Chapter XLVII - Lew Wallace Takes Romney

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 2 County History
Pages 554-562

The first union troops to occupy Romney were under General Lew Wallace, June 11, 1861. Prior to that time the Hampshire militia and several confederate companies had occupied the town, sometimes in strong force, and sometimes not. There were too few confederates in Romney when Wallace come, to offer much resistance, and no attempt was made to hold the place. A few men with rifles posted themselves on the bluff overlooking the South branch bridge, and fired as the federals advanced; but ran as soon as a few shots had been exchanged. The confederates who were in the town retreated, and nearly all the citizens went with them. It was the first view of the blue coats the people of Romney had, and they did not know whether they could safely remain, or whether they would be safer somewhere else. General Wallace, as is generally known, was author of Ben Hur and other famous works. If all soldiers were as gentlemanly as he, and as considerate of others, war would lose many of its horrors. It is appropriate in this connection to quote from the journal of George W. Washington under date of June 12, 1861. He says:

"I rode up to the upper end of the place, and on my return met Everett who informed me that the federal troops were in Romney. I rode on to Romney to see what was going on. Before I got there they left. I was told that the officers were gentlemen and that they informed the citizens they would be perfectly secure under this protection that they had come to the county by invitation, and that no unarmed person would be disturbed. The inhabitants had generally left before I got there. The brave soldiery of the county! The last heard of them they were fleeing toward Harper's Ferry."

It was during this occupation by the federals that the printing material of the South Branch Intelligencer was destroyed. There was not so much as a piece of type left. The paper had been strong in its support of secession.

Richard Ashby Killed. — On June 26, 1861, Richard Ashby, brother of General Turner Ashby, was mortally wounded by a bayonet thrust through the body, in an encounter on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad near the mouth of Dan's run, in what was then Hampshire county, but is now Mineral. A body of confederates from Winchester had reached Romney on June 17. The two Ashby brothers were of the number. A few days later the Ashby cavalry was sent to Patterson's creek, and was in that region until June 26. On that day Richard Ashby, Garrett Monroe and seven others encountered a large force of federals at the mouth of Dan's run. In attempting to ride across a cattle stop on the railroad, Ashby's horse fell, and the rider was thrown. He was attacked, wounded in seven places, and left for dead on the railroad. His companions escaped. After the federals had passed on, the wounded officer rallied and was able to walk to the side of the railroad where he concealed himself under bushes and lay there till evening. In the meantime his brother Colonel, afterwards General, Turner Ashby was scouting with a larger party along the railroad, and learned from the citizens that heavy firing had been heard that morning from the direction in which his brother had gone, and the colonel hastened to ascertain the fate of his brother. In a short time he discovered a camp of federal soldiers on Kelley's island in the Potomac river, and charged the camp, losing three men, but succeeding in dislodging the federals. Among the spoils of the capture was Richard Ashby's horse, and from this it was concluded the rider had been killed. Search for him was made, and he was found near where he had been wounded. He was carried to the house of Mr. Cheshire one-half mile from Springfield, where he received every attention. There was no hope for his recovery, and on July 4, 1861, he died. He was buried in Indian Mound cemetery, Romney. Romantic writers, with more regard for sensationalism than for truth, have conveyed erroneous ideas of the death and burial of Richard Ashby; and it is the duty of the historian to correct these so far as he can. It has been represented that a dramatic scene took place by the open grave when General Ashby broke his brother's sword, threw the pieces in the grave, and registered a solemn vow to be avenged upon the murderers of his brother. Nothing of the kind occurred. The funeral was solemn and impressive, and General Ashby enacted no theatrical part. He knew that his brother had fallen in open battle; that it was the fortune of war, and that his fate was that which every soldier might expect. The body of Richard Ashby was removed to Winchester, Virginia, in October 1862, and was buried beside his brother, General Ashby. At the same time and in the same cemetery was buried the body of Captain George Sheetz. Richard and Turner Ashby were grandsons of Captain John Ashby who did service in Hampshire during the French and Indian war of 1755, and who was a personal friend of youthful George Washington.

