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Battle in the Snow

(Originally Published in the Star and Sentinel, November 16, 1881)

Coleís Cavalry and Mosbyís men at Loudon Heights

A dramatic and touching incident in the late rebellion-Terrible struggle in pitch darkness-Paxtonís boy-High praise from Hallook

One rather sultry day in September, 1862, when the clouds of war were black, a second Lieutenant of Calvary sat perched upon the top of a rail-fence at Paxtonís Crossroads in Loudon County Virginia. He was covered with the dust and smoke of a fight that his battalion was having with Mosbyís command a few miles up the road. He had come back to the point where this story opens, in charge of five severely wounded men, a result of the skirmish. They were lying back of him under an apple tree, one of them his own brother, shot through the body and believed to be mortally wounded. The other four were not bound to him by the tie of kindred, but they were very near to him, for not only had they been his playmates in childhood but the companions of his later years, and ever since the beginning of war his closest comrades.

They were suffering terribly, and while the officer was wondering how they were to be taken to the Potomac River, where medical assistance could be secured, his command came down the road somewhat in disorder, showing that the battle had gone against them. The dread of capture was now added to the gloom of the situation, but there was no time for reflection or despondency. Mosby was coming and something must quickly be done.

A Charitable Rebel

The officer sought the farmer whose name the Crossroads bore and offered $100 for a wagon to transport his wounded comrades to the river, a few miles distant. "You can have the wagon in welcome. I am a Confederate and have a boy in the Confederate army, and I do by you, sir, as I would want others to do by him if he were wounded."

The farmer spurned the offer of pay for his vehicle, and not only assisted the officer in laying straw in the bottom of the wagon and placing the wounded men upon it, but he drove with him to the Potomac River, where medical assistance was summoned, and the life of each of the wounded men saved. The farmerís son was in Mosbyís command at this moment, and in the fight where these men were wounded.

The tide of battle flowed on and the disasters of war multiplied. Hardly a week during the two eventful years which followed leading up to the climax of this story, but that Mosbyís command and the battalion to which belonged the Lieutenant and the five wounded men met in battle.

Both saw hard service. The four companies of cavalry shown gallantry under the most trying circumstances known in the warfare of all time gives me the theme for this sketch, were raised from among the Union men of Western Maryland and the adjoining counties of Pennsylvania. They were enlisted for the difficult and dangerous duty of scouting along the border, a service for which then farmhands with the general lay of the country specifically fitted them.

Cole's Cavalry

Army operations along the Potomac River were so active and important that this battalion almost from the day of itís muster into the service was called to the fore front, and it was not long before Coleís Cavalry was known far and wide for itís almost tireless activity and dauntless bravery. Major Henry A. Cole of Frederick, Md, was the commander, and it is needless to say that he was a man of great dash and courage. From the very first fight in which he led his four companies of brave mountaineers, down to the close of the war the cavalry he commanded bore his name, and I doubt if there was ever one of those sturdy veterans who did not take a pride in saying that he belonged to Coleís Cavalry.

Major H. S. McNair of Adams County, Pa, the officer with whom I introduced this story, is still living in York, Pa, and his brother who was supposed to be mortally wounded is Postmaster at Emmitsburg. Captain Hunter, Captain Buckinham, Lieutenant McIlhenny and many of the long list of veterans who survived the war, I have lost sight of. Major Horner of Adams County, the Adjutant of the battalion, is an officer in the Baltimore Customhouse. J. A. Scott, one of the veterans, lends proof in the Government Printing Office, and so they are scattered to the four winds. Very many of them are still living and will forcibly recognize the points of this sketch.

It would be almost impossible to select any week during the years from Ď61 to Ď65 that was not fruitful in the stories of the gallantry of this handful of cavalry. But there is one bold deed that stands pre-eminent, not only in the history of this battalion, but in the whole cavalry service of the war.

Loudon Heights

If the reader could stand upon the great iron bridge which spans the Potomac River at Harperís Ferry, and look upon Maryland Heights towering from the riverís brink, two thousand feet into the air, and crowned with a great stone fort useful in the days of which I wrote, and then turn the eye toward the great pile of rocks on the Virginia side, known as Loudon Heights, rising abruptly from the Shenandoah River to the height of more than a thousand feet, and then upon Bolivar Heights, standing as a bold background to the desolate village of Harperís Ferry, he could better appreciate the situation on which this little band was placed at the time I will introduce them. He could better realize itís perils and understand the thrilling episode of which I am to write.

In the winter of 1864 Coleís Cavalry was encamped on the east face of Loudon Heights, a little more than two miles by road from Harperís Ferry, but, "as the crow flies," not more than half that distance.

