October 12, 1862 (Sunday)
As the gray and rainy autumn dawn dimly lit the morning hours, Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart were passing through Hayattstown, Maryland. Having spent the past twenty-four hours riding sixty-five miles from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, they found themselves nearing the Potomac River. There were five different crossings that Stuart had to choose from. The only problem was that he had no way of knowing which would be guarded and which left unprotected by the Union cavalry.
The Rebel cavalry had no real fear of their Federal counterparts. Any or all of the crosses could be guarded, but they felt that unless infantry was involved, there would be no great problem. However, unknown to Stuart, Federal infantry was involved.
At least, it was supposed to be. Along with all the cavalry he could muster, General George McClellan, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, ordered two brigades of infantry under Ambrose Burnside to board trains and wait near the bridge spanning the Monocacy River. Additionally, an entire division under George Stoneman was at Poolesville. McClellan was absolutely certain that with infantry blocking they way, there was no possibility of Stuart crossing the Potomac and returning to Virginia.
While Stoneman positioned three brigades of infantry to cover the fords, the troops under Burnside, for some reason, strode into Frederick, neglecting to remain by the railroad, checking themselves out of the fight before it even happened.
The Confederates were twelve or so miles away from the Potomac when all the pieces began to fall into place. Through intercepted dispatches, Stuart learned that infantry barred the fords and that cavalry was closing in on them.
The column was now led by an officer named Captain White. He had lived all his life in these parts and knew all the back roads. He thought it best to first lead the troopers towards Poolesville, hoping to deceive the enemy. The Rebels chased back a Union scouting party before making a hard left upon a little-used wagon road, perfecting the ruse.
The road took them towards Whites Ford, a seldom-used crossing that they hoped to find lightly protected. They were mostly in luck. Union General Stoneman had placed only a single regiment at Whites Ford. Their position, along the banks of a canal, was a good one. Though Stuart’s men greatly outnumbered the Federal regiment, it would be a tough fight.
Rather than attacking, a message was sent under a flag of truce, demanding that the regiment surrender or be destroyed within fifteen minutes. It was a bluff. Though the Rebels could have bested this individual regiment, it would not happen quickly. The sounds of the battle would draw in other units of both cavalry and infantry. This could all turn out very, very badly.
For the Federals, there would be no surrender. There wouldn’t even be a reply. They simply abandoned their position.
Stuart’s men lost no time in crossing. Guards were posted above and below the ford while the Confederates splashed their way to Virginia soil. As the pursuing Federals began to draw close, the Rebel artillery was unlimbered and several rounds fired, keeping them at a respectful distance.
“We were not half across when the bank we had left was swarming with the enemy who opened a galling fire upon us, the bullets splashing the water around us like a shower of rain. But the guns from the Virginia side immediately opened on them and mitigated their fire considerably, and we soon crossed and stood once more on Virginia soil.” – From War Years with Jeb Stuart by William Willis Blackford.
By the late afternoon, the entire command, which had lost not a soul, rode into Leesburg, where they encamped and rested. The next day, they would return to their camp at The Bower, a large estate south of Martinsburg.
The stated objective of the raid was to take out a railroad bridge just north of Chambersburg. In that, Stuart failed – the bridge was made of iron, not wood, and his men could not destroy it. In every other way imaginable, however, the raid was a great success.
His men and horses covered 126 miles, captured between 1,200 and 1,500 horses, as well as other various supplies and provisions. General Lee didn’t seem at all upset that Stuart didn’t destroy the bridge, later calling the raid “eminently successful.”
Two other important items came from the raid, one for the Confederates and one for the Federals. First, though it was never stated as a objective, Stuart had ridden through Cashtown Gap, covering much of the ground between Chambersburg and Gettysburg. He could now provide Lee with this valuable information, should Lee find it necessary in planning a full scale invasion of Pennsylvania.
For the Federals, the raid proved to Lincoln that McClellan was not up to the task. Twice, the Rebel cavalry had ridden around his force, making fools of the Army of the Potomac. When Lincoln heard the news of the escape, he was furious. Though he would again urge McClellan to do something, he would wait until his General filed an official report of the debacle before tearing into him.1
- Sources: OR, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1; Bold Dragoon by Emory Thomas; War Years with Jeb Stuart by William Willis Blackford; Riding in Circles by Arnold M. Pavlovsky. [↩]