Chapter LX - Crook and Kelley Captured

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 673-684

The capture of General George Crook and General B. F. Kelley, at Cumberland, Maryland, February 21, 1865, by the McNeill Rangers, was a remarkable performance, and attracted much attention. That sixty men could carry away two generals, surrounded by an army of eight thousand, was a subject for much wonder. The names of those who took part in the raid, so far as they are now remembered, are J. G. Lynn, G. S. Harness, J. W. Mason, R. G. Lobb, H. P. Tabb, John Taylor, J. C. McNeill, I. S. Welton, William H. Haye, William H. Poole, J. W. Duffey, I. S. Judy, Sergeants C. J. Dailey and John Cunningham, John Acker, J. W. Markwood, D. E. Hopkins, Charles Nichols, Joseph A. Parker, Isaac Parsons, I. E. Oats, J. G. Showalter, J. W. Kuykendall, Benjamin E. Wotring, G. F. Cunningham, I. H. Welton, John Mace, Mr. Tucker, F. W. Bean, J. W. Crawford, George H. Johnson, C. R. Hallar, W. H. Maloney, Jacob Gassman, I. L. Harvey.

"To enable the reader to form a correct idea of the military situation at the time, February 21, 1865, a slight retrospect at the outset is necessary," says J. B. Fay, one of the participants. "The debatable ground between the two opposing armies in Northern Virginia ran parallel with the Potomac, and embraced, sometimes, the length of two or more counties southward. During the latter part of the war this region was dominated by three famous confederate partisan leaders — Mosby, Gilmor and McNeill. Their forces sometimes intermingled; but ordinarily the operations of Mosby were confined to the country east of the Shenandoah; those of Gilmor to the valley of Virginia; while McNeill's special field of action lay to the westward along the upper Potomac and South branch. McNeill's command was composed principally of volunteers from Virginia and Maryland, though nearly every southern and not a few of the northern states had representatives in the ranks. Moorefield, on the South branch, was the principal headquarters of this command. In a daybreak attack on a company of Pennsylvania cavalry, who were guarding a bridge over the Shenandoah, near Mount Jackson, in the fall of 1864, Captain McNeill met his death. His son, Lieutenant Jesse C. McNeill, was next in command.

"In February, 1865, Lieutenant McNeill consulted me about the feasibility of going into Cumberland and capturing Generals Kelley and Crook. After giving McNeill every assurance that his design could be successfully carried out, he determined to make the attempt. I was commissioned to proceed at once to Cumberland, or its vicinity, and prepare the way for our entry, by learning the number and position of the picket posts, the exact location of the sleeping apartments of both generals, and any other information deemed necessary. Selecting C. R. Hallar as a comrade, I started. A few nights after we left Moorefield found us upon the north bank of the Potomac, a few miles west of Cumberland. At this point the desired information was procured, and we retraced our steps.

"Hallar was dispatched to intercept Lieutenant McNeill, who, during our absence, was to have twenty-five well-mounted men prepared to move leisurely in the direction of Cumberland, ready to act on my report. At the time of which I write, six or eight thousand troops occupied the city. On the night of our entry, in addition to the resident commander (Major-General Kelley), General Crook, General Hayes (since president of the United States), General Lightburn and General Duvall were temporarily in the city. A greater harvest of generals might have been reaped had we been aware of the fact. At that time General Sheridan's army lay at Winchester, and a considerable force of federal troops were entrenched at New Creek, now Keyser. Both of these points are nearer Moorefield than Cumberland is. This shows the hazzard of a trip from our headquarters to Cumberland and the probability of being cut off.

"When McNeill and party arrived at the rendezvous, in addition to those of our own command, there were with him a number, probably a dozen, belonging to Company F of the Seventh and D of the Eleventh Virginia cavalry, of Rosser's brigade. The men and horses were fed and rested. The shades of that evening saw us upon our ride. Our route lay over Middle ridge, across the valley of Patterson creek, through the ridges beyond the base of Knobly mountain, where, taking a northerly course we came to a narrow gap leading up to open fields on the mountain top. Passing up this gap, over an icy road, we found the fields above covered with snowdrifts of uncertain depth, which forced us to dismount and lead our struggling horses. Having reached the road through a lower gap to the Seymour farm, we quickly descended the mountain into the valley and crossed the Potomac into Maryland.

