White House Farm and the death of Capt. Summers

Posted on July 7, 2013 by

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Just the other day, I was driving in search of a location which has significance in relation to the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg. I found it, and then (being who I am) ventured… or strayed… along the old Charles Town Pike, toward Summit Point and Charles Town. I think my curiosity proved rewarding, as I came across a couple of significant sites… one of which was the White House Farm, at Summit Point, West Virginia.

I traveled back in that direction again this morning to capture some better photos… such as this one showing the oldest (ca. 1740) surviving barn in West Virginia…

WhiteHouseFarmSummitPt

That said, you will probably quickly notice the small obelisk that stands just in front of the barn, which actually relates the fact that something significant took place here.

If you aren’t familiar with the story behind these obelisks, I’ll give a little detail, as borrowed from the Jefferson County Historical Society website

In 1910 the Jefferson County Camp, United Confederate Veterans made plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War Between the States.  Ably led by Col. R. Preston Chew, the Camp set about to permanently mark locations throughout Jefferson County where skirmishes or battles took place during the Civil War.  Funds were raised by the Camp to place 25 concrete obelisks.  Each site would serve as a reminder to posterity of the sacrifices made by the men who fought there.

What happened at this particular site is detailed, to some degree, in the JCHS website, but I’d like to expand on that.

While this isn’t Sesqui-timed, at the very least… today is just three months to the day when the incident took place.

About now would be a good time to cue Harry Gilmor. Keep in mind, the date was October 7, 1863:

Major Harry Gilmore

Major Harry Gilmore

I camped in the woods on William Washington’s place, and, being determined not to go back without some game, sent scouts to watch the roads leading out of Charlestown. I had not slept more than two hours when I learned that twenty-five cavalry had gone up the road leading to Smithfield. The men were soon mounted, and, striking out across the country, we got into the road in rear of this squad, and followed on their trail to Smithfield. Soon after reaching the turnpike we met a man whom I knew to be a Unionist, but, expecting to capture the party ahead of me before they could reach Charlestown in my rear, I let him pass.

The force that Gilmor was pursuing was likely the 20-man cavalry scout that was sent out, earlier that morning, on the Berryville Road, by Col. Benjamin L. Simpson, of the 9th Maryland Infantry. When Gilmor reached “the hill immediately above Smithfield”, he and his column drew sabers and charged across the field, clearly expecting to find the enemy there… but they weren’t. By the time they reached Summit Point, Gilmor’s scouts had returned to report that the enemy had passed through there and were, by now, on the road back to Charles Town. Though Gilmor still made the effort to cut-off the Federals, he was unable to do so.

… putting twelve men under Captain Blackford as a rear guard, I started for Summit Point and camp.

Hearing that the scouting party had been cut-off, Simpson dispatched Captain George Dent Summers [who commanded a mounted company of the 2nd Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Infantry] “to their relief, with 43 men, his entire available force.” Inevitably, this set the stage for the scene that would unfold at White House Farm. Gilmor continued:

I had reached the “White House”, owned by Mr. [Joseph] Morrow, two miles from Summit Point; had halted to let the men dismount and get water from the large spring about fifty yards off, and was the only mounted man left in the road.

The restored spring house, at White House Farm.

The restored spring house, at White House Farm.

In the post-action report, Col. George D. Wells, 34th Massachusetts Infantry noted:

As Captain Summers was on his return from his scout, when near Summit Point… he was leading the advance when, at a bend of the road, he came upon a portion of the enemy drawn up in the road.

As we might expect, what followed was described by more than one person, and the two stories do not mesh on exact details.

Gilmore wrote:

I had ridden up to the yard fence, and was talking with the ladies, when I heard a voice exclaim, “Here they are, boys; by God, we’ve got them now!” At the same instant a bullet whistled through a lilac-bush between the ladies and myself. I wheeled round and saw the head of a cavalry column on the rocky hill above, and between me and Summit Point.

View of the front of White House Farm. Gilmor was sitting, mounted, in front of the yard fence, in 1863, from James E. Taylor's Sketch Book, courtesy of the current White House Farm website.

1863 view (not meant to represent the fight of October 7, 1863) of the front of White House Farm. Gilmor was sitting, mounted, in front of the yard fence seen in front of the house (though there appear to be no lilac bushes, as described by Gilmor). This image is from James E. Taylor’s Sketch Book, courtesy of the current White House Farm website.

