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?