July 16, 1864 (Saturday)
Once again, they were moving, splashing across the Potomac onto Virginia soil, pursuing the Rebel host. For two days both sides had rested on opposite sides of the river, but on the morning of this date, 12,000 Federals under Horatio Wright renewed the chase. They crossed at White’s (Conrad’s) Ferry, while at Edward’s ferry, four miles downstream, an additional 5,000 men under General James Ricketts, crossed as well.
And from Leesburg, Virginia, the retreated Confederates under Jubal Early, too set off, moving west toward Snicker’s Gap and the Shenandoah River. They were a full day’s march ahead of the Union infantry, but from the Northern cavalry, they were not so fortunately placed.
From Hillsboro, northwest of Leesburg, General Alfred Napoléon Alexander Duffié dispatched patrols to hunt down Early’s location. They found a band of Confederates near the town of Purcellville, and drove them south onto the main body, then marching along the turnpike from Leesburg to Snicker’s Gap. Being but a small squadron, they could not attack, but held close, watching. A courier was rushed to Duffié with the news that Early had been spotted.
There was still another Federal column, the Army of West Virginia, that was once more arriving on the scene. This force under department commander General David Hunter – the same force that had been beaten in Lynchburg, Virginia the month before, and retreated through West Virginia – was now collecting itself at Harpers Ferry to the north. By this time, the Army of West Virginia, 7,000-strong and under the immediate field command of Jeremiah Sullivan, occupied Knoxville, Maryland, just downriver from Harpers Ferry.
Sullivan ran into trouble while attempting to cross the Potomac, but was finally able to scramble to the Virginia side the day previous (the 15th). Sullivan had advanced his troops to Hillsboro, and on the morning of this date did nothing. But it was this nothing that made a world of difference.
General George Crook was sent by Washington to replace the inept Sullivan, whose career as of late had been one of mostly bumbling. But for Crook, little was certain. There were reports coming in from all over. From Hillsboro, he dispatched a brigade southeast to Waterford, but little came of the small encounter.
Shortly after detaching the brigade, General Crook received the message from Duffié’s scouts that the Confederates were marching toward Snicker’s Gap. Specifically, a wagon train had been spotted, and Crook ordered Duffié to take it. In turn, Duffié ordered Col. William Tibbits’ small brigade to attack the wagons.
Along the way, the Federals scooped up prisoners. Before long, the wagons, unguarded, were in front. Tibbits concocted a strangely complex plan involving a diversion with artillery. Somehow or another, by 2pm, all was in motion and falling into perfect place. From seeming nowhere, a battery exploded and the Union cavalry was upon the Rebels. The scant Confederate escorts put up no fight at all, running for their lives. From almost every direction, the iron rained upon them and horses charged in fury. The wagons were captured or destroyed, and the Federals stormed forward until resistance was finally met.
The wagon train had been located directly in the middle of Early’s army. Soon, Confederate cavalry was swooping behind them and infantry were forming into line before them. Rebel artillery replied in kind. For a terrifying moment, it appeared that Tibbits would be severed from his route of escape. Still more Rebel infantry – this time an entire brigade – charged the battery, capturing a gun before it could be dragged away.
Tibbit’s command had been scattered, and their commander was nearly isolated. He managed his escape with the prodded help of a few Rebel prisoners. Without a command, he returned to Hillsboro. It was to his surprise when he found that his small brigade had the same idea. Upon entering the village, he the spoils of his hard-fought adventure. They had captured thirty-seven wagons, and burned forty-three more. Over fifty prisoners were on hand. It was impressive for such a small force, and though bold, it was ultimately pointless.
The captured wagons amounted to little more than spare baggage, and now that it was known that they had pierced the center of Early’s force, it made the small number of Tibbit’s men all the more painful. Had a larger force been dispatched, half of the Rebel force could have been captured or destroyed.
Toward evening, General Crook finally advanced his entire army to Purcellville, where the Rebel army had last been spotted. Generals Wright and Ricketts continued their marches from the Potomac.
Meanwhile, Jubal Early continued his retreat. By night, half was encamped on the western banks of the Shenandoah, while the rest was near Upperville and Snickers Gap. With the exception of a small cavalry engagement near Hillsboro involving some wayward Rebels, the day was at an end, and the next would see Early put even more distance between his army and those of the Federals.1
- Sources: Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Frankline Cooling; Sheridan in the Shenandoah by Edward Stackpole; Shenandoah Summer by Scott C. Patchan. [↩]