They were the only troops on that side of the river, and their position, as the sequel will show, was a very dangerous one.

The single road leading past the camp toward the point, where at the beginning of my story we found this command engaged with Mosby, lead up the mountain side and at times was almost impassible. Loudon County was the home of many of Mosbyís officers and men. Every path and ravine in the neighborhood of this isolated camp was, therefore, as familiar to Mosby and his men as the high road. The camp was not established here without reluctance, for both officers and men recognized the perils which would surround it all through the weary winter. For a time the men were cautions and never undressed at night. Then arms were kept always within reach and ready for use, but the sense of danger, which all felt at first, wore off as the weeks went by and there was no attack, nor even an alarm. Both officers and men relapsed into a feeling of security, which made them more mindful of their own comfort than of the dangers with which they were surrounded. About the 1st of January there was a heavy snow fall, and the weather became intensely cold, inclining the men to stow themselves snugly away at night as though going to bed at home. I fear also that they were not very careful about their arms and ammunition.

A Terrible Night

The 9th of January was very cold and the night which followed intensely dark. The snow carpet which covered the camp was the only relief to the great black veil which seemed to be drawn over the face of all nature. It was upon this night that Mosby had determined to attack and if possible capture this battalion of cavalry, which, oftener than any other, had met him in battle and dealt him hard blows. He selected about 400 of the best of his command and left camp, crossing the snow clad mountains to the right of Major Coleís camp. They came by paths and through ravines, avoiding the pickets on the Hillsborough Road and finally capturing them from the rear before they had a chance to fire a shot or alarm the camp. It was between 2 and 3 oíclock on the morning of the 10th of January, that Mosby captured the pickets and prepared his plan of attack upon the slumbering camp. His command was quietly posted along the lines of tents where the Union cavalrymen were sleeping in fancied security, without even suspicion than an enemy was near.

Shooting the Sleepers

At a given signal a deadly fire was opened upon them. Naturally, all was confusion. The volley, which killed some of the men in their tents and wounded others, was the first warning of danger. There had been no call to arms. Boots and saddles had not been sounded to prepare the men for duty. The crack of the enemyís guns was the stern call to arms made upon these sleeping men with no time to reach their clothing and almost less to grope for their arms in the dark. To be sure, they had been used to hardships, and had never failed to respond to the call of duty. Then pluck and endurance were now subjected to the severest test known in modern war, and yet they did not falter. Almost without waiting for the orders of the officers the men turned out into the bitter cold and snow, ankle deep, in their night clothes, and in most instances without shoes. They responded to the attack with a determination which astonished their assailants, who had expected to have an easy capture.

"Fire at every man on horseback!" Was almost the first order of the commanding officer. "Men, do not take to your horses!" The men obeyed both orders, and directed their fire upon every man on horseback, and this judicious action won them the day.

When the Confederates found that they were to be resisted to the death, Captain Smith, one of the principal officers in command of the attacking force, shouted to his men, "Fire the tents and shoot Ďem by the light!" He was sitting on his horse near the head of the row of tents occupied by Company A. A Sergeant of that company who had been groping for his carbine, had found it and was just pushing his head through the tent when this order was given. He dropped on his knees, raised his piece to his shoulder and fired at the officer giving the command. The ball struck him near the eye and crashed through his brain, and he fell dead into the mouth of the tent, almost upon the man whose bullet had killed him.

A Desperate Struggle

For three-quarters of an hour this fight in the snow continued, with varying chances of success. With the brave men who were doing battle in the bitter cold, without clothing, suffered no man can tell, and yet they never wavered. The scene during the fight was simply indescribable. The men on both sides fought like tigers, and volley after volley was exchanged, the flash of the guns as each was discharged being the only relief to the somber darkness of the night. The shouts of the men engaged could be heard above the din of battle, and the groans of the wounded mingled strangely with the confusion of the strife. As each fresh volley would for a moment light up the camp with itís sickening, death-like glare, some comrade would fall and a fresh stream of blood crimson the snow. How the men fought and how they stood out during that hour was a marvel even to themselves, and the history war within all the tide of time cannot produce a more striking evidence of bravery and devotion.

