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March to Hancock

By James A. Scott

(Originally published in the Star and Sentinel on June 22, 1897)

In the winter of 1861 Cole’s Cavalry was constantly patrolling the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry to Cumberland except Company B which was on duty in Western Virginia. The winter was very severe but the boys bore it’s harsh uncomplainingly. Company C was on picket duty at Four Locks on the canal. Colonel Kenly of the first Maryland Infantry was in command of the forces along the river with headquarters at Millstone Point. His infantry like the cavalry was scattered here and there at various points on the river. Drilling and picket duty was the principal occupation of both cavalry and infantry which was schooling them for the more serious business of the oncoming days of the war.

The post of Company C at Four Locks was not a very unpleasant one as we had comfortable quarters. We were then uniformed with gray overcoats a color which the Confederates had adopted, though I think the fact was not known by the Government at the time these coats were issued to us.

Occasionally Colonel Kenly made us a visit at our post, and on one occasion he ordered us to escort him to one of the posts of his infantry on the river, a few miles away. When we neared their camp our cars were painted by the beating of the "long roll" which meant ‘prepare to encounter the enemy’ and seeing them rapidly falling into line we were led to believe they were expecting an attack from the other side of the river. The Colonel halted us and galloped rapidly toward them, but returned in a short time rolling from side to side on his horse in a paroxysm of laughter. As soon as he could get his breath he said "Boys, you must have your coats changed at once. My men took us to be Rebels and had I not halted you when I did they would have given us a volley. I feel funny about it now, boys but it might not have been funny at all, had I not halted you in time, for it began to dawn upon me what was the matter. What excited my boys so highly was to see the enemy, as they supposed, come upon them so suddenly from an unexpected quarter, but by George, they were ready to make it hot for us. I tell you the boys of my regiment are not to be caught napping. You mush have other coats immediately." Not long after, we were clothed in the royal blue.

Early in January, 1862, General Stonewall Jackson left the Shenandoah Valley with his command and marched to the Potomac opposite Hancock, Maryland. He sent a flag of truce to General Lander demanding the surrender of the place. Only a small body of Government troops was stationed there, but all Federal forces within reach were quickly notified to come to the rescue - horse, foot and artillery. When surrender was refused, the enemy opened fire on Hancock. As soon as we at Four Locks heard the roar of cannon, we felt that it meant business for us, and, true to our anticipations, orders came to us to march for Hancock instantly.

The weather had turned very cold and clouds had been threatening snow since early morn. Late in the afternoon a heavy snowstorm set in. When our march began, the ground was covered to a depth of several inches, which was being added to rapidly. The wind was high and as we moved west on the turnpike it drove the snow stingingly on our faces and rendered progress very disagreeable. Night came on, and the snow being then so deep that we could not move our horses faster than a walk, we suffered much from the cold. At times nearly all of us were dismounted and floundering through the snow to get up some warmth. Thus we proceeded hour after hour while the wind howled through the leafless trees bordering the bleak mountain road and continued to drive the flakes into our faces, which so enveloped us that we looked like a procession of ghosts.

It was perhaps a little past midnight when we reached Hancock, where we hoped to get at once some sort of shelter, both for ourselves and horses, as each alike were pretty well exhausted, but we found a battery of artillery stretched along the main street the men and horses of which had not yet secured shelter. Their guns looked like mounds of snow. All was in silence except the suppressed voices of the men, for loud speaking was forbidden, so to prevent the enemy from learning of, across the narrow river, the arrival of reinforcements.

Company C halted in the street just in rear of this battery and waited until patience was exhausted for some directing power to order us into or tell us where we might obtain shelter. So we set about looking it up for ourselves. On our left at the head of our column, stood a large brick dwelling house, an alley leading to the river along by one side of it. Adjoining it on the other side and fronting on the street was a one story brick structure evidently for use as an office. We tried rapping on the door of each building but that brought no response and we obtained entrance through a window into the small building. He we had the happy fortune to a stove and a plentiful supply of fuel and also a candle. This was soon lit and we made a fire on the stove, which was very much needed for we were suffering greatly from cold. There was not room for more than half of us further explanation had to be made. From this a door led into the large house. It was not locked and, entering the house we found it abandoned. Having discovered more candles we lit it up when we saw abundant evidence that the house had been evacuated in the utmost haste. The beds were in disorder, articles of clothing were lying around loose and debris of various kinds littered the floors. The family must have fled when hostilities commenced before daylight.

We made our way to a quite large kitchen where we found a bountiful supply of every kind of cooking utensils. No food was anywhere and the house was dreadfully cold. It is sufficient to mention that several vessels which had been left on the cooking range full of water were frozen to the bottom. Some of the boys busied themselves at once in making fire on the range.

We then examined the rear of the premises to hold our horses. We discovered that a gate opened from the before mentioned alley and were greatly gratified to find there was room enough for all our horses which was our intention to make them as comfortable as possible. The voice of a picket came up form the riverside with words of more than politeness. "Put out that light you idiot unless you want your head knocked off with a cannon ball." I put out the light of course to oblige this gentleman and hastened into the house, to the grateful aroma of cookery that was floating in the wintry air.

The fire on the range had thawed out the frozen vessels on it and the boys had looked about for something to cook. At one side of the kitchen was a large pantry, but the door into it was locked and no key could be found. One of our young men said "Let me lean against it" which he did, and it opened. Oh what a sight for hungry eyes and stomachs! Shelves of preserves and pickles, jars of apple butter and a tubful of fresh sausage, plenty of sweet ham and bread and butter, also coffee and tea. In the kitchen was a table large enough for twenty or thirty men to gather round, for which a white cloth was found and soon it was ‘set’. The frying pans were cooking sausage by the yard. It was sputtering and giving out it’s appetizing odor and the raw bacon we had brought with us was getting into crisp and toothsome condition. And the aroma of coffee made. What a feast it was and there was more than plenty for all. Some of the boys after eating heartily of substantials, ended up with a heavy covering of preserves upon them which felt good at the time but later on when fermentation asserted itself in their stomachs the contents of those important origins had a monkey and a parrot time.

One of our good boys, being so long in stature and getting on so much, did not score quiet in his interior department till some time the following day, when peace was restored by the wholesale ejection of the warring contents. But what a kingly feast it was while it lasted, and how all the discomforts of the snowy and freezing match were forgotten and what jokes were uttered about the enemy across the river, and as to whether the ears of the family which had fled from the house were not burning just then, and as to what might be the situation at daylight but who cared. We had just had the jolliest meal that ever soldiers had, and we were ready for anything.

We were as careful as possible not to damage or destroy any of the glasses, dishes, plates and utensils belonging to the absent family. I don’t recollect whether we washed up the dishes or not, but my impression was we did, and left things in as good shape as we could.

When the banquet ended, daylight began to appear, and we then hustled out and got breakfast for our horses and looked after their comfort. The expected bombardment from across the river with the advent of daylight did not show up. On the contrary, it was soon ascertained that the enemy had fallen back, and then rumor had it that General Lander intended to cross with artillery and cavalry and pursue. But about noon we were ordered to return to our post at Four Locks, and were back there again before the next nightfall.

Later on in our history we went again to Hancock and camped there awhile, and at one time made a scout from there into Virginia, of which I may write hereafter.

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