By the late Spring of 1864, the war had already turned for the worse in the South. Major defeats in 1863 at Gettysburg and Vicksburg were major turning points of the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had faced several Union armies under the direct command of General U.S. Grant in Virginia. By June, General Lee had found himself in a dire situation. Since Spring, he had fought several major battles, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, and with each Union victory, Lee’s army was forced to fall back and re-establish another defensive line. By June, Lee’s army had their backs against Richmond and Petersburg. Lee needed relief and needed it fast.
On June 12, Lee called upon General Jubal Early and his Second Corps to help relieve pressure off of his army. Giving General Early verbal orders, Lee had hoped Early could accomplish the task that lay ahead of him. Early was to march into the Shenandoah Valley, where Union General David Hunter was hard at work destroying stores of supplies. Earlier that year, General Grant had ordered General Franz Sigel to eliminate all Confederate activity in the valley. As a result, the Battle of New Market was fought in May and General Sigel was relieved of command.
General Early was to march to Lynchburg and hook up with General John C. Breckinridge and his Army of Southwestern Virginia, who was defending the city from General Hunter’s army. Once Lynchburg was secured, Early would enact part two of the Lee’s plan. The two commands would march down the valley, clearing all Federal threats, and march upon the Potomac River. By doing this, Lee had hoped to force Grant into a battle, or have Grant send portions of his army out to defend Washington once General Early was in Maryland. Also, if the campaign was successful, Early was to send a detachment of cavalry to Point Lookout to free the Confederate prisoners in hopes of replenishing Lee’s army.
On June 12, General Early began pulling his troops out of Petersburg. On June 17, Early had reached Lynchburg, Virginia. After a pitched battle, General David Hunter withdrew his Union force to West Virginia. Early and Breckenridge continued down the valley and arrived at Winchester on July 2. General Early ordered General Breckinridge to proceed onto Martinsburg, and capture Union General Franz Sigel. General Early would then move to Harper’s Ferry.
On July 3, many citizens living in the CumberlandValley heard cannon fire in the direction of Virginia, and began to flee, crossing SouthMountain in the wake of another Maryland invasion. These citizens had every right to flee from the invading Confederate army, since Maryland’s opinion was more Unionist. As many refugees flocked east of South Mountain, Middletown residents doubted that another invasion was going to take place.
On July 4, Early’s men skirmished near Harper’s Ferry. Seeing MarylandHeights fortified, Early decided to move his army north, and cross the Potomac River at Shepherdstown and Boteler’s Ford. The next day, General Early’s Corps and General Breckinridge’s Division began to cross the Potomac River, and continued to cross the Potomac until July 7. Once in Sharpsburg, Early’s forces started to set up camp. The Confederate cavalry under General John McCausland reached Hagerstown with orders to ransom the town for $200,000. Misunderstanding the order, McCausland only demanded $20,000.
On July 7, Johnson’s Cavalry Brigade skirmished with a portion of the 8th Illinois Cavalry and their artillery support at Turner’s Gap. After the skirmish, Johnson’s Brigade moved toward Frederick, and would engage Federals while positioned at Braddock’s Gap. Meanwhile, Breckinridge’s forces moved onto Rohrersville, and a portion of the Confederate soldiers encamped there, at the base of SouthMountain, while another portion of Breckinridge’s men skirmished with General Stahel’s troops near MarylandHeights. Further to the south, on the road leading to Crampton’s Gap, General Robert Rodes skirmished with elements of Union forces during the afternoon. Later that evening, General Rodes encamped near Crampton’s Gap.
On July 8, Early’s Army began marching toward Middletown. The army crossed over SouthMountain at three different mountain gaps. Fox’s Gap was the route of Breckinridge’s men, while Generals Early and Ramseur marched through Turner’s Gap, and to the south General Robert Rodes traveled through Crampton’s Gap to Jefferson. Ramseur’s and Breckinridge’s Confederate columns converged at the town of Middletown, where a ransom of $1,500 was met. That night the main portion of Early’s Corps encamped at Middletown.