Hardly had the flash form the first volley died and the fight actually begun before they heard the long-roll beat in the camps at Harperís Ferry, and the struggling men knew that if they could hold out for a little while relief would come. The troops at Harperís Ferry could see the flash of every gun and hear the crack of every death-dealing carbine. There was no relief there except infantry, and it was two miles, so there was a whole hour and more the conflicting emotions of hope and fear as to the fate of the courageous little band of veterans on the mountain. The 34th Massachusetts was ordered to the rescue on a "double-quick" as soon as it could be ordered into line. But before it could reach the summit of Loudon Heights the Confederates had been repulsed and Coleís Cavalry had won the fight upon the snow-clad mountain-top that added much to the name and fame it had already gained.

After the Battle

When night lifted and day dawned upon that battlefield there was a scene which can never be described. The dead lay upon the ground frozen stiff by the terrible cold. The severely wounded complained bitterly of the frost, and the bullet-pierced tents of the men that did the fighting were full of weary, powder stained veterans suffering sorely form the effects of frozen feet, of which they were unmindful until the battle was won. Seven Confederates, four of them commissioned officers, were killed in this night attack upon Major Coleís camp, and a great many more were wounded, some of whom were carried off by their comrades. In deed, those that were able to follow the retreat decided that their path was literally marked by a track of blood. Major Cole lost two killed, thirteen wounded. Captain Vernon, now Surveyor at Customs at Baltimore, lost an eye, and Lieutenant Rivers was wounded. A large number of the command was sent to the hospital with frozen feet, and two amputations were necessary. The suffering of these brave men did not stop with the battle.

General Sullivan, who was in command of the district, rode over from Harperís Ferry after daylight accompanied by his staff. He had the men drawn up in line, and eulogized their conduct in the strongest terms that words could express. He called the Department Commanderís attention to the gallant conduct of this handful of men, requesting that his report of the fight be transmitted to the Commander-in-Chief. General Kelley in complying with General Sullivanís request, endorsed upon the report.

"I cheerfully comply with the request of General Sullivan in calling the attention of the General in chief to the gallant conduct of Major Henry A. Cole and his brave command. His repulse of the murderous attack made by an overwhelming force at 4 oíclock on a dark morning evinced a watchfulness and bravery most commendable."

The following commendatory order was at once issued by the General-in-Chief:


January 20, 1864 Major Gen. B. F. Kelley, Cumberland, Md.

GENERAL I have just received from your headquarters Major Henry A. Coleís report of the repulse of Mosbyís attack upon the camp on Loudon Heights on the 10th. Major Cole and his command, the battalion of P H B Cavalry, Maryland Volunteers, deserve high praise for their gallantry in repelling this Rebel assault. Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

H. W. Haileck, General-in-Chief

This order was read to the army and a copy forwarded to Major Cole. It was the only instance during the Rebellion that such conspicuous commendation was awarded from the head-quarters of the army to anything like such a force as that commanded by Major Cole. Of course there are a thousand incidents of this barefooted fight on the mountain, in the snow worth relating, and the conscious instances of bravery would include every man in the command. But there is one touching incident necessary to join this story.

Paxtonís Boy

When daylight broke upon the scene there was a young Confederate soldier lying upon the field with a fatal wound in the neck near the jugular vein. He was not more than 20 years of age, and a boy in appearance as well as in years. The officer, who appears at the Crossroads in the beginning of this story, found him. He raised up the dying lad and asked his name. "My name is Paxton," replied the boy in broken tones. "My God! Are you Mr. Paxtonís sone that lives at the Crossroads, toward Waterville?" "I am" was the simple response. The humane act of his father in 1862 was recalled, and full of emotion the officer picked the lad up, carried him to the hospital, laid him upon an easy couch, and summoned the doctor who replied petulantly, "We canít care for those men until we look after our own wounded." "But this boy must be cared for," said the officer, and in as few words as possible he told the story of 1862 when five of their men belonging to Coleís cavalry lay wounded upon Paxtonís farm at the Crossroads.

There was no more parleying and the boy was at once carefully attended to, but he was beyond human aid. All that could be done for him was to ease his last moments, and this was done. All the command felt, terribly as they themselves had suffered and were suffering, that this boy was entitled to every attention that could be shown him.

"I do this," said Mr. Paxton in 1862, when he assisted Lieutenant McNair in taking the wounded men toward the river, "because I would want other to do the same by my boy, who is in the Confederate army, if he should be wounded."

The same officer and the same men who heard these words and received that favor dealt the death-blow to that son. Yet his dying moments were made easier by them for the favor his father had done.

For this fight the battalion was raised to the dignity of a regiment, and Major Henry A. Cole, who is now living in Baltimore, was made itís Colonel, and Captain Vernon itís Lieutenant Colonel. The other officers were promoted to various positions in the regiment, but neither officers nor men in their advanced places lost an opportunity to refer with pride to "the old battalion" and itís record.


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