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Emmitsburg in the Civil War

More Cavalry Operations of Emmitsburg, Maryland 1863

John Allen Miller

The Gettysburg Campaign

The real effects of the Civil War impacted Emmitsburg during the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863.  It was then Emmitsburg witnessed the carnage, roar of cannon and musketry, and the drums of doom beating down its town streets.  The movement of several thousand soldiers marching side by side in countless columns, and seeing hundreds of carriages and cannon along with supply wagons loaded with the necessities of carrying out such a campaign.  Seeing both Union and Confederate troops marching through town would paint such a picture in minds of citizens and would be spoken about for generations to come.   Although no major infantry battles took place at Emmitsburg, the cavalries of both sides occupied the town.  The Union Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, and Signal Corps occupied Emmitsburg as a key point during the Battle of Gettysburg. 

The Gettysburg Campaign in Northern Frederick County begins near Emmitsburg on the Saturday June 27th, when two brigades of Michigan cavalry from General Kilpatrick’s division encamped just south of Emmitsburg on the old tollgate, before heading toward Hanover on the following Monday.  A local resident by the name of Jim McCullough guided this force around the area.

General Stuart was to protect General Ewell's right flank and scout the area. He was also ordered go between the Army of the Potomac's left wing and join Ewell on his march to Harrisburg.  On June 29th members of the First Delaware cavalry attacked General Stuart's men at Westminster, Maryland. On June 30th Union cavalry at Hanover, Pennsylvania attacked General Stuart.  The affairs at Westminster and Hanover delayed General Stuart from rejoining General Ewell. If General Stuart had reached General Ewell by June 29th or 30th, Gettysburg may have never happened, which very possibly could have changed the outcome of the battle.  

General Henry Heth ordered a detachment of North Carolinians and Mississippians to guard the approaches from Emmitsburg by way of Fairfield.  When on June 30th, General Buford at Fairfield spotted a large Confederate force. About 3000 Confederates on horse back were guarding General A.P. Hill's right flank. General Buford had his bugler sound the charge. The horses were running rapidly towards their counter parts. Guns were blazing over the ridge as residents in Fairfield began to run for cover. The ground shook with much anger as the clash of sabers echoed in the valley and hills. Then in the distance, the Confederates started to unhitch their cannon. By this time General Buford had called the engagement off. General Buford could not determine the location of the main Confederate army. If the cannon had fired, it could have been a sign for reinforcements to arrive. General Buford could not afford to take such a risk. The Confederates had won the skirmish and gave the main Confederate army time, which they desperately needed. As General Buford retreated, the Union cavalry ran as fast as it could. In those days it was easy to get lost and that's exactly what happened to General Buford. The good general took the wrong road and came into Emmitsburg. 

Emmitsburg Occupied

As the Union First and Eleventh Corps positioned themselves at and near Emmitsburg, General Reynolds suspected a major battle would take place in Emmitsburg since there was a large force of Confederates at Fairfield a few miles away from Emmitsburg.   Reports of Major General Abner Doubleday, U. S. Army, commanding Third Division, and First Army Corps wrote on December 14, 1863 at Washington D.C. tells how General Reynolds chosen his battle ground incase of an attack by the Confederates:  

“GENERAL: I have the honor to report that, on the morning of June 28, the First Corps left Middletown, Md., for Frederick, and encamped in the western suburbs of that town, picketing the roads toward the northwest. On the 29th, it left Frederick, and after a long and toilsome march arrived at Emmitsburg; passed through that place, and bivouacked for the night on the heights to the north. General Reynolds as a defensive line had carefully selected this position, the rebels having been reported in some strength at Fairfield.

On the 30th, we made a short march of 3 or 4 miles to Marsh Creek, where we again took up a defensive position, Wadsworth's division, with Hall’s (Second Maine) battery, covering the Gettysburg road; my own division, with Cooper's (First Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer) battery, covering the Fairfield road, and Robinson's division, with the remaining three batteries, some miles in rear as a reserve. It was General Reynolds' intention to dispute the enemy's advance at this point, falling back, however, in case of a serious attack, to the ground already chosen at Emmitsburg. Here we received orders to reassume the command of the right wing, consisting of his own (First), Howard's (Eleventh), and Sickles' (Third) corps. In consequence of this order, he directed me to take command of the First Corps.”