"At this juncture Lieutenant McNeill held a council of war with some of us, and after saying that there was not time to reach Cumberland before daylight by the route laid down by me, the lieutenant proposed that that part of the expedition be abandoned. But to prevent the trip from being an entire failure, he suggested that we should surprise and capture the pickets at the railroad station near by, at Brady's Mills. The prizes for which we had come so far were estimated by quality, not quantity, and a company of infantry was not considered a fair exchange for two major generals. His proposition met with an emphatic and almost unanimous dissent. It is proper here to say that my route contemplated flanking the neighboring village of Cresaptown, moving on to the well-known National road and taking that thoroughfare, which was not picketed, to enter Cumberland from the northwest byway of the Narrows, a pass through Will's mountain. This would have doubled the distance to be traveled from the point where we passed the river, but it was the only prudent and reasonably safe route, and but for several unnecessary delays already made, for which Lieutenant McNeill himself was responsible, ample time had been left to pursue it. The fact then remained, however, as McNeill declared, that we could not then get to Cumberland by that route in the required time; and if we were to proceed further on our expedition we must take the shorter route, the New creek road, and try our chances by surprising and capturing the pickets on that road, and get into the city without giving the alarm. The attempt to pass quietly through two lines of pickets promised but doubtful results, but we determined to try it. McNeill and Vandiver, followed by Kuykendall and myself, rode ahead as an advance guard, the rest of the troop, under Lieutenant I. S. Welton, keeping close behind. A layer of thin crusty snow was on the ground, and although it was an hour and a half till dawn, we could see very well for a short distance. The New creek road skirts the base of Will's mountain, running almost parallel with the railroad and river, and all three come close together at the mouth of a deep ravine. About two miles from Cumberland the road deflects to the left and winds up through a ravine and over the hill to the city. A cavalry picket was stationed at the mouth of the ravine, and as we neared this point a solitary vidette was observed standing on the roadside, and who, upon noticing our approach, gave the challenge: 'Halt! who comes there?' 'Friends from New Creek,' was the response. He then said: 'Dismount one, come forward and give the countersign.' Without a word Lieutenant McNeill put spurs to his horse, dashed forward, and as he passed, being unable to check his horse, fired his pistol in the man's face. We followed rapidly and secured the picket, whom we found terribly startled at the peculiar conduct of his alleged friends. Two comrades, acting as a reserve, had been making themselves cosy before a few embers under a temporary shelter in a fence corner about one hundred yards in the rear. Hearing the commotion in front they hastily decamped toward the river. They got no further than the railroad, however, for we were close upon them, and in response to our threats of shooting, they halted and surrendered. Examining them apart, and under threats of instant annihilation at the end of a halter, they gave the countersign for the night, which was 'Bull's Gap.' Mounting these men upon their horses, which we found hitched nearby, we took them into Cumberland and out again, when one was turned loose, without a horse, but richer in experience.

"The imprudent action of Lieutenant McNeill in firing a shot which might have caused a general alarm and forced us to abandon our design, created some displeasure among the men. Sharing in this feeling I insisted that Kuykendall and myself should take the advance in the approach to the next inner post. This was assented to, and we moved on with the determination that no more unnecessary firing should be indulged in on our part. The second post was fully a mile away, over the high intervening hill and located at the junction of the road we were on with the old Frostburg pike. This post consisted of five men belonging to the First West Virginia infantry, who were comfortably ensconced in a shed behind a blazing log fire, and all busily engaged at cards. As we drew near the circle of light one of the number was observed to get up, reach for his musket and advance in front of the fire to halt us. To his formal challenge Kuykendall answered: "Friends, with the countersign.' We kept moving up in the meantime, and when the command was given for one of us to dismount and give the countersign, I noticed an impatient movement among our men in the rear; and to mislead the picket and enable us to get as near as possible before our intended dash was made, I shouted back in a loud voice: Don't crowd up, men! Wait until we give the countersign.' We did not find it necessary to give it, however. There was an open space around the picket post which allowed no chance of escape, and we were close upon them. The next instant a swift forward dash was made, and, without a single shot, they were surrounded and captured. Their guns and ammunition were taken and destroyed, and they were left unguarded at their post, with strict instructions to remain until our return.

"On its face this would appear to have been a very unwise thing, but it was the best we could do. We had no intention of returning that way; but we rightly trusted that before the men could realize the situation and get to where an alarm could be given, our work in the city would have been done. We were now inside the picket lines, and before us lay the slumbering city. The troop was halted here for a short time while McNeill hastily told off two squads of ten men each, who were directly charged with the capture of the generals. Sergeant Joseph W. Kuykendall, Company F, Seventh Virginia cavalry, a special scout for General Early, and a soldier of great courage and coolness, who had once been a prisoner in Kelly's hands and had a personal acquaintance with him, was placed in command of the men detailed to secure that general. To Sergeant Joseph L. Vandiver, a man of imposing figure and style, was given the charge of capturing General Crook.

