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Pistols and Sabers: The Great Cavalry Escape from Harpers Ferry

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

“I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am!  Send me.’” — Isaiah 6:8.

“You’re very wise to get out of it; escape, while you can.” — Actor Humphrey Bogart, in Beat the Devil, 1953.

In the late summer of 1862, Colonel Benjamin Franklin “Grimes” Davis, at the young age of 30, was an enigma, born in Alabama, raised by an uncle in Mississippi, and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1854 as the Captain of Cadets, a classmate of James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart, the famous, Confederate cavalry leader, but serving proudly and patriotically in the Union Army, while three of his five younger brothers were Confederate soldiers, two of whom were eventually killed in action during the Civil War. In fact, Davis was one of only two Southern officers who remained with the Union after the outbreak of the Civil War.

Speaking with a deep, Southern drawl, Grimes Davis, believed by some to be a distant relative of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, had served as a company commander with the 1st U.S. Dragoons (cavalry) in New Mexico, where he was wounded while fighting Apache Indians in 1857, and California, where he attained the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel (with the permanent, military rank of captain), commanding the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry Battalion, before returning east on November 1, 1861, to join the 1st U.S. Cavalry Regiment. He fought bravely at Williamsburg, Virginia, in the Peninsula Campaign, the Northern Virginia Campaign, and the Chancellorsville Campaign.

On June 25, 1862, Davis was appointed to the temporary, wartime rank of full colonel, and placed in command of the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. He was noted as a rough-mannered officer and “a strict disciplinarian...a proud, tyrannical devil,” as likely to be killed by his own men as by the Confederates, yet he was also a fine, loyal, reliable, and aggressive leader, with significant, combat experience that most of his young recruits lacked. One trooper noted that, “When Colonel Davis found the rebels, he did not stop at anything, but went for them heavy.”

On Friday, September 12, 1862, his unit arrived in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), via the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad at two o’clock in the morning, tasked with defending the 14,000-man, Union garrison there against a vast, Confederate invasion force of more than 26,000 men under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson approaching from Williamsport, Maryland, to the north, and across the nearby mountains, from the east. The 8th New York was ordered to guard the railway line to Winchester, Virginia, and disrupt marauding units of Confederate cavalry under Colonel John Singleton Mosby, the fabled, “Gray Ghost,” partisan leader.

Very lightly-armed with only pistols (1860 Colt percussion-cap revolvers in .44 caliber) and Model 1860 Light Cavalry Sabers (with 35-inch blades), Davis immediately requested carbines for his regiment, since Harpers Ferry had been an official, U.S. arsenal since 1799, producing muskets and rifles, but there were no remaining weapons in the armory to meet his needs, because Federal troops had already burned and demolished the arsenal to keep it out of Confederate hands.

The other Union cavalry units defending the town included the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry, two companies of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, the Loudoun, Virginia, Rangers, the 7th Squadron, Rhode Island Cavalry, and the 12th Illinois Cavalry Regiment from the Chicago area, under Colonel Arno Voss, age 42, a politician with no combat experience.

The 12th Illinois possessed several hundred breech-loading, single-shot, Burnside carbines in .54-caliber, with 21-inch barrels, which Voss had procured in Washington, D.C., that past July, but otherwise, the full, cavalry contingent of 1,400 soldiers was equipped mostly with just pistols and sabers, which they all realized was insufficient to resist a sustained, artillery siege and massive, infantry assault, and the supply of forage for their horses was nearly exhausted, so they were essentially useless in the defense of the town.

By September 14, 1862, Harpers Ferry was totally surrounded, with Confederate forces occupying Maryland Heights (actually, Elk Ridge, a 1,476-foot-tall mountain) to the east, Loudoun Heights, Virginia, to the south, and Bolivar Heights, Virginia (now West Virginia), to the northwest, and they began to bombard the Union garrison with artillery fire at two o’clock PM.

Realizing that they possessed more than 1,400 (some estimates state as many as 1,600) fresh, desperately-needed, cavalry horses that the Confederates could easily capture if the town surrendered under impossible odds, Grimes Davis and Lieutenant Colonel Hasbrouck Davis (no relation), the executive officer of the 12th Illinois Cavalry, presented the garrison commander, Colonel Dixon S. Miles, who had previously disgraced himself by being drunk at the First Battle of Bull Run, with an audacious and very risky plan. Under cover of darkness, they proposed to escape from Harpers Ferry before the imminent, Union surrender the next day, and fight their way northward toward Union forces near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Miles initially dismissed the bold idea as “wild and impractical,” but Grimes Davis had fire in his eyes, and adamantly intended to break out, with or without permission. So, Miles issued Special Order Number 120, specifying that, “The cavalry force at this post...will make immediate preparations to leave here at eight o’clock tonight, without baggage wagons (leaving all excess equipment behind)...crossing the Potomac (River) over the pontoon bridge, and taking the Sharpsburg Road...without noise or loud command...to force his way through the enemy’s lines and join our own army.”

