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Union Cavalry Escapes from Besieged Harpers Ferry

By Gordon Berg 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: April 08, 2011 
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Under cover of darkness 1,600 Union cavalrymen escaped encirclement at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Harpers Ferry by Moonlight, Library of Congress
Under cover of darkness 1,600 Union cavalrymen escaped encirclement at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Harpers Ferry by Moonlight, Library of Congress

"Through God's blessing, Harpers Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered" Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson wrote in the dispatch he sent to his commander, General Robert E. Lee, in the early hours of Sept. 15, 1862. It was good news for Lee who desperately needed Jackson's troops as soon as possible to augment his thin gray line posted on the hills behind Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. But Jackson added a troubling postscript to a similar dispatch he sent to Confederate cavalry commander, Major General JEB Stuart. "It is said that two regiments escaped up the Potomac on the Maryland side, last night, from the Ferry," Jackson wrote. "Cannot your cavalry intercept them?"

Jackson's concern that he might not have bagged the entire Union garrison was the first indication that one of the Civil War's most successful missions of stealth and deception had taken place the night before. The escape of about 1,600 Union cavalry from Harpers Ferry is a story of daring, courage, and a healthy dose of luck. Accounts written over the years, however, disagree on many of details making it a case study of how memory can transform and even reconstruct the historical record.

Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, had been made famous when abolitionist John Brown captured the United States arsenal there in 1859. The town had changed hands between Union and Confederate forces several times since the outbreak of the war. It was militarily indefensible unless the occupying force also held surrounding Bolivar, Loudoun and Maryland Heights. Unfortunately for the 14,000-man Union garrison holding the town in September 1862, those strategic positions were now in the hands of Stonewall Jackson's veteran troopers. Private W.H. Redman of the 12th Illinois Cavalry related later, "On the morning of the 13th the enemy commenced to shell us out and we were under a constant fire from their batteries all that day."

The garrison at Harpers Ferry was commanded by Colonel Dixon S. Miles, a 40-year regular army veteran of dubious military ability and a well-documented fondness for the bottle. Brigadier General Julius White arrived on September 12 with a contingent of 2,500 troops evacuated from Martinsburg, Virginia, and, although he outranked Miles, White declined to take command of the garrison.

The cavalry assigned to Harpers Ferry was an amalgam of six commands: the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry; the Loudoun Virginia Rangers; the 7th Squadron Rhode Island Cavalry; two companies of the 1st Maryland Cavalry the 12th Illinois Cavalry from the Chicago area; and the 8th New York Cavalry.

All of the units had seen some action, but the skill and experience of the officers varied significantly. The senior cavalry officer, 42 year-old Colonel Arno Voss of the 12th Illinois, was a newspaper editor and attorney who got his commission because of political connections with Illinois Governor Richard Yates.

But of all the blue horsemen then besieged in Harpers Ferry, the commander of the 8th New York has come down through history as the officer credited with organizing and leading the successful escape operation. Colonel Benjamin Franklin "Grimes" Davis was regular army and reeked of saddle soap and rawhide. Born in Alabama and raised in Mississippi, Davis graduated West Point as Captain of the Cadets in the class of 1854. An outspoken Unionist, he fought in the Peninsula Campaign and on July 14, 1862, and took command of the 8th New York. The regiment was sent to Harpers Ferry with orders to guard the railway line to Winchester and break up marauding units of Confederate cavalry.

Who first came up with the idea for a cavalry breakout cannot be ascertained with certainty, but there is evidence that Colonel Grimes Davis and Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis of the 12th Illinois discussed the possibility of escape on the afternoon of the 14th. They realized that if they were captured, the Confederates would acquire 1,600 desperately needed cavalry mounts. In addition, the lightly armed troopers, many of whom lacked even carbines, would be of little use defending the garrison. Both Davises went to General White, who set up a meeting with Colonel Miles.

At first, Miles opposed the idea as risky and impractical. He was under orders from General Henry W. Halleck, Union chief-of-staff, to hold until relieved by troops believed coming from Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac. Miles eventually relented, provided a suitable escape plan could be worked out.

