Off the Beaten Path

Someone told me once that over 90% of visitors to battlefields rarely leave their vehicles – they stay on the Park Roads and take a published auto tour, and/or listen to a tour tape/CD.  Probably true.  I see that at Gettysburg quite often.  Anyone like me, who visits battlefields on a regular basis, spends just as much time (if not more) off the NPS land and on surrounding private property and public roads off the battlefield.  At Gettysburg, in my case, this is doubly true – and over the past several years I’ve probably spent more time on areas surrounding the battlefield than on the public land itself.

This past weekend I gave a Gettysburg tour to a group of friends made up of members of an online discussion group owned by my good friend and writing colleague Eric Wittenberg.  It’s called the Civil War Discussion Group (CWDG).  I’ve given other tours previously to this group, such as one on Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry’s defense during the early morning of July 1, the first day of the battle.  Because the cavalry’s delaying action that day mostly took place between Knoxlyn/Wisler Ridge a few miles west of the town, to McPherson Ridge, most of the area is actually off the battlefield.  By it’s very nature, the study of Civil War cavalry takes one outside public battlefield boundaries.

The tour I gave Saturday morning was about the clash between John B. Gordon’s Confederate brigade and Pennsylvania militia forces on the afternoon of June 26, 1863, just west of Gettysburg.  It’s an action hardly studied, and accounting of it (always brief) appear in only a few books and fewer articles.  However, it’s always been fascinating to me because it took place over the identical ground that Buford’s action happened a few days later, and involved one of my favorite Confederate units, Lt. Col. Elijah V. White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry.

That morning, Jubal Early’s division of Ewell’s corps marched from Chambersburg Pa, burnt down Thaddeus Stevens’ ironworks in Caledonia, then proceeded east to Cashtown.  Hearing that some type of militia was in Gettysburg, Early decided to divide his force.  Taking 3 of his brigades north toward Mummasburg (led by Col. William French’s 17th Virginia Cavalry), and sending Gordon and White directly ahead to Gettysburg, Early hoped to get the militia squeezed in a pincers.  Local militia usually broke and ran in the face of veteran Southern troops, and Early figured he could gobble up the whole lot of whoever was in the town.

Well, he figured right.

Also that morning, Col. William Jennings led the 760 raw and untested men of his 26th Pennsylvania Militia a few miles west of Gettysburg on the Cashtown Pike (modern Rt. 30) to Marsh Creek, where he thought he could delay or stop a suspected Confederate advance on the town.  Protecting the Gettysburg and Cumberland Valley areas was paramount to Maj. Gen. Darius Couch’s aims in protecting the important artery from Confederate invasion.  Couch was in command of all the state’s militia – only about 8000 had signed up by that time to meet the emergency, and he had no choice but to send greenhorn, inexperienced troops to the field to face Southern veterans.

Along with Jennings and the 26th was Capt. Robert Bell’s Adams County Cavalry Company, a local militia cavalry unit made up of citizens from the Gettysburg area.  Bell had about 75 troopers with him, all of whom, like the 26th Pa, had never leveled a bead on another human being.  There were also a few townsmen along, toting shotguns and the like.  They set up camp at the Marsh Creek crossing of the pike, not knowing what to expect.

About 2pm, Jennings and Bell rode to the top of a small hill near the Samuel Lohr farm, where they could see about two miles west down the Cashtown Pike.  Immediately they spotted Gordon’s long column trudging toward them, with Lige White’s ragamuffin cavalry leading the way.  Jennings and Bell rode back to the militia camp, and without so much as raising a gun, Jennings ordered everyone to bug out.

A real footrace that would have made Monty Python proud, folks – remember the line “Run Away!  Run Away!”?

Jennings and Bell gathered up all their men, and headed north then west, heading back toward town on the Mummasburg Road, leaving a few dozen of the militia pickets and some of Bell’s troopers just west of Marsh Creek as a burnt offering for White and Gordon.  Seeing the bluecoats, Lige White ordered a charge.  Lt. Harrison Strickler of White’s Company E spurred their mounts into the pickets, snatching up every one.  Not a shot was fired, and one of White’s men later snickered about how willing the pickets were to surrender.  The fleeing soldiers along the Mummasburg Road were soon run over by Early’s other brigades and the 17th Virginia Cavalry, grabbing up more of the men.

I took the folks out Rt. 30 west of town where the militia had set up camp, and where a small marker today commemorates their, well, service.  The marker, which looks an awful lot like a large tombstone (deliberately or not) is hardly ever noticed today.  Of the 25 or so people in the group, I think only 1 or 2 others had ever even seen it before then.  I spoke about the action for about 45 minutes, emphasizing that we’re far off the beaten path of the battlefield, and that the area we were on had seen a lot of action on June 26 and then, with Buford’s defense, on July 1.

We then drove back to town and out the Baltimore Pike a few miles to where two cavalry monuments, also hardly noticed, sit on the north side of the Pike.  Two of Bell’s cavalrymen, William Lightner and George Washington Sandoe, got away from White’s assault and tried to sneak away by following the low ground of Rock Creek up to the Baltimore Pike.  Thinking it was safe, they came out to the road.  One of White’s men, however, saw them.  Lightner got away, but Sandoe shot at the southerner.  White’s man shot Sandoe, killing him instantly, making Sandoe the first casualty at Gettysburg in the campaign.  The two monuments at the spot were placed by the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry (Co. B) which Bell’s company later joined.  One monument is to the company, the other to the memory of Sandoe.  Again, few people in the group had ever seen the monuments or heard the story of Sandoe.

