As portions of Confederate General Wade Hampton’s Brigade withdrew through the streets of Middletown during the late afternoon of September 13th, 1862, the skirmish that developed at Braddock’s Gap was finally dying down. General JEB Stuart ordered General Wade Hampton to take the cavalry supply wagons to Burkittsville as quickly as possible, which was about five miles away to the south. From there, General Hampton could join up with Colonel Thomas Munford, who was guarding the approach to Crampton’s Gap. General JEB Stuart himself, along with Hart’s battery, and the Jeff Davis Legion made their way to Turner’s Gap upon South Mountain where General Daniel H. Hill had an infantry brigade deployed, ready to defend the gap.
Upon arriving at Turner’s Gap, General Stuart’s cavalry commanded the National Road forcing Colonel Alfred Colquitt’s brigade to move along side of the road. It was reported that a few brigades of Union infantry had broken through the Catoctin Mountain and were situated in the Middletown Valley. From there Stuart continued onward toward Boonsboro. What Stuart didn’t know was that the rest of Union General Jesse Reno’s Ninth Corps, soon followed by General Joseph Hooker’s First Corps, were in route to Middletown.
After the Confederate cavalry had withdrew from Middletown, portions of Union Colonel John F. Farnsworth’s cavalry brigade had pushed through Middletown to the Catoctin Creek, where the rear of Stuart’s forces had set fire to the covered bridge. It looked as if the tired Union troopers were finally going to have a rest after a hard days’ fight. While the pursuit was still going strong through Middletown, several citizens of Middletown informed Major William Medill of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry about a Confederate wagon train that had just left town moments before their arrival.
As Major Medill tried gathering troops to go after the baggage train, time ticked on and the wagon train advanced further out of their grasp. Major Medill managed to get two companies, A & G of the Eighth Illinois, and two companies, E & F of the Third Indiana, totaling about 230 troopers. William Pickerill of the Third Indiana recalled: “As the cavalry dashed into Middletown two companies of the Eighth Illinois and two companies of the Third Indiana, E and F, were detached and directed to pursue a rebel wagon train, which the citizens of the town told us had gone southward down the valley.”
Finding the wagons wasn’t going to be an easy task. As stated in my article “The Union Soldier during the Maryland Campaign,” weather conditions proved extreme from the heat on the march toward Frederick to a cold front that had pushed through producing rain. With the ground still being damp, no dust would be kicked up by the wagons; therefore their location could not be seen in the distance.
William Pickerill described the Middletown Valley as his unit moved on toward Burkittsville. “We were in the midst of its most fertile farms. Fields of ripening, waving corn were on every hand. Orchards were the background of many a cottage with its shrubbery-bedecked lawn. In the distance were the mountain crests wreathed in the blue haze of a perfect Autumn day’s loveliest sunshine.”
As the Union troopers pressed on, General Hampton found a road paralleling the main the route to Burkittsville. Hampton later recalled: “On the road to this place I discovered, on a road parallel to the one on which we were, a regiment of Yankee cavalry.” The Union cavalry had been spotted. William Pickerill also remembered seeing the wagon train as well. He later wrote “This detachment after a hot pursuit came in sight of the wagon train as it was slowly winding its way up a mountain road, but in its rear was a battery of brass guns and enough rebel cavalry to have swallowed the pursuing force.” These bronze guns were that of Chew’s Battery guarding the rear of the wagon train.
Pickerill continued “The detachment was satisfied with observation and decided that it did not want that wagon train anyhow, and started to return to the command which it had left at Middletown by a short cut down a winding stony ravine, hemmed in on either side by a very crooked worm fence, so that this particular route answered for the channel of a stream and a country road at the same time.”
What the Union cavalry did not realize was that General Hampton detached Cobb’s Legion of cavalry commanded by Colonel Pierce M.B. Young to pursue them. At a little schoolhouse called Quebec, Saturday classes were in session. The children and the teacher would soon witness something they would never forget.
Cobb’s Legion had taken cover in the brush to conceal themselves along the main road to Burkittsville, lying in wait. William N. Pickerill recalled “Quebeck schoolhouse stood at the head of this ravine, and just as Company F of the Third Indiana, the rear company of the detachment, had entered the ravine Cobb’s Legion of rebel cavalry, commanded by Col. P.M.B. Young, dashed down the mountainside past the schoolhouse, charging us with sabers and pistols, and for a few minutes a desperate little cavalry battle ensued.”
As the Union cavalry appeared, Colonel Young’s men waited. As soon as the Union soldiers had passed, Cobb’s Legion charged after and surprised them. After wheeling, Young had come in from the south while Captain Gilbert Wright’s company attacked from the north. Hampton later wrote: “I directed Lieut. Col. Young to charge this regiment. The order was carried out in gallant style.” The Union cavalry responded firing into the Confederate horsemen. Company F of the Third Indiana, the last unit in the column was trapped in a ditch when Cobb’s Legion charged.
Pickerill recalled “The column halted and fired an oblique volley into the charging rebels and then the clash came and Yankees and rebels, horsed and unhorsed, mingled, indiscriminately shooting at each other and using their sabers in the same reckless manner, until the men at the head of the column tore down the fence on the side of the ravine next to the attacking force and went at them in such splendid style.”
During the first few seconds of the fight, over two hundred carbines were discharged and the scene became wild as men fought desperately to get out with their lives, while Young’s men screamed for their surrender. Captain Gilbert Wright of Cobb’s Legion recalled “Give ’em hell, boys” as he succumbed to injury. The legion crossed sabers with the Union cavalry, and as several accounts state sabers were used rather freely. The accounts of saber wounds are listed on several of the muster rolls of those injured. Some of the troopers were killed when sabers smashed the skulls of their opponents.
Fearing that he might be separated from Hampton’s and Munford’s forces, Cobb’s Legion called off the engagement and pulled back leaving their dead and wounded in the hands of the Union cavalry. Hampton stated that he had four killed and nine wounded in the fight at Quebec Schoolhouse. Among the Confederate wounded was Colonel Young. Hampton also wrote that the Union casualties were thirty killed and wounded, and five prisoners taken.
After the fight, the Union cavalry moved back to Middletown, bivouacking under the stars. The Union cavalry had a hard day of fighting both at Braddock’s Gap and Quebec Schoolhouse. The Union cavalry had secured the way for the Union infantry and by morning, the sounds of cannon and infantry musketry would echo throughout the Middletown Valley, as the Union infantry advanced on South Mountain. This would change the war both socially and politically, and force Lee to issue orders for his army to concentrate at Sharpsburg.