October 10, 1862 (Friday)
General Lee had envisioned that his entire Army of Northern Virginia would storm through Maryland and delve deep into the heart of central Pennsylvania. The battle of Antietam put a dent in those plans, but his eyes had never left the Keystone State. He could not go, but his cavalry could.
Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate horsemen, had encamped his 1,800 men at Hedgesville, Virginia, several miles from the Potomac River. Well before dawn, Stuart and his subordinate, Wade Hampton, scouted McCoy’s Ford, making sure the way was clear for a crossing. The ford was guarded, but lightly. Stuart dispatched twenty-five men to swim across the river above the ford and capture the pickets. They took all but one, their commander, who scampered off to spread the word.
By dawn, the Rebels were crossing unopposed, but word of their secret raid spread quickly. At 5:30am, a civilian told a Federal Captain that Confederates had crossed the Potomac. At first, he didn’t give it much credence, but after a few hours of similar reports coming in, it was clear to him that the Rebels were marching to Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The Federal officer sent the message up the line, to commands in Williamsport and Hagerstown, Maryland. When word reached the War Department in Washington, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck wired General McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, telling him that “not a man should be permitted to return to Virginia.”
Meanwhile, the Rebels were riding through northern Maryland along the National Road. Not long before they entered the turnpike, a Union division had passed, marching their way to Mercersburg. While the Rebels soon took notice, due to Yankee stragglers, the Federals were none the wiser.1 Adding to the Union ignorance, Stuart’s crew managed to capture a signal station, concealing their movements all the more.
Following the National Road, Stuart and his men came upon the crossroads that could either take them north into Pennsylvania or east into Hagerstown, a tempting morsel. By this time, however, the Federal army was clearly beginning to take notice. The faster Stuart got away from them, the better. Hagerstown wasn’t his mission – Lee had ordered him to take out a railroad bridge just north of Chambersburg. With some slight regret, he turned north.
As they crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania, two natives of the state, brothers Hugh and Alexander Logan from Chambersburg, proudly riding with Stuart, took over as guides. When the band reached Mercersburg, somehow or another, it was discovered that one of its denizens had an incredibly detailed map of the Pennsylvania countryside. William Blackford, riding with Stuart, called upon the residence to retrieve it.
“Only the females of the family appeared, who flatly refused to let me have the map, or to acknowledge that they had one,” recalled Blackford after the war, “so I was obliged to dismount and push by the infuriated ladies, rather rough specimens, however, into the sitting room where I found the map hanging on the wall. Angry women do not show to advantage, and the language and looks of these were fearful, as I coolly cut the map out of its rollers and put it in my haversack.”
But maps weren’t all that were stuffed into haversacks. Lee, and thus Stuart, forbade the cavaliers from foraging or offending the Maryland citizens. It was still hoped that Maryland would wander in on the side of the Confederacy. In Pennsylvania, however, all restraints were off. Throughout Franklin County, the raiders plundered the pantries and larders of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Breads and pastries for all 1,800 Rebels were in abundance. Foods of all varieties greeted the hungry riders.
And though the cavalrymen were thrilled to see the Pennsylvanians (and their bountiful kitchens), the Pennsylvanians weren’t exactly thrilled to see the Rebels. In Mercersburg, many were in a panic, fearing that the town would be burned and the residents murdered. “Take anything! Only spare the women and children,” cried one frantic lady, tears streaming down her reddened cheeks, when two privates tried to buy bread from her. The hysterics in town got so bad that more than a few Rebels dismounted to comfort and assure them that they meant the Northerners no harm.
While some provided comfort, others had a bit of fun with the terrified Keystoners. Just outside of Bridgeport, the following scene played out:
“On the second day’s march, some hungry cavalry men approached a house whose male defenders had fled, leaving the women and babies in possession. A polite request for food was met by the somewhat surly reply that there was none in the house. Casting a wolfish glance upon the babies, a lean fellow remarked that he had never been in the habit of eating human flesh, but that he was now hungry enough for anything; and if he could get nothing else, he believed he would compromise on one of the babies. It is hardly necessary to say that the mother’s heart relented, and bountiful repast was soon provided.”
And soon, they were on their way again, through Bridgeport and St. Thomas, collecting supplies and horses as they rode. With an easterly turn (along a highway that would later be named after Abraham Lincoln), they reached the outskirts of Chambersburg.
The day’s march, constantly broken up by various raids and pillages, was one of forty miles. The gray and dreary day had slipped to evening and then to dark with steady rain before they reached the town. Stuart considered that it was possible that Union infantry had been dispatched to Chambersburg in anticipation of their coming. To counter this, he placed artillery on a hill just west of town and sent an officer under a flag of truce to demand its surrender.
In Chambersburg, Alexander McClure, a newspaper editor and ardent abolitionist, heard that the Rebel cavalry was moving on the town. He urged Union authorities to throw some infantry their way to contest them. The Federals, however, could not be convinced that Stuart would try to take Chambersburg.
It seems that all of the town’s officials had fled and McClure, along with Judge Francis M. Kimmell, were left holding the honor of welcoming the Rebels. The Confederate officer agreed to take McClure and Kimmell to see Hampton, where they surrendered Chambersburg.
As the Rebels rode into the town square, McClure looked over the rabble and began to return to his home. Before he got too far, he was tapped on the shoulder. When he turned around, he saw Hugh Logan, one of the brothers who guided the Confederates after crossing into Pennsylvania. They had known each other before the war and recognized each other now. “Why colonel, what are you doing here?” asked Hugh, and then explained that Stuart specifically ordered the arrest of many men, including McClure.
McClure decided to take his chances and returned to his house. Later in the night, he entertained several Rebels, giving them tea and the warmth of his parlor. So kind was his hospitality that, even after learning who he was, they decided to unlearn it and let him go.2
As many of the Rebels slept, there was still the issue with that railroad bridge just north of town. That was the main reason that General Lee gave for granting Stuart permission for the ride into Pennsylvania. The 2nd Virginia Cavalry, under the command of “Grumble” Jones, was sent to chop it to splinters. But when they arrived, they discovered that it was a bridge constructed of iron – their axes couldn’t touch it. And so they returned to foraging.
Thanks to the efforts of McClure and Kimmell, the town was more or less left intact that night. The tired bodies and full bellies of the Rebels probably helped in that territory as well.3
- I’ve seen sources that claim the division was General Jacob Cox’s. One even places him at the scene, but, according to Cox’s own memoirs, he was in Columbus, Ohio on this day. I suppose they could have been men from his old command, but he wasn’t personally there. [↩]
- Reading the entire episode is quite a bit of fun. You can easily go about that task here. I strongly suggest you do. [↩]
- Sources: History of Franklin County, Pennsylvania published by Warner, Beers & Co.; Bold Dragoon by Emory Thomas; War Years with Jeb Stuart by William Willis Blackford; Riding in Circles by Arnold M. Pavlovsky; Military Remembrances of the Civil War by Jacob Cox; Abraham Lincoln and Men of War-times by Alexander McClure. [↩]