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Things weren’t shaping up for a joyful Fourth of July in 1864, at least for the Union war effort. The presidential election loomed four months in the future and Lincoln’s reelection appeared to be very much in doubt, and Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate force was nearing the Potomac River, poised for a third Confederate incursion into Maryland. Dark times seemed to be on the North’s horizon.

Lieutenant Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers had already provided many dark times for the Union soldiers guarding Northern Virginia and the approaches to Washington, D.C., since they dashed onto the scene in early 1863. Throughout his 27 months of operating in the area, Mosby clung to the belief that his success should not be measured “by the number of prisoners and material of war from the enemy, but by the heavy detail it has already compelled him to make.” In other words, by diverting thousands of troops to guard against his escapades. In order to continue increasing the “heavy detail” of the enemy’s forces, and force the Union to move around troops, Mosby often picked soft targets—lightly defended camps and outposts—to aid the Confederate cause.

A sketch of Federal soldiers working on the B&O Railroad at Point of Rocks, Md. A canal boat, such as Flying Cloud, heads upriver toward Harpers Ferry, Lock 28 and Paton Island are just out of sight, around the bend. The ruined bridge over the Potomac River can be seen at left. (Courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society)

In this regard, Mosby hoped to aid Early’s northern thrust. On July 2, 1864, as Early neared Harpers Ferry, Mosby and Sergeant Fount Beattie, one of Mosby’s oldest comrades, learned from a member of Early’s staff about the general’s progress and his intentions to threaten Washington, D.C. Immediately, Mosby settled on Point of Rocks along the Potomac River as his target. By striking north of the river, the partisan commander believed he could disrupt Union supply routes, divert Federal reinforcements moving against Early’s column, and cause fear and confusion among the local Union commanders.

By noon on July 3, 250 Rangers had left the comfort of their safehouses to assemble at Upperville, Va., for the raid. The command brought a 12-pounder Napoleon cannon with them. Rumors had coursed through the ranks that the Rangers might cross the Potomac, and despite being on the warpath, Mosby’s Rangers marched in a jolly mood. They prepared to “picnic” on the Fourth of July from captured enemy food and supplies. Each of the men joining the raid fixed a “large sack” to their saddles to fill with captured enemy goods. Once formed, the command departed Upperville and marched toward the river.

Sergeant Fount Beattie (HN Archives)Deception and secrecy were keys to the Rangers’ operations. They traveled along the backroads of Loudoun County to avoid detection. If they encountered civilians, Mosby ordered the men to say that they were scouts in advance of Lt. Gen.  James Longstreet’s Corps, which would soon be in the Loudoun Valley following in their footsteps. Mosby sought to sow as much uncertainty among the Federal high command as possible.

By the late morning of July 4, Mosby’s men reined up their horses on the south bank of the Potomac River opposite Berlin, Md. (modern-day Brunswick). Then a turn to the right sent them downriver toward their objective: Point of Rocks. When within a few miles of the town, Mosby halted his command and went forward to reconnoiter the Federal positions.

From his perch on the Potomac’s south shore, Mosby could easily see infrastructure features that made Point of Rocks important to regional Federal operations. Both the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal passed through the town and continued 12 miles west to Harpers Ferry. Through his binoculars, Mosby spied the enemy defenses—an earthen fort overlooking the depot. The town’s garrison included 250 men from the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade and the Loudoun Rangers. Whether or not Mosby knew of the Loudoun Rangers’ presence in the town at this point is uncertain. If he did, he no doubt let his own men know of it, for they held a deep disdain for the “renegade Loudouners.”

Satisfied with the information he had, Mosby rode back to his command to prepare them for action. The Rangers jumped into their saddles and continued down the Potomac River’s Virginia shore. They stopped at a ford off the western end of Paton’s Island, a strip of land that bisected the river channel about one mile upstream, or west, from Point of Rocks. Mosby ordered his gun unlimbered and dispatched Company D to remain behind with it. While the gun crew wheeled their weapon into position, about two dozen Rangers dismounted and headed to the ford. Armed with carbines, they soon engaged the Federal pickets on the island itself. Simultaneously, the Napoleon opened fire. The combined pressure scattered the Union skirmishers off Paton’s Island and onto the towpath of the C&O Canal, scrambling downstream for the safety of the fort at Point of Rocks. (The Rangers subsequently dubbed their gun “Potomac.”)

