Battles at Folcks Mill and Oldtown
by Gary M. Petrichick
The Battle at Folcks Mill, Monday, August 1, 1864, was celebrated as saving the City of Cumberland from destruction, but it was only a part of a larger scenario involving the Confederacy’s last incursion into the north in a desperate attempt to relieve Gen. Lee’s forces from Grant’s siege of Petersburg and Richmond. Following Gen. Jubal Early’s victory over Gen. George Crook’s Federals at the 2nd Battle of Kernstown on July 24, 1864, the Confederates pursued the retreating Union troops down the Shenandoah Valley. There were skirmishes at Bunker Hill, Martinsburg, and Williamsport on the 25th, with the Union troops crossing the Potomac at Botellers Ford on the 26th to camp near Hagerstown.
While Early concentrated on disabling the B&O Railroad in the lower Shenandoah Valley, his cavalry under Brig. Gens. John McCausland and Bradley Johnson crossed into Maryland at McCoys Ferry on the 29th. After driving a 400- man Union force from Clear Spring, McCausland proceeded to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which he put to the torch the following day. From there he headed south to Hancock, and on the morning of the 31st demanded a ransom of $30,000 and cooked rations for his men. Col. Harry Gilmore and Gen. Johnson, both Marylanders, pleaded the case for Hancock and convinced McCausland that the sum was unreasonable considering the size of the town and the fact that many citizens were loyal to the Southern cause. On Johnson’s advice the town fathers collected all they could including a large amount of C&O Canal moneys from Jacob Snively, the C&O Canal Company’s collector at Hancock, but before the moneys could be delivered, Gen. W. W. Averell’s Federal cavalry drove the Confederates from Hancock down the National Road toward Cumberland. At least one canal boat was burned and reportedly all bridges on the pike between Hancock and Flintstone were destroyed.
The citizens of Cumberland upon hearing of the depradations at Chambersburg called a meeting the night of the 31st and organized a militia force of some 200 men to assist Union General Benjamin F. Kelly in the defense of the community. On the morning of August 1, Kelly’s forces consisted of three regiments of Ohio National Guard, four companies of the Eleventh West Virginia Infantry, one company of the Sixth West Virginia Infantry, two sections of Battery L, First Illinois Light Artillery, one section of Battery B, Maryland Light Artillery, and several hundred stragglers from the July 24 battle at Winchester. At midday a troop of Confederate cavalry was reported approaching about twelve miles out on the Baltimore Pike. Gen. Kelly ordered the One Hundred and Fifty-Sixth Ohio National Guard, four companies of West Virginia Infantry, and one section of Battery L to the high ground east of Cumberland where the highway crossed Evitts Creek. The three companies of citizen volunteers under Gen. Charles Thurston, were placed on the right flank of the regulars. Colonel Israel Stough and the One Hundred Fifty-Third Ohio National Guard were sent to Oldtown to prevent a Confederate crossing into West Virginia at that point. The remainder of the Federal troops manned the Cumberland fortifications.
At 3 p.m. an enemy squadron neared Folcks Mill. Union artillery opened fire and a pitched battle ensued. The rebel forces sought cover behind the house, mill, and barn of John Flocks, which, being within range of the Union artillery, all took several exploding shells, the barn being destroyed. The engagement lasted till after dark with both sides holding about the same positions as at the start. Uncertain of the Union strength and aware of Averell’s cavalry at nearby Hancock, Gens. McCausland and Johnson agreed that it would be unwise to continue the attack. Johnson was sent to secure a crossing over the Potomac, but on approaching Oldtown on the morning of July 2, found the Union troops of Col. Stough on the hill between the canal and river and the canal bridges destroyed.
The Twenty-Seventh Virginia Battalion and the Eighth Virginia Regiment attacked the hill while a bridge was built to cross the rest of the troops to flank the Federals. Seeing his position as untenable, Col. Stough pulled his force across the Potomac to Green Spring Depot, West Virginia. About 80 men took shelter in a blockhouse while the others boarded the train that brought them from Cumberland and were removed from the fray. Supporting Stough’s force was an armored train manned by a detachment of Company K, Second Regiment Potomac Home Brigade. The train comprised iron-clad batteries of three guns each and four musket-proof boxcars for riflemen.
Johnson’s Baltimore Light Artillery was deadly that day, disabling the locomotive with its first shot and dismounting one gun with a shot through a porthole with its second. A third shot scattered the Union Infantry behind the railroad embankment and the Potomac Home Guard was forced to take shelter in the woods, leaving Stough in the blockhouse without support. After an hour and a half standoff, Johnson sent a message under a flag of truce demanding a surrender. Stough asked for and received generous terms and surrendered, his command immediately paroled with all personal equipment except weapons. The Confederates destroyed the blockhouse and armored train before moving off toward Romney, West Virginia. They were badly mauled on August 7th by Gen. Averell who had been pursuing them since the Chambersburg raid.
The citizen volunteers were relieved from duty on the 2, and on Friday evening, August 5 Cumberland’s citizens showered Gen.Kelly and his men (with thanks at a town meeting. A grand review was held on August 11 with speeches and a parade which included the citizen soldiers. Gen. Kelly was later breveted a major general for his gallant defense of the city.
Between the Confederate raids and ensuing guerilla activities, there was no through navigation on the canal in the month of August, resulting in tolls of only $398.80. This was the lowest monthly collection since July 1861. It was reported that because of damages to boats and the waterway, over a hundred thousand tons of coal would be kept from the Washington market, and that the coal companies saw little chance that the coal trade could be reopened that season.
Principal sources for this article were The Civil War Battle at Folcks Mill, Harold L. Scott, Sr., The Civil War in Maryland, Daniel Carroll Toomey, and History of the C & O Canal, Harlan D. Unrau.
(This article was published in the September 2008 issue of Along The Towpath, the newsletter of the C&O Canal Association.)