In 1864 Bradley Johnson sets off to rescue POWs, Harry Gilmor to create a diversion—but their first engagement is dinner.
It was dusk on July 9, 1864, when Confederate Major Harry Gilmor and 20 troopers of the 2nd Battalion Maryland Cavalry rode to Westminster in north-central Maryland. Gilmor was thrilled to be back in his home state after campaigning in Virginia, and he relished the chance to drive Yankees away from the homes of his friends and neighbors. Told that 150 Union soldiers occupied the town, Gilmor ordered his men to close ranks, draw sabers, and gallop their mounts at top speed down the main street, whooping and hollering like an entire regiment. The ruse worked, the Federals fled southeast toward Baltimore, and Gilmor’s men sent out pickets and began to cut telegraph wires.
Gilmor’s audacious raid was part of an even bolder plan to divert Union attention away from Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early who was marching his 18,000 men toward Washington, D.C., after his victory over Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace at the Monocacy River near Frederick.
The plan—originated by General Robert E. Lee—called for Confederate Navy Colonel-Commander John Taylor Wood to land 800 marines on sandy beaches near Point Lookout. At the same time, Brig. Gen. Bradley Johnson’s forces would attack the prison camp from land. Stunned, Johnson protested to Early that the timetable gave him only 96 hours to travel 300 miles—an impossible feat. Early responded that Lee expected them to give it their best shot. “I will do what I can,” Johnson replied. “Whatever is possible for men and horses to do.”
He might just as well have said, “Whatever is possible for Harry Gilmor to do.”
The death of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Yellow Tavern in May 1864 had left Harry Gilmor among the last of the Confederacy’s heroic mounted chevaliers. A Marylander like Johnson, his family lived in splendor at Glen Ellen, an elegant mansion built by his father on the outskirts of Baltimore and modeled on Abbotsford, home of Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott.
Gilmor was a gifted horseman and a natural marauder. After serving with Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and in the Seven Days’ campaign, Gilmor was captured at Antietam and jailed for five months. After his parole, he fought at Brandy Station and served as provost marshal of Gettysburg while Confederate forces held the town during the battle. He was overjoyed when Early told him that he and his men would be part of the Confederate force invading Maryland and Washington. Dashing about deep in enemy territory like some mythological Irish warrior king was what the spirited Harry Gilmor lived for.
Now, Johnson knew, was the time to turn Gilmor loose in the countryside he had ridden since childhood. Lee’s secret plan called for a larger role for Gilmor—to raise as much hell as possible around Baltimore. It was hoped Gilmor’s mayhem would mask the primary objective of the mission: to free the Southern prisoners at Point Lookout.
Twenty miles east of the town of Cockeysville lay the tracks of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, the main trunk line connecting Baltimore with the large cities to the north. Johnson knew that the railroad’s weakest link was a mile-long wooden bridge over the Gunpowder River north of Baltimore. If Gilmor and a command of 135 men of the 1st and 2nd Maryland could seize it, burn it, tear up track and cut telegraph lines, Baltimore and Washington would be cut off from Pennsylvania and New York.
Johnson, meanwhile, would move around western Baltimore, then head south to Laurel to cut the Baltimore & Ohio rail line to Washington. From there, he would push another 80 miles south to Point Lookout. Gilmor and Johnson planned to rejoin Early’s army at Bladensburg sometime on July 14.
With no time to lose, Johnson led his 1,500 troopers along with an artillery battery and baggage train to New Windsor by dusk. There his first act of business was to persuade shopkeepers to sell to his men desperately needed new clothes. He wanted Gilmor to follow suit in Westminster, so he sent a courier ahead ordering Gilmor to demand that the citizens provide 1,500 suits and pairs of boots or face the burning of the town. But when Johnson and his men rode into Westminster, they were disappointed.
Not only had Gilmor not taken any suits or boots, but he also pleaded magnanimously with Johnson to spare the town. When the long gray line moved out in the predawn darkness of July 10, Westminster stood unharmed, but many of the troopers remained barefoot.
So on the sultry morning of July 11, after dispatching Lieutenant Henry Blackstone and 12 troopers to burn the summer home of Maryland Governor Augustus W. Bradford, Johnson prepared to swing his tired troopers around to the west of Baltimore before heading southeast to the B&O rail line at Laurel and then to Point Lookout. Meanwhile, Gilmor’s men headed toward the railroad junction at Magnolia Station. However, the passage of more than 1,000 men in butternut and gray, along with their horses, artillery and baggage wagons, did not go unnoticed. An alarm sounded from Petersburg to Philadelphia. As the Baltimore Sun reported, “A considerable amount of excitement existed on account of rumors of rebels approaching Baltimore.” Prominent businessmen pleaded with Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck to send additional troops, but he replied he had none to spare.
Gilmor’s column arrived at Magnolia Station at about 8:30 a.m., just in time to greet the morning train to Philadelphia sitting at the station. The engineer saw Captain James Bailey and 20 men approaching, and he managed to disable the locomotive before fleeing. Flight was not an option for the passengers, however. Gilmor ordered all of them, with their belongings, off the train and gave his men strict instructions that there be no plundering of private property. Nevertheless, The Baltimore Sun did report instances of “exchange thievery” where passengers were forced to exchange personal items with some of the troopers.