General Reynolds had two Brigades stationed near the Samuel White Farm outside of Emmitsburg, Maryland.   The men of Stone's and Biddle's were on picket duty near the intersection of Bull Frog Road and Gordon Road.  The camps were laid out on June 30th near Middle Creek.  Fearing an attack from the Confederates from the direction of Fairfield, the men of Biddle's brigade slept in the line of battle and at arms.  Stone's Brigade however, camped on the White farm to the left rear of Biddle's location.  The other side of Middle Creek was another farm called the Creekside Farm.  Some of the pickets from Biddle's and Stone's Brigades may have done their duty on or near this farm. Biddle's Brigade was first on the march toward Gettysburg leaving around 8 o'clock in the morning.  Stone's Brigade followed soon afterwards.  

On July 1st, members of the 41st New York was already patrolling the roads under orders to detain any civilians they encountered. As the men of the western wing of the Army of the Potomac marched toward Gettysburg from Emmitsburg, a man was arrested by his commander as he broke rank to get some water.  Little stories such as these tell how much of a hurry the Union was to get to Gettysburg. 

On July 2nd, more Federal soldiers came into Emmitsburg. These soldiers were the Army of the Potomac's U.S. Cavalry under the command of General Wesley Merrit. After being ordered to guard the mountain passes at South Mountain, General Merrit and his regulators were ordered to Mechanicstown, Maryland on June 29th. By the time that Gettysburg had occurred, General Sickles' Third Corp left Bridgeport and headed for Emmitsburg on July 1st. This left the U.S. Cavalry to guard and to protect the roadways and communication lines in the vicinity of Mechanicstown. A dispatch came on July 2nd to move forward with the wagon train toward Emmitsburg, Maryland. With these orders Wesley Merrit came into Emmitsburg and set up camp. Then the orders came that, General Merrit was to report to the battlefield on July 3rd. At a half hour past midnight, the 6th U.S. Cavalry under Major Samuel Starr moved out of Emmitsburg and headed towards Gettysburg. Their mission was to attack the Confederate's right flank.

The Cavalry Battles of July 3rd 

The 6th U.S. Cavalry was reassigned to intercept a Confederate wagon train heading towards Fairfield. As the night progressed, not a rebel was spotted. Major Starr ordered the men to halt. He divided his 400 men and began to search for the wagon train. As members of the 6th U.S. Cavalry took Carroll's Tract Road, nothing was spotted. Approximately twelve hours later, the search looked useless until a captain happened to come across a local farmer. After he asked the farmer about rebel movements for the second time, the farmer simply pointed up the road and said "About 6 or 7 men went up the road." The captain pushed his men forward. As soon as they cleared the ridge, an order was given to dismount and form a line on both sides of the road. The Federals moved to their lines and about 50 pickets were there to meet them. These included members of the 7th Virginia Cavalry that was part of Jone's Brigade. The 6th U.S. cavalry then charged. They managed to push back the Confederates until suddenly, Lt. Balder was overwhelmed. The whole brigade was there waiting. 

As fast as the Federal horsemen got there, down the road toward Fairfield they went. The squadron met up with Major Starr and then like a ping-pong ball they ran after the Confederates. The terrain was flat and excellent for a mounted charge, except for the fact that the road was not in the best condition. The Federals started to give way on account of their losses and being overwhelmed. The 6th U.S. Cavalry then retreated. The 6th U.S. Cavalry lost about 242 men, this total included those killed, wounded or missing casualties.

Major C. E. Flournoy, of the Six Virginia Cavalry wrote of his actions at the battle of Fairfield on July 3rd, and the retreat of the Confederate Army from Gettysburg.  He states in his official report:

“The regiment then marched and picketed with the brigade until arriving at Fairfield, Pa., where we met the Sixth U. S. Regular Cavalry, strongly posted with long-range guns behind post and rail fences and in an apple orchard. I formed the regiment in column of squadrons immediately after arriving on the ground, seeing that the Seventh Virginia Cavalry had already engaged the enemy, and, at the intimation from the commanding general, gave the order to charge. The men, with a wild yell, went forward splendidly, led by Captain Richards and his gallant squadron.

