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Remembering the Battle of Hagerstown 150 years later

Local historian recounts a story of cavalry fighting in what is now downtown

July 04, 2013|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • The stage for the Battle of Hagerstown was set when Union Brig. Gen. Hugh Kilpatrick turned his men toward Hagerstown after receiving intelligence that Confederate supply wagons were heading toward the city.
The stage for the Battle of Hagerstown was set when Union Brig. Gen. Hugh Kilpatrick turned his men toward Hagerstown after receiving intelligence that Confederate supply wagons were heading toward the city.

On July 6, 1863, Confederate and Union cavalry clashed at the intersection of Baltimore and South Potomac streets in Hagerstown.

That skirmish was the start of what was to become the Battle of Hagerstown, a seven-hour fight that involved roughly 2,000 soldiers and resulted in nearly 200 casualties.

Stephen Bockmiller, a local historian and planner for the City of Hagerstown, said the battle was fought primarily by cavalry troops who crossed paths three days after the Battle of Gettysburg ended July 3.

As the Confederates were retreating on July 4, a driving rainstorm struck the area and caused the Potomac River to swell, Bockmiller said. The high water, coupled with the Union army’s destruction of a Confederate pontoon bridge near Williamsport, produced a barrier that prevented Southern forces from escaping to Virginia.

“The Confederates pretty much find that they’re trapped north of the Potomac River,” Bockmiller said.

The stage for the Battle of Hagerstown was set when Union Brig. Gen. Hugh Kilpatrick turned his men toward Hagerstown after receiving intelligence that Confederate supply wagons were heading toward the city.

Bockmiller said when Kilpatrick’s forces arrived around noon on July 6, they discovered the Rebels already had occupied the town.

“(Kilpatrick) finds that the Confederates have beaten him here,” Bockmiller said.
 
First phase

The first phase of the battle started at about noon when a brigade of Virginia cavalry under Col. John Chambliss deployed south of Hagerstown.

The 9th Virginia Cavalry was sent out as skirmishers across the southern end of town, while the 10th Virginia Cavalry formed a barricade along Baltimore Street in the area of South Potomac Street.

“They literally turned over wagons like the stuff you see in old Western movies ... to keep the Union cavalry from getting into town,” Bockmiller said.

Union soldiers under the command of Kilpatrick charged several squadrons up Frederick Street. They then turned west on Baltimore Street toward the defending Confederates.

“A fight ensues at the corner of Potomac and Baltimore,” Bockmiller said. “The Union cavalry overwhelms the barricade and sends the 9th and 10 Virginia fleeing up Potomac Street near Public Square.”

Second phase

As the two armies clashed on Public Square, a separate company of Confederate cavalry under the command of Capt. Frank Bond joined the fight from Washington Street.

“There was a huge mounted cavalry battle in the middle of Public Square — picture scores and scores of mounted soldiers shooting and slashing at one another,” Bockmiller said. “It was pretty much chaos. It was stirrup-to-stirrup action.”

During the fight, Bockmiller said, a Confederate sergeant named Hammond Dorsey killed several Union soldiers during a sword battle. Bockmiller said Dorsey’s rampage was halted when he went after a Union bugler, who used his instrument to blunt a number of saber strikes from Dorsey.

Witness accounts said the bugle, which was mangled in the attack, saved the Union trooper’s life and no doubt spared several of his comrades from Dorsey’s wrath.

While the cavalry battle waged on the square, Confederate forces set up more defensive positions to the north near the site of the current City Hall at 1 E. Franklin St. and at Zion Church on the northwest corner of Church and North Potomac streets.

Third phase

During the third phase of the battle, things slowed down as far as the cavalry action, and Union soldiers hunkered down on Public Square, basically just holding the ground.

Bockmiller said two regiments of North Carolina cavalry under the command of Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson entered town from the north and created a defensive position at Zion Church.

“The hill that Zion Church is on was the north end of town at the time. It was high ground,” Bockmiller said.

He said a few hundred of Robertson’s men created the defensive position at Church and Potomac streets.

During this phase of the battle, Bockmiller said, an artillery duel took place.

Union troops set up two artillery pieces at the site of the old Washington County Hospital, he said. At the time, the land was occupied by a school known as the Hagerstown Female Seminary.

Bockmiller said Confederate artillery deployed on the north end of the city, possibly in the area where Pangborn Elementary School is today.

