Not in the claims, and not in blue, but… some of the other Southern Unionists of Harpers Ferry

Posted on February 9, 2013 by


Though I often focus on the stories tucked-away in Southern Claims Commission applications, there were more Southern Unionists than those identified in the claims, or even in those who wore Union blue.

There are also those Unionists who appear merely as a name in passing, in between the pages of a couple of books that have a larger focus under the umbrella of the Civil War.

One such example is found in the story of Thomas “Tom” Noakes/Nokes/Noaks. Though a resident of neighboring Berkeley County (thanks to the 1860 census records, we know this), Noakes helped to pilot the cavalry out of Harpers Ferry, in September, 1862. I’ve mentioned Noakes in passing, before, with the 150th of the escape from Harpers Ferry, but, apart from his handful of “minutes of fame”, we know nothing more about his exploits as a “proactive” Southern Unionist. In addition to identifying him as a resident of Martinsburg, the 1860 census also lets us know him a little more… that he was a carpenter, and was married with five children. Thanks to the 1870 census, we also know that he survived the war, and was still a resident of Martinsburg.

Other examples found in the story of Harpers Ferry in the war include Jefferson County residents James Rice, James Stedman/Steadman, and George Rohr. All were documented as guides/scouts for Union troops. Still, details of their legacies as Southern Unionists, remains limited… well, except for Rohr.

Rohr was killed February 7, 1862, in an encounter between “two parties of hostile scouts”, at Harpers Ferry. I find that the February 14 issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch reveals some great details:

Sandy Hook, Md., Feb. 8.

–On Thursday night, about 1 o’clock, Major Tyndall’s pickets, stationed on the Maryland side of the Potomac, and along the village of Sandy Hook, were alarmed by a gunshot from the foot of Loudoun Heights, just below the embouchure of the Shenandoah, followed by female shrieks of murder and cries for help–Colonel Geary, who was at the Major’s quarters, immediately ordered a corps of riflemen to concentrate opposite the point whence the cries emanated, and fire continuously on the level of the road at the foot of the mountain, and on both sides of the house where the cries were heard. The order was obeyed, and when the morn broke it was learned that the house of the widow Stipes had been broken into and ransacked for salt, tea, and sugar, by a gang of eighteen or twenty men, supposed to belong to Captain [Robert W.] Baylor’s guerrillas; also, that the woman had been maltreated because a signal shot had been fired by her son.

About seven o’clock yesterday morning a flag of truce was displayed in a landing arch in the railroad wall, just above the recent Harper’s Ferry Bridge, where an angular flight of steps led from the town side of the stone embankment, under the railroad track to the river. The person waving the flag and calling for a boat to come over was the only one in sight, and he was “colored.” A boat, with the ferry man and a gentleman named George Rohr, (a loyal Virginian, whose property had been destroyed because of his Union sentiments,) went over to respond to the summons of humanity. As the boat neared the arch Rohr remarked to the ferryman, that the man with the flag of truce was not a negro, but a white man painted; nevertheless it was decided to land and see what was wanted. The boat was pushed stern foremost into the arch, Rohr being seated in the stern. By the dim light it was discovered that the stairway was thronged with men, and before the boat could be started forward a man, pronounced by the deceased to be Capt. Baylor, fired a musket, the ball taking effect in Rohr’s right thigh, passing through the leg, and coming out just above the knee. The wounded man, finding he had been entrapped, fired his musket into the recess, when a second ball struck him on the shoulder, and passing downward, came out below the right breast.

When it became known on this side that Rohr had been shot, our riflemen poured volley after volley into the landing arch, and such places as the enemy might conceal themselves. The battery on the Maryland heights opened on the houses in the rear, and the pickets in Sandy Hook discovered a squadron of cavalry and footmen pushing up the Shenandoah road in the direction of Charlestown. A squad of foot soldiers were also discovered on the Loudoun side of the Shenandoah, behind the abutment of the burned bridge, but beyond the range of our rifles.

More details about Rohr followed later in the same article:

It was subsequently ascertained that the bearers of the flag were Baylor’s men; that it was Baylor who fired the first shot at Rohr, and the flag man was disguised and painted as a negro to decoy our boat into the trap.

