Waiting for picket duty… Loudoun Heights

Posted on January 9, 2014 by

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Today, I’m thinking about seven troopers from Co. B, of Major Henry Cole’s 1st Potomac Home Brigade (Maryland) Cavalry… James Draper Moore, Walter Scott Myers, John Newcomber, Isaiah Nicewander, Abraham L. Sossey, George W. Weaver, and David Hamilton Wolf. Six of these men were waiting to go on picket duty, on this day, 150 year ago… near the battalion camp on Loudoun Heights.

They had all enlisted in 1861. All were over 21 years of age… most were in their mid-20s. Then there were two… Newcomber and Sossey… who were 28 and 30, respectively. With the exception of Wolf (Berkeley County, Virginia) and Newcomber (Franklin Co., Pennsylvania), all had been born in Washington County, Maryland. By 1860, most made their homes in the Clear Spring area, west of Hagerstown. Also, with the exception of Newcomber (boatman, on the C&O Canal), Sossey (tinner), and Weaver (cooper), most were farm boys. Newcomber was the only one among them who was married and had a child.

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As these men sat and waited… it was cold… very cold; and they probably did whatever they could to keep warm. Their time on the picket line, tonight, was going to be harsh.

At Harper’s Ferry, Charles Moulton, a Provost Marshal Clerk with the 34th Massachusetts wrote, wrote of the weather, just a few days before:

We have had the first important fall of snow in these parts… The scenery in this vicinity presents a grand and sublime view at present from the Valley below, by grazing at the craggy sides of the lofty heights towering up on either side and with the silvery masses of ice and myriads of tiny icicles glittering in the sunshine. The rivers are filling with floating ice…

As a trooper from Cole’s Cavalry remembered (some seventeen years later), “The 9th of January was very cold and the night which followed intensely dark. The snow carpet which covered the camp was the only relief to the great black veil which seemed to be drawn over the face of all nature.” 

So, picket duty on one heck of a cold night. But… should they be concerned with anything other than the cold?

Keep in mind, these troopers weren’t wet behind the ears. Still, since establishing the camp on Loudoun Heights, Cole’s men had been nervous, but, by the 9th of January, those tensions may have eased a bit. Additionally, it was a late night picket… and in cold weather like this, who in their right minds would try something? Again, a trooper from Cole’s Cavalry remembered:

The single road leading past the camp toward the point… lead up the mountain side and at times was almost impassible… The camp was not established here without reluctance, for both officers and men recognized the perils which would surround it all through the weary winter. For a time the men were cautions and never undressed at night. Then arms were kept always within reach and ready for use, but the sense of danger, which all felt at first, wore off as the weeks went by and there was no attack, nor even an alarm. Both officers and men relapsed into a feeling of security, which made them more mindful of their own comfort than of the dangers with which they were surrounded. About the 1st of January there was a heavy snow fall, and the weather became intensely cold, inclining the men to stow themselves snugly away at night as though going to bed at home. I fear also that they were not very careful about their arms and ammunition.

As I post this, it’s just after 5 p.m. In all likelihood, the six troopers were getting ready to bed down before it was their turn to take the watch. Destiny and the picket line, on the Hillsborough Road, where Piney Run crossed… were waiting for them.

Upon the wintry mountain side, From succor far away, With hearts in peril often tried, Cole’s hardy veterans lay.

The winds swept cuttingly and fleet Across the frozen snow, The shivering sentry on his beat Walked briskly to and fro.

Their white tents rising from the ground The wind, with curious art, Had so embanked with snow around, They seemed of earth, a part.

The night closed down in bitter cold, And as its gloom grew deep, The soldier, in his blanket rolled, Sought rest and peace in sleep.

From war and elemental strife, Perchance his thoughts did roam Afar to sweetheart, child or wife, ‘Mid quiet scenes of home.

Perhaps he dreamed his toils were o’er, His armor laid from sight, The sun of peace ablaze once more, Had closed war’s dreadful night.

*Photos and videos at Harpers Ferry and Loudoun Heights taken earlier today.

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