Mosby sits at the center of a group of his Rangers, mostly young men recruited from the shaded area in the map below. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

With the crossing open, Mosby’s other three companies plunged into the river and onto Maryland soil. They charged unopposed down the towpath on the heels of their prey. Along the canal, the Confederate partisans encountered the canal boat Flying Cloud carrying a host of Treasury Department clerks on a pleasure cruise to Harpers Ferry. They were on their return trip when Mosby’s men caught them. The boat provided a target for the cannon across the river but three successive shots missed. The Flying Cloud floated into Lock 28, where panic seized the clerks as their boat stopped in the lock. Many fled for safety. Quickly, the Confederates scavenged the boat and took bottles of liquor, cigars, and other treats the clerks packed for their trip before they torched the Flying Cloud.

Tasting success, the Rangers continued their charge down the towpath to Point of Rocks itself. The Union withdrawal into the Point of Rocks fortifications was just as hasty, though some brave members of the garrison kept their heads on square enough to remove the planking from the bridge that spanned the canal bed. When Mosby’s command reached the empty span, they became bogged down under enemy fire with nowhere to go.

The Rangers saw a nearby wooden building, the provost marshal’s office, as a solution to their problem, and they began tearing it down. Bullets zipped through the air as a few Rangers struggled to repair the bridge’s flooring. Seeking to inspire his men, Lt. Harry Hatcher, whom Mosby affectionately called “the bravest of the brave,” tightroped his way across the remaining bridge timbers and into the abandoned Union camp. Still under a hot fire from the Federal fortifications, Hatcher grabbed an American flag left behind in the camp. Seeing his example, Captain Dolly Richards ordered his men to dismount and force a crossing in Hatcher-like style.

Only a trickle of Rangers made it across the span before it was ultimately repaired. Then, the remaining horsemen dashed across the bridge and into the Federal encampment and fort. This impetuous charge drove the Union garrison away from Point of Rocks. The bark of the “Potomac” across the river ended the brief action when it targeted a train chugging down the tracks of the B&O Railroad from Harpers Ferry to Point of Rocks. The engineer quickly got the message and steamed back to safety.

Mosby’s men, flushed with victory in which the command suffered no casualties, leapt from their mounts and into the Point of Rocks stores. They grabbed anything they could find, including clothing—men’s and women’s—and candy. John Dutton, a Virginia Unionist who operated a store in Point of Rocks, lost approximately $7,000 worth of stock. Mosby’s men cleaned out Sam Gover’s store—the third such time that happened to Gover since the commencement of the war.

John Scott, an early postwar chronicler of Mosby’s Rangers, wrote of the sight of Mosby’s men after they recrossed the Potomac River into Virginia. They were “bedecked in a very grotesque and original manner with their captured goods. As they passed along the road, some arrayed in crinoline, some wearing bonnets, and all disguised with some incongruous and fantastic article of apparel, they looked like a company of masqueraders.” Ranger John Alexander, who sulked with candy, his only booty of the raid, thought the joyous column “looked for all the world like a parade of Fantastics.” He could not help but wonder “how far the captured groceries, of the wet variety, contributed to the grotesque appearance” of his comrades. Mosby’s Rangers forever after remembered the July 4, 1864, raid on Point of Rocks as the Great Calico Raid because of the cloth and clothing they took.

One of the Rangers’ greatest discoveries was a masterpiece of culinary creations. The story could not be told better than from the words of Ranger John Marshall Crawford.

“Passing through the burning camps, the boys, after collecting what relics they wanted, pushed on back to town. Such an exciting and laughable scene few have ever witnessed or enjoyed. They had secured a huge pound-cake, which had been prepared by some ladies, who were to give the officers of the garrison an entertainment that evening.

