Hancock overlooked in Civil War history

December 16, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |

One hundred and fifty years ago on a mission to disrupt northern transportation, Stonewall Jackson ran into a troublesome spot by the name of Hancock, Md. He demanded the town surrender or else he would bomb it out of existence. Union men said he should feel free, since half the population were southern sympathizers anyway, and their demise would constitute no great heartbreak for the North.

Without any good way to cross the Potomac River and make good on his threat, a frustrated Jackson ordered his artillery men to fire, and for two days shells rained down on the town of 700 from the heights of what is now West Virginia. Union soldiers huddled in Hancock churches and watched the show, but suffered much more from an Arctic blast than from the blasts of Stonewall's ordnance.

Stonewall would have better days. And worse, for that matter. But he was unable to add the capture of Hancock to his impressive resume.

On Jan. 5-8, the town will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the fight for Hancock, with events throughout the long weekend. For a schedule, go to For the skinny on the battle itself, I'd recommend tracking down a copy of the booklet "Bombard and be Damned," by John H. Nelson.

The confrontation in Hancock is for the most part an overlooked sideshow to an overlooked campaign — Jackson's march on Romney, W.Va., was designed to secure the northern and western gateways to the all-important Shenandoah Valley, which was God's gift to the Confederacy. Not only was it a breadbasket and good cover for Southern troop movements, it also had this geographical peculiarity: The further north you went in the Shenandoah, the closer you got to Washington, D.C. But the further South you went, the further away you got from Richmond.

And while the Hancock action didn't make headlines, its importance perhaps is that it eerily forecast a number of trends in the young war.

First, Hancock demonstrated that this would be a war in which the defense would hold considerable advantage over the attackers. Jackson had every advantage except position, and the tiny Union force was content to hide behind stone walls and duck incoming shells, while making enough of a demonstration to convince Jackson that crossing the Potomac would be suicide. (On a much larger scale, had Ambrose Burnside been blessed with the same vision concerning southern defensive entrenchments on the far side of the Rappahannock, the slaughter at Fredericksburg might have been avoided.) And new, more accurate rifles, meant that an attacking force would be within range of the enemy for a much longer time than it would if the defenders were using old-fashioned flintlocks.

Second, this would be a war of artillery. The antagonists at Hancock spent the two-day contest hurling shells at each other. This small-scale artillery battle was a harbinger of Antietam, where the smoky, crisscrossing contrails from thousands of shells made the sky resemble a fishnet. So many cannons were in use that it was impossible to tell which guns were killing which men. Spectators reported that companies of soldiers would simply vanish from the face of the earth, it being impossible to tell where the deadly missile had come from. The accuracy of these big guns was stunning. A good artillery man, it was said at the time, could knock out the bottom of a bushel basket from a mile away. If this was an exaggeration, it wasn't much of one.

And finally, for every man clipped by a shell fragment, dozens died from disease and accidents. Nelson's work does an excellent job of listing the reasons men died during the brief campaign. Andrew Ward, 29, for example, died of measles; Martin Lyon, 25, died of typhoid; Amos Thompson, 23, was accidentally shot; Amos Wenrich, poor soul, was on picket duty and when he was crossing the canal to get a hot cup of coffee, he slipped on the ice and drowned.

Not much would change. Some have suggested that statistically it was safer to be in battle than camped in winter quarters.

Washington County will have several occasions to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, most notably next September at Antietam. It's certainly an appropriate time to reflect on the Civil War and its causes. The issues behind the war are numerous and still hotly debated to this day. But there can be no debate that the seeds of the war were planted by a failure to compromise, which led to an explosion of hatred and frustration, emotions which caused the extreme elements on both sides to dig in their heels all the more.

Just something to think about.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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