The Confederate March Through Greencastle, PA
Dr. Thomas Brumbaugh
June and July, 1863, were surely two of the most momentous months in the history of the Cumberland Valley. Even a sleepy village like Greencastle, Pa., scarcely disturbed by history since George Washington’s visit in 1794, was to see heroic and terrible events within that brief time.
In 1861, when President Lincoln issued his call for troops “to suppress combinations and cause the laws to be executed,” the citizens of Greencastle and Antrim Township gave a prompt response to the call. The Second Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers was organized with many members from there, and they were moved to the Potomac with General Robert Patterson’s army to protect the border; but even so, the stolid Scotch-Irish and German farmers and small merchants seem to have felt that the war was remote from them in time and place.
In the fall of 1862, General J.E.B. Stuart with 1,800 horsemen, made a circuit of the Union Army across the mountains to Mercersburg, St. Thomas and Chambersburg. His raid “terrified” the valley, but not long afterward it was being dismissed as “only a rebel foray” and the assumption was that Lee’s army had been soundly defeated at South Mountain and Antietam. Highly colored accounts of the war in county newspapers seem to evade most of the realities of the time, and a search through Greencastle church records of the summer of 1863, reveals no mention of the conflict. We learn that German Reformed Church services (and certainly those of other denominations) were held regularly; wood was cut, fences mended, and the usual preparations for the coming winter were carried on undisturbed as they had been for a hundred summers past. And possibly it was because of a tradition of stoic faith and perseverance – of stubborn optimism -in dealing with those ordinary circumstances of life, that men were prepared to face an extraordinary situation suddenly thrust upon them.
Late in May, rumors of impending invasion were being spread through the area by travelers from the Shenandoah region. Union troops were stationed as far south as Winchester, where General Robert H. Milroy held command, but by June 14, the initial advance of Lee’s invasion had begun. Milroy and Colonel A. T. Reynolds, who held Berryville and the approaches to Harper’s Ferry, were forced to retreat north into Pennsylvania after suffering heavy losses of men and munitions. The Shenandoah Valley to the Mason-Dixon line was to be occupied and controlled by the successful invaders until after their retreat from Gettysburg.
Early in the month, refugees from northern Virginia, chiefly Negroes with their families and goods, began to move through Greencastle, and by mid-June the trickle had become a stream. Between June 15 and June 20, many white farmers living along what was to become the invasion route of Pennsylvania, also joined these “contraband” slaves and freedmen, moving in wagon trains to the foothills of the Tuscarora mountains on the west. At one point the refugees in this “Great Skedaddle” as they named it, were overtaken by a Confederate train of some fifty, wagons with their guards, and the climax of confusion was reached.
General A. C. Jenkins at the head of his cavalry brigade, rode into Hagerstown, Md. on June 15, and in a daring sweep north with a company of troops, reached Chambersburg on June 17. His men were busily engaged in foraging for horses and cattle and other supplies that were sent across the Potomac to the forces still below the river. Greencastle stores were also looted when Jenkins returned to the border on June 21. He had been unchallenged by any military action. Charles Hartman, a town-councilman, and at one time the burgess of Greencastle, noted in his manuscript diary that “It would be difficult to estimate the value of property taken by this raid, it coming in the season of the year when the farming interests required the use of horses, followed a few day’s afterwards by Lee’s vast army. Many croppers who had little else than their stock were ‘bankrupt.
In the meantime, the chief part of the Confederate Army had crossed the river at Shepherdstown and Williamsport. Gen. R. S. Ewell’s corps followed that of Gen. A. P. Hill and was in turn followed by Gen. James Longstreet’s corps. Leaving Hagerstown early on Monday, June 22, Jenkins, who had scouted this country a few days earlier, led the way, cautiously sending out advance detachments to guard against surprise attack. About noon they were within half a mile of Greencastle, and a reconnoitering party was sent from there to Marion, at which place they’ captured a Union soldier, D. K. Appenzeller, who had just returned from service with the 126th Pennsylvania Volunteers. In his book, The Great Invasion of 1863, Jacob Hoke tells us that “After his capture, Mr. Appenzeller was closely questioned as to the number of troops then at Chambersburg. Having been in the latter place a day or two previously, and having heard a rumor that General D. N. Couch was coming from Harrisburg with a force of 20,000 men, he repeated this story to them. They at once fell back to the main body, and in the hearing of Mr. Appenzeller communicated this intelligence to those in command.
