working in tandem with the oncoming blue-clad infantry.” Winder’s Brigade “was suffering cruelly. And its skirmishers were driven in on their supporting line.” Taylor realized “it would be no easy matter to defeat such troops…Jackson found he had met men of like metal to his own,”

Upon locating General Jackson, the two men exchanged pleasantries and a measured amount of “ironic humor.” Jackson initially asked Lieutenant Robert English to serve as a guide for Taylor and his brigade. He assigned the Louisianans the task of backing up the troops he had already assigned the mission of seizing the Coaling. General Taylor acknowledged his orders, saluted, and hurried back to get his men moving.

Shortly after Taylor’s departure, though, Jackson’s mapmaker, Jedediah Hotchkiss, appeared. Jackson realized Hotchkiss had an “accurate knowledge of the area” so he also assigned him the task of guiding Taylor’s Brigade. “Take Gen. Taylor around and take those batteries. Pointing to the enemy’s batteries near Gen. Lewis house, which were making sad havoc among our men.”

Jed Hotchkiss noted: “Gen. R. S. Taylor was just then coming up; so I met it and led it, in line of battle, with skirmishers in front, to the right through the woods, until nearly opposite the Gen. Lewis house, when the brigade advanced and charged upon the battery and took it, after being repulsed several times.” “Gen. Wm. B Taliaferro’s Brigade came up, along the western edge of the woods, in time to give the enemy a volley or two by a flank fire. We routed them completely; took at one point a battery of five guns…”

Port Republic map4.png

Final Moments of the Fighting at the Coaling

Back at the Coaling, Captain Huntington was examining the seeming success of Union infantry in their assault on the right. His attention was distracted, however, by the appearance of a new Rebel battery. These guns may have belonged to Captain Robert Chew. Huntington was surveying this activity “through a glass when from the woods on our left rushed forth the Tigers, taking the line in reverse and swarming among Clark’s guns. His Cannoneers made a stout but short resistance, as pistols and sponge staffs do not count for much against muskets and bayonets.”

Clark’s three guns and Robinson’s howitzer were quickly captured. Huntington promptly concluded if his guns were to be saved, they would need to be withdrawn immediately. Huntington ordered his first gun limbered up and directed it to the rear. This piece was successfully extracted.

Huntington then shifted his attention to his second gun. “As the team of the next came up, two of the drivers fell, badly wounded, from their saddles. The remaining driver could not control the frightened animals, they broke away and dashed off with the limber, and the piece was abandoned.”

It is probable Private John Harrison had been assigned to this gun. According to pension records, while John was “riding the lead horse of the piece his horse sunk down in the mud and the saddle horse of the swing team fell on him.” As a result, John experienced a spinal injury which caused his left leg to be partially paralyzed. Incapacitated, John was captured by Confederate infantry.

Huntington now directed his consideration to the third piece. “It was under cover and the drivers were loth to leave it. By that time a force had broken out of the woods in our front, and yelling like demons came pouring up the road, straight for our remaining gun.” The force of which he speaks was the 6th Louisiana Infantry. The gun, which had been loaded previously, was discharged by one of the artillerists. “This opened a lane and checked the onset of that particular lot of Tigers for an instant, in which we limbered up the piece, the cannoneers jumped on, and the drivers lost no time getting away with it to the rear.”

The remaining guns on the Coaling would exchange hands three times before they were finally secured by Taylor’s men. One of the Louisiana soldiers stated they had been met with “a terrific fire.” “When they were driven for the third time they were not disheartened, but wiped out.” Five artillery pieces were captured and Federal troops had been routed. Though victorious, Jackson’s men had paid a harsh price for their prize.

Captain Huntington, himself, was left in the dust of his retreating guns. He “felt rather at a loss what course to take.” His “first impulse was to lie down and surrender, as there seemed to be a very poor prospect of reaching cover with a whole skin. But having a wholesome dread of Southern hospitality as dispensed at that period, I concluded to take the chances and was lucky enough to slip out between the bullets.

Private John Harrison, ensnared by Confederate infantry, was one of more than four hundred and fifty Union soldiers captured. Following the battle, Private Harrison was taken to Lynchburg and then on to Belle Isle Prison at Richmond. John was later paroled at Aiken’s Landing on September 13, 1862.  He was sent on to Camp Banks in Alexandria, where he was discharged for disability on January 31, 1863. John returned home to his family in Cincinnati shortly thereafter. The debilitating effect of his injury, however, would afflict him for the rest of his life.

The retreat of Federal Troops became wide-ranging. Captured Federal artillery pieces were turned on the fleeing enemy. Colonel Samuel Carroll noted the blow put “the rear of our column in great disorder, causing them to take to the woods, and making it for the earlier part of the retreat apparently a rout.”