Some time ago Rohr was driven from Harper’s Ferry (where he owned a handsome property and was carrying on a flourishing carriage manufactory business) on account of his fidelity to the Union. His property was destroyed and confiscated, and he, after securing the retreat of his wife to this side, devoted his whole time to the Government in designating the Secessionists from the Union people who sought to cross into Maryland. He was highly esteemed and honored by all our officers. His widow, who is now destitute, is a Pennsylvania lady, and deserves the consideration of the Government and the Union people.

Maj. Tyndale

Maj. Tyndale

Rohr’s death immediately prompted a response from Col. John W. Geary (commanding, 28th Pa. Inf.), who sent Maj. Hector Tyndale with a detachment to Harpers Ferry to destroy the buildings in which Baylor’s men so frequently concealed themselves.

The buildings which had concealed the party of murders from view, and sheltered them from the riflemen, had long been the rendezvous, day and night, of the enemy’s scouting parties, who were thus enabled to approach unseen and fire upon our pickets. Their destruction had heretofore been contemplated, but desisted from out of consideration of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, who had a considerable interest therein. Col. Geary, however, ordered their immediate destruction by fire, and failing to ignite by shells, Major Tyndall detached Lieut. Greenwalt, of company “F” of the 28th Pennsylvania regiment, with ten men, to proceed to the other side and set fire to them, which they speedily accomplished, bringing back several trophies dropped in hasty retreat by the murdering party, among which was a splendid Minnie musket, loaded, but not capped.

The houses fired were the Wager, Galt and Railroad Hotels, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot, the Winchester Railroad depot, Welch’s store, the telegraph office, and the dwelling- houses of Mrs Wager, Mrs. Darin, Mrs. Ellen Chambers, George Chambers, and Wm. J. Stevens, none of which were occupied.

The destruction of the block now gives our pickets and battery men a view of the Shenandoah road from Charlestown, and will enable our men to protect the village in daylight from any clandestine occupancy by the [ eneemy’s ] forces, as well as give them a warm reception if they should attempt to advance in force by their favorite and hitherto protected route. The conflagration was magnificent, the volume of smoke and flame almost concealing the surrounding mountain heights, and enveloping the doomed town. Occasionally a concealed shell or gun would explode in the burning buildings, and give a temporary relief to our cannoneers and riflemen by a hope that they were the guns of an approaching enemy.

The once populous town of Harper’s Ferry now contains but seven families — all good Unionists–numbering perhaps forty souls, all told. During the shelling, these, as has long been customary, hung out white flags, and their domiciles were accordingly respected by our cannoneers.

When your correspondent ascended the Maryland Heights, in the afternoon, none of the rebels were visible except a squad of cavalry stretched across the road at a small woods behind Bolivar, nor were more than a dozen citizens seen in the three villages of Harper’s Ferry, Camptown and Bolivar for several hours. Squads of the enemy’s cavalry were occasionally seen on the read near Charlestown, but their numbers did, not indicate any important movement.

At five o’clock P. M. three of the enemy’s cavalry came down the Charlestown road, and, dismounting, entered the ferry. A few moments later one made his appearance with a flag of truce on a platform car, standing directly over the landing arch, where his associates had committed the murder in the morning by the use of an emblem hold sacred in war, even by the most barbarous and debased nations of the earth. Immediately two hundred cocked Enfield rifles covered his form, and two twelve-pounders, loaded with Scriber’s patent cartridges, (railroad spikes and iron slugs,) were trained to bear upon the same spot. The men were almost insane to revenge the death of their late comrade, but were prevented by a gesture from Col. Geary. The bearer of the flag come from Charlestown, and was sent to request that the body of young Carlisle, a deceased volunteer in the disunion ranks from Maryland, might be sent over for interment to-day. The Colonel responded that Maryland soil was no fit resting place for the bodies of traitors, and as the flag of truce had been violated in the morning, that game could not be played on him twice in one day. The flag responded that the act of the morning was unauthorized, and would be punished. Col. Geary responded that the first shot was fired by the officer in command, and that he had no confidence in any such assertions. “I will give you five minutes.” said the Colonel, “to get beyond the reach of my guns. I have no more to say.” The bearer of the flag and his companions were suddenly on the Charlestown road, and promptly at the expiration of the five minutes, one of the 12 pounders discharged its iron messengers in the line of their retreat.

Most of the buildings destroyed by Maj. Tyndale were at "the Point", where this photo was taken. The Rohr boat incident took place just to the left of this image, on the Potomac River.

Most of the buildings destroyed by Maj. Tyndale were at “the Point”, where this photo was taken. The Rohr boat incident took place just to the left of this image, on the Potomac River.

