Faded Hoofbeats

On his blog, Eric Wittenberg has a periodic feature he calls “Forgotten Cavalrymen” in which he pays tribute to the lesser-known figures of Civil War cavalry.  Well, I plan to do the same once in a while here, and I’ve come up with my own name for the feature – “Faded Hoofbeats.”  I think it fits.

Major Robert Bell is the inaugural profile.  If Bell has a “claim to fame” it was as organizer and commander of his own independent cavalry company, raised in Gettysburg in June 1863.  Bell and his company clashed with John B. Gordon’s Confederate infantry brigade and Elijah White’s 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry on June 26, 1863 just west of Gettysburg.  A dozen or so of Bell’s troopers were the pickets of some 760 Pennsylvania militia infantry that day, and all the bluecoats broke and ran when charged by just a few dozen of White’s screaming cavalryment.  One of Bell’s troopers, Pvt. George W. Sandoe, was killed later that day by one of White’s men, suffering the distinction of being the first casualty at Gettysburg during the campaign.

Robert Bell was born on March 5, 1830 in Menallen Township in Adams County, Pa, the youngest of four children.  Raised on the family farm just north of Gettysburg, he was educated in local schools and at Oak Ridge Academy.  Bell married Abigail King in 1853.  Robert’s father James, born in 1796, served during the Revolution as a clerk for Gen. Knox, and his grandfather Robert (born about 1738) was a captain during the Revolution in the 9th Regiment Virginia Continental Line. 

Our Robert’s maternal great-grandfather, Hugh King, was a captain during the Revolution and was captured by the British at the Battle of Long Island in August, 1776.  King’s father, Victor, was a lieutenant in the expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1758 as a member of Hugh Mercer’s battalion. 

It’s fair to say that at his birth, our subject Robert Bell had American martial blood coursing through his veins.

In the middle of June 1863, Bell enlisted in the Federal service and immediately raised an independent cavalry company in Adams County in response to the threatened Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania.  Bell’s rolls began to fill with Gettysburg area farm boys who knew the surrounding countryside intimately – all of which would serve the local effort well during the ensuing campaign.  Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin accepted Bell’s greenhorn troopers into militia service, and they were sworn in for six months in grand style in front of the Eagle Hotel in Gettysburg, with Bell commanding as captain. 

On June 26, 1863, Bell’s troopers, along with the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, the Philadelphia City Troop and a handful of armed local Home Guard, were run through town by White’s and Gordon’s advance of Jubal Early’s Confederate brigade.

After the Gettysburg Campaign, Bell’s company acted as Provost Guard at Gettysburg, then was mustered in as Company B of the recently-formed 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry.  In February 1864, Bell reenlisted for three years, was commissioned major, and often commanded both the regiment and his brigade.  Bell was present for Lee’s surrender, and was mustered out of service on July 18, 1865.

Following the war, Bell resumed farming in Gettysburg.  Prior to the war, he and Abigail had five children, and three more after.  In 1867, Bell became a director and a cashier of the First National Bank of Gettysburg, and enjoyed showing visitors his war horse.  Malarial poison contracted during the war continued to afflict him, and Bell and his family were often quite poor.  Bell was very active in the local GAR post in Gettysburg, giving speeches and active in the monumentation efforts of the Gettysburg battlefield. 

Bell died at Gettysburg on June 25, 1904, and was buried in the Great Conewago Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Hunterstown, Pa.  Many of the Bell family is also interred there.

Bell and his little company of wet-behind-the-ears played an important, if less than glorious, role in the early days of the Gettysburg Campaign, with one of his boys paying the ultimate price.  Pvt. George Sandoe, who had only married four months prior, left behind a pregnant, grieving widow.

Truly only faded hoofbeats now, Bell’s legacy received a very hard blow only recently again – his nearly 200 year-old ancestral home just north of Gettysburg was torn down to make way for the new Adams County prison.  As a small consolation to Bell’s memory, the County named the new road leading to the facility “Major Bell Lane.”

Bell would be proud, wouldn’t he?

Published in: on December 6, 2006 at 12:15 am  Comments (10)  

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  1. JD,

    As well he should. Nice tribute, bro.

