July 3, 1864 (Sunday)
By July 2nd, Jubal Early and his Army of the Valley had reached Winchester, Virginia. There, he received further orders from General Lee, whose own army was now besieged at Petersburg. Early was to remain in the lower (northern portion) of the Shenandoah Valley “until everything was in readiness to cross the Potomac and destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal as far as possible.”
This suited Early well, as he was planning on doing that anyway. The B & O Railroad specifically was on his mind. Prior to leaving Lynchburg and Stuanton, his force had driven away the Federal column under David Hunter. The Union troops had fled far into West Virginia – so far, in fact, that if they had any plans upon returning, they would have to do so by rail. And if the railroad was gutted, there was little they could do.
The next day, Early planned to capture the two main Federal garrisons at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, under the overall command of Franz Sigel. Early dispatched his cavalry to burn railroad bridges from Williamsport to Martinsburg and beyond, hoping to also cut off Sigel’s retreat. He also dispersed his divisions, sending one under John Breckinridge to Martinsburg, and two more, under Robert Rodes, toward the B & O.
The Confederate cavalry, heading first toward Leetown, met with unplanned-for resistance, and had to immediately call upon the infantry for help. Meanwhile, Sigel pulled out of Martinsburg with little more than a scrape, avoiding Breckinridge’s attack.
“It was too late,” remembered Early in his memoirs, “and these divisions were too much exhausted to go after the enemy.”
Early then issued an order to strip Martinsburg of everything, public and private, that could be beneficial to his army. He warned his commanders to guard against plundering, but the scene was one of reckless looting.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Chief of Staff Henry Halleck had been desperately trying to figure out where General Hunter was. Wire upon wire was sent, but nothing came in reply.
Halleck trusted Franz Sigel not at all, complaining to General Grant before Petersburg. “You can therefore judge what probability there is of a good defense if the enemy should attack the line in force.”
But Halleck wasn’t even sure if Jubal Early’s force was in the valley. He asked Grant to confirm whether or not he had taken any prisoners from Early’s corps recently. Much to Halleck’s sinking feeling, he had not.
The president of the B & O Railroad, John Garret, was in a panic. He had done his best to round up 150 boxcars to send to Martinsburg so that Sigel might carry with his troops as much stores as possible. Before he could do this, John Singleton Mosby’s Rebel Cavalrymen surprised the few Federal troops guarding the trains.
Garret was soon bombarded with more requests from other local Union commanders, asking for cars to evacuate Harpers Ferry. “Cannot General Hunter be ordered from the west to such points east of Cumberland as may be most judicious?” He telegraphed to Halleck. “Appearances at present indicate a general abandonment of the [rail]road.”
Max Weber, commanding at Harpers Ferry with a small and mostly separate command from Sigel, pleaded with Washington to send him more troops to guard the B & O line. “I need infantry very much,” he wrote.
By night, Sigel was on the road to Harpers Ferry, while Weber held tight, holding Bolivar Heights, before Harpers Ferry.
So too was Early’s mind upon Harpers Ferry. In a message to John Breckinridge, he vowed, “I will move everything in that direction in the morning.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 2, p591; Memoir of the Last Year of the War by Jubal Early; Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn; The Baltimore and Ohio in the Civil War by Festus P. Summers; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. [↩]