Jackson’s forces chased Union troops for more than three miles. In addition to the troops that were captured some eight hundred muskets were picked up as well. Huntington recalled the retreat continued all the way to Conrad’s Store where they discovered General Shields lingering with the other two brigades of the division. They rested here briefly and then resumed their retreat to White House Bridge and Luray.

Losses on both sides were substantial. Huntington reported his loss “had been heavy in killed, wounded and missing. In my battery for example, we lost nearly one third of the men actually under close fire.” Tyler lost more than a thousand men in his army. Jackson’s casualties amounted to over eight hundred. As a result, this battle was the costliest of Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign.

With the fighting over, Stonewall ordered Jedediah Hotchkiss to guide the army to Mount Vernon Furnace on the road to Brown’s Gap. Here they “encamped on the side of a mountain where it was so steep, we had to pile rocks and build a wall to keep from rolling down when asleep.” In addition, heavy rain fell, soaking everyone and adding further to their misery. Such was the price of victory in Stonewall Jackson’s Army.

Thanks very much to Mike Andrew, Great-Great Grandson of John Harrison, for his contributions and his efforts at maintaining accuracy in this dialog.

Browne, Jr., Edward C. Battery H 1st Ohio Light Artillery: 1861-1865. 2012.

Cozzens, Peter. Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, N.C. 2008.

Hotchkiss, Jedidiah. Make Me a Map of the Valley. The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer. Southern Methodist University Press. Dallas, Tx.

Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill.

Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts: The Shenandoah Campaigns of 1862 and 1864 and the Appomattox Campaign 1865. Boston. 1907.

Pension file of John Harrison, National Archives.

Jackson’s Railroad Caper

Julia Chase

Julia Chase

Julia Chase witnessed and chronicled Civil War history as it transpired in her home town. She was one of the so called “devil diarists” of Winchester. On September 2nd, 1861, Julia noted an event which occurred virtually in her front yard. On that day “one of the Engines that was thrown in the river at Martinsburg, when the Confederate Army was at Harper’s Ferry, has been brought into town today by 32 horses, to be taken on to Richmond. It was quite a sight as it passed by — looking very much like an iron monster.”

According to General John D. Imboden, Colonel Thomas Jackson was responsible for this incident, having stemmed from a raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road. The event occurred on May 23, 1861; the very day Virginia voted for secession. According to Imboden, Jackson convinced railroad administrators that trains would only be allowed to pass through Harper’s Ferry during daylight hours as the “noisy night railroad traffic was keeping his soldiers awake.” Later he would demand an additional change to the rules, restricting traffic to a two-hour period between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

On the night of May 22nd, Jackson reportedly sent cavalry to both ends of the of the forty-four mile stretch of railroad track which lay in Virginia territory. “At the end of the busy noontime traffic, just as all these trains had filled up the east and westbound lanes, practically coupler to coupler, Imboden and Harper suddenly halted traffic at midday.” This was affected “by emerging forth and not allowing the trains now coming toward each of their positions to pass and get out of this double-track stretch.” Consequently, Colonel Jackson “bagged” the “largest single haul of rolling stock taken intact during the war.”

According to Imboden’s account, Jackson “caught all the trains that were going east or west between those points, and these he ran up to Winchester, thirty-two miles on the branch road, where they were safe, and whence they were removed by horse-power to the railway at Strasburg. I do not remember the number of trains captured, but the loss crippled the Baltimore and Ohio road seriously for some time, and the gain to our scantily stocked Virginia roads of the same gauge was invaluable.”

Train Raid

Strasburg Historical Society Museum

Many historians have concluded that the raid described by Imboden, in all probability, never actually transpired. Civil War author James I. Robertson “denies that the raid occurred and questions whether the communication between Jackson and railroad officials ever happened. Robertson claims that historians who promote the accuracy of the raid place too much reliance on an 1885 account of the events written by General John D. Imboden, a source that Robertson considers to be unreliable.” “To have severed the B & O would have been a large and direct act of war against civilian commerce.” I tend to concur with Mr. Robertson’s reasoning.

Still, continued reports of engines passing through Winchester indicate that a comparable event undoubtedly happened. Once again, on September 16th, Julia Chase indicated “another of the Engines was brought from Martinsburg today, besides other things on Saturday. It is said that the reason the U. S. Government does not interfere in this case is because the leading Managers of the Balto & Ohio Railroad are Secessionists and they let them do as they please.”

The foundation of the story involving the capture of Baltimore and Ohio engines and rolling stock are actually grounded in an event that occurred on June 19th and 20th of the same year. General Joseph E. Johnston had ordered Colonel Jeb Stuart into Martinsburg on the 19th. Johnston, concerned that Union forces would soon occupy the area, also ordered General Thomas Jackson and his men to join Stuart and destroy the B & O Railroad facility before it could be captured by Union forces.

