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Raid on Beltsville July 12th, 1864
150 summers ago in Prince George's County, on July 12th, 1864, Confederate soldiers rode into Beltsville, Maryland, tore up the rail-line and burned railcars of the B&O railroad before returning to Virginia. Commanded by Maryland-born Brigadier-General Bradley Johnson, the rebel cavalry was operating on the left of Jubal Early's invading Confederate Second Corps' attack on Washington, D. C.
The raid and resultant skirmishes between Federal and Confederate cavalry units took place between today's Beltsville and College Park. The military actions moved on a north-south axis west of the CSX railroad line, then operated by the B&O, and were centered along US Route 1 formerly called the Baltimore-Washington Pike. To the west of the turnpike was the Paint branch, a stream that head south east through Maryland on its way to join the eastern branch of the Potomac river, the Anacostia. To the west of the pike, along the Paint branch, named for the red and blue clay that lines its course, big trees grew close together on the bank; low woodland stretched far back from the stream presenting a scenic wild aspect to the landscape (The Rambler. Sunday Star. November 1916).
Most of the buildings mentioned in reports of the day are long gone including the home of Major. Geo. M. Emack, CSA (now a shopping center across US 1 from St. John's Church), Brown's White House Tavern (now a shopping center immediately south of USDA BARC), the rail depot or station in Beltsville; Dr. Montgomery Johns' house on Knox Ave. in College Park; and Mrs. McDaniel's house which served as a headquarters for federal operations in front of Fort Lincoln in Bladensburg, Maryland.
The Official Record of the Civil War, Series I, Vol. XXXVII, provides a running account of the day's events which reflects the confusion of the moment that translates into uncertainty of describing exactly what happened when and where to readers today. At 7:50 a.m., Major-General Gillmore, USA, set up his "command near the old Bladensburg road" to coordinate Union defense from Fort Lincoln to Fort Bunker Hill. Two hours later, Major Fry, the provost-general, sent word that "the enemy's cavalry is trying to turn our right."
The Daily Constitutional Union, (2nd Edition July 12, 1864), reported that "enemy appears to have reached the line of the Washington branch railroad between 12 and 1 o'clock, today, shortly after the last train from Baltimore had passed to the city. The train which left Baltimore at 10 a.m., came through to within about 1 mile of Beltsville, when a number of men at work on the second track of the road came running towards it, giving the alarm that rebel cavalry, in some force had just been approaching towards Beltsville. After delay a 15 minutes, however, by sending ahead, information was received that it was our own cavalry else that had been seen, and the train again came on, and arrived here quarter of an hour behind time. By 1 o'clock, it was found that the telegraph wires were down between this city and Baltimore, which would seem to confirm the idea that the alarm at Beltsville was not entirely groundless."
By 1:30 p.m., Capt. Paddock, Post Commander Battery Jameson, Fort Lincoln, was informing Secretary of War Stanton that "a farmer just arrived bringing intelligence from the commanding officer of the outside pickets that the enemy was [sic] approaching in force in this direction. They are now about two miles this side of Beltsville, which is five miles northeast of here." At 2:00 p.p.,, from Mrs. McDaniel's house, Major Barney, [USA], "of Washington City, just from the front", [brought] a report from the officer commanding the cavalry [5th Michigan Cavalry] on the Baltimore pike that he had been driven in, and that the enemy are in force two miles this side of Beltsville making for railroad." 
A newspaper account 52 years later described the coming of the Union forces to the Brown farm to water and feed their horse. As the Federal soldiers commandeered supplies, the widowed Mrs. Brown saw a dust cloud and a large large numbers of horsemen approaching, and called for the Union commander to come upstairs and see for himself. He rounded up his troops and shot his way across the Paint branch to safety before the Confederate forces could surround him. One Union cavalryman was wounded when Major Emack's 1st Maryland, CSA, cavalry company charged the hurriedly regrouping Federal cavalry. The wounded soldier was sent to Major Emack's home across from the Episcopal Church, St. John's, less than two mile up the road. (The Rambler. Sunday Star, November 1916).
|Emack House - Locust Grove|
image courtesy - DeMarr Library Historian
Prince George's County Historical Society
In a telegraphed message to General Grant from Under Secretary of War, Charles A. Dana, the defense of Washington was described as consisting of many generals none of whom were in command. In this vein of multiple commanders, at 2:15, General Meigs was reporting from Fort Slocum that "500 cavalry, under Major Fry, was attacked four miles beyond Bladensburg, toward Baltimore, by the enemy in force, with artillery. He [Major Fry] is falling back toward Bladensburg, at which place ... he will need rations and forage, and also carbine and pistol ammunition, for 100 men who reported to him last evening unsupplied." The 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, USA, sent word to Captain Paddock at Fort Lincoln that " a scouting party just returned report[ing] that they met a force of the enemy's cavalry with artillery about three miles above this place toward Beltsville."