Here was a perilous position. Seeing only the first section of fours, I knew not how many were behind them. I could not retreat, and therefore determined to make the best fight possible under the circumstances. I ordered ten of my men who had carbines to get behind the ruins of an old stone stable, and fight them to the last. Seeing my horses without their riders, the others thought we were apprized of their coming, and had prepared an ambuscade…

Though Col. Wells’ report states that, upon reaching the scene, Capt. Summers “instantly charged them”, Gilmor remembered that Summers was frustrated at his men, who appeared to prefer not to charge. Gilmor wrote:

… though Captain Somers [sic], whom I at once recognized, begged, implored, and cursed them, they would not charge, but stood still on the hill, popping away at us with their carbines.

One of my men – Ford, from Baltimore – came up with a rifle, and, putting his hand on my thigh, asked what he should do. I told him to get behind the stone wall, and take good aim every time he fired. ‘All right, major.’ Just as he spoke the word a ball pierced his head, killing him instantly.

At that moment Captain Somers, who I must say was a brave man, spurred his horse down the hill, and engaged me with his pistol, firing wildly, for I saw he was much excited.

This image of Summers' charge (from James E. Taylor's sketch book) isn't of the highest quality, but is the best that could be had from the marker in front of the White House Farm spring house.

This image of Summers’ charge (from James E. Taylor’s sketch book) isn’t of the highest quality, but is the best that could be had from the marker in front of the White House Farm spring house. The front door of the Morrow family’s “White House” can be seen in the background, to the right.

I reserved my fire till he came within twenty paces, steadied my horse with the bit, took a long, sure aim, and Somers fell from his horse. The ball entered the side of his nose, and came out at the back of his head.

At first, Gilmor’s account seems to collaborate that detailed in Col. Wells’ report. With the killing of their captain, the Federals began to scatter. Yet, Wells mentions nothing of the heroic cavalry encounter that followed… at least that which is described by Gilmor. Wells reported simply… “His men, deprived of their leader, scattered and fell back. They were not followed.” Gilmor, on the other hand, stated that he and his handful of men (less than a dozen had remounted by this time) pursued… Gilmor having been “obliged” to “jump my horse over his [Summers'] dead body.”

The front of the White House, as seen earlier today. If walls could talk... did the front of the house bear witness as "gallant" a scene as described by Gilmor, and as portrayed by Taylor in his sketch?

The front of the White House, as seen earlier today. If walls could talk… did the front of the house bear witness as “gallant” a scene as described by Gilmor, and as portrayed by Taylor in his sketch?

Gilmor continued, that he…

… dashed among the blue jackets, cutting and thrusting right and left, and parrying a blow when necessary. They were from Michigan and Maryland, and for a while fought well. Observing an officer fighting like a Turk, and cheering his men on, I made for him. He was a man of my own size, wore a very heavy beard, and looked, I thought, very savage…

I could continue, but did Gilmor remember correctly? After all, I’ve seen other instances in which his accounts appear questionable. Nonetheless, that, in short, summarizes the fight at White House Farm.

Oh, and I should probably mention one more thing… that Unionist [how could I not resist mentioning this again?] about whom Gilmor speaks… I wonder who he was. Whoever he was, Gilmor did add… “What a change it would have made in subsequent events had I taken him along with us”, implying, of course, that the Unionist had something to do with Capt. Summers showing-up at the White House Farm. Col. Wells, however, mentions no such informant.

The highway marker, at White House Farm.

The highway marker, at White House Farm.

My interest in the White House Farm is one thing, but… my curiosity in Capt. Summers came before stumbling, only days ago, on the site of his demise. I’ll devote more attention to Summers’ background in the post that follows.

*Note: a new marker for this action (which also has the number “13″ to denote which action to which this obelisk refers) is located about a mile to the west, near a train crossing. It’s strange that they did this considering 1) the original marker still stands at White House Farm, and 2) the new marker isn’t even near where any of this took place. At the very least… now you know. One other thing… did I mention White House Farm is for sale? For $1.2 million, it can be yours!

Update, 2/21/14: Interestingly, I recently realized that Capt. Summers has ancestry in the Moore family. We share an ancestor in my seventh grandfather, James “110″ Moore. The Moore and Summers families were close, both in Prince Georges County, Maryland, and then later in Washington County, Maryland. George Dent Summers was the son of Nathaniel, who was the son of Paul Summers, who was the son of George Summers, who was the son of John Summers and Mary Moore… Mary being a daughter of James “110″ Moore.

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