While the troopers helped the passengers with their luggage, Gilmor recognized “several ladies of [his] acquaintance” and noted their “expression of joy at meeting friends they had known from childhood.” But several other passengers did not share their joy, especially the convalescing Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin and several fellow Union officers. Gilmor placed them under guard in the telegraph office, and later sent them with Captain Nicholas Owings and 12 of his men to Reisterstown.
Gilmor had intended to drive the captured train 17 miles north to Havre de Grace, destroying bridges along the way. With the engine disabled, however, he was forced to burn the train where it stood. But the luck of the Irish still smiled on Gilmor. He noted that the conductor of the first train informed him “that another train would soon be there” and “after disposing some sharpshooters along the track we had not long to wait.” When it arrived, the raiders easily captured the 12-car train and its passengers, and they made sure that its engine remained fully operational.
While Gilmor worked the trains, the hardworking Captain Bailey and a detail of men made for the all-important bridge over the mouth of the Gunpowder River. Bailey found it guarded at both ends by Union soldiers. More ominous than the troopers, however, was the gunboat Juanita, anchored in the river about 300 yards from the bridge.
At the north end of the bridge, 50 Delaware volunteers commanded by Captain Thomas Hugh Stirling had arrived at 3 that morning to reinforce 32 men of the 159th Ohio National Guard under Lieutenant Robert Price, already posted at the south end. Bailey’s detail attacked while Stirling’s men were pitching tents. The Rebels demanded the surrender of the Union soldiers, which the Federals refused. As Bailey’s men backed a burning train onto the bridge, some of Stirling’s men fell into the river as they retreated across the ties. The rest met Price’s troops in the middle of the bridge and managed to uncouple two of the burning cars and push them away. But it was too late to save the bridge. As the flaming draw-span swung out, more railroad cars and soldiers fell into the river.
Juanita remained strangely silent throughout the fray. Caught completely by surprise, Ensign William J. Herring had allowed his boilers to go cold, although he did manage to let the boat drift downstream to avoid flying sparks and falling debris from the bridge. Herring would later be court-martialed for his dereliction.
By 4 p.m., panic gripped Baltimore. Rumors were rife about the number of Rebel raiders and the extent of damage they inflicted. When neither the government in Washington, D.C., nor Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, Va., could separate fact from fiction, Grant dispatched Maj. Gen. Edwin O.C. Ord to Baltimore. Calmly, the veteran campaigner assessed the situation. Ord’s first dispatch to Grant on July 12 reported, “Railroad bridge at Gunpowder only slightly damaged; can be repaired in three days…. I have no reliable cavalry and the rebels under Gilmor and Johnson have raided, in the last few days, to within five miles of this city; the citizens temporarily armed. I cannot send out as they stampede.” To Chief of Staff Halleck, Ord conceded, “Reports not vouched for, as the whole country is panic stricken.”
Gilmor intended to create even more panic on his way to a rendezvous with General Johnson by sending his entire detachment thundering south down North Charles Street, through the center of Baltimore, and then west out Franklin Street to the Franklin Turnpike. But, as Gilmor later noted, “I met a gentleman whom I recognized, and from him learned that they were expecting us in Baltimore….”
Gilmor opted for prudence and chose to head east for the Philadelphia Turnpike that led northeast. At the 12-mile stone, he turned his column on to a country road and headed west for Towson Town, where he hoped to find food, shelter and rest for his weary troopers and horses. But not long after the column arrived at Aldy’s Hotel around 9 p.m., shots from pickets warned of approaching Union cavalry. The Baltimore Daily Gazette believed they were 75 emergency mounted volunteers, probably Union League men, under Major E.R. Petherbridge.
Gilmor ordered Lieutenant William Kemp to take 15 men, charge the advance guard, fire a few shots and then retreat. It was enough to convince the inexperienced Union volunteers to ride for the safety of Baltimore. The only Confederate casualty was a wounded horse; any Union casualties went unreported.
In the saddle now for almost 48 consecutive hours with little food or sleep, Gilmor pushed on northwest for Reisterstown. Since some of his men were “snoring in their saddles before we had gone a mile,” Gilmor decided to bring up the rear “to prevent any of them being lost.” But it was Gilmor who fell asleep and got lost. Only the shout of “halt” from a nervous Union picket roused the slumbering major. Gilmor convinced the soldier that he was a Union scout and quickly rode across country. Somehow, in the dark, he found both the road and a sleeping sentinel left behind by Captain Bailey. The soldier directed Gilmor to Hunt’s Meeting House, where he found his column “lying in the road, scattered about, and every one of them fast asleep.”