Around 7 p.m., the officers finally agreed on a route. It was a risky proposition that would take the column across the Potomac on an improvised pontoon bridge to the base of Maryland Heights, right under the Rebel guns. The troopers would then turn left and climb a narrow road between the berm of the C&O Canal and the heights and move north toward Sharpsburg, Maryland, and an anticipated rendezvous with Union forces. Ironically, this was the same road, traveled in reverse, used by John Brown in 1859.

Colonel Miles insisted that the cavalry's evacuation plans go forward with the utmost speed and secrecy. He did not want to arouse the suspicions of the enemy or of his own troops. Miles issued Special Order 120 specifying "The cavalry force at this post, except detached orderlies, will make preparations to leave here at eight o'clock tonight, without baggage wagons, ambulances, or led horses, crossing the Potomac over the Sharpsburg Road. The senior officer, Colonel Voss, will assume command of the whole."

Organizing a detachment of almost 1,600 cavalrymen silently and in the dark required strict discipline, obedience to orders, and total control by each man over his mount. On the pretext of taking their horses for water, the troopers walked their mounts, unsaddled, down to the seawall. There, after quietly saddling and mounting, the long blue line proceeded single file across the pontoon bridge, 860 feet of sod-covered oak planking. Major Augustus W. Corliss of the 7th Rhode Island assured his men that the "next morning they would either be in Pennsylvania, or in Hell, or on the way to Richmond," probably a reference to Libby Prison located there.

Captain William Grafflin, senior officer of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, commanded the rear guard and later testified that it was close to 10:30 p.m. before he moved out of the town. The riders turned left, formed up in column of twos, and galloped along the curving, narrow road for about a mile. Then the road veered north and proceeded up the Maryland Heights so steeply that Corporal Isaac Heysinger of the 7th Rhode Island later wrote "that I had to grasp my horse's mane" to keep from sliding off his saddle.

An incident midway through the crossing almost spoiled the entire operation. There are conflicting accounts as to exactly what happened. One version, penned by Reverend Abraham J. Warner, chaplain of the 12th Illinois and one of the men left behind, has Captain Richard Hayden of Company D arriving late and mistakenly leading his command to the right instead of the left after crossing the bridge. His troopers encountered some Confederate pickets at the small village of Sandy Hook. A volley of gunfire quickly turned the column in the right direction.

But Captain W. Angelo Powell of the 125th New York Infantry, testifying in November 1862 before a commission formed to investigate the surrender of Harpers Ferry, told a different story. He indicated that a group of 13 deserters from his regiment stole some horses and mingled among the cavalrymen waiting to cross the bridge. These men turned right instead of left and led parts of Companies A and C of the 12th Illinois toward Sandy Hook. Powell testified that the deserters fled back across the pontoon bridge after being fired upon and suffered one man killed and another wounded. In the confusion, about 200 riders from the 12th Illinois, 8th New York, and 1st Maryland, were driven back into the town and were among those captured the next day.
Curiously, the incident seemed not to have raised Confederate suspicions about why Union horsemen were riding around on the Maryland side of the Potomac in the dead of night. The officers in command of Confederate units stationed at Sandy Hook made no report of encounters with Union cavalry. But the larger question remains: how could 1,600 Union horsemen ride unnoticed out of a town besieged by veteran Confederate troops?

In his report of the Maryland campaign, JEB Stuart provided a possible explanation. Stuart claimed he went to the headquarters of Major General Lafayette McLaws on September 13 and accompanied him to the Maryland Heights. "I explained to him the location of the roads in that vicinity," Stuart wrote, "familiar to myself from my connection with the John Brown Raid (Stuart had been among the U.S. Army officers sent to capture Brown and reclaim the arsenal), and repeatedly urged the importance of his holding with infantry the road leading from the Ferry by the Kennedy farm toward Sharpsburg."

In his 1866 memoirs, Major Johann August Heinrich Heros von Borke, a member of Stuart's staff, supported his commander and named General McLaws as the person responsible for allowing the cavalry breakout. "A strong regiment of cavalry," he wrote "numbering about 1,100 men, had made good its escape the previous night by a road along the river bank, very little known, which McLaws, against Stuart's urgent advice, had neglected to picket." Not surprisingly, McLaws' report of the Maryland campaign makes no mention of a conversation with Stuart on Maryland Heights.

Most of the Union horsemen were away before moonrise at 9:45 p.m. In spite of the rough terrain, they pushed their horses at a gallop through the darkness toward Sharpsburg, about 17 miles away. There, another brush with Confederate pickets again threatened to abort the mission.