The Yankees were soon broken and put to flight. A party having rallied on my right, I charged them with Captain Owen's squadron, and soon started them in flight. In this fight, my adjutant (Lieutenant John Allan) was killed while gallantly leading the regiment. In his death the service loses a gallant soldier and most efficient officer. All of my officers and men acted well their parts with few exceptions. Captains Richards, [William R.] Welch, [Bruce] Gibson, [D. A.] Grimsley, and [C. M.] Kemper behaved with marked gallantry, leading their men in good style. Lieutenant [R. R.] Duncan, Company B, was conspicuous for his daring, having sabered five Yankees, running his saber entirely through one, and twisting him from his horse.

In this fight, I lost 3 men killed and 17 wounded, 1 officer killed and 2 wounded, and 5 missing. The regiment was in no further engagement until the advance on Boonsborough, when, being in front, I commenced the attack with my sharpshooters, aided by the sharpshooters of the Eleventh Virginia Cavalry. We soon drove in the enemy's advance force, and succeeded in capturing several prisoners, horses, and arms. In this affair I made no charge; only had the sharpshooters engaged, commanded by Captain Gibson. They seem to have done their duty.

In the fight at Fairfield, my regiment captured about 150 prisoners, with arms and horses. A good many of the arms and horsed were taken possession of by another command. The Boonsborough affair closed our active operations. We were several times engaged in unimportant skirmishes, in which we neither lost any men (excepting one wounded) nor hurt the enemy. We then moved back across the Potomac with the brigade, and my regiment is now picketing at snicker's Ferry, on the Shenandoah River.

C. E. Flournoy, Major Sixth Virginia Cavalry, Commanding.”

Fairfield was not the only battle that took place near Emmitsburg on July 3rd.  The cavalry battle called South Cavalry Field is located about five miles north of Emmitsburg on the Old Emmitsburg Road. This battle occurred when General Wesley Merrit left Emmitsburg along with the 1st, 2nd, and the 5th U.S. Cavalry along with the 1st U.S. Artillery made their way towards Gettysburg. Their mission was to cut along the Confederate right and if they could, repulse Longstreet's assault.

The day was cloudy, and one could hear the sound of cannon in the distance echoing in Emmitsburg. The ground shook with thunderous hoof beats all through the night. When the residents of Emmitsburg awoke on the third to the sound of several hundred cannon firing, they must have thought to themselves how horrible this war had become. When the sounds of cannon came closer, one could probably hear the sounds of gunfire. These were the sounds that indicated that a long battle was to take place. The thunder in the distance was the beginning of the end of the Civil War, other wise known as Pickett's Charge. As the sound of the cannon came closer, the battles of Fairfield and South Cavalry Field became more apparent.

As widows rattled in Emmitsburg, the town must have wondered just what was going on in the distance. Who is winning the battle? What will happen to our town? Why are the sounds of battle getting closer? What are we going to do, if the battle comes here? These were some of the questions that residents of Emmitsburg pondered as the battle raged in the distance. The whole Gettysburg Campaign had those "what if" kind of questions. For example, what if the battle ended up here on the outskirts of our little town? I think that the answer to that question would have meant total devastation to the town. As for the soldiers, they were undoubtedly recalling their memories of their home, families, wives and lovers. They wondered if today was going to be their last day on earth. Those questions were indeed on the minds of the soldiers who belong to Wesley Merrit's Brigade.

During the afternoon of July 3rd, Wesley Merrit and his boys made their way onto the battlefield, leaving only a squadron to guard the wagon train in Emmitsburg. General Kilpatrick gave out the orders. General Farnsworth, with much protest was forced to lead a charge that would prove to be deadly. In General Farnsworth words "General, if you order the attack, I'll lead it, but you must take the responsibility." The Federals under the command of General Pleasonton led a prong attack on the Confederate's right and the Confederate rear. General Merrit attacked from the left towards the right flank of the Confederate line, while General Elon Farnsworth attacked the extreme right flank of the Confederate line along the area of the Slyder Farm and the Bushman Hill. The skirmishers were placed along Old Emmitsburg Road as Merrit's Brigade waited for the order to attack. As Longstreet's assault was in the midst of the grand bombardment of the Federal center, members of Merrit's Brigade looked on as Pickett's Charge was unfolding, and as one soldier described 

"A perfect storm of shot, shell, and ball rained upon and about us. Every possible shelter was gained behind barricade and stone wall, while the movements of the enemy were carefully watched, and every ordinary advance promptly checked."

