Home / American Civil War / The Ringgold Cavalry Company in the Alleghenies, June to November 1861
The Ringgold Cavalry Company in the Alleghenies, June to November 1861
By Richard D. Pitts

At the beginning of the Civil War, the US Army possessed only the basics to conduct military operations, standard infantry units pulled from garrison duty, artillery units equipped with artillery pieces little changed from the Napoleonic period, and cavalry units varying in title and purpose. The cavalry of the regular army consisted of two regiments of regular cavalry the 1st and 2nd , troopers armed with sabers and pistols for close order combat on horseback, two regiments of dragoons also the 1st and 2nd, units, which used horses to get from one fight to the next, and the 1st Mounted Rifles, infantrymen on horseback[1] . Scattered across the United States these units provided the only horsemen available to Union except for one particular independent cavalry unit, a unit, which trained as a Pennsylvania militia unit since 1847 and remained ready for action right up to the callout of volunteers on April 15, 1861.

In 1847, during the Mexican American War, the residents of Beallsville, Pennsylvania and nearby Washington County formed the Ringgold Independent Cavalry Company, named for Major Samuel Ringgold, an artillery officer mortally wounded at Palo Alto.[2] Never asked to serve in the war, the unit’s troops elected to remain together at war’s end. Providing their own horses, equipment, and weapons, the Ringgold drilled for years, replacing personnel as needed, and awaited a call to serve.

Initially serving as a regular sized cavalry company of seventy-four men, the men of the Ringgold Independent Cavalry Company served from 1861 to 1865. By 1863, the men formed the core of a cavalry battalion, the Ringgold Battalion. Ultimately, the unit formed part of the 22nd Pennsylvania Regiment of Cavalry. The units first six months of service as a company in western Virginia hills set the pace for the rest of the war. The Ringgold’s years of training before the Civil War did much to insure they served well in the Allegheny Mountains, scouting on short and long range patrols or supporting attacking elements during major engagements.

The lack of cavalry cooperating with Union regiments at the beginning of the Civil War is evident in a discussion Colonel Benjamin Franklin Kelley, commanding officer of the 1st Virginia (Union) Volunteer Infantry regiment, had with a Baltimorean, Mr. Andrew Greenfield, soon after the Battle of Philippi, Virginia in early June 1861. Kelley’s unit, along with regiments from Ohio and Indiana, launched a two-prong attack to capture a rebel force commanded by Colonel George Porterfield encamped north of the town of Philippi, Virginia. Kelley’s plan required one of his elements to march twelve miles from the Union camp near Grafton, Virginia, and then attack the camp. Meanwhile, Kelley led another element twenty-two miles south of Philippi to block escaping rebels in a classic hammer and anvil maneuver. To mask his maneuver, Kelley’s forces marched at night, but a thunderstorm delayed Kelley’s movements and forced him to attack Philippi’s east side rather than assume his units distant blocking position.

The opposing forces clashed only briefly but a Confederate severely wounded Kelley in Philippi. While he recuperated, Mr. Greenfield traveled from Baltimore to Philippi and decided to talk with Kelley. During their talk, Kelley confided to Greenwood, “…that with a company of good cavalry, he could have captured most of Porterfield’s command….”[3] Little did Kelley know, but the Ringgold Cavalry would soon fill the requirement for a mounted force in western Virginia. Hearing Kelley’s words, Greenfield quit his job and headed back to his hometown, Beallsville, Pennsylvania, and raised the Washington Cavalry Company, named for the county the town of Beallsville resides in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania.

When President Abraham Lincoln mobilized the militia for ninety days in spring 1861, he used a law that Congress had passed in 1803. Unfortunately, the law made no provision for cavalry.[4] The unit eagerly awaited their call up in the spring 1861 but no such request arrived from either the Governor of Pennsylvania or the Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Twice the Ringgold’s, led by Captain Jon Keys requested orders for duty and twice they received orders to remain in garrison. On the third attempt, Capt Keys used old family connections to gain his units commission into Federal service. His father and Simon Cameron, the Secretary of War, worked on road developments together in the early 1800’s and Mr. Cameron told young Jon Keys in those days that if he ever needed any thing Keys could call on Cameron for the favor. Keys reminded Cameron of the boyhood promise in a letter he sent to him in June 1861, and soon there after the Ringgold’s received their orders to muster for duty. On June 18, 1861, Cameron ordered Keys to take his company of cavalry and muster for duty at Grafton, Virginia.[5]

