Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson reports on the actions of his troops at New Creek and Moorefield during August, 1864. Johnson also discusses the behavior of the Confederate cavalry troops during the mid-summer raid north of the Potomac into Maryland and Pennsylvania. In Johnson's opinion, the conduct of the troops was very poor, and included thievery and drunkenness. He mentions the burning of Chambersburg in which some soldiers engaged in extortion and drinking, making, in his opinion, a chance for national vengeance turn into base brigandage.
HDQRS. JOHNSON'S CAVALRY BRIGADE,
Lieut. Col. A. S. PENDLETON,
Near Mount Jackson,
August 10, 1864.
On the 4th August at daylight we moved on New Creek, this command in rear. On arriving there I was ordered by Brig.-Gen. McCausland to occupy a hill on the left with my whole command, post my artillery, and open on an inclosed work which was in our front. I attempted the movement as directed, and found the hills so precipitous that my men could hardly walk up, much less get the artillery there, and after advancing my skirmishers close to the hill designated found a block-house, a palisade work and abatis occupied by a few hundred of the enemy. I could have carried the place with a loss very heavy for my force, but finding that it would be impossible to get artillery there, and when occupied it would be fully 1,200 yards from the inclosed work, and that that work was open in rear and swept by a battery of six guns within short range, making it utterly untenable after being carried by assault, and it being too late for more extended operations, I determined, on consultation with Col. Peters, who was nearest me, not to attack, I accordingly drew off, reported the facts, and was ordered by Brig.-Gen. McCausland to cover his withdrawal, which I did. When his advance reached New Creek I was two miles and one-half in his rear. The reason of this was that I marched from beyond Romney, he from the mouth of Mill Creek, making my march fully seven miles longer than his. When I reached the foot of the mountain I found his column, or at least his ambulances, halted, and he having taken a road twenty-five miles from Romney to New Creek, instead of one eighteen miles, as he had led me to believe he would take, having changed the route without informing me, other than the bare order to follow him. I, in the absence of orders, inferred that he intended to break this long march by a halt to graze. He had halted long enough for me to close an interval of seven miles. I, therefore, also stopped, for precisely an hour from the time my rear got into the field until my advance again started. If, as I understand the reports, there were no men in the works at New Creek when he got there he ought to have taken them at once without waiting for me. But he ordered me to place artillery in a place utterly inaccessible for it, with only eleven rounds for two guns, which fact I reported to him when he gave me the order, and without having reconnoitered the position, he directed me to take it. If he had done so he never could have given the order. It is now my deliberate judgment that the post at New Creek can only be taken by assault of superior numbers, and that had I occupied the position designated by Gen. McCausland it would have been unavailing, inasmuch as the square work, the object of his attack, was perfectly commanded by another work in rear, and also by a work on the Maryland side mounted with heavy guns. It was, in fact, only the outpost of the position. The capture of it would have cost many men, only to be driven out instantly with the loss of more. Gen. McCausland, however, errs in thinking there were few men there. It has since appeared by a report that Gen. Kelley was there with the forces he had at Cumberland. I was an hour behind Gen. McCausland, and the delay could not have affected the result. The enemy were there and disposed of their men to meet attacks at each point so soon as threatened.
Thence we moved to Moorefield, reaching there Friday, August 5, and went into camp, Gen. McCausland on the Moorefield side of the South Branch and this command along the Romney road, the only place I could get grass, my outside regiment four miles and a half from Moorefield, my nearest three-fourths of a mile from Gen. McCausland, who was three miles from that town. The camp was indicated by him, and I received orders, as I did during the expedition, every-where and in every place, where to place my pickets. He designated three roads--the Romney, Patterson's Creek, and Williamsport roads. They were accordingly picketed as he ordered. He directed no scouts along my front and I send none out. He being my commanding officer, having access to all means of information, choosing his own camps, routes, and times of march, I consider it was not my place to send scouts without his order.