"An interesting fact in connection with this affair is that among the number detailed to capture General Crook was Jacob Gassman, a former clerk in the hotel where General Crook lodged, and whose uncle then owned the buildings and Sergeant Charles James Dailey, whose father was landlord at the time, and whose sister, Mary, afterwards became Mrs. Crook, and was probably then his fiancee. The duty of destroying the telegraph lines was intrusted to me, while Hallar and others were detailed as my assistants. These preliminaries being arranged, we moved on down the pike, rode into Green street and around the court house hill; then over the chain bridge across Will's creek and up Baltimore street, the principal thoroughfare of the city. Taking in the situation as they rode along, the men occupied themselves whistling such yankee tunes as they knew, and bandying words with isolated patrols and guards that occasionally passed. - Some of our men were disguised in federal overcoats, but in the dim light no difference could be noticed in the shades of light blue and gray.

"Part of the men were halted in front of the Barnum house, afterwards the Windsor hotel, where General Kelley slept, and the others rode on to the Revere house, where General Crook reposed in fancied security. A sentry paced up and down in front of the respective headquarters, but took little notice of our movements, evidently taking us for a scouting party coming in to report. J. G. Lynn of Kuykendall's squad, was the first to reach the pavement, where he captured and disarmed the sentry, who directed the party to the sleeping apartments of General Kelley. Entering the hotel the party first invaded a room on the second floor, which proved to be that of the adjutant general, Melvin. Arousing him, they asked where General Kelley was, and was told that he was in the adjoining apartment, a communicating room, the door of which was open, and they entered at once. When General Kelley was awakened, he was told that he was a prisoner, and was requested to make his toilet as speedily as possible. With some degree of nervousness the old general complied, inquiring as he did so, to whom he was surrendering. Kuykendall replied: 'To Captain McNeill, by order of General Rosser.' He had little more to say after this, and in a very short space of time both he and Adjutant Melvin were taken down into the street and mounted on horses, the owners of which courteously gave the prisoners the saddle, and rode behind. In this manner they were taken out of Cumberland, but as soon thereafter as separate horses could be procured, they were given them.

"At the Revere house an almost identical scene took place. The sentry having been taken and disarmed, the capturing party ascended the stone steps of the hotel and found the outside door locked. The door was opened by a small colored boy and the party entered. The boy was greatly alarmed at the brusque manner of the unexpected guests, whom he evidently suspected of improper intentions. When asked if General Crook was in the hotel, he said: 'Yes, sah, but don't tell 'em I told you,' and he afterwards made the inquiry: 'What kind o' men are you all, anyhow?' While Vandiver and Dailey were getting a light in the office below, Gassman went to No. 46, General Crook's apartment, and thinking the door was locked, knocked at it several times. A voice within asked: 'Who's, there?' Gassman replied: 'A friend," and was told to come in. Vandiver, Tucker and Dailey arrived by this time and all four entered the room. Approaching the bed where the general lay, Vandiver said in a pompous manner, 'General Crook, you are my prisoner.' 'What authority have you for this?' inquired the general. 'The authority of General Rosser, of Fitzhugh Lee's division of Cavalry,' said Vandiver in response. Crook then rose up in bed and asked: 'Is General Rosser here?' 'Yes,' replied Vandiver, 'I am General Rosser. We have surprised and captured the town.' That settled the matter as far as the bona fide general was concerned. He was immensely surprised at the bold announcement, but knowing nothing to the contrary, accepted Vandiver's assertion as the truth. He submitted to his fate with as much grace and cheerfulness as he could muster. Speaking to me afterwards of his sensations at the time, the general said: 'Vandiver was just such a looking person as I supposed Rosser to be, and I had no reason to doubt the truth of his statement. I was very much relieved, however, when I learned the real situation and that the city and garrison had not been taken.'"

When the sidewalk was reached a clerk in the hotel, who had evidently been asleep and had just awakened, came out on the sidewalk with a lantern, and holding it up to get a good look, asked: 'How many Johnnies have you got, boys?' He quickly realized that he had made a mistake. John Taylor snatched his hat off his head; John Cunningham ran through his pockets; while W. H. Maloney caught him by the back and jerked his overcoat over his head. They left him standing dumbfounded.

"General Kelley and his adjutant were taken some time before General Crook was brought out and mounted; but when this was finally done, and headquarters and other flags were finally secured, the entire party rode down Baltimore street in a quiet and orderly manner to the chain bridge. A large stable was located here, and from this several fine horses were taken, among them 'Philippi, General Kelly's charger, which had been given him by the West Virginia soldiers, in honor of his victory over Colonel Porterfield at Philippi. The taking of the horses caused some delay, which greatly excited Lieutenant McNeill, who, calling for me, ordered that I should lead them out of the city at once. Turning the column to the left, I led it down Canal street and on to the canal bank, where, a few hundred yards below, we came unexpectedly upon a dozen or more guards, whom we surrounded and captured. We destroyed their guns and ammunition, but did not encumber ourselves with more prisoners. From this point the column went at a gallop down the tow path, until halted by the picket posted at the canal bridge, a mile below town, on the road to Wiley's ford. The column not halting, one of the pickets was heard to say: 'Sergeant, shall I fire? when Vandiver, who was in front, shouted: 'If you do, I'll place you under arrest. This is General Crook's body guard, and we have no time to waste. The rebels are coming, and we are going out to meet them.' This explanation seemed satisfactory. We passed under the bridge, beyond the picket post, which was the enemy's outmost guard, and crossed the Potomac. We were four or five miles away before the boom of a cannon was heard, giving the alarm."