As Pickett's Charge came to a close, Wesley Merrit was already skirmishing with parts of Black's South Carolina cavalry. This kept Merrit pinned down for the time being. At the same time the 6th U.S. cavalry was engaged at Fairfield as Jone's Brigade made their way towards Fairfield to open the main road for the Confederate army to retreat back towards Virginia. General Farnsworth was skirmishing with elements of the 1st Texas Infantry, 9th and 59th Georgia Infantry, and the 4th Alabama Infantry. The 4th Alabama was battered and worn from the day's fight on the Round Tops. As they resisted, the 4th Alabama was ordered to throw up breastworks and prepare to intercept any cavalry movements that might come. So far the Confederates lost Longstreet's assault. 

The Confederate cavalry at East Cavalry Field was forced to withdraw, after General Stuart could not turn the right flank of the Union Army that was positioned near Culp's Hill. General Lee was not pleased. There was yet another attack on the Confederate right flank led by General Farnsworth. The 4th Alabama was not yet in position when they heard members of the Vermont cavalry say "Charge'em boys!" The Farnsworth attack would eventually fall apart as the 4th Alabama Infantry held their ground near Plum Run. General Farnsworth was retreating back when he ran into some of the Texas Infantry. Farnsworth ordered those men in gray to throw down their weapons and surrender. At that, the rebels fired their rifles at General Farnsworth, severely wounding him. 

An interesting note about this story is that there are two versions of how Farnsworth was killed.  Story one tells about how this young promising general took his pistol out of his holster and shot himself through the chest.  While another states that the Confederate Infantry shot him killing him instantly.  The story about the Confederate Infantry killing Farnsworth is more believable to me simply because Farnsworth had several hundred bullets whizzing by him and I feel that he did not have the time to kill himself without a bullet(s) striking him down. 

Luck was not on General Merrit's side on that day. During the time of Farnsworth's Charge, General Merrit pressed his attack against the Confederate right flank. Members of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and the 59th Georgia Infantry along with three batteries, dismissed Merrit's efforts to turn the Confederate right flank. One Confederate officer stated, " The efforts of writing down on paper about the engagement, would not be worth writing for." After a four-hour fight, the Confederates withdrew to their original positions, as a heavy thunderstorm came in. The engagement of South Cavalry Field was then called off.

The battles on July 3rd caused much reflection. Pickett's Charge was a total loss. At the same time the Federal efforts to turn the tide and end the battle at South Cavalry Field were a loss also. The Federals due to General Jone’s outstanding performance lost the battle in Fairfield leaving the mountain gaps open for a Confederate retreat, while the Confederates lost East Cavalry Field due to General Custer's charge. The Union cavalry was gaining sprit and the operations back to Ole Virginia would be of the same style fighting as it was in Fairfield and on East Cavalry Field. Hit and run type tactics were to be used. The long haul back to Virginia was to be a long hard ride. 

The Army of Northern Virginia retreats

After dark, on July 3, Stuart withdrew his cavalry from the battlefield to the York Road, where he encamped for the night. The main army was at the same time withdrawn to the ridges west of Gettysburg. Information of this activity did not reach Stuart, and it was only by a personal visit to army headquarters during the latter part of the night that he was made aware of it. His command was now in an isolated and dangerous position, but it was successfully withdrawn early on the morning of July 4.

Saturday, July 4, Confederate cavalry under the command of General Albert Jenkins came into Emmitsburg. General Jenkins was patrolling nearby the wagon train that was in Fairfield. The Confederate detail under the command of Colonels Chambliss and Ferguson, came to the junction of Zora and headed toward Emmitsburg. On that same day General Kilpatrick’s men came riding into Emmitsburg at a full charge, hoping to find the parts of the Confederate cavalry in town. They were immediately disappointed for there were no rebels to be detected.

On the morning of July 4, General Kilpatrick was ordered from Gettysburg to attack the trains that were moving on the road between Fairfield and Waynesboro. General Kilpatrick reached Emmitsburg at three o'clock in the afternoon, and joining Huey's brigade of General Gregg's division to his own command, they moved on to the Monterey Gap.  Intelligence reports revealed that general Stuart was moving toward Emmitsburg, this allowed time for General Custer to send additional troopers to intercept the Confederate Cavalry. General Custer reported:

 “The 1st and 6th Ohio Cavalry also fought next to the Michigan boys at the battle of Monterey Gap, until they were ordered to Emmitsburg on the morning of July 5, where they skirmished with General Stuarts Cavalry.” 

