Rebels destroying the C&O Canal from Harper's Weekly, July 30, 1864

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cumberland Threatened: The Battle of Folck's Mill

In August 1864, the western terminus of the Cheaspeake and Ohio Canal was under the threat of Confederate attack. The threat came in the form of Brigadier General John McCausland and his Confederate raiders. Opposing them, Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley and a rag-tag force of civilians, 100 days soldiers, and stragglers that were shell-shocked following the Union defeat at the Battle of Second Kernstown in July 1864.

John McCausland
During the summer of 1864, Confederates under Major General Jubal Early advanced his 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland fighting across the Maryland countryside before eventually reaching the outskirts of Washington, D.C. itself before being turned back. In late July, Early ordered Brigadier General John McClausland to take his cavalry brigade and the brigade of Edward Johnson northward and make a raid upon Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in retaliation for the burning of farms in the Shenandoah Valley. When the ransom of  $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in currency was not met, McCausland ordered the town burnt. Leaving a smoldering Chambersburg behind, McCausland turned his sights on Cumberland, Maryland, an important hub of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the western terminus of the C&O Canal. McCausland would have roughly 3,000 men and 4 pieces of artillery at his disposal for his next objective.

Benjamin F. Kelley
Cumberland, Maryland, as we know it today, began as Fort Cumberland, named for the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II. In the years following its founding, the town grew and President George Washington believed that the route for western expansion would pass through Cumberland. By 1864, the town was a major economic center for western Maryland, Southwestern Pennsylvania, and the mountains of northern West Virginia. It was an important hub for the Baltimore & Ohio railroad and the western terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. With these two important transportation routes located in Cumberland, Union military commanders turned the town into a military outpost under the command of Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley. Kelley could call on three divisions to face the Confederates, but his command was spread out across the countryside covering other important areas in the region.

After burning Chambersburg, McCausland's command was being heavily pressed by pursuing Union cavalry under Brigadier General William Averill. McCausland moved his command from Chambersburg toward Hancock, Maryland where he would again demand a ransom. McCausland's main objective during this raid was the capture, ransom, and burning of Chambersburg but he had orders from General Early to ransom any town that his force may enter and if need be destroy them if they ransom cannot be met. One such town was Hancock, Maryland. McCausland entered the town on July 31st and demanded a $30,000 dollar ransom that enraged Marylanders within the Confederate force. The citizens of Hancock tried to raise the funds as quickly as possible but General Averill's 2,000 man brigade arrived and forced the Confederates to retreat from the town. McCausland put his men on the National Pike heading towards Cumberland.

Folck's Mill
Courtesy: Western Maryland Historical Library
Recieving reports of McCausland's advance towards Cumberland, General Kelley took command of a small force of 100 days regiments totaling perhaps 3,000 men, including 200 citizens of Cumberland. Kelley ordered the citizens to picket the roads leading into town and moved his main body about 2 and a half miles from the town onto a ridge line near Folck's Mill. The mill was operated by John Folck. The Folck's family owned the mill and the land surrounding it and they would find their property in the middle of the coming fight.

To buy time for his hastily gathered force, Kelley order his son, Lieutenant Tappen Kelley, to take a squad of cavalry and picket the Baltimore Road to hinder McCausland's advance and to report on developments. Now turning to his defenses, General Kelley ordered the 153rd Ohio to Oldtown on the Potomac River to destroy the canal bridges and to confront any Confederate attempt to recross the river. His main line would consist of parts of 4 infantry regiments, one company of cavalry, and three sections of artillery totaling 9 guns. As McCausland advanced towards Cumberland, Kelley positioned the 156th Ohio, 4 companies of West Virginia Infantry, and all his artillery near Folck's Mill located about 2 and a half miles from Cumberland. This would be his first line of defense and despite being outnumbered, Kelley enjoyed a superiority in artillery and he held a strong defensive position. Kelley was hoping that Averill would be able to push McCausland into his line and with the Confederates being hit from front and rear and the only escape route blocked, their force could be destroyed. Unfortunealy, Averill dictated a dispatch to Kelley saying that his horses were "all used up." Kelley would being going at it alone.

Covered bridge over Evitt's  Creek used by Confederates
Courtesy: Herman and Stacia Miller Collection
Cumberland, Maryland
 McCausland continued to push on towards Cumberland. His 3,000 troopers outnumbered Kelley's line 2 to 1 but he only had 4 pieces of artillery at his disposal. After the skirmish at Hancock, he believed his men were being pushed hard by Averill's cavalry and to help slow this pursuit, trees and brides were destroyed along the road. If McCausland was to capture Cumberland, he had to make his move now. McCausland's vanguard arrived near Folck's Mill at about 3 in the afternoon and marched across the covered bridge spanning Evitt's Creek. Unknown to these Confederates, Kelley's infantry was waiting and after they were within range of small-arms fire, Kelley's men opened up a furocious fire on the Confederates. Dazed from the unexpected fire, the Confederates retreated to the bridge seeking cover at the bridge and behind the buildings on the Folck's property. The Confederates attempted to return fire the best they could but Union sharpshooters kept the Confederates at bay.

McCausland brought up the remainder of his force and deployed it in a skirmish line the could envelop Kelley's left flank. After posting his artillery on a hill that could dominate Folck's Mill but it could do little damage to the union battle line. For the next 5 hours, McCausland would attempt to punch through Kelley's line only to be turned back each time. With darkness nearing, McCausland went into conference with his second in command, Bradley T. Johnson. Noting that their casualties were mounting, the two Confederate leaders decided to break off contact and return to Virginia. At 11 P.M., the Confederates began retreating towards the river crossings at Oldtown. Kelley's rag-tag army had beaten off the Confederate advance and saved Cumberland and its vital supply hubs. The Confederates lost about 30 killed and wounded while Union losses were substantially smaller, 2 wounded.

On August 2nd, McCausland would be forced to fight his way to the river crossing after running into the 153rd Ohio Infantry that Kelley had ordered to the area. After a brief but bloody encounter, the Ohioans surrendered and McCausland was able to get his men safely across the river.

Ruins of Folck's Mill
Courtesy: Western Maryland Historical Library
 McCausland left behind a mound of supplies that had been captured by his force during their raid into Pennsylvania. McCausland also left behind all his casualties to fall into Union hands. John Folck's Mill and property were damaged by the battle and his barn was burned by exploding shell from Kelley's artillery. Today the battlefield is drastically altered but there are markers that tell of the fight and how Kelley's band saved the town from possibly suffering the same fate as Chambersburg.

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