Sunday, October 16, 2011

October 16, 1861 (Wednesday): Turner Ashy Attacks at Bolivar Heights

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Report of Col. John W. Geary, Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry.

Camp Tyndale, Point of Rocks, Md., October 18, 1861.
SIR: On the 8th instant Maj. J. P. Gould, of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, acting under orders of major-General Banks, crossed the Potomac at Haper’s Ferry to seize a quantity of wheat held by the rebels at that point. Three companies of the Third Wisconsin Volunteers, and a section of the Rhode Island battery, under Captain Tompkins, were ordered to report to Major Gould, for the purpose of assisting in and covering the necessary movements of the operation.
….The object for which the river had been crossed having been accomplished, on Tuesday night I had determined to recross the river on Wednesday and permit the troops to return to their various regiments; but about 7 o’clock on the morning of the 16th my pickets stationed on the heights above Bolivar, extending from the Potomac to the Shenandoah River, about 2 ½ miles west of Harper’s Ferry, were driven into the town of Bolivar by the enemy, who approached from the west in three columns, consisting of infantry and cavalry, supported by artillery.
I was upon the ground in a few minutes, and rallied my pickets upon the main body of our troops in Bolivar. In a short time the action became general. The advanced guard of the rebels, consisting of several hundred cavalry, charged gallantly towards the upper part of the town, and their artillery and infantry soon took position upon the heights from which my pickets had been driven. The enemy’s three pieces of artillery were stationed on and near the Charlestown road where it crosses Bolivar Heights. They had one 32-pounder columbiad, one steel rifled 13-pounder, and one brass 6-pounder, all of which were served upon the troops of my command with great activity, the large gun throwing alternately solid shot, shell, and grape, and the others principally fuse shell.
While these demonstrations were being made in front a large body of men made their appearance upon Loudoun Heights, with four pieces of cannon and sharpshooters stationed at the most eligible points of the mountain, to bombard our troops, and greatly annoy us in the use of the ferry on the Potomac. The commencement of the firing upon our front and left was almost simulataneous.
In order to prevent the enemy from crossing the Shenandoah, I detached a company of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Regiment, under command of Captain Shriber, for the defense of the fords on that river. He took position near the old rifle works, and during the action rendered good service there. There then remained under my immediate command about 450 men. With these the fierce charge of the enemy’s cavalry was soon checked and turned back. A second and a third charge was made by them, increasing in impetuosity with each repetition, during which they were supported, in addition to the artillery, by long lines of infantry stationed on Bolivar Heights, who kept up a continuous firing. They were repulsed each time with effect. Under this concentrated fire our troops held their position until 11 o’clock, when Lieutenant Martin, by my order, joined me with one rifled cannon, which had been placed to cover the ferry, he having crossed the river with it under a galling fire of riflemen from Loudoun Heights.
I then pushed forward my right flank, consisting of two companies (A and G) of the Twenty-eighth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers. They succeeded in turning the enemy’s left near the Potomac, and gained a portion of the heights. At the same time Lieutenant Martin opened a well-directed fire upon the enemy’s cannon in our front, and Captain Tompkins succeeded in silencing some of the enemy’s guns on Loudoun Heights…..I instantly ordered a general forward movement, which terminated in a charge, and we were soon in possession of the heights from river to river. There I halted the troops, and from that position they drove the fugitives with a well-directed aim of cannon and small arms across the valley in the direction of Halltown. If any cavalry had been attached to my command the enemy could have been cut to pieces, as they did not cease their flight until they reached Charlestown, a distance of six miles.
…The foregoing is a correct official statement of the engagement at Bolivar Heights October 16, 1861.
Colonel Twenty-eight Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Acting Assistant-Adjustant-General

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 5, Page 241

Turner Ashby lead a force of about 550 men against Geary’s command. Casualties were surprisingly light (under twenty killed on either side). There was something to recommend on both sides. Turner had shown initiative and audacity, Geary’s men had held up under a simultaneous cavalry and artillery attack (no mean feat early in the war). Bolivar Heights would be the scene of yet another engagement, this one more severe, in 1862.

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