Pony Express Shuts Down; The First Battle of Romney

Saturday, October 26, 1861

Our Friend, the Little Pony, is to Run No More

The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, founded on April 3, 1860, and more famously remembered as the Pony Express, on this date, announced that it would be shutting down operations. Just two days prior, the Transcontinental Telegraph line had been completed at Salt Lake City.

Though the business was technically shut down on this date, the last riders from west and east, leaving on October 23rd and 24th, respectively, were still en route across the country. These last runs would not be completed until mid-November.

The Transcontinental Telegraph is usually blamed for the demise of the Pony Express, both sharing, more or less, the same route, however, in reality, the business had never been sound. Though the rival Butterfield Overland Mail Company continued to receive US Government money (and would even after they were shut down by the Confederates in New Mexico), the Pony Express got nothing. They were losing as much as $13 per letter delivered.

In March, to save the failing service, Congress gave the eastern portion of the route to the Butterfield Company. The Government would pay Butterfield $1,000,000 per year to run their line, and, in turn, Butterfield would pay the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company $470,000 to run their portion. By July, the money started to change hands, but it was already too late.

Through all this financial and political turmoil, the Pony Express service continued uninterrupted until this date in October. Throughout its short life of only eighteen months, the Express completed 308 runs, a distance of 616,000 miles. They were able to deliver 34,753 letters though heat, rain, snow and Indian attacks, riding into history and American legend.1

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The First Battle of Romney

Union General Benjamin Kelley, victor of the War’s first land battle of Philippi, western Virginia, had been called upon by Washington to take command of the Department of Harpers Ferry. Along with that promotion was the order to take a force from Grafton, where he had been stationed, to Romney, a town in north western Virginia that had already changed hands several times. He was to clear the town of the several hundred Rebels and set up his headquarters.2

On the 24th, he and his 4,000 or so troops, mostly western Virginians and Ohioans, boarded trains to New Creek Station, twenty-six miles northwest of Romney. When they arrived, their numbers were bolstered by more Ohio troops stationed in Maryland. On the morning of this date, with his cavalry in front, he started for his new headquarters.

Hoping to cut off the nearly-certain Rebel retreat towards Winchester, General Kelley sent the 2nd Maryland Infantry of the Potomac Home Brigade, numbering 700, under Col. Thomas Johns through Springfield with orders to hold the road leading east out of the town.3 Meanwhile, the rest of Kelley’s force tramped southeast from New Creek.

News of the Union advance spread quickly among the Confederates. The 14th Virginia Militia were stationed between Springfield and Romney near the Wire Bridge. As Col. Johns 2nd Maryland drew closer, they took up defensive positions along the South Branch of the Potomac River. When the Union troops came upon the bridge, the Rebels fired a volley into them. Col. Johns ordered his troops to return fire. For an hour, both sides exchanged heavy musket fire, while in the distance, he could hear the reports of General Kelley’s guns near Romney, seven miles away.

Just after 2pm, Kelley’s men met with a small band of the enemy, six miles west of Romney. He ordered his artillery to the front and cleared the road, blasting his way to within three miles of town. The 200 Confederates under Col. Angus McDonald, withdrew across the river, making their stand on its eastern shore. Both Union and Confederate artillery dueled for over an hour.

Both Union commanders, Kelley and Johns, found themselves poised along the South Branch of the Potomac, facing off against an enemy who could only be dislodged by a frontal attack across a bridge.

Col. Johns ordered a company to cross the Wire Bridge, but halfway across, they saw that the Rebels had removed the wooden planks on its far side, making it impossible to cross. Seeing the charge and the stranded, confused Yankees, Col. McDonald ordered his men to open fire. Seven Union troops fell in this attack, one was dead.

General Kelley had better luck. His entire column of infantry stormed the bridge to his front, while his cavalry forded the river under the bridge. The Rebels fired a few volleys, but quickly fled into the town. Many of the Rebels threw down their guns and ran for the hills. What was left of the Confederate command attempted to rally outside of Romney, but the Union cavalry quickly dispersed them. The Rebels had loaded their artillery and were about to fire when the horsemen came upon them. The guns were captured along with their baggage wagons, 300 stand of arms and much camp equipment.

Unable to take the Wire Bridge, Col. Johns and the 2nd Maryland returned to Old Town, twenty-five miles north of Romney, unable to cut off the Rebels retreating from Romney.

Kelley’s loss was only one man killed and twenty wounded. The Richmond Enquirer reported that twenty Confederates had been killed. Romney was, for now, in Union hands.4

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You Must Not Fight Until You Are Ready

Push for a grand, immediate battle to decide the war was growing stronger in Washington. Along with that victory, believed many Radical Republicans, came the destruction of the planter class and the abolition of slavery. General McClellan, on the other hand, wished for a negotiated peace, but realized that General Scott, while no abolitionist, would stand in his way.

On this date, members of this “all out war” school of thought met with President Lincoln. They asserted that an immediate defeat was just as bad as McClellan’s delay. Lincoln, however, defended McClellan’s position. After the meeting, Lincoln visited McClellan, asking him what he thought of fighting an immediate battle to quell the calls for action. McClellan wanted to wait until his Army of the Potomac was ready for a fight.

Lincoln, agreed, telling him, “you must not fight until you are ready.”5



  1. The Saga of the Pony Express by Joseph J. Di Certo. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p625. []
  3. In Johns’ report, he claims that his mission was to create a diversion. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p378-386. Also, Richmond Enquirer, October 30, 1861. []
  5. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
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Pony Express Shuts Down; The First Battle of Romney by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “Pony Express Shuts Down; The First Battle of Romney

  1. Hi,
    My name is Sam and I was wondering if I could use your pictures of the Pony Express for my National History Day project on the telegraph. I would use the pictures for educational purposes only.
    Thanks,
    Sam

    1. Hi Sam!

      Sure, go ahead and use anything you like. Pretty well everything is in the public domain. A link back or a mention would be great, of course.

      Eric

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