October 9, 1862 (Thursday)
Both armies were taught a valuable lesson about war, killing, and dying at the Battle of Antietam. Following the bloodletting, both took time to sort things out. That is not to say that either side wasn’t still itching for a fight. General Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had contemplated a push into Pennsylvania immediately following the battle. These hopes were quickly dashed by his own returns. And while General McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, had absolutely no desire to move his army, President Lincoln had been urging him for weeks to chase down the Rebels – even making a personal visit to illustrate his point.
But neither army moved. That is, except for a brigade in Stonewall Jackson’s Corps. The Confederates had retired to the vicinity of Winchester. There, Lee tasked Jackson with destroying the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, something Jackson would probably have done anyway. The B&O had played a pivotal roll thus far in the war. Jackson had destroyed and tried to destroy large parts of it, but was only marginally successful ad the Federals were always quick with repairs.
On their way to Antietam, the Confederates sacked the line from Point of Rocks to the Monocacy Bridge. All bridges and rolling stock were put to the torch. Jackson’s foray to Harpers Ferry netted the Rebels even greater success as they destroyed track in and around Martinsburg. But the whole affair had been necessarily rushed. The object wasn’t to destroy the railroad, but to invade the north.
With the invasion put on indefinite hold, Lee thought it was time to give the B&O the attention it needed. Jackson dispatched Col. James Lane, leading a brigade in A.P. Hill’s Division, to the undertaking. Lane was, to put it mildly, very thorough.
Lane’s men pulled up the rails and toasted them over a bonfire built of crossties until the iron was white hot. The men then quickly picked them up and wrapped them around a tree. Later in the war, William Tecumseh Sherman would order his men to do likewise in Georgia – they would be called “Sherman’s neckties.” While the Union got the honor of the name, Jackson’s men seem have come up with the design. Some enthusiastic Rebels wrapped the rails around the tree several times, creating a collar for the trunk. This was the rule of the day for nearly forty miles of track either side of Martinsburg.
In Martinsburg itself, the engine house, the round house, the machine shops, warehouse, ticketing and telegraph offices, the B&O hotel, coal bins, blacksmith shop, tool houses and pump houses were all annihilated. The telegraph lines were not forgotten, either. Jackson’s men dismantled nearly ninety miles of wire, chopping down poles and setting them ablaze. It wouldn’t be until November that the destruction would end.
Through all of this, both infantries remained otherwise still. The cavalry, however, did not. In early October, Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasanton captured Martinsburg while embarrassing Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart, whose pickets had fled from the town.
Stuart had known Pleasanton from their days together at West Point. He never liked the man, finding him less than pleasant. This raid did the relationship no favors. Stuart immediately ordered his men to retake the town, which they did almost as quickly as it was ordered.
A week passed with little more than the ladies and their soirees and balls for Stuart and his staff to attend to. But that all changed on the 8th when General Lee figured out something more pressing for Stuart to accomplish. There was a railroad bridge along the Cumberland Valley line that spanned Conococheague Creek just north of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Lee wanted it to be destroyed. Stuart had been pushing for a raid into McClellan’s rear and Lee found a reason to acquiesce.
The Cumberland Valley Railroad was an important link with the Pennsylvania Railroad and Pittsburgh, with her iron and armories, to Washington and McClellan’s Army. Disrupting that line was of vital importance, especially considering that nobody would be using the B&O for the time being.
Along the way, Lee tasked Stuart “to gain all information of the position, force, and probable intention of the enemy which you can.” This raid was to be executed in absolute secrecy. Stuart was to “arrest all citizens that may give information to the enemy.” Should Stuart happen to bump into any Pennsylvania politicians or government workers, they were to be kidnapped and brought back to Virginia “that they may be used as hostages, or the means of exchanges for our own citizens that have been carried off by the enemy.” Lee reminded Stuart that such persons were to be treated “with all the respect and consideration that circumstances will admit.”
Stuart received the orders on the 8th and attended one more night of visiting and dancing with the fine ladies of the area. At 1am, Stuart was found in the accompaniment of a banjo and bones as he performed a farewell concert for his hosts. When Stuart found time to sleep is hard to fathom. By dawn of this date, he was preparing his 1,800 men for the expedition.
By afternoon, the force assembled at Darkesville, several miles south of Martinsburg. From there, they rode towards Williamsport and the Potomac River, encamping for the night at Hedgesville. At dawn, they would make their crossing at McCoy Ford.1
- Sources: The Baltimore and Ohio in the Civil War by Festus P. Summers; War Years with Jeb Stuart by William Willis Blackford; Riding in Circles by Arnold M. Pavlovsky; Life and Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee by James Dabney McCabe; History of Franklin County, Pennsylvania published by Warner, Beers & Co.; Bold Dragoon by Emory Thomas. [↩]