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Chapter 10:

  • Position at Manassas
  • -- Ashby at Harper's Ferry -- his preparations for attack -- our artillery co-operate -- incidents of the fight -- General McCall leaves Drainsville, and threatens our retreat -- our alarming position -- to Goose Creek and back again.

During the month of October there was no change in affairs at Manassas or Centreville. At the latter place, fortifications had been erected under the superintendence of Generals Gustavus Smith and Beauregard, and were generally considered to be impregnable. Our pickets were at Fairfax Court-House, but the Yankees were in winter quarters to the front, and could not be coaxed to advance. Active movements were on foot, however, at Harper's Ferry, and General Banks had pushed his outposts several miles up the Valley. Ashby, with his cavalry, whose daring raids I have mentioned, grew bolder every day, and solicited reenforcements. These were not granted him, the authorities perhaps judging it prudent not to fight, although the gallant trooper swore roundly that he would do so.

Collecting every available man, he made a vow to drive the foe from their intrenchments into Maryland; and for this purpose procured two or three light field guns, and an old twenty-four pound smooth-bore; the latter he ingeniously contrived to mount on the axles of a wagon. With his regiment of cavalry, and several hundred militia, Ashby gradually approached Harper's Ferry, and sent a courier to Evans, asking him to co-operate. Our commander had no orders to leave Loudon County, and it would have been certain destruction to detach any considerable portion of his command, although he ardently admired Ashby's bravery, and yearned to assist him. Knowing him to be weak in artillery, Evans gave permission for two of our pieces to march to his assistance, ascend the Loudon Heights, and annoy the enemy's rear when marching out to attack [90] Ashby, to destroy the mills, storehouses, bridges, etc., around the Ferry as far as practicable, but by no means to leave the heights and descend into the valley. Four companies of our regiment accompanied the guns and started towards Harper's Ferry at three A M., October thirteenth, 1861, and camped within two miles of the place at sundown At four A. M. next morning, we cautiously took up the line of march, and when within a mile of the Ferry abruptly left the main road and approached the Loudon Heights. We could distinctly see the tall bold rocks at Harper's Ferry, encircled by mists and clouds; and as we journeyed quietly through the forest and ascended the steep wood-covered mountains, the sun rose, revealing the Potomac swiftly flowing through the natural flood-gates I have elsewhere described, with here and there a white dwelling of the town sleeping in the quiet morning air, at the base of the gigantic rocks which overhang the Ferry. With excessive labor we pulled the pieces up the face of the hill, and had them in an ambushed position overlooking the town long before the enemy had sounded reveille.

The camps of the foe in Maryland and about Harper's Ferry were distinctly seen; various trenches, forts, and earthworks looking towards Charlestown, were counted and examined with glasses; the whole panorama of the Shenandoah Valley lay several hundred feet below us, while on every road leading to and from the Ferry we saw numerous picket-fires and videttes. There was no sign of Ashby or his command: but when the mists of morning cleared away, and the distant woods towards Charlestown were visible, small faint columns of smoke indicated where his forces lay along the Bolivar road. At the base of the hill on which we were, the Shenandoah ran on its course to the Potomac, a mile northward at the foot of the town, so that on the north and east two different rivers ran winding through the landscape, while beyond the first-named stream in the valley lay the picturesque village of Bolivar, where the commandant of the post, chiefs of arms, factories, and merchants delighted to dwell in the peculation times of the old Government. The chief buildings were now converted into barracks and storehouses, establishments that Ashby had long beheld with a jealous and covetous eye. [91]

About seven A. M., I observed several horsemen dash from the distant woods and approach Bolivar in great haste. The drums began to beat very wildly. Shortly afterwards clouds of dust indicated Ashby's approach. At eight A. M. to a minute he halted on the Bolivar road and fired a shot at the infantry barracks: this was a signal to us; we hoisted a red flag, and two shots answered that all was right. The enemy were not long in assembling, and could be seen swarming into their fieldworks and rifle-pits. Skirmishers were sent out by both parties, and little puffs of smoke and faint reports told that they were hotly engaged. Banks did not seem inclined to leave his fortifications, yet to draw Ashby forward sent out two regiments as decoys; they were saluted with round shot and shell, and, quickly turning, fled to the woods south-west of Bolivar, where again volleys saluted them, and a squadron of cavalry dashing forward on their flank cut down many and dispersed the rest in wild confusion.