    One interesting point to note here–between William H. Boyd, Oliver Blachly Knowles (both profiled on my site) and Bell, we’ve now covered three of the major officers of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry. Considering it wasn’t raised until August 1863 and didn’t see its first real action until Cold Harbor in June 1864, that’s pretty remarkable for a single regiment.


  2. The June 26th Action of Bell’s Cavalry is one of those great little known Gettysburg stories that so many visitors who just get the “Readers Digest” version of the battle never hear about. A nicely done tribute.

    Also worth noting that George Sandoe’s gravestone incorrectly lists him as a member of Company “B”, 21st PA Cav. As you mention, Bell’s Cavalry did not become part of the 21st PA until after the Gettysburg campaign.

  3. Eric,

    Very true – and I think one of the 21st’s great stories is their service in the last few days of the war. Bell’s story is very similar – from farmer to officer – who sees it through to the end of the war.


  4. Mike,

    You’re right, and I took the CWDG folks to Sandoe’s gravesite during my tour of the June 26 action this fall, pointing out that his stone does indeed have the regiment on it. Of course, the 21st’s monuments along the Baltimore Pike also state that, confusing many folks into thinking that he was ever officially a member of the 21st Pa Cavalry.

    But I think it’s the result of the regiment being proud to claim Sandoe as their own… had he lived, of course, he would have been a member of the regiment if he stayed in the service.


  5. If you look at the roster rolls in Bates monumental work, Company B was HEAVILY comprised of Sandoe’s comrades in Major Bell’s Adams County Cavalry. I have a lot of detail on Bell’s role and his men’s in my manuscript on the early days of the Gettysburg Campaign that will be published by J.D. and Eric in 2007.

  6. That was indeed a fine tribute. Thank you JD!
    Scott, I’m looking forward to reading your findings as well.

    You mentioned that Bell’s family was at times poor after the war.
    I remember a few months ago at the CWDG muster you were telling me a bit about Bell. As I recall, and by no means am I quoting you nor am I even certain of the following, but I do recollect you saying that Bell was very bad off financially postwar. Something about Bell requesting that he be compensated for postage by the treasurer of the 1st Maine Cavalry regarding Bell’s postwar reply to a 1st ME newsletter?

    Bumming postage sounds almost pauper like. Was Major Bell actually destitute or just cheap? Either way it sounds tragic and unbefitting of a man who is worthy of more recognition than he’s gotten up till now.
    As you know, one of Governor Billy Smith’s regiments spent about a night and at least some of the next day, July 1 and 2, out there near Granite Station, two hundred yards or so from Bell’s farm. Also, the day after Bell’s command and the 26th PA Emerg. Militia got routed near Marsh Creek on June 26, plenty of Early’s guys passed right by Bell’s farm on their way out the York Road towards York and Wrightsville. Out of curiosity, did Bell or his family ever request postwar compensation for stolen or destroyed properties? Or was recompense considered beneath a gentleman officer?

    Thanks again,

  7. Hey Stan,

    Actually – regarding the 1st Maine issue – Bell wrote a letter to the veterans’ “First Maine Bugle” that he was so poor that he couldn’t afford the dollar for the annual subscription. He mentions that his health was bad (it was) and that his expenses of running the family farm took all he had. It’s actually quite sad.

    I don’t know that Bell ever sent a claim for any damages. There may be something in the state records if he did. But I do know that his property was right in the middle of things north of town during the battle, so I would think that at least his crops, fences, etc had to have suffered. His wife and younger children were still there at the home or left for safer environs, so they either were able to protect some things or the house was ransacked – I just don’t know.


  8. Scott,

    Having read your mss, I look forward to getting that one in print! And your information on Bell is continuing to be of great help and I put the article together, as well as our multivolume history of the cavalry in the campaign.


  9. Likewise, J.D. – thanks for all your contributions and efforts, and I look forward to future excellent work from you.

    Ever think of tackling the cavalry during the Antietam Campaign?

  10. Scott,

    Yes, in fact I have. So much interesting stuff there. I find Pleasonton’s role to be of great interest. I also have a 16-page letter written by Col. Tom Devin in which he details much of the cavalry’s movements during the campaign that’s never been used before. And Pleasonton’s actions on the field (of rather unimportant consequence) are an interesting study nonetheless.

    As with Gettysburg, the cavalries’ actions before and after the battle would make for a good study and really complete the picture. We’ll see – maybe someday possibly Eric and I will kick the idea around.


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