By 3:00 p.m.,, Secretary Stanton was receiving information from the peripatetic B&O ticket agent, G. S. Koonz, who explained how the railroad company's " ballast engine has just come in from Beltsville. Trainmen report that rebels in force were in sight when they left. Our forces ready to receive them. Rebels fired at engine, but it was out of range. Beltsville is twelve miles distant from Washington and is a station on our road." Twenty minutes later, the Secretary of War was updated by Major Fry of the situation at Fort Lincoln and points north:
"A force of rebel cavalry has within the last few hours been engaged with about 300 of our cavalry, at the Baltimore pike where it crosses Paint Creek, about three miles beyond Bladensburg. The rebel force was accompanied by light artillery, which up to the time my informant left had fired about fifteen shots. My informant is one of our cavalry, just in, who was wounded in the skirmish. Our 300 cavalry were yielding their ground slowly. I should say it was an attempt to interrupt the railroad by a cavalry force. The skirmish is about two miles west of railroad. The line of rifle-pits from this fort westward is entirely unmanned. There is not a soldier on the line as far as I can see it, and but two companies of 100-days' men and a few convalescents in this fort. The pike is really open to a cavalry dash. I think troops should come to this part of the line is now seriously threatened. I have not seen General Gillmore. Perhaps he has made disposition. The line now is certainly weak in the extreme. I will go from here to Fort Saratoga, and try to see General Gillmore; but I suggest action from headquarters to strengthen this line at once. The convalescents here are not armed. Muskets and Ammunition should be sent at once."
At 4:05 p.m., General Gillmore wrote:
"The enemy are [sic] just beyond Bladensburg. Fugitive citizens are coming in. I have carefully examined the line of works from Fort Bunker hill to Fort Lincoln. More troops should be on this part of the line. I saw eight brass field pieces in Fort Lincoln not in use. They ought to be put in position, I think, with men to man them. I am not in command of the line in my front by any orders from you or any one else." During the afternoon of the 12th, US Navy Admiral Goldsborough had been order to gather up office works and man the defensive works of Fort Lincoln in response to the perceived threat from Johnson's cavalry now apparently moving towards Bladensburg."
At some point in the afternoon, Dr. Montgomery Johns recounted the passing of the rebel units through what is now the University of Maryland campus. Johns, a Professor at the Agricultural College, later explained, in defense of his actions that day, that "the rebel stopped on the Turnpike in front of Rossburg (presently called the Rossborough Inn) 10 minutes, then proceeding toward Bladensburg, where met by (Union) skirmishers at 'Kenedy's Hill' and turned westward through the campus. Some of the Confederates stopped at the Johns' home and demanded food. Johns was taken to see the leader, Gen. Johnson, 'a distant Kinsman'. Altogether the troops, stated to 500 in number, were on the campus "about 45 minutes. (Pri. Geo.'s Historical Society News & Notes, April 1974)'" During the foray, the Confederates burned the bridge over the Paint branch just north of the present entrance to the University of Maryland, College Park.
By 8:45 p.m., Mr. Koonz was again relaying information to Stanton. His account this time noted that he had been "as far as Bladensburg. Enemy has not shown himself between Washington and that point. At Bladensburg I was met by a Mr. Bowie, who seems to be acting as an aide. He advised me to proceed no farther, as enemy was [sic] about one mile and a half above. He estimates their force at about 1,500 cavalry and one battery of artillery. Our bridges across Paint Branch, two miles above Bladensburg, have been destroyed."
The last of the rebel cavalry left the area mid morning on July 13th. The next day the President of the B&O railroad sent a message to Stanton noting that a "hand-car with some of our men, and an engine and car in charge of our agent at Washington, Mr. Koontz, have arrived in Baltimore within the last hour, communicating the information that the road is now clear of the enemy, and that the burning has been confined to twelve camp and other cars of the company, and the partial destruction of the cross-ties of one bridge." On July 14th that the damage done to the railroad in Beltsville did not amount to more than three cross-ties burned and some lumber placed across the tracks.
The Johnson-Gilmore raid ended in Beltsville. Some after-action reports indicate that some of the Confederate force had begun to head towards Upper Marlboro as part of the larger plan to free Confederate prisoners in St, Mary's County. The skirmish at Beltsville ended a rebel swing through Maryland that had taken Johnson's command from Frederick east to Baltimore. Led by the 1st Maryland Cavalry, CSA, they had burned bridges and obstructed rail-lines north of Baltimore, and had found time to burn the home of Maryland's Governor, Augustus Bradford. As they continued through central Maryland, the government of Maryland and the US military played a telegraphed guessing game as to the intent and goal of the fast-moving southern cavalry. The raid through Maryland was a part of a larger Confederate operation that planned to attack the Capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. The resulting battle fought along the Monocacy river slowed the invading army down long enough for the US Army to execute a defense of the city. The delayed assault of Early's Army on Fort Stephens (in Silver Spring near Georgia Avenue) failed on July 12th, and Early order Johnson's command to rejoin the 2nd Corps as it began its retreat to Virginia and the end of the rebellion 10 months later. Although we have let the buildings decay and disappear, the people and their fight continue to shape our landscapes today.
 Newspapers report that the Confederate forces, probably the 1st Maryland, engaged Major Belmont in command of a detachment of the 5th Michigan Cavalry. The Official Record includes mentions and reports of Major Darling and the 7th Michigan with no mention of his being driven back.
 The topography of the land along US Route 1 is such that the Emack House, Locust Grove would have been visible from the White House Tavern grounds. The land steps down towards the Paint branch in a series of gentle slopes. From the White House Tavern an observer would have easily seen the stream valley and the hills of Bladensburg beyond the College of Agriculture (University of Maryland, College Park). An informative view of the lay of the land is found from the observation deck of the 14th floor of the National Agricultural Library which sits on the ground where the Union cavalry was feeding and watering its horses when surprised by Emack's Company B.
John Peter Thompson 2014
John Peter Thompson 2014