About this time a company of the First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry in command of Capt. William H. Boyd, and composed of some 43 men, dashed into view. They were in hot pursuit of a scouting party attached to Jenkin’s Brigade. For a week or more Boyd’s men had ranged as far away as Fulton County, harrassing the advance and flanks of the advancing Confederates, and their sudden and bold appearance caused tremendous excitement. No doubt it was thought that they were the advance guard of General Couch’s 20,000 men, and a line of battle was at once hastily formed.
Artillery was placed on Shook’s Hill and in a field nearby at the north end of town, and fences were torn down on both sides of the Chambersburg road. Gen. R. E. Rodes’s infantry took a strategic position upon the high ground about a quarter of a mile beyond the artillery, and Jenkins, according to Hoke, “threw his cavalry forward and formed a skirmish line upon the land of Mr. William Fleming about a quarter of a mile from the infantry. General Jenkins established his headquarters in Mr. Fleming’s house. As soon as the Union cavalry came within range of their guns, fire was opened upon them, and for a time the noise and clatter were lively. A sister of Mr. Fleming going to a window to look out, barely escaped a ball which came crashing in the glass right beside her head.”
When the Confederate forces had moved a few hundred yards beyond the Fleming house, Captain Boyd and a number of his men came out of hiding in a small woods then on the right side of the road, and extending on its far side to the Cumberland Valley Railroad tracks. Sgt. Milton S. Cafferty and Cpl. William H. Rihl were evidently in the lead. The group was surprised, however, to find themselves within pistol range of the concealed enemy, and fell back toward their main column when Corporal Rihl was shot from his horse and Sergeant Cafferty was struck in the leg. According to Hoke, the Confederates, fearing that this withdrawal was “a Yankee trick to draw them into an ambuscade, did not pursue.” Appenzeller, interviewed by Hoke after the war, said “that of all the fearless soldiers he ever saw – and he saw manyand had large experience during the war – these New York cavalrymen exceeded any in these qualities. And if they had gone but a short distance further they’ would have come into a crossfire which would have swept them all away. Their foresight and understanding, however, were equal to their courage, and they knew when to stop. Their escape must have been across the railroad tracks and through the fields.
There is no mention of the skirmish among the official records of the war, and the accounts of events immediately afterward vary somewhat, but it is certain that the body of the first Union soldier killed on Union soil was buried later that day by a Confederate burial detail in the field where he fell. The Fleming family must surely have come out of the house to look over the situation, and Miss Mary Fleming, who had come so near death herself a bit earlier, might well have been, as one account has it, “the first person at the side of the young martyr to liberty.” It must have been a horrifying day for her, as Corporal Rihl was shot in the head, “the ball entering his upper lip and passing out through the upper part of the skull,” and in another version, “the blood bespattering the paling fence.” A story prevalent at the time, that there were two Confederate casualties, was certainly false.
A few days later “General” David Detrich and his son, Jere, local undertakers, with the assistance of a number of other citizens, took up the remains and buried them in the Lutheran graveyard. A service was conducted by the Lutheran and German Reformed ministers. Sergeant Cafferty was attended by a local doctor and, until his recovery, lived in the nearby home of George Ilginfritz, a weaver. The fine home-spun coverlets and blankets made by that hospitable family are still treasured in the community.
In times of war, not all of the heroic and poignant events are acted out on the battlefield. Charles Hartman’s diary preserves for us, fortunately, an account of civilian valor that day; and, parenthetically, it might be mentioned that one of the Negro men whose rescue from the guards he describes, was Esque Hall, long a respected citizen of Chambersburg.
