Seemingly Fictitious Skirmishes Along the Potomac

Wednesday, June 26, 1861

It would be awhile before the world would know Lew Wallace as the author of Ben-Hur. He had been a Senator from Indiana, as well as son of the state’s Governor, and was at this time Colonel of the 11th Indiana Zouaves. He was also being fought over by Union Generals McClellan and Patterson.

A few days prior, Wallace had begun moving some of his baggage north to Bedford, Pennsylvania, antisipating an attack on his position near Cumberland, Maryland. He moved his men upon the same road out of town. The locals feared that he was leaving them, but his plan was to hide in the heights above Cumberland and wait for the Rebels to enter the town, fan out and before they could loot the place, descend upon them when they were out of order.1

As the rumors of nearby Rebels ebbed, Wallace moved his men back into Cumberland. He wished to move permanently to Bedford as there were two regiments of Pennsylvania Reserves encamped there. But, under “sharp reprimand” from McClellan, Wallace was compelled to stay. General Patterson, at Hagerstown, Maryland, wished to absorb him, but when he asked General-in-Chief Winfield Scott permission to do so, he was told to “let Colonel Wallace remain at Cumberland until further orders.”2

Meanwhile in Cumberland, Wallace somehow or another procured thirteen horses and, after mounting thirteen men upon them, sent them out as scouts. These thirteen men rode south to Frankfort [modern day Fort Ashby], fifteen miles north of Romney. Rumors that the town was full of Rebels were found to be accurate as Confederate cavalry occupied the place.

Being only thirteen in number, they headed back to Cumberland to report their findings. On the road back home, they found forty-one mounted Rebels and immediately charged them and soon after, routed them. The Union horsemen gave chase for a mile or two, killing eight of the Rebels while themselves sustaining only one man wounded. They also captured seventeen horses.

With the Rebels scattered, the Union men continued north to Cumberland. Near where Patterson Creek enters the Potomac, they were ambushed by seventy-five Rebels. The attack came so quickly, they left their horses and retreated to a small island at the mouth of the creek [is this that small island?]. The Rebels charged and some even made it onto the island. A vicious hand-to-hand fight ensued as fists and sabers mixed with bullets.

The thirteen made a stand and somehow managed to kill twenty-three Confederates. One Union man killed six, while another killed three. Even the wounded man from the first fight killed two.

The Confederates captured one of the wounded Union soldiers before they retired. In his report, Wallace asserted that this man, John C. Hollenbeck, was “brutally murdered by his captors.”

Wallace’s two reports (one to McClellan, one to Patterson) seem almost like fiction. In fact, Wallace himself noticed that. “The report of the skirmish sounds like fiction,” Wallace wrote McClellan, “but it is not exaggerated.”

Perhaps Wallace was not exaggerating the reports of his men. Their reports that, in all, thirteen killed thirty-one, seem incredibly hard to believe. As “proof,” Wallace wrote to Patterson that “eight dead bodies (rebels) were left on the railroad track where the first encounter took place” and “the bodies of twenty-three rebels were laid out on a porch of a farm house near the scene of the last engagement.”3

The Wheeling Intelligencer didn’t seem to fully accept the official story, either. It reported the Union men evenly matched with the first batch of Rebels at twenty. The reinforcements received by the Rebels attacking the island brought their number to around forty. The paper put the number of Rebels killed at seventeen. Corporal David Hayes, commander of the outfit, was a “companion of the noted Kit Carson” and “received two wounds, neither of which are considered dangerous.” The reporter in Cumberland “saw him spring out of a hand-car when he arrived at Cumberland, without assistance, remarking gaily as he did so that he was worth half a dozen dead men yet.”4



  1. Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of America, Volume 1 by Benson John Lossing, G.W. Childs, 1866. For being a “Pictorial History,” this book has very few pictures and is quite detailed. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p725-726. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p134-135. []
  4. Wheeling Intelligencer, June 29, 1861. []
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Seemingly Fictitious Skirmishes Along the Potomac by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “Seemingly Fictitious Skirmishes Along the Potomac

    1. I guess it’s kind of hard to say. Probably, yes, this was in the vicinity and around the same time.

      Not being a huge fan of wikipedia (as far as research goes), here’s a link. It relates two different stories of R. Ashby’s death. One is from this fight, the other is from a fight on the 28th.

      I don’t know enough about this, specifically, to make a judgement over which is correct.

      -Eric

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