I can almost taste the fear and the fascination when reading 27 year old pretty and proudly plain dunkard Rachel Bowman-Cormnay's account of being awakened by the “clatter of hoofs” in the last half hour of Tuesday, 16 June, 1863. Glancing to make sure her infant daughter Cora was still asleep, Rachel padded barefoot to the front window of her boarding-house and saw, “...sure enough the Greybacks were going by as fast as their horses could take them.”
The rebel cavalrymen disappeared northward up the dark street toward “The Diamond” at the center of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. But rather than turn away to dress or climb back into bed, Rachel waited at the window until, in a few moments, she heard a gun shot. And “then they came back faster...” You can almost feel her anticipation as she waited in her nightgown for what would come next.
What came were the leading elements of “Grumble” Jenkin's 1,600 man cavalry brigade. “They came in, the front ones with their hands on the gun triggers ready to fire and calling out...that they would lay the town in ashes if fired on again...” Finally, about 2 in the morning of Wednesday, 17 June, things quieted, and Rachel caught a few hours of sleep. She was up again at 5 in the morning. “All seemed quiet...We almost came to the conclusion that the reb's had left again...Soon however they became more active.”
Their activity was hunting food, horses, clothing and Negroes. Any who think the American Civil War was not about human bondage, need only read Rachel's diary. “O! How it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly and look at such brutal deeds...Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along.” In other words, about 50 black skinned human beings were kidnapped at the point of a gun. “I sat on the front step,” said Rachel, “as they were driven by just like we would drive cattle...nearly all hung their heads. One woman was pleading wonderfully with her driver for her children – but all the sympathy she received from him was a rough "March along".
Like most people in any age, Rachel Bowman (above) was a collection of contradictions. Raised in a conservative evangelical family, her parents sacrificed to get her a college education - a rare liberal achievement for any woman 1850. At Otterbein College, just north of Columbus, Ohio, she met a divinity student named Samuel Cormany. And after they were graduated, they were married in 1860. They moved to her native Ottawa, Canada, where Cora was born in 1861.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, the devout pacifists and dedicated abolitionists returned to the Cormay family farm just north of Chambersburg (above), where Samuel joined the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and marched off to war. Rachel and Cora lived with Samuel's parents for a time, but when family tensions rose she moved into town, surviving on Samuel's pay.
The rebels who frightened and fascinated the 4,000 residents of Chambersburg were not regulars but self named “Border Rangers”, irregulars under 33 year old Brigadier General Albert Gallatin Jenkins (above, before the war) - described as "about 5 foot 10 inches high, well-formed and of good physique; dark hair, blue eyes, and heavy brown beard; pleasing countenance, kind affable manners, fluent and winning in conversation; quick, subtle, and argumentative in debate". Upon his father's death Albert exchanged his law career for running the family's 4,400 acre plantation, Green Bottom, on the banks of the Ohio River – worked by about 100 black slaves. His troopers were mostly local small farmers who had spent the war trading raids – house burning, kidnapping, murder and mutilation - with local Union sympathizers. Like border “rangers” on both sides, these men fought more out of hate than principle.
The troopers under “Grumble” Jenkins were scouts for Major General Robert Edwin Rodes' 21,000 man infantry division. On 14 June, 1863, after being relieved in front of Martinsburg, most of Jenkin's men crossed the Potomac and drove the 25 miles north to Chambersburg on Tuesday, 15 June.. On Wednesday morning, 16 June, Rachel Cormany observed “they were carrying away men's clothing and darkeys.” - slaves. The rebels showed a particular affinity for stealing men's hats, snatching them right off the owner's heads.
Rachel also saw General Jenkins in the flesh ( in his best pirate appearance) . “He is not a bad looking man,” she confided to her diary. “There were a few real intelligent, good looking men among (his troopers). What a pity that they are rebels. After the main body had passed the news came that our soldiers were coming...” And with that, Jenkin's entire Brigade grabbed what they could carry and headed back south.
General Rodes (above) had ordered Jenkins to hold Chambersburg. But hearing a bugle call, and fearing approaching Federal troops, Jenkins abandoned the town on Thursday, 18 June, retreating 20 miles back to Hagerstown, Maryland, where he met General Rodes, who had just crossed the Potomac. Rodes was infuriated. In fact, on 18 June, there were no Federal troops within 50 miles of Chambersburg, and in their rush any goods not of immediate use to Jenkin's men were abandoned. The fuming 34 year old Rodes noted, “The result was that most of the property... which would have been of service to (my) troops...was removed or concealed before it (Chamberburg) was reoccupied.” Although Rodes commissariats estimated some 3,000 head of cattle had already been captured in Pennsylvania, only some 1,500 head had reached the rest of the army. Meanwhile, “The horses were almost all seized by the cavalry of General Jenkins, and were rarely accounted for.”
In all fairness, the “Border Rangers” were neither trained nor equipped to stand and fight. And hearing Rodes' complaints, his boss, Second Corp commander Lieutenant General Richard Ewel (above)l, took over direct command of Jenkins' brigade. He no more approved of Jenkins actions than Rodes, but he knew Jenkins raiders were the only cavalry his corps had to lead the way into Pennsylvania. The best troopers were riding with Stuart, shielding the right flank of the army from the Federals.