Ashby now advanced several hundred yards nearer, and the foe brought forward field-pieces and fresh regiments to oppose him. While this was progressing our artillerists had taken accurate range of the chief storehouse, mills, and other buildings, and began to shell them. This unexpected assault seemed to discomfit the enemy within the town and suburbs, and although they, endeavored to save their stores, most of them were fired, and the buildings destroyed. Had they ascended the Maryland Heights (not more than half a mile across the Potomac) our position would have proved untenable, for they were much higher than those of Loudon, on which we were posted. Failing this, our cannonade was maintained with great vigor; and when fresh parties of the enemy began to cross from Maryland in flats, a few shell were directed towards them with decided effect. At length the Federals advance in line of battle; and Ashby, having sent his militia to meet them, the latter, at the first fire, broke and fled. The Yankees seeing this, gave a tremendous cheer, and ran forward with the bayonet, but in broken lines;. and as they advanced towards the woods, a regiment of cavalry, who were concealed ready for the opportunity, dashed in amongst them, and in a few moments were pistoling the foe and slashing them awkwardly [92] with their sabres. But the cavalry attack was made in great confusion, and most of the enemy effected their escape by running into a large fortified house used for barracks in Bolivar. Ashby observed this place, and stealing along the road with his twenty-four-pounder on wagon-axles, directed a few well-aimed shells at it, broke the walls, blew off the roof, and the refugees were glad to make for their nearest lines.

This unsatisfactory style of fighting was maintained with fluctuating success until noon, when a courier swam the Shenandoah, ascended the mountains, and begged our colonel to bring his force into the valley, and assail the enemy on the right, while he pushed the centre. Against this, it will be remembered he had received the strictest orders; and although the men crowded round him, and begged to be led against the enemy, the colonel was compelled to refuse. The cannonade was then renewed with great fury by either party, and many shell came screaming over the heights on which we stood, but did no harm. Ashby, seeing that he was greatly outnumbered, and that the enemy were endeavoring to surround him, used his field-pieces with such destructive effect as to hold them in check while he drew off his small force to a better position. The militia by this time had become accustomed to the fight, and, gallantly advancing, repulsed the enemy; while Ashby, conspicuous on a white horse, led on the cavalry, and made several brilliant charges. Having effected his main object, namely, the destruction of the mills, storehouses, and bridges of Harper's Ferry, he retired towards Charlestown, with several hundred stand of arms, some prisoners, much ammunition, and quantities of stores, which had been seized by his troopers at unprotected points while the fight was raging. As he retired behind the woods, scouts came in and reported the enemy endeavoring to cut off our retreat; but by expedition and coolness we soon descended the mountains, and reaching the main road, occupied the point crossing a hill, and placed our pieces in position, ready for a determined stand. The enemy perceived that we had taken up a strong position, and over-estimating our force, retired without firing a shot.

While bivouacked that night, a courier came dashing towards us, and brought the stirring news that McCall, with a heavy [93] force, was marching from Drainsville to cut off Evans at Leesburgh. The latter, therefore, had hastily retreated to Goose Creek, ten miles nearer Centreville, and we were ordered to follow in his track, and if the enemy had really entered the town, a courier would inform us of it on the road, and give time to branch off towards Winchester, to get under the protection of Ashby. This indeed was startling news. The men had travelled much, and were excessively weary. The colonel decided not to call them up for a few hours, but give them rest. Towards twilight all were quietly awakened and informed of the state of things; the men good-humoredly arriving at the conclusion that we had better “up stakes and dust” out of the neighborhood in “a mighty big hurry.” Our wagons were sent out of the way by a road leading south-east, with directions to halt at a certain point for further orders. We marched through Hillsborough like shadows-all were in bed and not a dog barked-and continued at a great pace towards Leesburgh. Towards evening we halted on a large hill overlooking the town, and received orders to keep to the woods and proceed on to our brigade at Goose Creek. The rain fell in torrents, and the roads were awful, as all roads in Virginia are at this season. When within a mile of the creek, a courier brought orders to halt for the night, and proceed to Leesburgh at break of day. With much swearing and grumbling at Evans's idea of strategy, the order was obeyed, and shoeless, foot-sore, and dirty, we pitched tents on our old camping-ground, one of the companies being detailed to hold the mudwork on the hill, towards Edwards's Ferry, called by the dignified term of “Fort Evans,” though it had no guns, and was not pierced for any. This company, together with the other three, detailed men to picket at the river as usual, and were instructed to wait until further orders.

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Turner Ashby (14)
Nathan Evans (4)
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N. P. Banks (2)
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G. T. Beauregard (1)
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