“One of the exciting features of the day was the scouring of the fields about town and searching houses for negroes. Those poor creatures, those of them who had not fled upon the approach of the foe, concealed themselves in wheat fields about the town. Cavalry men rode in search of them and many were caught after a desperate chase. In some cases the negroes were rescued from the guards. Squire Kauffman and Tom Pawling did this and if they had been caught the rebels would have killed them.
“I was one of the town council. We were marched all day in the hot sun and dusty, roads through the town and country. Heavy demands made upon us for salt, meat, onions and such. Also bridles and saddles, harness. The town council was held till their demands were complied with. This was the hardest day in all my life. I never was the same strong man afterwards. I was marched till I was worn out. They were after Sam Stickel, the man that had interfered with their wagons. Andrew Stiffell they gave an old nag to ride, but then Dr. J. K. Davison, Wesley Rhodes and myself told the officers that they had the wrong man. This was an innocent citizen, a tanner by trade. They told Stiffell to rest on my porch at the pump awhile. They all mounted their horses again and left without him. They would have taken him to Richmond Prison if we had not pleaded for him.”
On July 2, there was a surprise attack made by a detachment of Union cavalry under Capt. Ulric Dahlgren, on a Confederate cavalry unit in the center square of Greencastle. The Confederates were captured, along with papers intended for Lee, by that time in the thick of the battle of Gettysburg. Otherwise there seem to have been no remarkable incidents while the fate of the town and, indeed, the entire nation hung in the balance.
Charles Hartman made a diary entry in which he tried to assess the incredible numbers of men and machines he had seen during the invasion, and his figures agree with those of most observers. “That part of the army which passed through was carefully estimated by competent persons both at Greencastle and Chambersburg, July 8, 1863, while the matter was still fresh in the minds of the people. Taking their figures from several estimates made by citizens here, they’ state the number at forty’-seven thousand Confederate army, and was as follows: Ewell’s Corps, fifteen thousand infantry; artillery and cavalry with two hundred pieces of artillery and over two thousand wagons. The entire army did not number over forty-eight or fifty thousand men, infantry, cavalry and artillery. Now taking fifty thousand, the round number generally fixed upon by all who estimated them that passed through Chambersburg, and add Early’s Division which passed by way of Funkstown, Waynesboro, and Quincy, and we already have seventy to seventy-five thousand men. It may safely be said that the entire strength of the invading army did not exceed that number.”
It remained for Henry Omwake, a farmer and teacher, to leave us one of the most graphic eyewitness descriptions of the pathetic retreat of those same armies from Gettysburg. His Papers and Addresses, privately printed in 1912, is our source.
“On Saturday evening after the battle of Gettysburg, We suddenly heard a rumbling noise, loud and ominous, almost like far-off thunder; it continued till late in the night. In the afternoon of the same day on which we had the first assurance of the terrible encounter between the two great armies, we concluded that one of the armies was retreating in the direction of Waynesboro. Next morning we were up early and heard another rumbling noise from a northwestern direction. After a hurried breakfast, with two others I started in the direction of Brown’s Mill, two miles westward, where we arrived just a little too late to see the approach of Lee’s train of wounded, which was retreating from the scene of slaughter, by way of Fayetteville, New Franklin and Greencastle, toward Williamsport, Maryland. The advance guard was past by about one mile at the time of our arrival, The road was closely blocked with moving ambulances, bearing the bodies of the severely wounded, some of whom were in a dying condition. At intervals came a body of mounted guards and half a dozen brass cannon, with artillerymen, then again a long line of ambulances crowding one upon the other and sometimes driving in double line. This order was continued till three o’clock in the afternoon, when the train began to be more scattered. Soon the rear guard, consisting of a heavy body of cavalry with artillery force, closed the retreat.
“All the while during the passing of the train, there went by on the side a straggling line of wounded on foot, many of whom were in terrible suffering. Some had bleeding heads; others had their upper clothing removed to prevent the irritation of wounds on the chest or shoulders; some walked with lacerated thighs, and wounds below the knee; many carried their fractured arms in slings.