Colonel Cain's Visit. — Colonel Cain of the federal army, paid Romney a visit on July 22, 1861. After Lew Wallace withdrew his troops, June 12, there had been no federals in the vicinity to dispute the possession of Romney by the confederates. In the latter part of July, however, there were no confederate forces in Romney, except a few straglers. On the twenty-second of that month, it being Monday, and a court day, a few persons were standing around, the court house, when a federal soldier rode up with a white flag and asked for David Gibson, who came forward and was handed a letter by the soldier. He read it and announced that it was from Colonel Cain, who wanted an interview with him. The news spread that the yankees were coming, and the people fled, and the federal soldiers were not opposed when they came in. No one now remembers what was the business which Colonel Cain talked over with Mr. Gibson. On that date, July 22, 1861, George W. Washington wrote in his journal: "Monday, court day. I doubt, however, whether there will be any court, as I understand everybody has run away from the town and county, nearly, * * * * I rode to Romney. As I expected, no court. Before I left there was quite a stir among what few people were there, from Mr. Gibson's having received a letter from Colonel Cain of the federal army, requesting an interview with him. The few that were left all made their escape."

Fight at Hanging Rocks. — A skirmish took place at Hanging Rocks, four miles below Romney, on Tuesday morning, September 24, 1861, between Hampshire militia and several companies of union troops under Colonel Cantwell of the eighty-second Ohio regiment. The militia was under Colonel McDonald. Captain Robinson and Lieutenant John Blue were also in the company. There were only twenty-seven men on the confederate side, but in addition to these, a large scouting party had been sent down the river. Rumors of the approach of the federals had been circulating for some time, arid McDonald kept a sharp lookout. On the evening of September 23 he had received information which led him to believe that the federals would attempt to pass Hanging Rocks early the next morning. With his twenty-six men he climbed to the top of the rocks a while before day on the morning of September 23. The air being cool, some of the men built a lire, which was indiscreet, for they might thus have betrayed their presence. But the fog was dense and the fire was not discovered by the enemy.

The Hanging Rocks rise perpendicularly more than two hundred feet, the top overhanging the base in several places. The South branch flows along the base of the cliff about half a mile, leaving a space between the water and the rocks varying in width from forty to one hundred feet. The road leading from Romney to Cumberland passes along the narrow strip of level land between the river and the base of the cliff. Since the war a railroad bas been built there also; but at the time of the skirmish only the Romney and Cumberland pike occupied the narrow space. Troops marching to Romney from the north, would naturally follow that road; and Colonel McDonald took advantage of the strong position to check the advance. Stones were piled near the brink of the precipice by the men who had taken possession of the summit, and they prepared to hurl them upon the federals who might attempt to pass below. Everything was in readiness by the break of day. As already stated, Colonel McDonald had sent a scouting party down the river the night before. The party was liable to return at any time, and the men on the cliff had been instructed to make no mistake by attacking their own scouts. Soon after daybreak cavalry was heard crossing the ford of the river at the north end of the pass; and presently the head of the column appeared, following the road up the river along the base of the cliff. The confederates on the rocks were lying flat, with their heads and shoulders over the brink, peering down through the fog, trying to determine whether the men below were enemies, or only the looked-for scouts who had been sent down the river. The federals were suspicions of the place, were expecting an attack, and consequently were on a sharp lookout. They saw the heads of the rebels projecting over the cliff, and instantly fired on them. That brought a furious attack from the militia above. Down came a rain of stones sufficient to have crushed an army. The yankee cavalry saved itself by wheeling and rushing back down the road. But in so doing the horsemen rode over the infantry in the rear. Many rushed into the river to save themselves. Those who could swim got safely over; but many were drowned. The bodies of a dozen or more afterwards were taken from the river and buried in the sand on the west bank. During the high water on the following Saturday, September 28, other bodies were washed down the river and were taken out and buried. For years afterwards, at the place where the soldiers were drowned, muskets were occasionally entangled in the lines of fishermen and were drawn up.

The federals recrossed the river at the ford a short distance below and there halted. At that moment Garrett I. Blue, who lived just below there, father of Lieutenant John Blue, rode up the pike. As it happened, there had been a confederate camp a few days before at the ford, and Mr. Blue mistook the federals for confederates, and rode across the river to them. Seeing all in readiness for moving, he remarked: "Well, you are about to go, I see." He did not even then discover his mistake, nor did he when a yankee remarked: "That is a very nice rifle you are carrying. Let me see it." Mr. Blue handed it to the soldier, who examined it and asked: "Do you think you could hit a yankee with it?" "I think I could," was the reply. "Well," answered the soldier, "You might be so foolish as to do it, and I will take charge of your gun and you too. We are yankees." Mr. Blue submitted with the best grace he could. In a few minutes after, Garrett W. Blue rode up to the opposite side of the river. He was making off when they halted him. He refused to stop and was fired upon. His horse threw him and he was taken prisoner. Colonel Frazier, a union officer who was present, and who was acquainted with both prisoners, interceded for them and they were set at liberty.