At 2 a. m. Sunday, August 7, I received a verbal order by a courier from him, informing me that Averell had passed through Romney the preceding evening with three brigades of cavalry, and directing me to saddle up my command and send out a scout on the Romney road. I instantly sent a courier to each regiment, transmitting the order; it was promptly obeyed by each officer. I, at the same time, sent a scout on the Romney road from the Eighth Virginia Cavalry. This was the first, last, and only intimation I ever received from Gen. McCausland of the proximity of the enemy, and the only order I ever received from him on the subject. The order itself was calculated to assure me that there was no danger of immediate attack. Had he thought it was imminent, he would doubtless have at least ordered me to form and mount my command, if not to take a position to resist attack. My camp was no place to fight in, being a level, with all positions for artillery in favor of an approaching enemy, and had a fight been anticipated I should doubtless have been withdrawn to the fine range of hills on his (Gen. McCausland's) side of the river. About daylight a squadron in Confederate uniform moved by the camp of the First Maryland straight to my headquarters. This who were up and saw them supposed them to be a returning scout or picket, and took no notice of them. They never fired a shot until they reached McNeill's house, where my camp was. Soon after them came a body of Federal cavalry, who rode at once through the camp of the First Maryland to that of the Second Maryland and dispersed both, they being very small, reduced by losses in battle and hard marching to an aggregate for both of not 130 men in camp, the First having twenty-eight men on picket. Maj. Seeney, Thirty-sixth Virginia Battalion, was rapidly pressed back to my headquarters, when Lieut. McNulty, with two pieces of artillery, doubly charged with canister, sought to stop the enemy, but his cannoneers were swept from their pieces by a charge in flank. From the back door of my headquarters, they being around me, I galloped to the Eighth Virginia Cavalry to get them to charge, passing around the front of their column to get there. It was then too late; the Eighth were moving off in good order, but neither their colonel nor myself could wheel them in time. Col. Peters then had the Twenty-first Regt. well in hand, but was unable to check the charge until he had passed beyond the river into Gen. McCausland's camp, where he formed and stopped their crossing for some time, with a loss to them, since ascertained, of 2 majors and 38 men. My object heretofore had been to check them until I could pass the river, where I expected to find Brig.-Gen. McCausland with his command well in hand, who would hold them while I got in position by him, when I had no doubt of the result. Brig.-Gen. McCausland was not there. He had slept in the town of Moorefield, three miles distant from his camp, and did not leave there until between daylight and sunrise, and when he did get on the ground his own command was scattered, some up the Winchester road and some down the Moorefield road. I ordered up the Twenty-seventh Virginia Battalion, Capt. Gibson, and with Col. Peters formed a line to stop their farther advance, which he did for a short time, while I went to get him a support. He was, however, forced back, and both himself and Capt. Gibson wounded and taken prisoners. They were left at Moorefield. After this the enemy only followed me, but made no other attack. Beyond Moorefield I got the command in tolerable order, and Gen. McCausland directed me to hold a position while he hurried on the Matthews' with the fragments of two regiments to join the rest of his command, which had gone up the Winchester road, and which he had directed to join him there. They did not do so, and the parts of regiments whose withdrawal this command covered were the only organized parts of his brigade that I have heard of getting off.
The way in which the enemy got in was this, as told by Private Callan, Company F, First Maryland Cavalry, to his brother, my orderly, when both were prisoners--the latter escaped: The scout from the Eighth having passed beyond the picket on the Romney road, about 3 a. m. or very early that morning, every man of it was captured by the enemy. Two men in gray uniform rode up to the two sentinels on outpost, and being challenged replied "They were scouts from the Eighth Virginia." After exchanging a word or two one rode back to pick up something lost from his saddle, and immediately returned with twenty more who captured the whole post. At the reserve they came up and said they were a relief from the Eighth Virginia, and some of the men saying to those on picket, "Get your horses, you are relieved." Thus scout, picket, and reserve were captured by the enemy uniformed as Confederates, who then rode in my camp without giving any alarm. A Yankee sergeant, captured by Capt. Emack, of my staff, told him that a man who had been in camp to have a stolen horse restored had guided them to the picket and my headquarters.
This great disaster would have at once been retrieved but for the insufficient armament of the command. Besides the First and Second Maryland and a squadron of the Eighth Virginia there was not a saber in the command. In that open country, perfectly level, the only mode to fight charging cavalry was by charging, and this the men were unable to do. The long Enfield musket once discharged could not be reloaded, and lay helpless before the charging saber. With any equal chance the enemy would at once have been driven back. The largest portion of the command remained steady, and after passing Moorefield were held in hand with ease. I reached the Valley with about 300 men missing (150 have come in), leaving that number as my net loss killed, wounded, and missing.
