by Steve French
On the afternoon of Jan. 4, 1862, an 8,500-man Confederate army led by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson brushed through light Union resistance at Bath (Berkeley Springs) Virginia.
His horsemen, under their bold leader Col. Turner Ashby followed the fleeing Yankee cavalry and artillery towards Hancock. At the same time, leading units of Rebel infantry struggled up Warm Springs Ridge to chase after Yankee foot soldiers making tracks for the B&O depot at Sir John’s Run.
In what was probably, because of terrible weather and heated clashes with a few subordinates, his most controversial campaign, Jackson and his troops had marched north from Winchester on New Year’s Day in warm weather. By now, however, a sudden change to high winds and cold temperatures on January 2, and snow on the night of the third, had slowed his quest to clear Morgan County of Federals and possibly occupying Hancock, Md., before changing course and heading west to strike his main objective, the Federal post at Romney.
At the beginning of the assault, Jackson had grown impatient with the slow movement of Col. William F. Gilham’s command and, following in the wake of a cavalry squadron led by Lt. Col. S.H. Baylor, had galloped on ahead of his own skirmishers himself.
His plan to capture the bluecoats hinged on the hope that two militia brigades, commanded by generals Gilbert S. Meems and James H. Carson, would be somewhere atop the ridge intercepting the bluecoats.
Two days before, he had dispatched these men off on a rugged back road through Cold Run Valley to be in place to block any Federal retreat westward. A three-inch snowfall the night before and the persistent fire of Yankee riflemen, however, slowed the citizen-soldier’s advance to a crawl.
“I moved on towards Sir John’s Run Depot,” Jackson’s wrote, “the direction in which there was reason to believe they had retreated.” When Gilham, an old teaching colleague from VMI finally showed up, Jackson pointed out the road over the backside of the ridge to the depot. Riding back to the intersection of the road to Bath, he met up with Col. Albert Rust, and promptly ordered the Arkansan to march his regiment five miles west and destroy the B&O Bridge at Great Cacapon. Then, Stonewall hastened back down the ridge to Bath.
During this time, Capt. J. Hooker (Co. E, 39th Ill.), two of his men, and a few locals were using a flatboat to transport sick soldiers and company baggage across the icy river. Soon, they spotted rebel skirmishers coming down the long, winding hill into the village. The graybacks snatched one soldier, but the rest were able to escape in the boat. When they reached Maryland, 12 stragglers from the 39th Ill. joined them.
Sometime after dark, Gilham’s brigade reached Sir John’s Run. Rather than let the soldiers rest, their officers put them to work dismantling the track. At first, a picket reported the Rebels breaking the ice on the Potomac, but when Hooker walked down to the river bank to check for himself, he realized what was going on and ordered his men to fire and, “We leveled our pieces and blazed away as though we had thousands of backing.”
The rebels instantly replied.
Hooker wrote, “They dropped their bars and picks, returned the fire with a volley that made the hill looked like lightning-bugs, and rained balls around us.”
Later on, Hooker had some of the men block the culvert under the canal, while the rest constructed stone rifle-pits. The next day, they took a few pot shots across the river at any Southerner who would get too near the track.
In the meantime, Jackson had been pressing his men towards Hancock. Soon after reaching Bath, he rode north. Along the way, he met some troopers coming back. Stonewall promptly turned them around and headed for the river. Upon reaching the hills overlooking the Potomac, however, some of the gray horsemen rode into a well-laid trap.
According to Pvt. Harry Gilmor, “We followed them to the river bluffs, where we ran into an ambuscade of infantry which opened fire on us from both sides of the road … Horses and men were rolling in the road covered with a sheet of ice, and officers were shouting trying to preserve order.”
Skirmishing continued into the night. George Neese, a gunner in Chew’s Battery of Horse Artillery, recalled that it was nearing midnight when his cannons arrived on the scene.
He wrote, “Some Yankee sharpshooters in or near the town were firing at the dark hills on the Virginia side of the river, and some of Jackson’s batteries were replying to the Yankee fireworks at midnight. The scene was grand. The light that flashed from the cannon darted around the hill and lighted the frosty landscape just like regular old-time lightning would.”
The next morning, Sunday, January 5, Jackson sent Brig. Gen. W.W. Loring to Great Cacapon to help Rust, whose soldiers had been roughly handled the night before, finish off the bridge. Jackson also ordered Col. W.A. Forbes to take some men, go to a shallow spot two miles upriver- probably near Grasshopper Hollow-, and slap together a makeshift bridge.
Not long afterward, Turner Ashby left for Hancock under a flag of truce. Accompanied by one soldier, Ashby crossed at the ferry-site. There, a federal officer met the colonel and promptly blindfolded him. He then guided the famed fighter to the headquarters of Brig. Gen. Frederick Lander.
Whether the one-time western trailblazer was just in a bad mood that Sunday or in pain from a infected ankle wound, his anger peaked when Ashby presented Jackson’s ultimatum; Surrender or suffer bombardment in two hours.
“Colonel Ashby give my compliments to General Jackson,” he uttered, “and tell him to bombard and be d—-d. If he opens his batteries up on this town, he will injure more of his friends than his enemies.”
Ashby returned to headquarters and, after the time elapsed, Rebel batteries crowning the high ridge on the Virginia side opened up. Yankee cannon posted near two hillside churches replied swiftly.
Hancock merchant James Ripley Smith recorded in his diary that, “at one o’clock they came cannonading but we replyed (sic) which silenced them before night. About 100 shots were exchanged, one part of a shell hit my house and smoke house…”
As to the situation across the Potomac, the Rev. James Avirett later wrote, “The enemy’s fire was for some time quite heavy, but did us no material damage.” He also commented that a cannon ball striking near Jackson staff caused aide C. J. Faulkner, a noted lawyer, President Buchanan’s former minister to France, and owner of Boydville-in Martinsburg-, to “somewhat compromise the graces he had acquired at the French court.”
That night, it snowed another five or six inches, but according to a letter written home the next day by Virginia militia surgeon Abram Schultz Miller, “Our men are getting along very well. Very few are complaining.”
Jacob Lemley, another militiaman recorded in his diary for the 6th, “Cannons firing in Hancock… They are firing at our men.” Neese noted that most of the Confederates had moved back out of range and, “They threw their shells all over these hills, firing at nothing in particular.”
By the end of the day, Jackson had decided against attacking the river-town. Realizing that reinforcements would soon be arriving to bolster Lander’s command, “Stonewall” contented himself with what he had accomplished. His soldiers had driven the bluecoats out of Morgan County and destroyed a substantial portion of B&O track, including the Cacapon Bridge. Many soldiers had outfitted themselves with coats, clothes, and shoes from the Union supply cache at Alpine Depot, while others had cut the telegraph line.
The retreat south over treacherous, icy roads to Unger’s Store began the Tuesday morning. Jackson’s wagon train and some of batteries of artillery led the way followed by the infantry. Ashby’s command, moving out last, formed the rear guard. Conditions on that two-day trip were so severe, that until their dying day, many old rebel veterans regretted ever making their forced winter excursion to cold, snowy Morgan County.
Steve French is available for local speaking engagements or guided Civil War tours. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.