The first “secesh” women that a 1st Maine Cavalry trooper encountered in April 1862 deep in the Potomac Highlands were so “homely” that he was jubilant to “be a native of my prided State.”
And no one back home in Maine should get the trooper going about the rugged terrain into which the War Department had plunked Co. B of the 1st Maine.
After spending almost five months living in a wintry hell at Augusta, the men and horses of four companies — B, H, I, and M — rode out from their camp around 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 20. Reaching the local train depot, the troopers loaded themselves and their horses eight per box car, and “the officers went in a car by themselves,” Capt. Jonathan Prince Cilley of Co. B commented.
Loading commenced about 11 a.m.; companies B, H, I, and M departed Augusta a bit after 4 p.m. Until darkness fell, the cavalrymen received all along “the line of the railroad … the glad plaudits of the Crowd and the smiles and salutes of all the fair damsels of Maine,” Cilley said.
The 12-company 1st Maine Cavalry arrived incrementally at Washington, D.C. Unsure of what to do with the new regiment, the War Department decided on Saturday, March 29 to assign companies A, B, E, H, and M to a “Railroad Brigade” guarding the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
The regiment’s other companies trotted off to a camp in northern Virginia.
The only railroad directly connecting the Chesapeake Bay region with the Ohio River Valley, the B&O wound west along the north bank of the Potomac River, crossed it at Harper’s Ferry, and then wound through the Potomac Highlands west toward Wheeling, Va. East-bound trains brought vital supplies from the Midwest; one Maine trooper counted “four or five trains” hauling 36 to 40 cars apiece, “loaded with coal and beef cattle,” passing his assigned post one “after another, not [at] ten minute intervals.”
After the Old Dominion State seceded, much of the B&O lay within Confederate-held territory. To protect the strategic railroad, the War Department created a “Railroad Brigade” commanded by Col. Dixon S. Miles, a 38-year career Army officer recalled from an eight-month leave of absence for allegedly being drunk during the Battle of Bull Run. Miles based his headquarters at Harper’s Ferry.
His brigade, which included cavalry and infantry, was supposed to prevent Confederate troops and guerrillas from “burning bridges” and “tearing up track” along the B&O, said Pvt. Edward P. Tobie of Co. H, 1st Maine Cavalry.
The infantry was assigned “to guard the railroad and bridges by day and night,” and the cavalry scouted “the neighborhood and places of rebel resorts,” Pvt. Isaac B. Harris of Appleton wrote the Maine Farmer from “Camp Allen, Great Cacapon, Morgan Co., Va.” in mid-April. The newspaper published his letter on May 8.
Harris had much to say, and he did not mince words or opinions.
Transported by train from Harper’s Ferry to Great Cacapon, Co. B and Isaac Harris arrived at the godforsaken B&O way station around 12 midnight on “Saturday,” April 3, Harris claimed, but the 3rd fell on a Thursday. He actually meant Saturday, April 5, because “on Sunday (April 6) we pitched our tents on the west (south) side of the Potomac, 33 miles north-west of Harper’s Ferry.”
Fearful of unloading his horses in pitch darkness at Great Cacapon, Jonathan Cilley had ordered the train held on a siding at Great Cacapon until daylight on Sunday. Harris emerged from his box car to encounter a world he had never seen in Maine.
“To give you (Farmer editor Ezekiel Holmes) or the readers of the Farmer, a tasty description of this renowned place, is far beyond my power,” Harris sarcastically wrote.
“But let me say that [in comparison] Togus [Pond] is a palace, or [the] Belgrade [Lakes] could be justly called a heaven or a land of delight,” he commented.
The rugged terrain amazed Harris, accustomed to the tree-capped Camden Hills. “Talk about rocks and mountains in the Pine Tree State, or rough land,” he tried to describe the Potomac Highlands at Great Cacapon. “The land through here is very broken and rocky.
“Some of our boys hint now and then something about this being the last place made in creation, and Co. B has come out here to finish it,” Harris wrote.
As for the local ladies, well, they were such “homely women (God bless them,)* let me be a native of my prided State,” he stated.
The Co. B boys garrisoned Great Cacapon with an infantry company from the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry. Stationed at Harper’s Ferry, the Co. M troopers shared guard duty with a company from the 10th Maine Infantry Regiment.
The cavalrymen were busy. On Monday, April 7, 2nd Lt. Frank Cutler of Union rode out of Great Cacapon with 10 troopers “to scout in the country of Frederic some 30 miles from here,” according to Harris. The patrol returned on Tuesday with “two prisoners (including a Confederate postmaster), one rifle, two muskets and two pistols.”
On Monday, April 14, 1st Lt. William Coleman of Lincolnville took 12 troopers out on patrol. The next day he sent to Great Cacapon “two prisoners, two rifles, two horses, [and] one musket, made in Richmond, Va.,” Harris reported. One rifle was taken from a self-claimed Confederate army chaplain who “stated that he was forced into the army.”
The two patrols captured a net seven men and 10 horses. “The prisoners are taken to headquarters (likely in Harper’s Ferry) and tried and if not proved guilty, are made to take the oath of allegiance [to the United States] and allowed to depart,” Harris said.
He was stunned by how “the rebels have destroyed much property here” by “tearing up railroads, running cars and engines off the track, burning buildings, &c.” While traveling through Martinsburg, “we counted the net sum of forty railroad engines which have been tested by the fiery flames of secesh hands.
“Miles of the railroad track torn up, and rocks blown from some projecting road overhead [to block the tracks], and telegraph posts cut down,” Harris commented. “It is enough to make a Yankee hate them (Confederates) beyond imagination to see their fiendish works.”
Confederate troops stole grain and livestock from pro-Union farmers “and completely pillaged to whole village” of Bath, only four miles from Great Cacapon,” he wrote.
Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson commanded the Southern troops wreaking havoc along the B&O, “but this game is played out, Mr. Jackson has now got some of Maine’s favorite sons to deal with,” Harris assured Farmer readers.
“We come out here to deal justly and try our hands at shooting; and we say look out man of secesh, you’ve got some hard men to contend with, we ask no quarters, and we’ll give none,” he promised.
“We’re going to wipe out this little matter (Southern secession) and go home and pay our debts,” Harris wrote.
“Stonewall” Jackson had other plans for the five 1st Maine Cavalry companies, however.
* Union troops often commented about encountering less than physically charming Southern women, especially in rural areas. What both Confederate and Union troops had to say about the farm women of German extraction whom they saw while marching through southern Pennsylvania in late June 1863 was no less unpleasant.
Next week: Horsemen in the Shenandoah: Part II — Piscataquis County sheriff vs. Stonewall Jackson
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.