Chapter 1 (continued)

A local newspaper editor and Republican leader, A.K. McClure, met Hampton that night and remembered the Confederate officer behaved "in a respectful and soldier-like manner." The bearded Hampton looked distinguished, he recalled, and granted McClure a full pardon, which meant that the editor could not be kidnapped and used as a hostage to secure the release of Confederates in Union jails. Even so, a cavalryman warned McClure that he wasn't safe and advised him to stick close to Hampton to avoid trouble.

McClure was stunned. "They gave me their promise," he insisted.

"Hampton gave it to you," the soldier replied. "And if you are arrested and can reach Hampton, he will parole you, for he's a gentleman. But J.E.B. Stuart wants you, and I'm not sure he would let you go on parole."

The newspaperman spent an uneasy night with Confederates camped all around his house while their horses ate through his cornfield. Some soldiers tore down his fences to use as kindling for campfires, but most, he wrote, were exceedingly polite. One trooper walked into his yard "and with a profound bow, politely asked for a few coals to start a fire."

Soon, soldier after soldier approached McClure to ask permission to draw water from his well. About 1:00 a.m., a small detail of soldiers, wet and shivering, climbed onto his porch. Seeking bread and coffee, they glimpsed the welcoming glow from his fireplace and asked if they might be allowed inside. McClure opened his house to them, and predictably more soon came, their heavy boots thudding on the wooden porch. They crowded into the house, creating a hub of activity. There was much lively conversation that night, and some of the soldiers revealed themselves to be quite cultured, McClure recounted. They filled his kitchen where, before the night was finished, McClure fed more than 100 men, also providing coffee and, when the coffee was gone, hot tea. The soldiers especially appreciated the coffee, which they hadn't had for several weeks. Coffee had grown scarce and soared to 10 dollars a pound in the South because of the Union naval blockade. All of the men were courteous, McClure remembered. Even when some took his prized tobacco, they asked his permission to smoke.

Not everyone that night had such favorable experiences with the Confederates. Some soldiers broke into a store and stole merchandise; several were arrested by fellow Confederates for pillaging. But on the whole, this was a well-disciplined force compared to some of their contemporaries. They left most stores and businesses alone.

The Confederates had sabotaged the Chambersburg telegraph soon after their arrival, but telegraph lines elsewhere were buzzing. Word spread quickly among Union officers and in official Washington that Stuart was on the loose. McClellan ordered heightened alert for his huge army. Union cavalry prepared to intercept the Confederates, while Federal infantry units waited at the most likely crossing places on the Potomac. Major General Henry Halleck, President Lincoln's general-in-chief, wired McClellan, "Not a man should be permitted to return to Virginia."

McClellan was confident that the Confederates could not elude him. Indeed, Stuart's force would be annihilated, he was certain. He telegraphed his superiors in Washington, D.C., "I have given every order necessary to insure the capture or destruction of these forces, and I hope we may be able to teach them a lesson they will not soon forget."

Before dawn, October 11, the Confederate cavalry assembled in downtown Chambersburg, then ransacked the Union Army depots for overcoats, pants, hats, under-wear, woolen socks, rifles, sabers, and pistols, as much as they could carry. A journalist reported, "The whole town was converted into one vast dressing room. On every hotel porch, at every corner, on the greater portion of the street doorsteps, might be seen Rebel cavalry donning Yankee uniforms, and throwing their own worn out and faded garments into the street."

Soon the Confederates were riding again. Most soldiers assumed they would now return in the general direction from which they had come, but Stuart surprised them. Following the axiom that the wisest move in war is often the unexpected, he headed east toward the small town of Gettysburg. He intended to try another ride around Union forces, a risky choice. Many of his soldiers were already worn out from the previous hard day's ride, followed by a night with little sleep. They were now some 80 miles from Confederate-occupied territory and the area between them and safe ground was honeycombed with enemy troops doggedly searching for them.

Hampton's division occupied the rear position. His soldiers, the last to depart Chambersburg, torched the Union Army depots and machine shops, destroying 6,000 weapons and damaging supplies worth perhaps $1 million. Explosions rocked Chambersburg throughout the morning.

Heavy fog concealed the Confederates' movements in the early hours of their ride. Many wore the stolen clothes of their foes, including Union blue overcoats. They trotted forward without pause throughout the morning, stopping only briefly to feed their horses. Stuart propped himself against a tree and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes during the break.

At Cashtown, seven miles from Gettysburg, the column turned south. There were zig zags in their course to throw off pursuit, but their destination was clear - the Potomac River where colliding with Union forces guarding access to the water seemed inevitable.

The cavalry crossed the border into Maryland, reaching the town of Emmitsburg about 4:00 p.m. Startled residents looked at the Confederates as if they "had fallen from the clouds," according to one account, but the townspeople were friendly and fed some of the soldiers, who remained on their horses. The first of the Confederates to arrive barely missed encountering about 150 Union cavalrymen, part of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, who had passed through on their way to Gettysburg a mere hour before.

