Wednesday, October 16, 1861
When word of General Jeff Thompson’s raid along the Ironton Railroad and destruction of the Big River Bridge reached General Fremont, he knew just who to blame. This was all Frank Blair Jr.’s fault. Though he never mentioned Blair by name, Fremont, through his “acting aide-de-camp,” explained that ,”the effect of the special Washington dispatches to the New York Tribune on Missouri affairs has been to stimulate the rebels to great activity and aggression in the city and State.”
Fremont reasoned (and “reasoned” is probably not the best word to use here), that if Blair and others of his ilk hadn’t publicized their disappointments and dislikes, the Missouri Rebels, specifically Jeff Thompson, somehow wouldn’t be actively warring against Union forces.
Still, Fremont dispatched two regiments with a promise that they “will whip them.” As for the rest of his Army of the West, Fremont, now near Warsaw, tried to assure Washington that his plans were “fully matured” and that he was closing in on Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard force, which was northeast of Montevallo, roughly seventy miles away.1
Price, however, was actually farther away, near Greenfield. Though their retreat from Lexington had been almost as slow and leisurely as Fremont’s advance on Price’s Army, he knew that he was outnumbered.
The troops under Price numbered no more than 12,000 men. Fremont’s Army of the West, though disorganized and, according to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, in no condition to march, was made up of nearly 40,000. Underestimating, Price figured his foe had maybe 24,000. As Price continued his southerly movement, he hoped to effect a junction with Confederate General Ben McCulloch, with whom the Batttle of Wilson’s Creek was won.2
General Price, upon his retreat from Lexington, had left a small garrison to guard the town and the Union prisoners. The previous day, Union Col. Charles E. Hovey, commanding at Georgetown, received a message from the prisoners at Lexington, sixty miles northeast. Colonels Grover and White, along with fifteen or so others, wrote that if they “were not relieved within twenty-four hours, they would be assassinated by the rebel marauders infesting Lexington.”
Col. Hovey, as part of Fremont’s Army, was under marching orders and could not tend to this. The First Squadron Prairie Scouts, commanded by Major Frank J. White, however, volunteered for the job. With a force of 220 horsemen, Major White started for Lexington after nightfall of the 15th.
By the early morning of this date, they had arrived on the outskirts of Lexington. The Rebels were scant and easily pushed back and scattered. In no time at all, Lexington fell back into Union hands. Major White rescued his comrades, captured 60 Rebels, a like number of arms, twenty-five horses, two steam boats and a large Confederate Flag. But it could not be held for long. Though “the rebels ran in every direction,” they could soon regroup.3
Skirmish at Bolivar Heights
General John Geary, commanding the Union wheat-gathering operation at Harpers Ferry, was planning to recross to the Maryland side of the Potomac. The job of securing 20,000 bushels of wheat for the Union (at the request of the mill’s owner), was finished.
As he was preparing to withdraw, the Union pickets on Bolivar Heights, west of town, were seen falling back down the slope and into Bolivar. Screaming and yelling behind them were Turner Ashby’s Confederate cavalry, bolstered by 300 Virginia militiamen and artillery, a 32lbs. Columbiad, on the Charlestown Road.
Ashby, Stonewall Jackson’s chief of cavalry, arrayed his men north to south, from the Potomac to the Shenandoah, and advanced against the unprepared Union men. Geary pushed his main body, perhaps 350 strong, towards Bolivar, rallying the retreating pickets. With no bridge behind him and half of his force on the other side of the Potomac, Geary knew that he would have to fight whatever Ashby could throw at him.
Just then, an artillery shell burst nearby, sending shrapnel into Geary’s leg, slashing it open and exposing the bone below the knee. He told nobody about it, sought no help, and continued defending Harpers Ferry.
This was, however, becoming a fairly difficult task. On Loudon Heights, south, across the Shenandoah, a large force of Confederate sharpshooters and artillery opened upon the barge holding the grain. Geary detached a company of Massachusetts boys to cover the fords and barge, fanning out as skirmishers along the shore of the confluence.
Geary’s small force withstood three Confederate attacks and finally received one piece of artillery. With this slight reinforcement and what appeared to be a Confederate lull, Geary took the opportunity to attempt to flank the Rebels. Two companies of Wisconsin troops were sent around the enemy’s right flank and were able to drive them off the ridge overlooking the Shenandoah.
At the same time, from Maryland Heights, across the Potomac, two Union guns opened upon the Rebel artillery on Bolivar and Loudoun Heights. Two more companies, this time Pennsylvanians, attacked Ashby’s left flank and were able to turn it.
With both flanks secured, Geary ordered a charge. Ashby, who could see that his position was untenable, retired to Schoolhouse Hill and awaited a Union attack that never came. In their hasty retreat, the Confederates broke the axle of the Columbiad, leaving it behind. After the battle, Geary rested his notebook upon the huge gun and wrote his report to his commander, General Nathaniel Banks.
At midnight, Geary, his men and the wheat finally made it to the Maryland side of the Potomac. Casualties were light. Union forces suffered four killed, seven wounded and two captured. Confederates faired better with one killed and thirteen wounded. One of the Confederate prisoners was Ashby’s chaplain, Rev. Nathaniel G. North.4
In his subsequent report, filed two days later, General Geary related a gruesome finding:
The four men who were killed were afterwards charged upon by the cavalry and stabbed through the body, stripped of all their clothing, not excepting their shoes and stockings, and left in perfect nudity. One was laid in the form of a crucifixion, with his hands spread out, and cut through the palms with a dull knife. This inhuman treatment incensed my troops exceedingly, and I fear its consequences may be shown in retaliatory acts hereafter.5
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p535. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p720. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p247. [↩]
- Two sources used: Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn and Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p242. [↩]