Jackson arrived in Martinsburg on the afternoon of June 20, and quickly set about tearing up the track and burning the round houses and machine shops. “Some fifty-six locomotives and tenders, as well as at least 305 coal cars, were either set afire, heaved into the Opequon river, or dismantled to the point of uselessness.”


Round House at Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Jackson was conflicted over supervising the destruction of material badly needed by the Confederacy. At Martinsburg, as Jackson proceeded with this “wreckage”, he started to have reservations as he knew the South had a severe shortage of locomotives. He noted that “some of these Baltimore and Ohio engines had not been so very badly burned; after all, there is very little about a locomotive that can ever be destroyed by fire.”

Within a few days Jackson devised a plan with the assistance of two railroad employees, Hugh Longust and Thomas R. Sharp. These men were to select several of the “least damaged locomotives, dismantle the engines, and transport overland by forty-horse teams the thirty-eight miles to Strasburg.” Here they could be placed on the Manassas Gap Railroad and sent safely south. “In this way, fourteen Baltimore and Ohio engines, of every sort and variety, ‘made the Gap’ that summer of ’61.”

Strasburg sign

Sign at Strasburg, Virginia Commemorating Jackson’s Great Train Caper

During early July, Jackson arranged to take the first of the engines out over the turnpike. “A picked group of about thirty-five men, including six machinists, ten teamsters and about a dozen laborers, had been told of the task. They were placed under the immediate charge of Hugh Longust, an experienced and veteran railroader from Richmond. Longust reported in turn to Colonel Thomas R. Sharp, at that time ranked as captain and also as acting quartermaster-general in the Confederate Army.”

The task of moving the trains over the macadam turnpike required crews to first examine “all bridges, strengthened them where it was needed, and fill in holes in the road. Where the road climbed, the army came to the horses’ aid, and two hundred men “added their muscles, shouts, curses and their wild singing to the racket. They could not prevent the engine from occasionally breaking the crust and sinking to its axles, but they could pull it out again.”


“Locomotives Dismantled by the Rebels at Martinsburg in August 1861

Captain Sharps “railroad corps” moved all but one of the locomotives by way of the Manassas Gap Railroad. The last of the captured locomotives, however, was stranded at Strasburg by General Johnston’s evacuation of Manassas Junction. “The B&O camelback Engine number 199 was put on the Manassas Gap Railroad tracks at Strasburg and moved south 25 miles up the Shenandoah Valley to the very end of the line at Mount Jackson, Virginia. From there it was remounted onto the teamster’s heavy-duty wagon trucks and hauled overland on the Valley Turnpike again another 70 miles to Staunton. The trip took four days, and when Engine 199 reached Staunton early in the morning, a majority of the town’s population turned out to witness the incredible sight.” “There, it broke loose on a hill and careened wildly through the town until it came to rest in a bog.” Fortunately, nobody was injured.

Due to the threat caused by General McClellan’s advance on Richmond in the spring of 1862 all of the captured locomotives were sent on to a location in North Carolina, about fifty miles west of Raleigh. Here, at the shop buildings of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad, the locomotives were refitted. The “Confederate States locomotive shops” were officially established here and all of the captured engines were put back into operation by mid-1863. This equipment would do much to fortify the Confederate rail system.

Following the war, all but one of the captured locomotives were returned to service on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. One of the locomotives was not restored, however. Engine No. 34, had been badly damaged during a Union cavalry raid and put out of service. The boiler from that engine was installed in the Confederate ironclad, CSS Neuse. The Neuse never saw active service and was later destroyed in March of 1865. Burned to the waterline, the remains of the Neuse and thousands of artifacts were eventually salvaged and put on display at the museum at Kinston, North Carolina.


The Neuse was Constructed from the Plans of Her Sister Ship the Albemarle.

Much of the written history of Jackson’s great train caper was penned based on a questionable account authored by General John Imboden. Jed Hotchkiss, in a letter written in April 1895 to historian G. F. R. Henderson, spoke of his friend. “I do not like to say that my friend is unreliable; and yet the truth of the matter is that his statements will not bear the tests of criticism. … He writes from a confused memory and never takes the trouble of verifying his statements by a reference to documents.”

Though the details may be contested, the facts remain. General Jackson was responsible for making a huge contribution to Southern rail transportation system which undoubtedly extended the war making capability of the Confederacy. As always, it is our responsibility to sort truth from fiction. Hopefully this narrative has done that.

Imboden, John DBattles & Leaders of the Civil War.

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

Robertson, James I. Stonewall Jackson. The Man, The Soldier, The Legend. Macmillan Publishing. New York, N.Y. 1997.