Meanwhile, Ewell's own infantry had been exhausted by the forced marches since Front Royal, the capture of Winchester and Martinsburg, and then the advance to the Potomac. So after crossing the river at Williamsport (above) , “Baldy” Ewell sent his 4 brigades into camp, allowing them to rest and send out foraging parties to confiscate food and goods, the excess which could be ferried back across the river.. The pause also allowed Lieutenant General James Longstreet's First Corps to close up to the south shore of the Potomac, and Lieutenant General A. P. Hill's Third Corps to do the same, closer to Harpers Ferry.
Lee's plan continued to tempt Federal General Joe Hooker to strike toward Richmond. Had Fighting Joe done so, J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry would delay the Army of the Potomac while Longstreet forced march his First Corp to meet them from behind Richmond's defenses. At the same time, A.P. Hill's Third Corps was just a 2 day march from the outskirts of Washington. And, Ewell could continue his collecting supplies from the Pennsylvania country side, unmolested. In the same tactical position Hooker had faced - with part of one corps across the Rappahancock - Lee was in the stronger strategic position with one corps across the Potomac. And Hooker continued to seem determined not to understand that.
During the afternoon of Wednesday, 16 June, 1863, while Rachel Cormany was watching Jenkin's Brigade looting Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a panicky General-in-Chief Henry “Old Brains” Halleck (above) telegraphed Major-General Joesph Hooker, “There is now no doubt that the enemy is surrounding Harper's Ferry, but in what force I have no information...our force there...cannot hold out very long.” He added there was no hope for relief “excepting from your army.”
Hooker (above) took the bait and replied a few hours later, “In compliance with your directions, I shall march to the relief of Harper's Ferry. I put my column again in motion at 3 a.m. tomorrow. I expect to reach there in two days...” Hooker then sent a similar notification to the President, Abraham Lincoln, adding, “I am prepared to move without communications with any place for ten days”
At that point, it seems, the long suffering Abraham Lincoln (above) hit the roof of both the White House and the War Department. Hooker had been playing Lincoln and Halleck against each other, like a child plays divorced parent. Lincoln also suspected Hooker of attempting to sneak in his plan for a march south while Lee's Army was headed north, despite Lincoln's repeated orders, “Your objective is Lee's army.”
At 10:00 that night, Lincoln replied to Hooker, “ To remove all misunderstanding, I now place you in the strict military relation to General Halleck of a commander of one of the armies to the general-in-chief of all the armies. I have not intended differently, but as it seems to be differently understood, I shall direct him to give you orders and you to obey them.”
Within 15 minutes, Hooker received a second telegram, this one from Halleck. “I have given no directions for your army to move to Harper's Ferry. I have advised the movement of a force, sufficiently strong to...ascertain where the enemy is...I want you to push out your cavalry, to ascertain something definite about the enemy.” It was as complete a smack down as could be conceived.
And yet Hooker, ever the anarchist, was determined to find somebody to play along with his dramatic performance. Half an hour after receiving Hallecks telegram, “Fighting Joe” dispatched a new request to Secretary of War William Stanton. “If General Cadwalader has gone to Pennsylvania, please request him to send me information of the rebel movements...”
But Stanton (above) was a Washington drama queen himself and far better at the game then Hooker. He responded before midnight, “General Cadwalader has not gone to Pennsylvania, but is here waiting for orders. You shall be kept posted upon all information received here as to enemy's movements, but must exercise your own judgment as to its credibility. The very demon of lying seems to be about these times, and generals will have to be broken for ignorance before they will take the trouble to find out the truth of reports”.
At 9:30 the next morning, Thursday, 17 June, Lincoln telegraphed Hooker yet again, informing him that the superintendent of the telegraph office had assured the President that everything about enemy movements had been and would be forwarded to Army of the Potomac. The rough translation was that Lincoln was just about fed up with Hookers equivocation and excuses.
To which Hooker (above) offered up yet his final whining excuse. “The advice heretofore received by telegraph from Washington has stated successively that Martinsburg and Winchester were invested and surrounded; that Harper's Ferry was closely invested, with urgent calls upon me for relief; that the enemy were advancing in three columns through Pennsylvania...Now I am informed...that General Tyler, at Harper's Ferry...seems to think that he is in no danger. Telegraph operator just reports to me that Harper's Ferry is abandoned by our forces. Is this true?...I should very much like to have reliable and correct information concerning the enemy on the north side of the Potomac.”
Imagine that - a general in time of war, wishing he knew for for certain what his enemies' intentions were.
And just where did Hooker think that information was going to come from? Before noon General Halleck replied to Hooker as bluntly as he could, without actually calling him a lunatic and a great big baby. “No reliable information of rebel movements in Maryland.”
Then, just in case Hooker was unaware that his bosses were looking over his shoulder, Halleck added - “All telegrams from you or to you are subject to the hourly inspection of the Secretary of War and the President. No important instructions have or will be sent to you without their knowledge.” In other words - Hooker, you wanted this job, so go do it.
Halleck later added, “I regret...that reports from north side of the Potomac are so unreliable and contradictory, but they are given to you as received. What is meant by abandoning Harper's Ferry is merely that General Tyler has concentrated...on Maryland Heights. No enemy in any force has been seen below Harper's Ferry, north of the river...So far, we have had only the wild rumors of panic-stricken people.” And, Halleck might have added, one of those panic-stricken people seemed to be Hooker.