Under the enemy artillery barrage, still in broad daylight, hundreds of Union soldiers began throwing buckets full of dirt on the improvised, pontoon bridge, much to the puzzlement of the rebel forces watching from the surrounding heights. The sun set at 6:24 PM that evening, with full nightfall at about seven PM, when the final escape route was officially approved. On the pretext of taking their unsaddled horses for water, the cavalrymen began assembling alongside the Potomac River, then, after nightfall, they quietly saddled their mounts and prepared to advance.

At nine o’clock PM on a pitch-black night, with heavy clouds obscuring the moonlight, they began crossing the low, oak-planked, 287-yard-long, pontoon bridge, now covered with dirt to quietly muffle the clomping of the horses’ hooves for a silent escape, and the long, blue line crossed slowly in a column of twos for the next hour and a half, with most of the horses away by 9:45 PM. The far end of the bridge exited beside Lock 33 of the old C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) Canal, where the cavalrymen then turned left, heading northwest on the rough, narrow, dirt trail that is now Harpers Ferry Road, Maryland, virtually under the noses of the Confederate artillery troops on Maryland Heights. Miraculously, they encountered no rebel sentries or pickets along the route, and remained undetected.

For the first mile, they galloped the horses, and then they reached the uphill, right turn at Lock 34 of the canal, where the trail rose so steeply that Corporal Isaac Heysinger of the 7th Rhode Island Cavalry later wrote, “that I had to grasp my horse’s mane to keep from sliding off the saddle.” It’s currently part of Harpers Ferry Road, and the steep hill still exists, although it is now paved and easily passable. Despite the rough, rocky terrain, the cavalrymen pushed their horses at a continual gallop toward Sharpsburg, 17 miles ahead, arriving at about 10 PM.

There was an immediate skirmish with Confederate troops on the southern outskirts of town, as reported by Captain William Nichols of the 7th Rhode Island Cavalry: “Suddenly a sheet of flame burnt before us, followed by the deafening report of many rifles...showing conclusively that the Rebels were in large force at that point.” The Confederates withdrew into town to meet supporting infantry, and Davis decided to try another route, toward Falling Waters on the Potomac River, in order to bypass the enemy forces north of Sharpsburg.

Union scouts from the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry kept the cavalry procession off the main roads from about 1:30 AM (September 15, 1862) onward, and on narrow, country lanes instead, as they wound their way silently but steadily under a starlit sky as some of the heavy clouds began to disperse. Just before dawn, at about 5:20 AM (with official sunrise at 5:55 AM), they emerged from what is now Dam Number 4 Road into the village of Downsville, Maryland, three miles southeast of Williamsport, and nearly seven miles south of Hagerstown. By now, they had all traveled over 20 miles to this point at a grueling pace in the darkness, and were physically exhausted and emotionally drained.

There, at the intersection of Williamsport Road (now Spielman Road/Route 63) and Downsville Pike (Route 632), Grimes Davis, leading the entire formation, detected the unmistakable rumble of wagon wheels approaching from the southeast, on Williamsport Road. In fact, this was Confederate Major General James Longstreet’s reserve ordnance train of at least 60 to 80 wagons (possibly as many as 97 wagons, with at least 300 horses and mules) full of ammunition for cannon and rifles, with a cavalry escort commanded by Lieutenant Francis Dawson, totaling several hundred Confederate troops (the estimates vary considerably.) The escort rode primarily at the rear of the wagon convoy, because they expected any Union attack to come from behind, toward the south.

There were trees on both sides of the road, and Colonel Davis quickly deployed the 8th New York Cavalry in line formation into the treeline on the north side, with the 12th Illinois Cavalry matching its formation on the south side, concealed among the trees. He held the Maryland and Rhode Island Cavalry in reserve on the road farther behind him, in the darkness, setting a trap for the enemy convoy. As the rebel wagon train approached much closer, it was apparent that each wooden wagon was accompanied by four or five Confederate infantrymen alongside on foot, with a small cavalry detachment at the rear, and Lieutenant Dawson in the lead, on horseback.

Grimes Davis boldly appeared alone in the middle of Williamsport Road on his own cavalry horse, with his long, drooping moustache and modest beard, and his pistol drawn, and according to Dawson, he called out, “Halt!”

One of the Confederates yelled, “Who goes there?”