After the check to the union forces at Hanging Rocks there was great excitement in Romney, where Colonel McDonald had about seven hundred militia. It was discovered that the federals had not retreated toward Cumberland, but had taken the road to Mechanicsburg, five miles southwest, and were preparing to advance on Romney through Mill creek gap, three miles southwest of the town — where Mill creek cuts through the mountain to reach the South branch. The confederates had two old cannon, and with these fired a few shells as the federals attempted to pass down the gap. The only damage done, so far as ascertained, was the sending of a shell through a house which stood in range. The house still stands as a witness of the fact. Colonel McDonald had doubts as to his ability to hold the town, and he removed the greater part of his stores, and in the evening withdrew nearly all his troops to Frenchburg, on the Winchester pike, six miles east of Romney, leaving a strong picket at Mill creek gap to oppose the advance of the federals. The pass is long and narrow, easily defended by a small force against an army. Later in the war a company of seventy confederates posted there, held Averell's army in check several hours. McDonald believed that his picket could hold the pass so long as there was no attack in the rear. But there was danger of that. The federals might force their way through the gap at Hanging Rocks, where they had been repulsed in the morning; and by crossing the hills, cut off the retreat of the confederates toward Winchester.

During the whole afternoon of September 24, McDonald's men held the pass at Mill creek. A force of Hampshire militia under Lieutenant John Blue was in Romney. During the night of September 24 the picket at the gap was on the alert. But just after daybreak on September 25, a blunder and a false alarm lost the pass to the confederates. A picket had been stationed in the woods, on the hillside to look out for federal flanking parties. In the early morning, when the fog was dense, the picket discerned a large log which, in the semi-darkness, he mistook for a line of yankee soldiers drawn up among the bushes. He gave the alarm, and there was great confusion and excitement until it was ascertained that the alarm was false. But one blunder had scarcely been corrected before a more serious one was committed. A report came that Colonel Cantwell had forced the pass at Hanging Rocks and was getting in the rear of Romney. It was a false report, but it was acted upon by the confederates as though true. They retreated toward Winchester, abandoning the pass which they had held all night. The federals came through, and in a short time were in possession of Romney.

That was early in the morning. McDonald's troops were nearly all at French burg, six miles east. Those who had held the gap hastened up the pike to join the main body. Lieutenant John Blue, with a few militiamen, was in Romney. As the retreating rebels ran through town, shouting that the yankees were coming, Lieutenant Blue and his few men took to the hills, barely escaping the enemy. Colonel Cantwell sent a cannon about half a mile up the Winchester road and fired a few times at the militia on the hill. The fire was returned, and one of the federals was wounded.

By this time the fog had cleared away. While the yankee cannon was wasting ammunition in a fruitless endeavor to drive the militia from the hill, a cloud of dust was observed where the pike passes down Jersey mountain toward Romney. McDonald's cavalry was coming on a charge. The yankees understood what it meant. They hooked to their cannon and out of town they went, faster than they had come in. McDonald's men came, shooting. The yankees returned the fire as they ran. Near the bridge which crossed the South branch the federals made a stand, and a brisk fight took place, but with little damage to either side. The confederates began crossing to Gibson's island, expecting to take the federals in the flank. While executing this movement Robert J. Tilden of Captain Sheetz's company, had his arm broken. The federals gave ground, and the retreat and pursuit were continued through Mill creek gap. It was a running fight at long range. Colonel Cantwell took the road over Middle ridge for New Creek. Two or three times the rear guard made a stand and held the confederates in check. In one of those skirmishes Lieutenant Blue's horse was wounded and he was left on foot. He had been riding the horse from which Tilden had fallen when wounded. Captain Sheetz of Company F, undertook to lead a flanking party for the purpose of surrounding the federals near Headsville, on Patterson creek. But it resulted only in harm to his own men. After following a mountain road some distance, be tired, by mistake, upon his own men, mortally wounding one of them. The federals were pursued to the top of Knobly mountain within a few miles of New Creek, now Keyser.

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