General Stuart reported in more detail his movements toward Emmitsburg:

"During the 4th, which was quite rainy, written instructions were received from the commanding general as to the order of march back to the Potomac, to be undertaken at nightfall. In this order two brigades of cavalry (Fitz Lee's and Hampton's) were ordered to move, as heretofore stated, by way of Cashtown, guarding that flank, bringing up the rear on the road via Greenwood to Williamsport, which was the route designated for the main portion of the wagon trains and ambulances.

The over all operation was under the special charge of General Imboden, who had a mixed command of artillery, infantry, and cavalry. Previous to these instructions I had, at the instance of the commanding general, instructed Brigadier-General Robertson, whose two brigades (his own and Jones') were now on the right near Fairfield, Pa., that it was essentially necessary for him to hold the Jack Mountain passes. These included two prominent roads, the one north and the other south of Jack Mountain, which is a sort of peak in the Blue Ridge chain."

"In the order of march (retrograde) one corps (Hill's) preceded everything through the mountain; the baggage and prisoners of war were escorted by another corps. Longstreet occupied the center, and the 3d (Ewell's) brought up the rear. The cavalry was disposed as follows: two brigades on the Cashtown road, under General Fitz Lee; and the remainder, Jenkins' and Chambliss', under my immediate command, was directed to proceed by way of Emmitsburg, Md., so as to guard the other flank.

I dispatched Captain W. W. Blackford, of the engineer corps, to General Robertson, to inform him of my movement and direct his cooperation, as Emmitsburg was in his immediate front and was probably occupied by the enemy's cavalry. It was dark before I had passed the extreme right of our line, and having to pass through very dense woods, taking by-roads, it soon became so dark that it was impossible to proceed. We were in danger of losing the command as well as the road. It was raining, also. We halted several hours, when, having received a good guide, and it becoming lighter, the march was resumed, and just at dawn we entered Emmitsburg.

"In and around Emmitsburg we captured 60 or 70 prisoners of' war, and some valuable hospital stores en route from Frederick to the army. I was told by a citizen that the party I had just attacked was the cavalry of Kilpatrick, who had claimed to have captured several thousand prisoners and four or five hundred wagons from our forces near Monterey; but I was further informed that not more than forty wagons accompanied them, and other facts I heard led me to believe the success was far overrated. About this time Captain Emack, of the Maryland Cavalry, with his arm in a sling, came to us and reported that he had been in the fight of the night before, and partially confirmed the statement of the citizen, and informed me, to my surprise, that a large portion of Ewell's corps trains had preceded the army through the mountains."

Another report of this action comes from Brig. General R. L. T. Beale of the 9th Virginia Cavalry.  He wrote later in life

“On the morning of July 4th we moved to the right of our army, passing along in front of the infantry line, who appeared defiant and undaunted. Nothing betokened that we had suffered any reverse until we reached Pickett's division. Here we learned the extent of our loss on the day previous, and the certainty was disclosed of a disagreeable and fatiguing retreat before us. We next came to a great camp of prisoners of war, and barely cleared the infantry lines by dark. The night set in rainy and very dark. After halting in the road some time, we moved slowly, and arrived at Emmettsburg about light next morning (July 5). A few prisoners, ambulances, and sutlers' stores fell into our hands. We left the main 'pike leading from Emmettsburg before noon, and, filing off to the right, followed a narrow road which penetrated the Catoctin mountains along a ravine, having on either side precipitous bluffs and spurs.”

Captain W. K. Martin Acting Adjutant of Jones’ Cavalry Brigade noted that on the evening of the 4th, his regiment was in line of battle, supporting Moorman's battery on the road leading from Fairfield to Emmitsburg. By the morning of the 5th his regiment was ordered to take post on the road crossing the mountain, and leading to the Emmitsburg pike. Captain John R. Pendleton was ordered to take his company, and move on the pike to the top of Jack's Mountain, to ascertain the movements of a cavalry column of the enemy that had passed the evening before. Captain Pendleton took a number of prisoners and horses from the stragglers of the enemy, but found no enemy in force. Captain M. M. Ball was ordered to Emmitsburg, to open communication with Major-General Stuart, supposed to be at that point. Captain Ball found the enemy picketing about 3 miles from Emmitsburg, and drove the pickets in. On reaching Emmitsburg, he found the enemy in possession of the town in some force, and was forced to retire, with the loss of 1 man severely wounded.

Read other civil war articles by John Miller