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McNeill and his Rangers.

Capt. John Hanson McNEILL, whose name was one of the most famous in the Upper Potomac region during the war, was born in the vicinity of Moorefield, Hardy county, in 1815. The family was established in the valley of the South Branch by his grandfather, Daniel McNeill, who immigrated from Pennsylvania about the close of the Indian border war in Virginia. In January, 1837, he married Jemima Harness Cunningham, and a year later removed to the vicinity of Paris, Ky., where he resided six years, occupying himself with stock-raising, and becoming a Knight Templar in the Masonic order. He then, on account of his wife's health, spent four years in his native State, after which he removed to Boone county, Mo., where he was active in the organization of agricultural associations, and was prominent in their meetings. After six years in Boone, he settled in Daviess county, his home at the beginning of trouble in 1861. In this county he was a local minister of the Methodist church. In politics he was an ardent ‘Union man,’ opposed to war, but in case there should be war, determined to fight for the South. He raised a company of cavalry under Governor Jackson's call for volunteers to defend the State, and being mustered into service with his men June 14, 1861, joined the command of General Slack, which, after a skirmish with Lyon at Booneville, made a junction with Jackson and fought the battle of Carthage, July 5th. After the defeat of the enemy Captain McNeill harassed their rear, taking several prisoners and making the first capture of a baggage wagon in Missouri. He participated in the fierce battle [117] of Wilson's Creek, and, after the repulse of Sigel, aided in dispersing a column of the retreating enemy, capturing 50 prisoners and one cannon. In September he took part in the famous siege of Lexington, and was severely wounded in the right shoulder just as the capitulation was announced. Here also he suffered the loss of his second son, George McNeill, who had been fighting with him, and in the first attack upon Lexington had earned the plaudits of his comrades by planting the Confederate flag in the city, amid a storm of shot and shell. A few days afterward the boy was shot dead while on picket duty. The period of enlistment of McNeill's company expired in December, and he returned to Boone county to raise another command, and while there he and his son Jesse were captured. After spending a few days in a jail at St. Louis, Jesse escaped and traveled safely through the Northern States to Hardy county. On June 15th Captain McNeill also escaped, and not long afterward was welcomed by the friends of his boyhood. His home country he found ravaged by the Federal scouting parties, one of which drove him from his resting place a few days after his arrival, and he at once determined to raise a body of men to protect this section of Virginia. Going to Richmond in June, 1862, he obtained permission, after much persuasion, to organize a troop to defend the South Branch valley, and on September 1st he began to collect his men. A fortnight later with 20 men he made a reconnoissance toward New Creek, captured several pickets, and at Ridgeville seized a member of the West Virginia legislature. One of the fruits of the expedition was the famous road mare which McNeill rode thereafter. Evading the Federal cavalry which pursued, the men reached Petersburg and organized, electing McNeill captain. Soon afterward he was ordered to join Colonel Imboden at Bloomery, and en route he attempted to ambuscade a party of Federal cavalry near Romney. It happened that he took position between two bodies of the [118] enemy, and one of his men remarked: ‘We are cut off,’ to which McNeill replied, with the instinct of a true soldier: ‘So are they.’ His confidence was rewarded by the capture of a considerable number of the enemy. Early in October, when Imboden attempted to destroy the trestle work of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, McNeill was sent toward Romney with about 30 men, with which he gallantly defeated a Federal detachment of 60, taking prisoner a captain and several others. Imboden's next move was against Paw Paw tunnel, and McNeill's rangers, in advance, surprised and drove the Federal garrison from the fortifications intended to protect this important point on the railroad. Subsequently the command was busied with scouting duty, varied with occasional forays against the ‘Swamp Dragons,’ banditti who infested the mountain fastnesses and committed outrages, which they expiated with instant death when captured.

In November they played an important part in Imboden's unsuccessful expedition toward Cheat River bridge, and early in December, hearing that Milroy with 4,500 men was moving past Moorefield toward Winchester, McNeill attacked the wagon train while moving between the two divisions of the enemy, and captured 50 horses and a number of prisoners, losing but one man who was wounded by the discharge of his own gun.