General Crook was riding bareback. When they were well across the Potomac, he called to W. H. Maloney and asked him to ride ahead and get a saddle, remarking that he was very tired. Maloney said he did not know where to get one. To this General Crook replied: 'Take one from the first man you meet, and tell him that General Crook ordered you to do it.' Maloney dashed ahead to Jacob Kyle's, and, waking him, told him he wanted a saddle for General Crook. Mr. Kyle answered: 'Your men took the only saddle I had yesterday.' 'We are not yankees,' said Mr. Maloney. 'General Crook is a prisoner. I will search your house, and if I find you are lying to me, I will burn your house.' 'The saddle is on the porch in a flour barrel,' replied Mr. Kyle. Mr. Maloney got it, and General Crook had to ride bareback no longer.

"Sixty rugged miles intervened between us and safety, but I doubt if there was a man in the troop but now felt at his ease. Elated, proud and happy, all rode back that morning over the snow-clad Virginia hills. Our expedition had been a grand success, and every wish was realized. A mounted force from Cumberland, in pursuit, came in sight on Patterson's creek, but kept at a respectful distance in the rear until after we had passed Romney, when they pressed upon our guard, but upon the exchange of a few shots they retired. On reaching the Moorefield valley a detachment of the Ringgold cavalry, sent from New Creek to intercept us, came in sight. We were on opposite sides of the river, in full view of each other, and soon our tired horses were being urged to their utmost speed, the federals endeavoring to reach Moorefield and cut off our retreat, while our great desire was to pass through the town with our prisoners and captured flags, and exhibit to our friends and sweethearts the fruits of our expedition and the trophies of our success.

"It soon became evident, however, that the fresher horses of the other side would win the day. Convinced that the town could not be reached and safely passed, McNeill suddenly led his men into the woods skirting the road, and taking a well-known trail, passed through the ridges east of Moorefield to a point of security seven miles above, where we camped for the night. In the preceding twenty-four hours we had ridden ninety miles over hill and valley, mountain and stream, with very little rest or food for men or horses. Our prisoners received the best possible care and attention, and early the next morning pursued their enforced march to Richmond by way of General Early's headquarters at Staunton."

On February 24, 1865, General R. E. Lee sent the following dispatch to the war department of the Southern Confederacy: "General Early reports that Lieutenant McNeill, with thirty men, on the morning of the twenty- first, entered Cumberland, captured and brought out Generals Crook and Kelley, the adjutant-general of the department, two privates and the headquarters' flags without firing a gun, though a considerable force is in the vicinity."

The following dispatch was sent from Cumberland by Major Kennedy to General Sheridan, at Winchester, within a few hours after McNeill's men had left the city: "About three o'clock this morning a party of rebel horsemen came up on the New Creek road, about sixty in number. They captured the picket and quietly rode into town, went directly to the headquarters of Generals Crook and Kelley, sending a couple of men to each place to overpower the headquarters guard, when they went directly to the room of General Crook and, without disturbing anybody else in the house, ordered him to dress, and took him downstairs and placed him on a horse, saddled and waiting. The same was done to General Kelley. While this was being done, a few of them, without creating any disturbance, opened one or two stores, but they left without waiting to take anything. It was done so quietly that others of us who were sleeping in adjoining rooms to General Crook were not disturbed. The alarm was given in ten minutes by a darkey watchman at the hotel, who escaped from them, and within an hour we had a party of fifty cavalry after them. They tore up the telegraph lines, and it required more than an hour to get them in working order. As soon as New Creek could be called, I ordered a force to be sent to Romney, and it started without any unnecessary delay. A second force has gone from New Creek to Moorefield, and a regiment of infantry has gone to supply the place of the cavalry. They rode good horses, and left at a very rapid rate, evidently fearful of being overtaken. They did not remain in Cumberland over ten minutes. From all information, I am inclined to believe that instead of Rosser, it is McNeill's company. Most of the men of that company are from this place."

General Sheridan sent four hundred cavalry across the mountains from Winchester in the direction of Moorefield, in hope of capturing McNeill and releasing the prisoners; but no success attended the expedition. McNeill was in the mountains and eluded his pursuers, who were trying to close in on him from four directions.

Return to the History of Hampshire County WV Index