October 11, 1862 (Saturday)
The average cavalier in Jeb Stuart’s band of 1,800 knew where he was, but few knew where they were going. They had made their beds in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, near enough to the Mason-Dixon Line, to be sure, but still well into the Keystone State. The night that passed was one of worry. The sporadic rains of the previous day had turned into a steady letting, and Stuart was fearful that the fords across the Potomac River would be too flooded to allow a crossing.
The bugles were blown at dawn and the men began to gather in the streets. There was, however, a bit of business to attend to. The object of the raid had been the destruction of a railroad bridge just north of town. It was discovered that the bridge was made of iron and apparently indestructible.
Rather than leaving empty handed, a few men were dispatched to set fire to the railroad depot and machine shops. A warehouse containing ammunition previously captured from General Longstreet’s men was also put to the torch. More than a few items were spared from the conflagration. Some of the railroad cars and part of the warehouse had been dedicated to United State Army supplies. Clothing, hats, boots and some arms and ammunition from those stores were liberally distributed among the men. Some fellows, perhaps planning for the future, were adorned with as many as three hats.
By 7am, Stuart was up and sitting on his horse in the center of town, readying his men. Though none knew for sure, most figured that they would be heading west, returning to Virginia the way they came. But Stuart had a different idea – one he probably had from the start. Rather than returning the way they came, couldn’t he just as easily return via the fords south of Harpers Ferry?
They were already well behind Union lines. The main body of the Army of the Potomac was at Harpers Ferry and fairly stationary. Reentering Virginia around Poolesville wouldn’t be too much more dangerous and would give them the honor of circling McClellan’s Army for a second time.
It was to the east they rode, down the Gettysburg Pike. By all appearances, Stuart was about to attack that sleepy little town. When his command reached Cashtown, they turned south, but not before raiding the cellars of the Cashtown Inn. From Fairfield, they continued south, crossing again the state line.
The deeper they moved into Maryland, the more chance there was of an encounter with Federal cavalry. Though many troopers had two or three fine Pennsylvania horses tied up to their mount, Stuart welcomed a fight. The rub was that only sabers were to be used. Artillery and even pistols made too much of a racket and might draw an unwanted crowd.
The rains of the previous night continued through much of the day, but eventually tapered off. The wet roads were a boon as it eliminated the huge dust clouds a column of cavalry would normally kick up.
By evening, Emmitsburg, Maryland was reached. Stuart forbade any civilians from leaving the town, worried as he was that a local Unionist or two might try to be a hero and alert the Federals. For the most part, however, they were greeted with cheers and thanks, Emmitsburg was for the Confederacy. Stuart had received word that he had missed a detachment of Union cavalry by about an hour.
The rest in Emmitsburg was short-lived and the whole column was marching south into darkness, as the men prepared themselves for a dreaded night march.
It is no small tax upon one’s endurance to remain marching all night; during the day there is always something to attract the attention and amuse, but at night there is nothing. The monotonous jingle of arms and accoutrements mingles with the tramp of horses’ feet into a drowsy hum all along the marching column, which makes one extremely sleepy, and to be sleepy and not to be allowed to sleep is exquisite torture.
– From War Years with Jeb Stuart by William Willis Blackford.
Through the night, some men walked their mounts, while others simply snored away the hours. By dawn the next day, after traveling sixty-five miles in twenty-four hours, they arrived in Hayattstown, twenty miles west of Harpers Ferry and the Army of the Potomac.
Throughout the day (October 11th), the Union response to Stuart’s raid was varied. McClellan had been fooled once by Stuart and he didn’t want to be fooled again. Rather than sending a force of cavalry to chase after the Rebels, he decided to wait it out and see where they were going. Thanks in large part to Alexander McClure of Chambersburg, who relayed Stuart’s arrival and departure from town, McClellan had a fairly good idea that the Confederates were going to try another ride around his army.
The problem was, so said McClellan in his official report, he had only 800 cavalrymen to mount the pursuit. In truth, the actual numbers were much closer to 5,000 – they were just abysmally utilized. McClellan sent one column to follow Stuart, but they didn’t seem to care much for that duty. The other column was sent to guard the fords south of the main body of his army, figuring that Stuart would try to circle him. Other, smaller detachments, were sent to prowl the main roads leading from Chambersburg, and to cover the Potomac crossings near Poolesville. He also dispatched infantry. Ambrose Burnside was ordered to send two brigades to Monocacy.
All this, figured McClellan, should have been enough to catch and destroy Stuart’s Confederate Cavalry.1
- Sources: Bold Dragoon by Emory Thomas; War Years with Jeb Stuart by William Willis Blackford; Riding in Circles by Arnold M. Pavlovsky; Report of Major-General George B. McClellan Upon the Organization of the Army of the Potomac and Its Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland, p137-138. [↩]