They weren’t the only ones asleep. When the column overtook Captain Owings and the prisoners about midnight, Gilmor found these men asleep, too, and the buggy carrying General Franklin and the other prisoners empty. A search of the area failed to find any trace of the Union officers. Gilmor’s after action report and his memoir say only that Franklin and the others were gone. Some historians believe they escaped, but in 1868, Abner Hard, historian of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, stated that a detachment under Major John M. Waite rescued Franklin and his fellow prisoners near Reisterstown.
When General Johnson ordered Lieutenant Blackstone to torch the home of Governor Bradford in retaliation for the burning of Virginia Governor John Letcher’s home, he set the stage for John Garrett, the feisty, 44-year-old president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Garrett’s network of station masters, who kept the Union leadership informed of Rebel troop movements, telegraphed news of the fire to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that afternoon.
Garrett was just warming up as he spread news of the fire. As Johnson would learn later that day, Garrett had deciphered Early’s plans and quickly had marshaled his railroad’s resources to bring thousands of veteran Union troops to Washington’s defense. Every rail car in Baltimore had been sent to Locust Point. Transports off the point were now debarking part of General Horatio Wright’s VI Corps and General William Emory’s XIX Corps, sent by General Ulysses S. Grant to reinforce the defenses of Washington. Johnson recalled, “I at once sent this information to General Early by an officer and escort, and moved on.”
By July 12, General Jubal Early and the Army of the Valley had reached the northern outskirts of Washington. As the morning mists burned off, Early got his first glimpse of the faded blue uniforms of the men now standing on the ramparts of Fort Stevens and crouched in the rifle pits in front of his bedraggled army. He now knew that battle-tested veterans stood between him and his prize. Standing on the Seventh Street Pike, only seven miles north of the White House, he knew he had lost the race for Washington.
There was more bad news for Early. He received word from Richmond that he had lost the race for Point Lookout, too. The operation had been compromised. On July 8, Jefferson Davis had warned Commander Wood: “The object and destination of the expedition have somehow become so generally known that I fear your operations will meet unexpected obstacles. General R.E. Lee has communicated with you and left your action to your discretion. I suggest calm consideration….” Wood was still willing to go, but Davis officially canceled the operation on July 10.
Johnson, however, remained in the dark. When he moved his column out in the humid pre-dawn hours of July 12, he still intended to tear up B&O tracks between Baltimore and Washington and strike out for Point Lookout. When his scouts warned of Union cavalry at Laurel, he turned the column south for Beltsville where it found only some rolling stock on the main track, a construction train and crew, and a siding with 13 more railroad cars. While his men set fire to the cars, others chopped at the telegraph poles.
Smoke from the burning railroad cars attracted the attention of Union lookouts at Fort Lincoln on the eastern perimeter of Washington. Fearing that more of Early’s army might attack from that direction, a Union cavalry detachment rode out to investigate. But the men were riding on remount horses unused to battle, and a few shells lobbed by Johnson’s Baltimore Light Artillery sent them stampeding.
With the Federals on the run, Johnson reformed his column en route to Point Lookout. To cover the 80 miles in fewer than 17 hours, Johnson’s column started south at a steady trot. They had gone only a short distance, however, when a courier from Early arrived with orders. Johnson was “to report at once at headquarters, at Silver Spring, on the Seventh Street Road.” Johnson turned his column around and headed north.
July 12 found Harry Gilmor’s band in Pikesville and, later, Randallstown. At dawn on the 13th they began the arduous ride toward Rockville and an expected rendezvous with Johnson. Had Gilmor known that Early’s army was in full retreat, he might have pushed his tired troopers farther south and in greater haste. Surely he wouldn’t have stopped off at Greenwood to socialize with the Davises.
Also at dawn, Colonel Charles Russell Lowell and the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, veterans of hide-and-seek with John Singleton Mosby’s irregulars, rode out from the defenses around Fort Reno with orders to find the elusive Confederates. They found their quarry around 9 o’clock. As commander of the rear guard, Johnson, “finding matters getting disagreeable,” sent a squadron of the 1st Maryland Cavalry to charge down Commerce Lane into Rockville to scatter the pesky bluecoats. Some of the retreating Union cavalrymen collided with their dismounted comrades, who were pouring volleys of repeating rifle fire into the Marylanders. Johnson ordered a second assault that drove Lowell’s men back.
And, that same day, with Washington no longer threatened, Secretary of War Stanton sent a telegram to his important ally, John W. Garrett: “There is no reason to doubt that the whole force has been withdrawn from this region, and is retreating across the Potomac. There is no reason why your trains should not commence immediately their usual trips.”
Johnson would see some action in Rockville that day. And after riding all night, Gilmor would arrive to make a last stand with Johnson at Poolesville, just before crossing the Potomac into Virginia at White’s Ford—the same ford used by General Lee on his way to Antietam. It was sunset when they faced the final blue onslaught of the campaign. Johnson remembered, “We were looking through our glasses at the advancing line, where their cartridge boxes and canteens plainly showed—puff! puff! puff! went their fire all along the line. There was no mistaking the sound. The swish of the minie ball was so clear and so evident that it could not possibly come from carbines.”
Gordon Berg is a contributing writer for America’s Civil War and is president of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.