I should have here stopped this narrative, but circumstances which have come to my knowledge render it necessary for me, in justice to myself and this command, to speak more plainly than I had intended to. Brig.-Gen. McCausland was in command of the expedition. He selected his own camps, routes, and lines of pickets. He always gave me orders when to camp, to march, and to picket, and I always obeyed.
He had command of McNeill's company, a numerous and well-mounted body of scouts, well acquainted with the country, and through them he ought to have had full knowledge of the proximity of the enemy. If they were not accessible to him it was his duty to order scouts to ascertain his whereabouts and not mine. If he did know Averell was near and expected an attack, he gave me no notice of it whatever, the mere order to saddle up being preparatory to a move, or a march, and not a commanding officer's order to his subordinates to prepare for battle. The only intimation or order of any kind whatever that I ever received from Gen. McCausland on the subject was the verbal one by a courier. But he did not expect an attack. In proof of this I refer to the fact that when the attack was made Brig.-Gen. McCausland was asleep in the house of Mr. McMechen, three miles from his camps or any of his command, and further, that some portion of his own brigade was unsaddled and utterly unprepared. He never reached the scene of action until after a portion of my command had passed the river. I suppose he was not there when his own brigade became separated, one part taking the Moorefield road and the other the Winchester grade. If he had been on the ground anticipating an attack he would doubtless have had his command formed and made fight, neither of which he did, for besides one charge by a light squadron near the ford and a line of dismounted men above it I saw no fighting done by him near the river. From these facts I infer that Brig.-Gen. McCausland, first, was unprepared for an attack himself, and therefore could not expect me, his subordinate, to be prepared; or, second, that anticipating attack he neglected to give me due and timely notice, and neglected to put his troops in position to repel it.
It is due to myself and the cause I serve to remark on the outrageous conduct of the troops on this expedition. This duty I informed Gen. McCausland I should perform during the expedition itself. Every crime in the catalogue of infamy has been committed, I believe, except murder and rape. Highway robbery of watches and pocket-books was of ordinary occurrence; the taking of breast-pins, finger-rings, and earrings frequently happened. Pillage and sack of private dwellings took place hourly. A soldier of an advance guard robbed of his gold watch the Catholic clergyman of Hancock on his way from church on Sunday, July 31, in the publish steeds. Another of a rear guard nearly brained a private of Company B, First Maryland Cavalry, for trying to prevent his sacking a woman's trunk and stealing her clothes and jewels. A lieutenant at Hancock exacted and received $1,000 in greenbacks of a citizen; a soldier packed up a woman's and a child's clothing, which he had stolen in the presence of the highest official, unrebuked. At Chambersburg, while the town was in flames, a quartermaster, aided and directed by a field officer, exacted ransom of individuals for their houses, holding the torch in terror over the house until it was paid. These ransoms varied from $750 to $150, according to the size of the habitation. Thus the grand spectacle of a national retaliation was reduced to a miserable huckstering for greenbacks. After the order was given to burn the town of Chambersburg and before, drunken soldiers paraded the streets in every possible disguise and paraphernalia, pillaging and plundering and drunk. As the natural consequence, lawlessness in Pennsylvania and Maryland reproduced itself in Virginia, and in Hardy County, near Moorefield, a lieutenant knocked down and kicked an aged woman who has two sons in the Confederate army, and after choking the sister locked her in a stable and set fire to it. This was because the two women would not give up horses he and his fellow thieves wished to steal. Pressing rapidly along, marching day and night, in most instances criminals guilty of these acts cannot be identified, but I believe a higher tone of morals and discipline may be infused in any Confederate soldier which will restrain him form disgracing himself and his countrymen by such deeds. Had there been less plunder there would have been more fighting at Moorefield on Sunday, August 7. I tried, and was seconded by almost every officer of my command, but in vain, to preserve the discipline of this brigade, but it was impossible; not only the license afforded was too great, but actual example gave them excuse and justification.
In view of the necessity that the public service demands of the investigation of this whole matter, and that the responsibility for the Moorefield disaster be placed where it belongs, I respectfully ask that a court of inquiry be convened at once.
I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
BRADLEY T. JOHNSON,
Bibliographic Information : Letter Reproduced from The War of The Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 43, Serial No. 90, Pages 4-8, Broadfoot Publishing Company, Wilmington, NC, 1997.