Early in the morning on July 9, Major John B. Burt, an Aid-de-Camp wrote in his dispatch that Confederate troops were fortifying the old SouthMountain battlefield. In his report he also stated that two of his men were in a Confederate camp at Wolfsville, on SouthMountain. The Federal scouts stated that about fifty Confederate infantrymen were on picket duty, and that they were part of a chain of pickets that stretched across South Mountain to Boonsboro.
General Early continued his march toward Frederick. Once his men took possession of Frederick, General Early issued a ransom for the town in the amount of $200,000. As General Early turned southward, he ran into resistance from General Lew Wallace and General Ricketts, who re-enforced Wallace’s small force. General Early battled with Wallace at Monocacy until the evening.
On July 10, Confederate cavalry were foraging SouthMountain from MontereyPass to Frederick, stealing horses, and creating much alarm. During the day Major John Burt wrote to General Couch, who was at Chambersburg, that about 3,000 cavalry under General Bradley Johnson were in Lewistown and Creagerstown. Another 7,000 Confederate cavalry were at Smoketown. He also confirmed that Confederate troops were fortifying South Mountain, and that General Imboden’s Brigade, with about 1,500 men, came down the west side of South Mountain, sending a small detail of men into Smithsburg, eight miles from Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.
Captain Maxwell Woodhull who was serving as Acting Assistant Adjutant-General wrote a dispatch to Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence that General Morris wanted cavalry to scout the area near SouthMountain, at BlackRockBridge. Reports were of Confederate cavalry and a section of artillery moving along the Westminster and Baltimore Pike, moving from Boonsboro. The Westminster and Baltimore Pike was a roadway that led from Hagerstown, over SouthMountain at Wolf’s Tavern, and at the CatoctinMountain to Emmitsburg, and continued to Westminster.
From the banks of the MonocacyRiver, the Confederate Army continued their journey to Washington. By July 11, General Early was within sight of the ring of forts that surrounded Washington, and soon fighting erupted around FortStevens. During the night of July 12, General Early began to retire from Washington, and headed toward Leesburg. This was due to veteran Union soldiers that were transferred from Petersburg and began occupying the forts.
Toward the end of July, General Early ordered General John McCausland to take a force, and ransom Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. General Early had grown tired of seeing charred southern homes and the property destruction that Union General David Hunter had caused. General Early had decided it was time for the people of the North to get a taste of the type of warfare that was being forced upon the Southern families of the Shenandoah Valley.
On July 29, the cavalry brigades of Generals McCausland and Bradley Johnson forded the Potomac River, at McCoy’s Ford. The Confederate force made their way to Mercersburg, where they arrived at 5:00 pm that evening. After resting and attending to their mounts, the Confederate force mounted up and left Mercersburg.
By 5:00 am on July 30, the Confederate columns had made their way into Chambersburg. Chambersburg was ordered to pay a ransom of $500,000 in Union greenbacks or $100,000 in gold. By 10:00 am, the ransom was not met, and the town was burned. Over 500 buildings and structures, encompassing over eleven blocks in Chambersburg, were damaged or destroyed, with damages estimated to be over 1.2 million dollars.
As a result, General William W. Averell, commanding General George Crook’s Second Cavalry Division, Army of West Virginia investigated the situation. Every road leading from Chambersburg to the east, including Greencastle, Waynesboro, and Emmitsburg were occupied by Union troops. By August 1, Union General Benjamin Kelly caught up with the Confederates near Cumberland, Maryland, resulting in the Battle of Folck’s Mill.
As the beginning of August unfolded, more Confederate activity occurred in WashingtonCounty. The last major battle to erupt took place at the middle bridge along the Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg on August 5, 1864.
These events will be commemorated this year as the Sesquicentennial continues. The operations of 1864 in Maryland and Pennsylvania are among the forgotten aspects of the Civil War. For a listing of events in the area, there are several resources you can go to online. Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area @ heartofthecivilwar.org is a great resource that will connect you to all your Civil War needs or interests.