While with W. E. Jones in an expedition toward Romney in January, the Rangers again surprised a wagon train at the site of their previous adventure, and were again successful, burning the wagons and capturing 51 horses and 23 prisoners. In January, Imboden's force was mustered into the regular service, and half of McNeill's men were transferred to Captain Scott's company, Imboden's battalion. The remainder, only 17 in number, gladly followed their captain back to the South Branch valley. Their number was increased to 27, and soon afterward they gave notice of their presence by [119] suddenly descending upon a wagon train, which a Federal party had loaded with hay at the expense of the inhabitants and were leisurely hauling into Moorefield. The daring troopers dispersed the guard of 150 men, capturing 71 prisoners and 106 horses, and burned the train, and then safely conveyed their prizes to the Shenandoah valley. This exploit was announced in general orders to the army by General Lee as one of ‘the series of successes of the cavalry of Northern Virginia during the winter months.’ Near Harrisonburg the company was recruited to 60 men, and John H. McNeill was elected captain, Jesse McNeill first lieutenant, J. S. Welton second, and B. J. Dolan junior second lieutenant. Early in March, with the commendation of General Imboden, Captain McNeill applied to the secretary of war for authority to take 600 men and destroy the trestle work and Cheat River bridge. This was readily granted, Secretary Seddon in his letter to Gen. Sam Jones referring to McNeill as ‘a very brave and enterprising partisan officer.’ Gen. W. E. Jones, however, did not approve the plan. But he granted McNeill a few companies for another expedition to the northwestern grade. With these companies, Harness', Heiss', and Kuykendall's, of the Eleventh cavalry, and Captain Stump's of the Eighteenth cavalry, McNeill started out and captured another wagon train. Kuykendall's company and a detachment under Lieutenant McNeill were ambuscaded, but escaped with slight losses.

McNeill and his men rendered valuable services during Jones' successful expedition against the Baltimore & Ohio railroad in April, 1863, and continued in their adventurous duties, capturing in June one of Milroy's trains between Berryville and Winchester, until General Ewell entered the valley, en route to Pennsylvania, when the command reported to Ewell. They participated in the defeat of Milroy, and pursuing his command captured many prisoners and wrought great destruction on the Baltimore [120] & Ohio railroad. In Pennsylvania they collected supplies for the army, and assisted in scouting duty. On the retreat the Rangers were with Imboden guarding the trains, and were distinguished for gallantry in battle on the occasion when Imboden's brigade of 1,600 repulsed the assault of a division of Federal cavalry. On other occasions previous to the withdrawal of Lee across the Potomac, McNeill and his men abundantly demonstrated their soldierly qualities in frequent cavalry encounters.

Returning to the South Branch in August, the Rangers performed one of their most famous feats in making a night attack upon a column of Averell's cavalry, which was carrying away a number of citizens, utterly routing the enemy, and restoring the prisoners to liberty. They were with Imboden during Averell's raid, and subsequently the Rangers, with 40 men under Capts. Frank Imboden and Hobson, successfully surprised the Federal camp of 500 men at Moorefield, on the morning of September 10th, driving the enemy from the town and capturing 150 prisoners, 11 wagons, 40 horses, 250 guns, and the supplies and equippage of the camp. To secure their safe retreat Lieutenant Dolan drove away a Federal battery which had opened from a ridge across the river. Then joining Imboden in the valley, the Rangers participated in the attack upon Charlestown, October 18th, and Captain McNeill, under a flag of truce, entered the town and presented the demand for surrender, which was complied with.