On June 22, 1861 the Ringgold Cavalry Company left Beallsville for Grafton, arriving in camp six days later. On June 23, Brigadier General George McClellan’s aid, Lieutenant Samuel Williams, swore the unit into government service.[6] The men went through military drills, and sent only a few men home for not meeting standards.[7] To complete the unit’s initiation to the military, a Quartermaster Department officer appraised its horses, awarding the owner of each qualified equine an extra forty cents a day for government service.

While in Grafton, higher headquarters ordered the unit to intercept rebel mail. This first mission was hardly glorious, especially since two women carried the mail, but fifteen men set out to ambush the ladies. Help from loyal Unionists let the men track the women to a preacher’s house, and after searching their quarters the Ringgold’s found the mail hidden in the ladies’ bustles. The Ringgold’s, postal carriers, and mail left for Grafton. The Federals incarcerated the Pennsylvanians’ first prisoners of war in Ohio.

This action had little consequence for the war effort, but it familiarized the Ringgold with the territory over which they would operate. In July 1861, the Ringgold experienced more challenging assignments as George McClellan pushed rebel forces steadily out of western Virginia. “Little Mac’s” headquarters soon ordered the Ringgold to board trains bound for Maryland. At Oakland, Maryland the company joined Brigadier General Hill’s forces trying to cut rebels off as they retreated down the old Northwest pike from their defeat at Rich Mountain, Virginia. Instead of chasing the grays, Hill pulled up behind their rearguard and encamped. The Ringgold picked up some stragglers or deserters and after questioning them, they learned that Hill had missed an excellent opportunity to defeat an unprepared foe. After this action, or lack thereof, the company returned to Grafton.[8]

On July 24, the Ringgold packed into an awaiting Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train bound for New Creek, Virginia. In early August, the company began serving Brigadier General Benjamin Kelley, a commander who held the Ringgold in the highest esteem during the war. The troopers built a new camp on the bluffs in New Creek, and they soon learned that a certain supposed Confederate colonel named Parsons was ambushing Unionists and Federal troops, raising problems in nearby towns. Kelley set loose the cavalry to end the interloper’s activities. Twenty Ringgold men galloped off to confront Parsons, their first night out the Ringgold made camp in a barn near Burlington, Maryland. Parsons and his men tried to sneak up on the company, but local man warned the Ringgold’s of the impending attack, for his bravery Parson’s men shot him dead. The Ringgold men return fire and after a short engagement, the rebels scattered, ending Parsons’ bushwhacking operations. Later in the month, the Ringgold’s scared a rebel recruiting force from their dinner.[9] Each episode honed the Ringgold’s into a sharper, more effective unit, but they had yet to engage regular Confederate troops.

Several weeks later, Kelley ordered the Pennsylvania horse soldiers to help elements of the 4th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment assault Petersburg, Virginia. On September 12th, the combined force of two-hundred-fifty men attacked four to five-hundred rebels encamped in the town. The Union infantry and the Ringgold’s assumed positions for a frontal assault as Union artillery lobbed rounds into buildings sheltering Confederates. Private Aungier Dobbs of the Ringgold’s noted, “[O]ur cannon opened on the Meeting house taking effect every shot. I never saw men get out of a house faster. [W]e were about a mile off. [W]e were ordered to Charge which we did with a will [B]y the time we got in town there were but few men to be seen which we captured.”[10] Not only did the Ringgold men take prisoners but also a small supply train loaded with food-stuffs, fodder, harnesses, and “…twenty-three of the finest horses we had ever seen….”[11]

After the Union’s combined arms operations dislodged Secessionists from Petersburg, the Confederate commander in Virginia’s Hampton County, Colonel Angus McDonald, consolidated his position in Romney. Accordingly, General Kelley sent a force to probe the approaches leading to that fortified town. If they took the town, he intended to destroy the Secessionist newspaper published there. On September 23, 1861, Kelley dispatched his force from New Creek by way of the Northwest Turnpike, a distance of eighteen miles. Its commander was Colonel Cantwell of the 4th Ohio, with five hundred men and a field piece, four hundred men of Colonel Harker's 8th Ohio, and Captain Keys with fifty men from the Ringgold, who deployed along the front and flanks to screen the main body’s approach to Romney. This was the first time the Ringgold operated around Romney, and as cavalrymen generally serve as a commander’s “eyes,” they sought to report enemy movements in the area. They did their job well, since late in the evening on September 24, Colonel Cantwell's force safely approached Romney and challenged McDonald and his men.[12]