The Confederates traveled on. By sundown, hungry and tired, their muscles and backs ached from the continuous pounding on horseback. Still, they were alert enough to snare some Union scouts Figure 4 - An unidentified Federal cavalryman posed with his weapons, including a saber and pistol. Early in the Civil War, the Union cavalry sometimes fared poorly against Confederate cavalrymen, but as the war continued, the balance shifted.and a courier, who, as luck would have it, carried details about Federal positions. Stuart learned from these captured papers that a powerful Union cavalry force was perhaps only four miles away. He immediately changed course to avoid a clash, but now knew for certain that Union soldiers were closing in on him from both sides. Other Union troops, though farther away, were also a threat because they were loaded into railroad cars ready to travel on a moment's notice to confront Stuart's cavalrymen wherever they tried to cross into Virginia. Still more Union troops barred the way across most major fords of the river. If the Confederates had any chance of escape, they would have to ride all night and hope luck was on their side.

As they drove forward, Stuart kept a string of couriers moving back and forth to Hampton and his other commanders with messages weighing their next moves. Rain stopped for a while, but had fallen so steadily for days that they all worried that the Potomac might be flooded when they reached its banks, if they reached its banks. Yet, there was a bonus from the deluge. The roads were damp, so no dust clouds arose from their horse hooves to reveal their location as the long procession advanced and the last daylight faded.

Conditions seemed perfect for a night ride. The moon, in its last quarter, lit the road in a soft glow, and the air was pleasantly cool. But riding at night had its own perils because the soft jangle of spurs, creaking of leather, and drone of pounding hooves compounded drowsiness. To stay awake, some soldiers climbed off their horses and walked short distances, then remounted and rode hard to regain their places in the ranks. No one dared fall behind. A number of men slept as they rode, their snores sometimes loud enough to be heard above the thudding wheels of the four cannons the Confederates pulled.

By 1:00 a.m., still some 40 miles from the Potomac, Stuart remembered that a young woman he admired - he called her "the New York Rebel" - was visiting a Maryland family at Urbana nearby. Incredibly, considering the urgency of his mission and potential risks, Stuart decided to visit her. While most of his troops forged ahead, Stuart rode west some six miles, accompanied by several officers and a guard of 10 cavalrymen from North Carolina. They arrived at the house in the wee morning hours. When a knock at the door brought a sleepy inquiry from upstairs demanding who was there, Stuart laughed and bellowed, "General Stuart and his staff!" There was much scurrying inside. Then a woman, her head studded with curl papers, stuck her head out a window. "Who did you say it was?" she asked. Laughing again, Stuart repeated, "General Stuart and staff! Come down and open the door."

Within moments the front yard filled with young women animatedly chatting with the cavalry officers. Pleasant as the exchanges must have been, the convivial scene was brief. Stuart permitted a stay of only 30 minutes. As the women waved farewell with handkerchiefs, the horsemen lifted their hats and spurred their mounts for the return to the main body of troops. For a while, one of the riders played a banjo, adding to the spirit of revelry, but the men soon pushed their steeds to a gallop and rejoined the other soldiers near sunrise. It was Sunday, October 12, 1862.

Fall colors were nearing a peak of vibrant golds and yellows in the leaves of oaks and poplars. As the sun rose, tension heightened. The Confederates were still 12 miles from the Potomac, and everyone assumed that getting across would require a fight. Orders passed through the ranks: If they met Union forces, they should hold their fire and charge using only sabers because quiet was essential to avoid summoning any more opposition soldiers. The concern was justified. Nearby, both to the east and west, several thousand Union troops were deploying.

The Confederates feinted in one direction, then headed to an abandoned road remembered by a scout who had lived in the area as a boy. The troopers tore down several fences to access the overgrown, but passable road, which they hurried down for a mile and a half through thick woods. Then they were out in the open on a major thoroughfare again.

Stuart led the way. Many of the troops still wore Union overcoats, which served dual purposes of staving off the morning chill and providing disguise. Up ahead they sighted Union cavalry. The Confederates began to reach for their sabers, but Stuart quietly signaled that they should wait. The Union cavalry hesitated, briefly unsure. According to their commander, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasanton, the Confederates were "dressed in the uniform of U.S. soldiers. The officer in command of the [Confederate] squadron made signal in a friendly way, which was returned."

Stuart, waiting until they were almost face to face with the Union troopers, yelled, "Charge!" Out flashed the sabers as the Confederates galloped straight into the Union force, which fired a few shots, then broke in retreat. The Confederates pursued for about a mile, then halted atop a ridge to fire down on the Union cavalry, which was quickly being reinforced. The Confederates mounted a cannon atop the ridge to help hold off the growing Union force.