Returning to the South Branch valley in November, the Rangers, now 80 men, were reinforced by 90 from Imboden's brigade. On the 16th they ambushed a train at the mountain pass near Burlington, and captured 30 prisoners and 245 horses, escaping afterward by unfrequented mountain paths. They skirmished with the rear of a Federal expedition down the valley; then assisted Gen. Fitzhugh Lee in his foraging expedition; and in January, in addition to other exploits, defeated the [121] Ringgold battalion sent out to effect their capture. In April they made a raid against the Swamp Dragons and succeeded in destroying much of their stores of plunder, but on the return were ambuscaded by the desperadoes in a deep and narrow gap of Fork mountain. A fierce fight followed, in which the Rangers were so fortunate as to escape without loss and inflict severe punishment upon their enemy. In May, 1864, when Crook and Averell were raiding in southwestern Virginia, McNeill advanced against Piedmont, on the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. While he with 40 men demanded and received the surrender of the garrison at that place, two detachments of ten each were sent to the east and west to cut off communications. One of these squads, under John T. Peerce, stopped a train at Bloomington, and found it full of Federal soldiers. With supreme assurance Peerce demanded their surrender, and fortunately the colonel agreed to capitulate, as he did not have a round of ammunition with him. By firing the machine shops, engine-houses and buildings, and turning loose the locomotives, McNeill caused a damage estimated at $1,000,000 to the United States government. Having accomplished so much with almost incredible daring, he left the town under fire of artillery hastily brought up, and escaped with a cunning equally wonderful the forces sent out to intercept him, reaching Moorefield in safety, after an absence of only five days. Not long after this the Rangers suffered from the enemy adopting their own tactics, being surprised in camp, and two men, John B. Fay and Samuel Daugherty, captured. But McNeill's men would not rest under such a misfortune, and ten, with the fleetest mounts, under Lieutenant Dolan, hurried in pursuit. Coming up with the rear guard, they dashed into the Federals, and not only rescued their own comrades but made prisoners of the men who were guarding them. After the battle of New Market, McNeill went to the Shenandoah valley, scouted before Hunter previous to the latter's advance, [122] then annoyed his rear guard, and when the flank movement was being made against Jones, cut his way through a Federal regiment and apprised the Confederate commander of his danger. While the captain was absent on this duty, a detachment under Lieutenants McNeill and Dolan remained near Moorefield, severely punished a raiding party sent against them in June, and about the 18th attacked their mortal enemies, the Swamp Dragons, who were escorting a train of provisions furnished them by the Federals. The fight that resulted was a hot one, and Lieutenant Dolan was mortally wounded. This officer was a native of Ireland and a citizen of Wheeling, and a man of remarkable bravery. The ‘old captain’ now rejoined his men, and a few weeks later they rode into a camp of 300 Federals at Springfield, and captured 80 prisoners and 145 horses. He had with him 70 men. He learned from his prisoners that they were a part of a picked body sent out by General Kelley against McNeill, with orders to kill, capture or drive him from the valley. The horses taken enabled him to remount not only his own men but a company of Missourians under Captain Woodson, who had been permitted to join him. The 4th of July, 1864, he celebrated by driving the Federal garrison from Patterson Creek station and burning the railroad bridge. Immediately after this the Rangers joined General Early's expedition through Maryland to Washington, and were under the orders of the general as scouts. In the cavalry fight at Frederick they resisted the onset of the enemy until McCausland came up, and at Urbana they again checked the pursuit. Subsequently they were active in scouting and collecting supplies in their region, until after the battle of Winchester between Early and Sheridan, when the band went into the valley to assist the defeated Confederates. In this service Captain McNeill came to his death. One foggy morning in October, 1864, while leading a charge on a cavalry camp on Meems bottom, at a bridge over the Shenandoah, [123] near Mount Jackson, far in advance of his troop, he was mortally wounded by a shot from the rear. This is believed to have been accidental, though it has been charged that the shot was from a recent recruit, and in revenge for some incident of company life. The famous captain died at Harrisonburg a few weeks later. His son, Lieut. Jesse C. McNeill, succeeded to the command, but on account of his youth General Early hesitated to give him full control. Chafing under this lack of confidence, young McNeill was anxious for some opportunity to display his daring, and finally it was presented. The adventure which he proposed in February, 1865, was no less than to enter the town of Cumberland, on the Potomac, and Baltimore & Ohio railroad, pass unchallenged through the garrison of 6,000 or 8,000 soldiers, and make prisoners Gens. George Crook and B. F. Kelley. Comrade J. B. Fay, of Maryland, had proposed such a scheme to the elder McNeill, and he took part in the planning of the expedition.

Fay was a native of Cumberland, and several times during the war had entered it, even remaining at one time in safety an entire week. On account of his well-known courage and discretion, it was agreed that he should reconnoiter, ascertain the location of pickets, the sleeping apartments of the generals, and gain all other information necessary to success. A lad from Missouri, C. R. Hallar, a member of the Rangers, whose coolness and courage had been often tested, accompanied Fay, and without loss of time the north side of the Potomac was reached, friends were found and interviewed, the situation around Cumberland ascertained, and when the night of this adventure ended the two bold Confederates were safely away near Romney, enjoying breakfast with their friend, Vanse Herriot.

Lieutenant McNeill had been engaged during this time in selecting and preparing 25 men, well mounted and armed, whom he moved slowly toward the Potomac in [124] the direction of Cumberland. The rendezvous was reached, where McNeill's men were joined by about. 12 others from Company F, Seventh Virginia, and Company D, Eleventh Virginia, Rosser's brigade. When Fay and Hallar had reported, a night ride was at once made over mountain and valley, on icy roads and through snow drifts of such uncertain depth on the mountain top, that the men were compelled to dismount and lead their horses. The Potomac was crossed before daylight; but notwithstanding their fatiguing haste, it was too late to reach Cumberland over the unpicketed national road, as had been planned. Dauntless, however, the men refused to abandon the enterprise, and resolved to advance on a shorter route, guarded by two lines of pickets. McNeill, Fay, Vandiver and Kuykendall riding in advance, encountered a Federal cavalry picket within two miles of Cumberland, whose challenge was first answered by ‘Friends from New Creek,’ and next by a quick charge, a pistol shot and the capture of the party. From these captured pickets the countersign ‘Bull's Gap’ was extorted, and the prisoners themselves, mounted on their own horses, were forced to accompany the Rangers until the adventure was ended.