At 11:30 PM, the Federals engaged the defenders at Mechanicsburg Gap, three miles west of Romney. Cantwell ordered the Ringgold to open the pass, which they did before pursuing fleeing rebels to Romney until a barricade stopped them. A sharp engagement ensued, and the Ringgold withdrew to the Federal infantry skirmish line at the Gap. The Union leaders split their force, and one element of infantry and the artillery moved on Romney from Mechanicsburg Gap the other infantry element and the Ringgold moved behind Romney to attack the enemy’s rear on the road at Hanging Rock Pass.

The second day’s attack began with the second element crossing the South Fork of the Potomac River just below Hanging Rock Pass. The infantry and cavalry advanced to within sight of Hanging Rock before another rebel barricade stopped them. Rebels behind the barricade and atop Hanging Rock picked off the stalled Federals, and some panicked and fled. Captain Keys kept his head, ordered the men forward and broke through the barricade. Once past the rebels, Keys took the men to a bluff overlooking Romney and waited for the Union force at Mechanicsburg Gap to attack before Keys assaulted Romney’s rear.

After waiting a short time, Keys got Cantwell’s orders to return to Mechanicsburg Gap. After a quick supper and a short rest, the entire Union force struck out for Romney again. With the Ringgold in the lead, the Federals entered Romney, encountering light, temporary resistance from rebel rearguard cavalry, which the Ringgold quickly chased out of town. Confederate Colonel McDonald overestimated the Federal forces size, and he packed up his equipment and headed for Winchester’s relative safety. Meanwhile, the Federals destroyed the newspaper press, which had strongly supported rebel activity in the area. Soon thereafter, Cantwell’s force returned to New Creek.

Cantwell’s withdrawal from Romney surprised Colonel McDonald; he immediately took back the town, well within sight of the Union forces late in the afternoon of September 25, 1861. Sensing an opportunity to harass and capture the retreating Union force, McDonald had his cavalry attack the Union rear. Unbeknownst to the rebel cavalry, the Ringgold men served as the rearguard. As the rebel cavalry charged his men, Keys cried out, “There they come!,” and prepared to engage the Confederates. Keys and his men waited for the right moment before unleashing devastating volley fire into the rebel ranks; many rebel horses went home without riders that night. The Ringgold and rebel cavalry fought a running battle until the Union infantry reached New Creek.[13]

While Colonel McDonald appeared to enjoy an easy victory over a Union force twice his number, General Kelley had acquired fresh intelligence on the Romney defenses. Instead of a mere raid, he made plans to retake, occupy and hold the town. Immediately after the September 24th engagement, Colonel McDonald received reinforcements, adding three-hundred-fifty militia to his force of two-hundred-fifty regular infantry plus the three-hundred cavalry troops assigned to him. These nine-hundred men soon engaged a company each of the 3rd and 4th Virginia Regiment, a portion of the 7th Virginia Regiment, nine companies each of the 4th and 8th Ohio Regiment, Colonel John's Maryland Brigade, the Ringgold Cavalry, plus the men and guns of a three-piece artillery detachment, a combined force of nearly five-thousand-men.[14]

With his force assembled on October 24, General Kelley received orders directly from no less a personage then General Winfield Scott, General of the Army telling Kelley to move on Romney and hold the town until relieved by General Lander's command. On the morning of October 26, Kelley's units marched from New Creek toward Romney. Just as he had done at Philippi, he split his force. Kelley led the main unit down the Northwestern Turnpike to Mechanicsburg Gap, with the Ringgold once again scouting and skirmishing. Meanwhile, Colonel Johns led his unit from where Patterson's Creek passed under the B&O, thence through Frankfort, Springfield and onto Hanging Rock Pass to cut the Romney-Winchester road.