The history of the cake is as follows: The officers of the garrison had signified to some of their lady friends their desire and intention of celebrating the Fourth of July in a becoming manner, so their lady friends went to work and prepared a monster cake for the occasion. This cake was moulded in the form of a spread eagle, the mould being made in Boston, and measured twenty-five feet from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail. It was a complete eagle in all its parts. It had glass eyes, talons, &c., &c., and in the baking of it, which occupied three days and nights, it was burnt (intentionally I presume), so that it looked like a real eagle. But the most remarkable thing about it was, that inside of it there was some machinery that every time one of the boys thrust his sabre into the eagle to cut off a piece, the bird would scream. What their idea was in inserting this instrument into this spreadeagle cake, I have never been able to learn or conceive. I inquired diligently of the residents of the place, but they would give us no satisfaction. Colonel Mosby would have brought it across the river, and sent it to Richmond; but the enemy had destroyed all the boats, so the boys concluded to take it to pieces; which, being done, it was with great difficulty got across the river in the evening by means of a raft. A six-horse team belonging to Mr. S. was pressed into service, the cake put into it, and started for Fauquier County. A guard of five men accompanied the wagon.

While in camp on Goose Creek, the second night they were out, the guard got drunk on ‘blockade,’ and all of them lay down and went to sleep. The driver being a strong Union man, and having conceived the idea he would be made a hero, if he could save what was left of the great American bird, availed himself of the opportunity, and drove his load in the night to a Mr. _____’s farm, in Loudoun County, situated on Goose Creek. Securing four of Mr. _____’s most reliable colored servants, he secreted his precious load in one of those safe places which abound on that stream, and which are known only by those patriotic and loyal colored men, and started back with his team. Sunrise next morning, found him in the bosom of his family, on the banks of the classic Potomac. This Union driver kept the part he had played a profound secret, until General _____, occupied the valley, when he divulged his secret to him. On General _____’s retreat from Washington, a portion of his wagon-train and eight hundred prisoners crossed the Blue Ridge mountains at Ashby’s Gap. This portion of his army was pursued by General Durfea [Duffié], with two thousand five hundred cavalry. After occupying the Gap three days, [Duffié] fell back to Snickersville, where General Wright was encamped with a division of the Union army. On their march to Wright, they passed by Mr. _____’s house, and found these colored Union citizens, who conducted them to the spot where the treasure was hid, and carried it off with them. But the fates seemed opposed to having the remnants of the bird ever reaching the shores of Maryland again. Notwithstanding its long captivity, it retained signs of life still; and as it approached the soil on which the stars and stripes had never ceased to wave, these symptoms of vitality increased. An escort was sent with it; while crossing the Shenandoah River at Rock Ford, the wagon upset, and the load was precipitated into the river. By an eye-witness of the scene, I was told that it was beyond description. Suffice it to say, the greatest confusion prevailed. Every one wanted his own plan adopted to save the bird, and before any one that the men suggested could be adopted, to their utmost dismay and horror the bird gave one shriek, and then sunk; to rise no more. I never learned whether or not it was recovered; the presumption is that it was not.”

Aside from this absurd but impressive cake and the captured supplies that Mosby’s men netted during their July 4 raid, the attack against Point of Rocks did have implications for Early’s campaign into Maryland. As Mosby struck Point of Rocks, Early’s command approached Harpers Ferry. Before Mosby’s men cut the telegraph wires in Point of Rocks, the operator there reported the enemy “in force.” This dire news reached army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck in Washington. Wild rumors and inflated accounts of the size of the Confederate force moving north spread quickly. Halleck gathered 2,800 dismounted cavalrymen from Washington’s defenses and ordered them “to force [their] way to Harper’s Ferry.” That very same day, Halleck requested reinforcements for the Washington defenses from Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Not all of this was Mosby’s doing. But the cavalryman, who used fear as his ally, heightened the sense of dread percolating in Washington by the news of Early’s northward column. The Great Calico Raid serves as a perfect example of what Mosby’s partisan command did well during the Civil War: disrupt enemy communications, divert troops from threatened sectors, achieve a quick victory, and have a great story to go along with all of it.

Kevin Pawlak is a historic site manager for Prince William County’s Historic Preservation Division and an Antietam Battlefield Guide. He is the author or co-author of three books, including To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862.