A search of the 1860 census reveals that Maryland-born Rohr was indeed a carriage maker, and would have been around the age of 32 at the time. His younger brother, John, was listed as George’s neighbor, and was employed as a wagon maker, also in Harpers Ferry. Another source I happened upon states that the brothers’ business got underway in 1857, and actually on Virginius Island, “to manufacture and repair wagons, carriages, rockaways, buggies, and farm implements.”

The Rohr Brothers, in the 1860 census for Harpers Ferry.

The Rohr Brothers, in the 1860 census for Harpers Ferry.

Advertisement for the Rohr Brothers' business, as it appeared in the Virginia Free Press, June, 1858.

Advertisement for the Rohr Brothers’ business, as it appeared in the Virginia Free Press, June, 1858.

Incidentally, the story about Baylor and Rohr is a bit more complex, with an interesting postscript.

R.W. Baylor

R.W. Baylor

Essentially, Robert Baylor, after having been captured at a later point, was arraigned, on June 4, 1862, before a general court-martial, at Harper’s Ferry, on charges of 1) Violating a flag of truce, and 2) Murder.

The specifications of these charges set forth that on the 7th day of February, 1862, the prisoners exhibited or caused to be exhibited on the south side of the Potomac River, at Harper’s Ferry, a flag of truce and thereby induced one George Rohr, a loyal citizen of the United States, in the military service thereof and in charge of a flag-of-truce boat, to proceed across the river toward such flag, and that when said boat had arrived at or near to the place at which said flag or signal was exhibited it was fired into by the said Baylor or by his command, and the said Rohr was fired at and wounds inflicted on him of which he died on said 7th of February, 1862. (source)

Even so…

The court continued its proceedings in the trial from day to day until June 12, 1862, when all the testimony in support of the charge had been submitted and several witnesses had been heard for the defense, when the court adjourned to meet on the next day, June 13, 1862, but in consequence of the advantage of the rebel army never reassembled to conclude the trial of this case. It is recommended that Brigadier General B. F. Kelly, by whose order this court was appointed, be directed to reconvene it for the purpose of concluding its proceedings in this case.(source)

Robert Baylor’s son, George, argued that the charges were unfounded…

And, although the evidence showed conclusively that there was no flag waved from the south side of the river, the boat in charge of Rohr was no truce boat, the men in it thoroughly armed, and my father at the time in Charlestown, eight miles distant, the court found a verdict of guilty; but its finding was immediately set aside by General B. F. Kelley, commanding the department, and his action approved by Secretary of War Stanton, and the prisoner ordered held for exchange.

The flag of truce on the south side of the stream was Uncle John Sorrell, a servant of my father’s, shouting across the river to the Yankees to come over and get him, that he wanted to get over, and the crew of the boat were pirates and robbers, fully armed, crossing the river for the purpose of aiding and helping Uncle John to escape. But Uncle John was true to his colors, and having accomplished his ruse de guerre, made tracks for Charlestown and left his quondam friends to the mercy of a picket detail of my father’s company stationed under the trestling of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad at this point. (source)

Rohr was not buried locally, but was taken to Frederick, and laid to rest in the Trinity Cemetery.

As for Rice… not only was he mentioned in other sources as being present with Rohr (though Rice jumped into the river, using the skiff as cover until he reached the Maryland side) he was documented in yet another event, later that month, on the night of February 22, along with James Steadman. As part of the forward element of Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, Rice and Steadman, along with some men of the 28th Pennsylvania, attempted to cross the Potomac from the base of Maryland Heights to Harpers Ferry…

The night was stormy, blowing a gale down the river through the gorges of the Blue Ridge. Stedman, Rice and five soldiers of the 28th Pennsylvania regiment were in one skiff, when, through the severity of the gale or mismanagement, the boat was upset and all were cast into the icy waters. Rice escaped by swimming to one of the buttresses of the bridge, but Stedman and the five soldiers were drowned and their bodies were never recovered (source).

While I know (thanks again to the 1860 census) that Steadman was a blacksmith in Halltown, I don’t have any great details about Rice, his occupation, or residence in the county. Fortunately, the same accounts that mention him in this event of February 22, show that he survived the war, later found employment as a railroad engineer, but met his death when, at some point, he “fell from his engine and as cut to pieces by it.”

So, there you have it… four Southern Unionists of Harpers Ferry fame, not found in the claims, or wearing Union blue.