At 2:15 PM, as the Union force approached Mechanicsburg Gap, Confederate artillery on top of the pass opened fire. Federal gunners rushed forward and their counter-battery fire soon drove their Confederate counterparts from the pass, but they continued to engage advancing Federals from a hill on the east side of Patterson's Creek, which commanded the western approach to Romney and the bridge over the creek. Immediately to the Federals’ front, on the creek’s east side, Confederates defended both sides of the bridge in earthworks and greeted the bluecoats with sporadic gunfire. Kelley summoned his field pieces to silence the enemy guns on the hill again, but the ensuing, hour-long duel proved inconsequential; Kelley realized he had to force the bridge using a frontal assault under fire.

In a shallow ravine behind Union lines, Kelley convened a war council with his regimental commanders. The frontal assault appeared to be the only option, and Captain Keys approached Kelley and asked that the Ringgold get the honor of leading the charge, Kelley refused his request. Keys soon returned and asked again, but Kelley replied, “Captain, for me to sacrifice such a body of men as you command sir, I will never give such an order.” Undaunted, Keys asked a third time and Kelley gave him permission to lead the attack, but only “…if he [Keys] would be responsible to the War Department, he could use his pleasure about the matter.”[15]

Keys brought the Ringgolds to the ravine, where the war council continued to plan the attack, and prepared to make his assault on the rebels at the bridge. At that moment, a “negro” appeared who knew of a ford above the bridge, just out of the enemy’s view. He led the Ringgold over the river to a position overlooking the rebel guns and entrenchments.[16] As per plans, the Ringgold moved on unsuspecting Confederates at 4:00 PM. Surprised by cavalry charging on their flank and a mass of Union infantry attacking their front, the Confederate forces at the bridge broke and fled. Rebel artillery on the hill tried to limber up and flee but they went but a short distance before the Ringgold captured the two artillery pieces that had earlier commanded territory from the hill in Romney. Another artillery piece in the town square also fell into Ringgold hands, along with most of the rebel camp equipment and arms.

When the Ringgold attacked Romney, General Kelley ordered his infantry forward. Company D of the 4th Ohio and Company I of the 8th Ohio followed Kelley across the bridge and right into Confederate entrenchments. The superior numbers of Union men overwhelmed the Confederates, who fled east on the road through Romney and onto Winchester. The Federal cavalry pursued them hotly.[17]

Kelley's plan to trap an entire enemy formation failed, owing to Confederate tactical adeptness. According to plan, Colonel Johns marched his men to Chain Bridge and engaged three hundred fifty Confederates defending the town’s eastern bridge. The day before, they had removed the bridge’s planking, rendering it virtually impassable.[18] McDonald’s command again escaped to Winchester, leaving behind three cannons, three-hundred rifles, ammunition, camp equipment, a baggage train, and over one-hundred horses.[19]

Unlike after the first Union attack on Romney, McDonald did not return soon thereafter. His replacement, Brigadier General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, waited two months before having Confederates threaten Romney. General Kelley hurriedly consolidated his position; and reinforcements from Major General Thomas Rosecrans’ soon arrived, ensuring Confederates could not take the town without a major fight.

The Ringgold Cavalry acted as a key factor in winning Romney. For its efforts, General Kelley named the town’s new Union post Camp Keys. Moreover, he bequeathed the artillery piece that the Pennsylvanians had captured in Romney’s town square to the unit.

Romney was the final objective in the Ringgold Cavalry’s breaking-in period. For the rest of the war, the men rode and fought constantly, conducting multifarious operations that ranged from delivering priority mail to raiding deeply into enemy territory. If not for these few short months, a more proficient Confederate cavalry unit might have annihilated it. General Kelley’s wise use of the unit ensured the unit would continue to serve on the frontline, otherwise, Federal generals less adept at cavalry operations may have relegated it to guard duty on a general’s staff. Instead, the Ringgold honed its fighting skills on the steep ridges, narrow valleys and farm trails that characterized most of western Virginia. Unlike neophyte cavalry regiments, entering Union service in 1861 the Ringgold stood as proficient as its Confederate counterparts. This experience prepared it well for the upcoming years, during which it engaged formidable Confederate Partisan Rangers and cavalry leaders such as Hanse McNeil, John McCausland, and John Imboden.

* * *

Show Notes

* * *

© 2024 Richard Pitts

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