After the long, hard ride, the horses needed water and the column needed to close up. The lead elements of the column arrived at Sharpsburg about 11 p.m., although various accounts record the hour anywhere from 10 p.m. to midnight, depending on the writer's position in the column. According to a speech given by William Luff of the 12th Illinois in 1887, "On nearing Sharpsburg, it was thought we were in the vicinity of McClellan's army, and orders were given to reply to any challenge that might be made." Luff remembers cavalry vedettes in the road south of town, probably near Antietam Furnace, but, when challenged, the reply "Friends to the Union," brought a volley of musket fire, fortunately "without effect."

Captain William Nichols of the 7th Rhode Island remembers Sharpsburg a bit differently. In his 1889 article, he recalled the column "halted a while in its quiet streets" and that when they were through the town and on the Hagerstown Turnpike, "suddenly a sheet of flame burnt before us, followed by the deadening report of many rifles … showing conclusively that the Rebels were in large force at that point."

Private Briscoe Goodhart, in his 1896 history of the Loudoun Rangers, remembers encountering the enemy "which we charged battalion front, and scattered them in the darkness" just after leaving Sharpsburg. Luff also includes a charge in his account, but it is down Sharpsburg's main street after a second encounter with Rebel pickets, probably dismounted cavalry from Colonel Thomas Munford's brigade.

However many Confederate outposts the Union riders encountered, when the troop left Sharpsburg, it was not by the Hagerstown Turnpike as reported by Captain Nichols and many others. Colonel Voss of the 12th Illinois, in his 1883 account of the escape, recalled only a few pickets on a route that took the riders close to the Potomac River. Voss remembered "a friendly chat which my guides had with some mill hands at work in a large flowering mill (sic)" as giving him new information on the whereabouts of Confederate encampments. This probably occurred in the vicinity of Dovenberger's Mill in Mercersville around 1:30 a.m. Voss now opted to leave the roads and, under a starlit sky, the column turned northward again through the rich cornfields and lush meadows of central Maryland.

But even at a walk, a ride now more than 20 miles long and through the dark became emotionally draining for the men and physically taxing on the horses. The first pink streaks of dawn were just breaking when the column emerged from a wood near the College of St. James, an Episcopal boy's school on the Williamsport Road. The headmaster was a staunch Union man and Voss knew the horses could be watered and rested there in relative security. Shortly after the troop moved out to the road again, with the 8th New York now in the lead, Grimes Davis heard the unmistakable rumble of wagon wheels approaching from the east. He decided that a target of opportunity might be coming down the road toward him and decided to set a trap.

There are many versions describing the ensuing capture of part of Major General James Longstreet's reserve ordnance train. The number of wagons reported captured varies from 40 to over 100 and the number of prisoners taken ranges from 50 to 500. Many writers also have erroneously located the interception as taking place on the Williamsport Turnpike. Nevertheless, by comparing information contained in various speeches and articles, it is possible to piece together a fairly accurate account of what happened at the intersection of the Williamsport Road and the Downsville Pike.

Lieutenant Francis Dawson was the officer in charge of Longstreet's reserve ordnance train and its cavalry escort that fateful night. The escort rode at the rear of the wagon train because it was believed that was the direction from which danger might approach. In his memoirs, Dawson recalled "I was forty or fifty yards ahead of the column when a voice from the roadside called out, 'Halt' … I quickly rode to the side of the road in the direction of the voice, and found myself at the entrance of a narrow lane, and there down it were horses and men in a line that stretched out far beyond my vision."

This was Dawson's first indication that something was amiss. Colonel Davis, his uniform obscured in the darkness and employing his deep Mississippi accent, had been halting the wagons as they came up to him and quietly ordering the unsuspecting teamsters to turn north into the Downsville Pike. With troopers from the 8th New York and 12th Illinois posted along the side of the road, each Confederate wagon soon had a blue horseman, pistol in hand, riding along beside it. When Dawson and his cavalry escort reached Davis at the intersection of the Williamsport Turnpike and the rough country lane built by farmer John Van Lear to shorten the distance he had to travel to get his grain to Kemp's Mill on the Greencastle Pike, they were forced to surrender and dismount. "I was placed under guard on the roadside," Dawson wrote, "and as the trains came up they were halted, and the men who were with them were quietly captured."