“Though this was a scene exhibiting the horrors of war in awful ghastliness, it was what, in military parlance, is denominated a safe and orderly retreat. There was no stampeding, and no threat of molestation by the Union troops. Small foraging parties were out, pressing into service every available horse or mule which could be made to draw a carriage or spring wagon in aid of the discomfited warriors. Scores of such improvised teams were pressed into service in the interest of the suffering. During a large part of the day, numerous herds of cattle and sheep were driven along, anywhere from ten to thirty in a herd, which had been taken out of the fields along the route. Near us were several disabled wagons, stacked full of guns; one of them was set on fire, and as the guns became heated the charges went off. Another lot of gun was injured by bending them between the spokes of the wheels.
“Nearly everybody with whom we talked acknowledged that Lee’s army had suffered a sad and terrible defeat, and yet they had implicit confidence in the prowess of their general. A little way from the roadside we saw three men engaged in the effort of replacing the broken wheel of an ambulance with one taken from a farm implement. Walking up to them, my comrade remarked that their effort, even though they did succeed with the wheel, would prove in vain. One of the men asked why, and my comrade replied that news had been received that their passage was intercepted at Williamsport, and their crossing there would be prevented. At this, the man most intent on having the wheel adjusted gave command to hurry up the job, with the remark: ‘Old Bob’ll have the way open,’ and so it turned out.
“The rumbling on the mountain was caused by the available forces of Lee in retreat by way of Waynesboro and Hagerstown.
“The next forenoon, a body of four to five thousand cavalry, apparently unhurt by fighting, came in two divisions, one by the route over which the train of the wounded had gone, the other by wayof Clay Hill, past our home. Persons living at the turn of the road were advised to get away to one side, as an attack by Union cavalry was anticipated; however, they passed by unmolested, emptying every house of bread and milk as they went. On all the high hills vedettes were posted; several of these, when the order was given to fall in line after the main body had passed, spied the only two horses in the neighborhood, hid in a thicket some distance to one side. They ordered the horses brought out, and the one, being lame, was turned over to its owner, while the other, which belonged to me, they took with them. This was the last demonstration by the Southern army in this region. After this body of cavalry had passed, there was no more sight of ‘secesh,’ save the few wounded left at points along the road.”
As for the decades following, it must serve as a postscript here, to relate that on June 22, 1886, the body of Corporal Rihl was again reburied, but this time the action became a recognition of patriotic and historical responsibilities.
A reminiscence by Mrs. W. S. Detrich, published in The Greencastle Echo-Pilot, June 20, 1963, tells us that “A day or so before the ceremony, the wooden coffin containing Corporal Rihl’s remains was lifted from the Lutheran graveyard and brought in the horse-drawn ‘dead wagon’ to the Detrich undertaking establishment, where it was immediately taken to the second floor. From that time until the procession to the new grave, the establishment was almost besieged by curious townspeople, and it was necessary to guard the body from those who wanted to snip off pieces of uniform or souvenir buttons. It was the largest crowd I ever saw around the funeral home. The body was placed in a new casket and taken in the horse-drawn hearse to the monument’s site, and in the long procession were officials, Civil War veterans and a host of townspeople.”
An attempt to have a representative of the dead hero’s family at the ceremony led to correspondence which revealed that the young Philadelphian was born in 1843, had been a gardener, and “concerning his ancestry nothing has been learned.” He enlisted on July 19, 1861. There seems to be no known photograph, but he was described as being “five feet, six and a quarter inches in height; had light complexion, blue eyes, and dark hair.” It was, at any rate, a true picture of an unknown soldier of that war and a thousand other wars.
An appropriation from the state and contributions from patriotic citizens, enabled the Corporal Rihl Post, No.438, Grand Army of the Republic, to erect a granite obelisk on the “sacred site.” Even in our own precarious times, the monument seems to have every expectation of meeting a requirement that it be “as lasting as the grand old mountains that look down in majesty upon us.”
Source: “Valleys of History,” vol. 5, no. 2. Spring, 1965.
Located at Kittochtinny Historical Society, Chambersburg, Franklin County, PA.