The second picket post, a mile nearer the city, was taken by a ruse. It consisted of five men of the First West Virginia infantry cozily enjoying the early hours before day in a shed behind a log fire. At the approach of McNeill's party one of the pickets picked up his musket and advancing a few steps made the usual formal challenge, which Kuykendall answered according to army regulations. But the Rangers continued to crowd up and with a dash closed in around the fire, capturing the pickets without firing a gun.

This success secured for McNeill the entry into the slumbering city without alarm being given. With the promptitude which the nearness of daylight demanded McNeill detailed two squads of ten men each to make [125] the captures. Sergt. Joseph W. Kuykendall, Company F, Seventh Virginia cavalry, a special scout for General Early, who knew Kelley personally, as he had once been a prisoner in his hands, was charged with the pleasure of reversing the old conditions by the capture of this general. Sergt. Joseph L. Vandiver, who had the style of a field marshal, and could easily pass for a full general, was appointed to take General Crook. Fay, Hallar and others were detailed to cut all telegraph lines, while specific instructions to guard various points were given to the remainder of the troop.

These dispositions being made, the command moved on the pike into Green street, around the Court House hill, crossing Chain bridge, and marched up Baltimore street, the main thoroughfare, in the dim light of approaching morning. Some people were astir, but the intrepid Rangers rode on carelessly, whistling wellknown Federal army tunes and now and then guying a sentinel. The first halt was made in front of the Barnum house, since then named the Windsor, where Kuykendall's squad proceeded to their work, while the others rode on to the Revere house, where General Crook was sleeping. Kuykendall's band dismounted without exciting the suspicion of the sentry, who was easily disarmed by Sprigg Lynn, the first man in advance. Entering the hotel and going to the second floor, Major Melvin, Kelley's adjutant-general, was caught in his bed, and the information gained that the General was in the adjacent room. He was at once awakened and told that he was a prisoner. ‘Prisoner!’ said the nervous officer; ‘to whom am I surrendering?’ Kuykendall satisfied his anxiety on that point by saying: ‘To Captain McNeill, by order of General Rosser.’ That was so sufficient under the circumstances that the general and his adjutant were soon dressed and mounted on the horses of two troopers, who, yielding their saddle seats to their captives, rode behind out of the city. [126]

The Revere house party penetrated that hotel without further trouble than disarming the careless sentry and having the door opened by an agitated little negro, who exclaimed: ‘What kind of men is you, anyhow?’ General Crook's room was entered after a courteous knock at the door, and the curt reply, ‘Come in,’ from the general. Vandiver, Gassman, Daily, Tucker and others promptly accepted the invitation. With the air of a general in authority Vandiver addressed the surprised Federal officer by saying: ‘General Crook, you are my prisoner!’ ‘By what authority, sir?’ said Crook, who had not yet risen from his bed. ‘General Rosser, sir; Fitzhugh Lee's division of cavalry,’ was Vandiver's emphatic reply. General Crook rose out of his bed in astonishment, saying: ‘Is General Rosser here?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ said Vandiver without a moment's hesitation; ‘I am General Rosser. We have surprised and captured the town.’ General Crook could not gainsay the bold declaration and submitted at once. He said, in referring to the event at a later day, that Vandiver ‘looked to him like such a man as Rosser might be,’ and doubtless he did.

The Rangers now secured headquarter flags, and riding quietly down Baltimore street entered the government stables, and chose several fine horses, among them General Kelley's favorite charger, Philippi. All being now well mounted, the Rangers rode away more rapidly, disarming guards as they went and announcing to sentries that they were General Crook's body-guard going out to fight some rebels. Excited and jubilant, they hastened away over the snow-clad roads, pursued unavailingly by parties of Federal cavalry, and after fighting back their pursuers, or eluding them, reached a point of safety from which their distinguished prisoners were sent to General Early's headquarters. In the twenty-four hours they had ridden ninety miles, much of the time at night, while the route traversed included mountains, hill and streams, upon which lay the snow and ice of winter. [127]

This famous exploit, which received special mention in a report of Gen. R. E. Lee to Secretary Breckinridge, was the last notable service of the Rangers. Lieutenant McNeill now received his captain's commission, but the war presently ended, and the command was paroled. Subsequently he married and removed to Illinois. The men returned to civil occupations and became honored citizens, in various professions and callings, not only in the Virginias and Maryland, but in other States of the North and South. [128]

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