Colonel Davis then ordered Captain William Frisbie of D Company to take the captured train, numbering 97 wagons according to Lieutenant Luff, to the Greencastle Pike and "run it through to that place [Greencastle] at the rate of eight miles an hour." Some of the wagons were sabotaged by their drivers and had to be burned on the spot. The number of wagons reported destroyed varied from six to 45.

The road was wide and firm and the column easily covered the 12 miles to the Pennsylvania hamlet. There, the residents were surprised to be awakened about 8 a.m. by the rattle of cavalry sabers and the jangling of wagon traces. Nevertheless, they turned out enthusiastically and fed breakfast to the tired troopers whose 40-mile, 13-hour odyssey was finally at an end. But the competition for how posterity would remember the daring escape, and the source for much of the conflicting information that has bedeviled historians ever since, was just beginning.

The first telegram from Greencastle announcing the arrival of the cavalry column and the captured Confederate wagons was keyed by U.S. Military Telegraph Department operator William B. Wilson and addressed to Colonel Thomas Scott, an aide to Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin. "Sixteen hundred of our cavalry are coming into town," it read. "They cut their way through from the neighborhood of Harpers Ferry." Wilson sent a second telegram, probably for someone in the 8th New York, an hour later. It claimed the force of "1,300 strong" consisted of "12th Illinois under Col. Boss (sic) – Eight New York Col. Davis." This telegram made it seem that Colonel Davis was in charge of the operation and it was the first to mention the capture of Longstreet's ordnance train.

A third telegram was sent around the same time by Captain William Palmer, in the area training new recruits for the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, to Colonel John A. Wright, an aide to Governor Curtin in Chambersburg. This telegram was probably sent for Colonel Voss and put the number of captured wagons at 50. The fourth telegram, and the first to a military authority, went from Voss to Major General John Wool, commander of the Middle Military Department. It made clear that Colonel Voss was in command of the cavalry detachment and upped the number of captured wagons to 60 and added 675 prisoners. Wool forwarded this message to General Halleck in Washington.

The newspaper articles appearing in the days following the breakout continued the steady stream of conflicting information. But the name of Grimes Davis increasingly became linked with the planning and successful completion of the mission. Davis's reputation was inflated by laudatory newspaper accounts, especially in the September 18 edition of The New York Times that reported "All the cavalry, numbering 2,000, under the command of Col. Davis, cut their way out Saturday evening, going by the road to Sharpsburg, and capturing, on its way, Longstreet's train and more than a hundred prisoners." Over the years, many historians, including the fabled Bruce Catton, would credit Grimes Davis with leading the Union cavalry escape from Harpers Ferry.

Davis did not live to enjoy his newly acquired reputation for very long. He died a cavalryman's death in Virginia on July 9, 1863, opposing a Confederate countercharge near St. James Church during the battle of Brandy Station. He was buried in the cemetery at West Point. The fate of Colonel Arno Voss, the senior officer officially charged with commanding the cavalry detachment, was less heroic. He was relieved of command for incompetence in the field by Brigadier General John Buford in August 1863. He returned to Chicago and practiced law until he died in 1888.

The escape by Union cavalry from Harpers Ferry has always been overshadowed by the bloody battle of Antietam fought just two days later. No official report of the action was ever filed by any of the participants. It remains a curiosity of Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike as an example of how a historical event can morph into a public memory that is frequently at variance with the facts.

About the author:
A retired civil servant, Gordon Berg is past president of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia. His articles and book reviews appear in America's Civil War and Civil War Times.


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3 Responses to “Union Cavalry Escapes from Besieged Harpers Ferry”


  1. 1
    GeneT says:

    What about the role of Cole's cavalry in this event?

  2. 2
    Pete W says:

    Read Escape Across The Potomac. Cole's men were the first to leave the Ferry, followed by the other five organizations. They also had a 25 man advance under Lt. Hanson Green which rode ahead of the main cavalry column. Cole's men were on the southside of the Williamsport Turnpike near the Camp Meeting Woods when Longstreet's train was captured. I do presentations on the cavalry's escape from HF.

  3. 3
    Lydia says:

    Does anyone know how I can get in touch with the author Gordon Berg?



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