He said the artillery battle lasted for a 30-minute span that town residents said “shook the town to its core.”

Federal artillery hit a Confederate supply wagon loaded with ordnance, Bockmiller said, causing a “huge explosion.”

Fourth phase

After the artillery exchange, Union troops who earlier had taken up a position on the square divided into two groups of 10 men each.

The men started to move north up both sides of Potomac Street, led by Capt. Ulric Dahlgren, who stayed on top of his horse.

Bockmiller said the Union troops used crates and the insets of doors for cover as they moved up the street.

During the advance, an older man, whose was a civilian and name is not known for certain, exited a building with a musket and joined the fight on the side of the Union.

“He was shot down before he got a block,” Bockmiller said.
The Union soldiers were able to make it to Potomac and Franklin streets near the current City Hall.

Meanwhile, the Confederates used alleys to work their way from Zion Church to a well at the site where the Pioneer Ladder Co. on West Franklin Street is today. From there, the Rebels fired at the advancing Yankees.

At the intersection of Franklin and Potomac streets, Dahlgren was shot in the ankle, Bockmiller said. From that point on, the Union advance wavered.

“Dahlgren rides back to Kilpatrick and informs him that we’ve picked up an extra block of territory, but the attack has stalled down again,” Bockmiller said.

Dahlgren, not knowing how badly he was wounded, passed out from losing a large amount of blood. His foot was amputated at Boonsboro shortly after the battle.

Dahlgren returned to action and eventually was promoted to colonel. He died on March 2, 1864, while fighting near Richmond, Va.

Fifth phase

The fifth phase of the battle was a mounted Union cavalry charge up Potomac Street toward the Confederate positions at the north end of town.

Bockmiller said the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry sent two companies up Potomac Street, but the attack fizzled in front of City Hall.

At this point of the battle, Kilpatrick decided that the Confederate supply wagons he initially came to Hagerstown to capture weren’t worth the cost.

“What he’s got himself into isn’t worth trying to get those wagons anymore,” Bockmiller said.

Kilpatrick heard that Union Brig. Gen. John Buford was engaged in a fight at Williamsport, and pulled out of Hagerstown at about 7 p.m. to lend support.

“That leaves a battle with a few hundred killed and wounded, and streets littered with dead and wounded men and horses,” Bockmiller said.

About 100 Union soldiers were stranded in town when Kilpatrick pulled out, Bockmiller said. A few were able to escape and rejoin their units, while the rest were hidden by residents who were sympathetic to the Union cause.

Bockmiller said one such case was Antipas Curtis, a trooper who served with the 1st Vermont Cavalry.

He said Curtis was given civilian clothes by his hosts.

“He actually went out and walked about town among the Confederate soldiers who occupied the town,” Bockmiller said. “The Confederates just see him as a civilian. They don’t think anything of it.”

Legend has it that Curtis was standing on the street and saluted Gen. Robert E. Lee when the Confederate commander rode past on his horse.

“The lore in the 1st Vermont Cavalry is he was the only man in the regiment who saluted Robert E. Lee,” Bockmiller said.

Bockmiller said he believes Curtis didn’t give a military salute, but tipped his hat to avoid raising suspicion.

Important to note

Bockmiller said that while relatively small compared to the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, the Battle of Hagerstown was “probably the largest mounted urban cavalry battle of the Civil War.”

In addition, Bockmiller said, the battle produced a number of human interest stories.

Hagerstown resident John Stemple, for example, was a local artist and art teacher who climbed to the roof of a building on the northeast corner of Public Square to sketch the battle as it raged down below.

Bockmiller said a newspaper story from the time indicated that Stemple was sticking out of a hatch in the roof when a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly.

Some theories suggest he was struck by a Confederate sniper’s bullet, but Bockmiller said he believes it was a stray round from one of the cavalrymen fighting below.

“Most of the guys who were in this battle were bouncing around on horses,” he said. “They were more worried about the guys who were close to them with guns, rather than some guy up on the roof. I think a stray shot caught him. I don’t think he was taken down by a sharpshooter.”

Bockmiller said Stemple was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery off South Potomac Street in Hagerstown.

If you go:

What: Walking tours of the Battle of Hagerstown.

When: Saturday at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Where: Tour groups will meet in front of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau on Public Square.

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