Stuart remained on the ridge, directing its defense, while most of the Confederates began streaming past in a race to reach the Potomac, still more than a mile away and defended by more Union troops. Stuart had another worry besides crossing the river to safety. Couriers sent to his rear guard commander, Butler, hadn't returned. Were Union soldiers also attacking from the rear? Had Butler been cut off?

When the first Confederate troops halted within sight of the Potomac, they found Union infantry in strong positions behind the walls of a rock quarry. Confederate Brigadier General William H.F. "Rooney" Lee, Robert E. Lee's son and commander of the advanced troops, quickly deployed his soldiers for attack. There was no way to estimate how many Union soldiers hid in the quarry, but even just a few could create havoc for Confederates trying to cross the river.

Lee chose a brazen move. He sent a soldier with a flag of truce to confront the Union forces with a note demanding their surrender. Confederates had an overwhelming advantage, the note stated, and wished to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Union troops had 15 minutes to surrender.

The Confederates anxiously watched and waited. Gone was concern about how deep the Potomac might be. Fatigue of only moments before was also forgotten. The only pressing thought was whether they would reach the river or be trapped, and in all likelihood, killed.

The 15 minute deadline passed with no sign of movement in the quarry. Lee ordered an attack. The Confederate cannon belched out shells, but even before the smoke cleared all action abruptly stopped. Amazingly, the Union troops began pulling out, their drums beating and flags fluttering as they retreated. With a triumphant cheer, the Confederates galloped toward the river and found White's Ford still shallow enough to cross.

The Confederates were ordered not to allow their exhausted horses to drink until they reached the other side of the river. If they halted midstream, they would block the way for others. Speed was essential. Danger was mounting by the minute that the Confederates would be overwhelmed by Federals from the sides and rear. Horses denied food and water for hours were spurred and whipped as they plunged into the river. A few animals did stop to drink, but not enough to halt the furious parade of cavalry splashing across.

Hampton soon brought most of the rear division into view, leading them quickly toward the river. There was still no word from Butler and the final regiment. What had happened to them? Stuart had sent four separate couriers searching for them; none had returned. He had tears in his eyes as he contemplated abandoning some of his finest troops. His voice choked as he told an aide, "We are going to lose our rear guard!"

Captain W.W. Blackford, Stuart's engineer, volunteered to try one final time to find Butler. Gunshots and cannon explosions were deafening around them as Stuart conveyed the message to be delivered if Blackford found Butler. He should come on a gallop if possible, Stuart yelled. If not, Butler should "strike back into Pennsylvania and try to get back [into the South] through West Virginia." As Blackford rode away on what seemed to be a certain suicide mission, Stuart called, "If we don't meet again, good bye, old fellow."

Blackford, retracing the path the Confederates had just covered, encountered one after another the returning couriers Stuart had sent to find Butler. None had seen him. Blackford rode on, heading north. Finally, after some three miles, he rounded a bend and came upon a battle. Butler's soldiers were under attack from the rear.

Butler's soldiers in battle formation were firing back, using their one cannon to fend off the pursuers. Blackford informed Butler that unless he and his soldiers broke away immediately and hurried to the river they would be cut off by Union forces that already nearly surrounded them. Butler said he wasn't sure his fatigued horses could pull the cannon quickly enough through the mud to escape. The artillery piece had been entrusted to him, and he didn't want to abandon it. Blackford urged him to forget the cannon and save his men. "We'll see what we can do," Butler replied. Soldiers whipped the horses pulling the artillery piece until they gradually picked up speed. Everyone made a mad dash for the river, sabers drawn and ready for any opposition. They had only the narrowest avenue of escape open to them. As they neared the Potomac, riding along a ridge, they were under fire from both left and right.

Finally, Butler and his force reached the river and plunged in, stirring cheers from the other Confederates who waited on the opposite side. Exhausted soldiers who had crossed the river first watered their horses and rested on the banks, while fellow troops sent cannon shells booming at the Union forces closing in behind Butler's troops. Once the Confederates were safely across, the Union soldiers gave up the chase.

Surprisingly, the Confederates suffered no casualties during the entire three days and 130 miles of the ride, the last 80 of which they covered in just slightly more than 24 hours. Two soldiers who fell behind were presumed captured. Stuart's personal slave, known only as Bob, also fell into Union hands.

The Confederates, reinforced with some 1,200 stolen horses, left behind about 60 lame or exhausted mounts. Overall, they considered their venture a success. They had destroyed massive amounts of Union Army materiel, but more importantly, they had won a significant psychological triumph. They had stirred doubt among many, including President Abraham Lincoln, about the Union Army's effectiveness. Stuart, basking in the praise that followed, credited God for the achievement. Hampton and Butler also received accolades, including official commendations for proving themselves under fire. Soon, the trio would face added responsibilities and dangers.


Chapter 2: The High Price of Vanity

Return to the Table of Contents