I then drove the folks 5 miles south on the Taneytown Road to the small hamlet of Barlow, Pa to the Mt. Joy Cemetery where the 20-year old Sandoe was buried.  Since many Federals marched to their date with destiny at Gettysburg along that road, many of them would have seen Sandoe’s fresh grave – portending the fate of some 5000 of them over the ensuing days and weeks.  Sandoe has a new headstone now, complete with an engraving of the emblem of the cavalry – crossed sabers.  Sandoe left behind a pregnant wife.  She’s not buried with him there, and is not interred in the area that I know of – perhaps she left some time later and remarried, trying to put such a tragic past behind her.  She and George had only been married 3 months when he was killed.

The tour was certainly off the beaten path at Gettysburg – none of the events took place on the actual battlefield itself.  I remarked to the group that the 2 1/2 hours or so that we’d spent during the tour was probably the most attention ol’ George had received in a hundred years.

Here’s to you, George, and Bell’s Cavalry and White’s troopers.  Studying you takes me to the obscure locales and rarely-trodden earth where interesting events, all but forgotten today, deserve more study.

Published in: on October 19, 2006 at 7:23 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. […] J. D. Petruzzi has an excellent post about leading tours of obscure places as his first real blog entry. Those of you who know me, or who have been long-time readers of this blog know that there are few things that I enjoy more than seeing or visiting really obscure places. I love visiting really obscure placs that few if anyone ever visits. […]

  2. JD,

    Very nice post. I have never noticed any of the monuments before, though I am sure I have driven by them. I will be in Gettysburg the 1st week in November with a group, and will look for them.

    In the course of the Chickamauga campaign, I have visited tons of obscure sites, so I know what you mean…

    Dave Powell

  3. Dave,

    I’ll be in Gettysburg on Nov.3 and 4 – signing books at the Fall Show at the All-Sports Complex. If you’ll be in town then, let’s hook up and have dinner or whatever – it’d be great to see you again.

    J.D.

  4. I, for one, am both intrigued and fascinated by “off the beaten path” style tours when they pertain to Gettysburg, or for that matter, any other ACW battlefield. Especially when the micro-tours are as knowledgeably conducted as was JD’s Sandoe/Bell tour.

    Long live minutiae! Standard tours be damned! We want more!

    I’d like to see a similar tour done on Captain William H. Boyd. And I know just the freshman blogger to lead it! After hearing JD and Eric mention the Cumberland Valley delaying exploits of Capt. Boyd, I’ve become hooked. Boydomania! Perhaps Wilbur S. Nye explained the somewhat forgotten Captain’s derring-do best on pages 89 and 90 of his seminal classic HERE COME THE REBELS!……

    After describing Boyd personally volunteering, while accompanied only by his solitary company of troopers, to infiltrate thru Jenkins’ cavalry in order to deliver a message on behalf of Milroy from the doomed Winchester garrison to Harper’s Ferry because of downed telegraph wires, Nye goes on to write:

    “And so began Boyd’s amazing adventures, lasting until July 1, in which he and his company became virtually the only Federal force operating on the front of the Rebel advance as it swept across the river and into Pennsylvania. The messages Boyd sent to General Couch in Harrisburg were, at certain times, the only reliable information that the Army of the Potomac received concerning the whereabouts of Lee’s advance.”

    Now that’s yet another story/tour worthy of telling in detail! Please?

  5. You mentioned that the clash between Gordon and the Penn. militia is hardly ever discussed and when it is it is only briefly. I have noticed this too. Is this clash discussed thoroughly anywhere? I believe that your account may be the most extensive I have seen yet. I was not even aware of the marker for the militia. I am going to have to check it out during my next visit to Gettysburg this November. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. JD,

    I will be in town on the 3rd and 4th. 5 of us are staying at the Quality Inn Steinwher, and I would like to meet up for dinner. Got a preference? We usually go out to the Italian place in Hanover on Saturday, I think Eric and you went with us last June for the GDG? I could make reservations…

    Dave

  7. Josh,

    There’s not much more in detail than in Nye and a couple other similar books. However, there is going to be an enormous amount of detail in my and Eric’s three-volume study of all the cavalry in the Campaign. We’re just starting it now. Volume 1 will begin with Brandy Station and go to June 26, Volume 2 will pick up there and go through July 3, and Volume 3 will deal with the retreat. So regarding Stan’s comments about Boyd – yep, you’ll see more about that and every other cavalry instance large and small. We plan for the three volumes to be definitive when it comes to the cavalry from mid-June through the battle.

    Josh, look for that marker just about halfway between Knoxlyn Ridge and Marsh Creek on the north side of the road. It’s right where a gravel road leading to a scrap metal business comes out on Rt. 30.

    J.D.

  8. Dave,

    Sounds terrific. That restaurant (I forget the name) was terrific, and I’d go back anytime. I’ll email you.

    See you then!

    J.D.

  9. J.D.,

    I have heard about this book set through Eric’s blog. I can honestly say that I have never been more excited about the release of a book as I am with these ones. Thank you for the directions to the marker. You probably just saved me a ton of time searching for the darn thing. This means more time for battlefield stomping.

  10. Thank you, Joshua. If you’re familiar with the detail and sourcing that we used in “Plenty of Blame,” you’ll see the same in the three volumes. Boyd will figure quite prominently in volumes 1 and 2, and guys like Lige White, other partisans, and the lesser-known figures will finally get their due alongside all the well known players and engagements. In volume 1, too, will be the first modern treatment of the actions at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville since Bob O’Neill’s terrific book on them.

    J.D.


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