Davis answered in his deep, baritone, Mississippi drawl, “The 8th Regiment,” which was technically true, but without further identifying his unit. He warned them that there were Federal troops in the area, and that he and his men would protect them, quietly ordering the convoy to turn right at the main intersection, onto Downsville Pike, now headed north. As each wagon passed by, cavalrymen of the 8th New York fell in alongside as escorts in the pre-dawn darkness, while the Colonel Voss’ 12th Illinois took the Confederate cavalrymen and infantry soldiers aside and into captivity, forced to dismount and surrender. In this very subtle manner, the entire wagon train was captured without a halt, and without incident. It was an absolutely brilliant deception.

Within the next half-hour, as the sunlight began to break, the wagon drivers were stunned to see long lines of blue uniforms on either side of their wagon train, with all Union soldiers holding drawn pistols in their hands, and they realized that they were now headed north, toward the Union lines in Pennsylvania.

“What regiment did you say you were from?” the lead driver inquired of Grimes Davis, who replied with a broad smile, “The 8th. The 8th New York!”

“The hell you say!” exclaimed the incredulous driver.

Davis then ordered Captain William Frisbie of D Company to take charge of the head of the wagon train, turn it onto the Greencastle Pike (Route 63) past Williamsport, and move forward at an eight-mile-per-hour pace, with a guide provided from the 1st Maryland Cavalry. Fortunately, the Union lines at Greencastle, Pennsylvania, were only 12 miles away, over a good, wide road, and no more Confederate troops were encountered. They reached the town at about nine AM (according to Colonel Voss), where they were greeted by a cheering populace, who joyfully provided food, water, and even warm breakfasts for many of the exhausted, Union cavalrymen.

The daring escape from Harpers Ferry was the first great, cavalry exploit of the Civil War for the Union Army, snatching victory from the jaws of their greatest defeat of the war as the Confederates seized 12,400 prisoners that same morning, after Colonel Dixon Miles surrendered his garrison, being mortally wounded by an artillery shell at the last moment. Grimes Davis, however, successfully led his column more than 50 miles through enemy-held territory throughout the dark night over a 13-hour period. Despite several encounters with enemy troops, they suffered no casualties at all.

Davis was subsequently described by the Provost Marshal General of the Army of the Potomac, Marsena R. Patrick, as “our best cavalry officer,” and was promoted to the permanent, military rank of major, while retaining his temporary, wartime rank of colonel. This spectacular, cavalry escape by stealth and deception has always been overshadowed by the exceedingly-bloody Battle of Antietam fought at Sharpsburg just two days later. No official report of the action was ever filed by any of the participants, so it remains a little-known but fascinating chapter in Civil War history.

Colonel Davis was killed in action only nine months later, on the early morning of June 9, 1863, near Saint James Church at Beverly Ford, Virginia, during the Battle of Brandy Station, the greatest cavalry battle of the war. As a brigade commander leading the 8th New York Cavalry, 8th Illinois Cavalry, and elements of the 3rd Indiana, 9th New York, and 3rd West Virginia Cavalries, he waded his horse across the Rappahannock River and charged a South Carolina artillery battery. A strong, Confederate counterattack by the 6th Virginia Cavalry sent most of his brigade reeling in disarray, but Davis held fast, rallying his men and shouting, “Stand firm, 8th New York!”

As he charged along Beverly Ford Road with his pistol and saber drawn, he outdistanced most of his own soldiers, fighting aggressively and virtually alone until he ran out of ammunition for his Colt revolver. Confederate cavalry Lieutenant Robert Owen Allen, age 29, of D Company came at him, hugging his badly-wounded horse’s neck to avoid Davis’ swinging saber and dodging a mighty, arching blow.

Allen fired his revolver three times at point-blank range, striking Davis in the forehead with his final shot, and killing him instantly. Allen survived the battle, and the war, with a disabling wound. Davis was buried at West Point Cemetery, New York, later surrounded by such notable, cavalry leaders as Major General John Buford, Jr., who died of typhoid in late 1863, at age 37, and Lieutenant Colonel (brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer, who was famously killed in action in Montana in 1876.

Only four days after Davis’ untimely death, General Buford noted that Grimes Davis was, “a thorough soldier...a patriot in its true sense...and bright star in his profession.”

The great Union cavalry escape from Harpers Ferry affected the outcomes of at least two major battles. In the Battle of Harpers Ferry itself, the impact of Stonewall Jackson’s enormous victory was lessened by his failure to capture those 1,400 Union horses, which would have proved extremely useful two days later in Sharpsburg. There, the awful Battle of Antietam, the most-horrific, single day (September 17, 1862) of the Civil War, was fought to a bloody stalemate, with a total of more than 22,700 dead, wounded, or missing, because Major General J.E.B. Stuart and the Confederate Army under Major Generals Jackson and Longstreet lacked the extra cavalry horses and reserve ammunition necessary to achieve a decisive victory.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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