Boyd reaches Harrisonburg, while another command of Federal cavalry reaches Luray

Posted on December 23, 2013 by

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The date… is December 23, 1863… and quite a lot transpired since my last coverage of events which lead up to December 17, 1863.

Not only had the stalled Federal advanced picked-up, by the 23rd, there was another force of Union cavalry arriving at Luray, in Page County.

First things first, however…

Wells and Boyd had indeed made progress since December 17.

Between Cole’s Cavalry and the 1st New York, there are some great anecdotes in the sources I have at my disposal… but I’ll just include a few.

Area of operations for the "Fifteen Days Scout", from Charles Town and Harpers Ferry to Harrisonburg.

Area of operations for the “Fifteen Days Scout”, from Charles Town and Harpers Ferry to Harrisonburg.

First, when advancing on Mount Jackson, there is one involving Major Henry Cole. Newcomer wrote:

At Mount Jackson the Rebels saw the small number of men in the advance and made a stand; they had partially destroyed a small wooden bridge crossing a stream, and when Major Cole’s men charged down the hill the horses jumped over the chasm, which was fully eight feet wide. The most of us got over in safety; as the Major’s horse jumped the ditch he stumbled and threw the Major completely out of the saddle on the horse’s neck, and the horse kept going at full speed towards the enemy, he having lost all control over him. Private Charley Fosler, known as “Cole’s forager,” and called the “flying Dutchman” [a private in Co. A, Fosler was by profession a butcher, and had been born in France. He was wounded in the right arm, later on Dec. 19, at Harrisonburg], took in the situation at a glance , and galloping up to the side of Major Cole’s horse he grasped the bridle and succeeded in checking him.

Newcomer also remembered, that when they finally reached Harrisonburg, “Boyd destroyed a large amount of forage.” There were, however, those who took liberties outside their orders. Maryland trooper C. Armour Newcomer observed, for example, one Federal trooper coming down a street “with a large package on his back and apparently trying avoid me.” He continued…

I demanded him to halt. He dropped his bundle and made off; what was my astonishment to find he had thrown down a large full bolt of muslin, evidently a part of the booty taken from the store that the Pennsylvania Cavalry had looted. I dismounted, and whilst wondering what disposition I should make of the goods, two poorly clad women, with some half a dozen children clinging to their dresses, came to the door of one of the houses. A happy thought came to my mind that perhaps these poor people needed this muslin, and I determined to let them have it instead of turning it in to headquarters. I called the women to me and they told me their husbands were in Jackson’s Army. I gave them the bolt of muslin and advised that they should make it up into clothing for their children. They thanked me, and with tears in their eyes, saying, “God bless Cole’s Cavalry, if our husbands are in Jackson’s Army.” I have often wondered if these two Stonewall Jackson’s men lived to return to their families.”

Even though the Federal advance had improved, by December 21, Wells was worried. Though Boyd had reached Harrisonburg, he was aware of Thomas L. Rosser’s Confederate brigade which threatened the Federal route back toward Charles Town.

On December 21, Wells wrote…

Rosser

Thomas Lafayette Rosser

Rosser’s brigade is trying to cross the river to intercept us at Front Royal. Fitz Lee’s brigade of cavalry and Early’s division of infantry is close after us in the rear. I think we have a good start and can keep ahead. 

Even before Wells laid pen to paper, word had already reached Union cavalry, across the Blue Ridge, and plans were underway to come to Wells’ aid. 

On December 21, Col. Charles H. Smith, with a brigade of his own (2nd, 8th, and 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and the 1st Maine Cavalry), set out from Bealeton. By the following day, it was crossing Thornton Gap and descending the west face of the Blue Ridge, toward Luray. 

Charles H. Smith

Charles H. Smith

On the morning of the 23rd, the 2nd Pennsylvania led the way into Luray. Though they encountered a “small picket force”, it was “easily brushed away”. A slightly larger scrap against about thirty Confederates soon followed, resulting in minor losses. When he was able to set in for the evening, Smith learned, from a “reliable source” that Rosser had camped near the town two days before and had since taken the grade up the Page Valley, and moved toward Madison, “thus putting itself between my command and the Confederate army, with the advantage of forty-eight hours start.” Smith also took advantage of the opportunity of being in a town producing a good deal of leather for the Confederacy…

At Luray, examined the post office, jail, &c., and learned that some conscripts had been removed on the news of our approach. Also discovered a large three-story building (Peter B. Borst’s tannery) used as an extensive manufactory of Confederate bridles, saddles, artillery harness, &c., well filled with leather, buckles, rings, tools, and everything requisite for such an establishment, together with a large supply of articles ready manufactured. Adjacent to this building was an extensive tannery, with vats filled with stock, and store-houses full of leather and raw material, all of which were completely destroyed by fire or otherwise.

In addition to Borst’s tannery, the Federals had also destroyed Britton’s shops and broken up Gilmor’s camp equipage.

A pencil sketch of Luray, in the 1850s. The highest building, at the top of the hill on the right, is the Page County Court House, while the house to the far left of that is "Aventine", the home of Peter B. Borst.

A pencil sketch of Luray, in the 1850s. The highest building, at the top of the hill on the right, is the Page County Court House, while the house to the far left of that is “Aventine”, the home of Peter B. Borst.

As in the case of Newcomer at Harrisonburg, Smith’s men had encounters with civilians in Luray. Charles Gardner, of the 1st Maine, remembered finding “lots of ham and bacon and also a tobacco storehouse.” Though enough tobacco was obtained to last the entire winter, the meats were in short supply.

I stopped at a place where some of the boys were getting hams. They had taken all but two or three and a woman stood there crying. As I was about to take one of the hams, she took my arm and said to me “For God’s sake, sire, do not take all I have.” I asked her if this was all she had and she said it was the last and that she had no way of getting any more so I gave it up and persuaded the boys to leave the rest and she thanked us all.

Now feeling threatened himself, Smith decided to withdraw from Luray, back through Thornton Gap.

As if the Valley had served as some large chess board for the month of December, with Smith’s withdrawal from Luray, the game was near an end. While Smith’s men were keeping busy in Luray, Boyd’s men, having reached Strasburg, moved out the same morning in freshly fallen snow.

Beach, of the 1st New York, noted:

It snowed during the night [Dec. 22], and the next morning was very cold. The command started early, passed though Winchester and Berryville, and at 9 that night was in the camp at Charlestown, forty miles.

The “Fifteen Days Scout” had come to a close.

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