Col. Lewis “Lew” Wallace, commanding the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment, was a bit of an aberration. He was a lawyer and friend of Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, and would go on to write the novel Ben Hur (1880). Wallace used his political connections to get his regiment, styled in French-inspired “zouave” jackets, transferred closer to the action.
General Winfield Scott personally ordered the 11th Indiana to guard the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Maryland, across the Potomac River from Virginia. It technically fell under Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson and the Department of Pennsylvania but operated independently. It arrived in Cumberland, Maryland on June 10, 1861. Patterson gave Wallace leeway to “capture or rout” armed insurgents in the area, and he was happy to oblige.
Wallace heard a body of secessionist forces were camped in Romney, Virginia, 21 miles south along the South Branch of the Potomac River. These were three companies from the 33rd Virginia Infantry Regiment, including the Potomac Guards and Independent Greys (Company A and F), under Col. Arthur C. Cummings.
Five hundred men from the 11th Indiana proceeded by train the night of June 12, then plodded along rough mountain roads the next morning. The 21-mile trip turned into an 87-mile slog. Confederates had advanced notice of their arrival and were posted on a hill behind the bridge Wallace’s men would have to cross to enter Romney.
Despite multiple defensive advantages, including two artillery pieces mounted on the high ground and the difficulty of attacking across a river, the 11th Indiana executed the movement flawlessly suffering only one superficial wound. Wallace personally led several companies to flank the hill, but before they could get into range, the Confederates melted into the flood of Romney’s pro-secession residents leaving town.
Though Wallace pledged not to harass any unarmed citizens, his men did destroy the printing press and offices of the South Branch Intelligencer. Satisfied, Wallace withdrew his troops the next day. Confederate Col. Turner Ashby and his cavalry occupied Romney by June 17th, leading to another skirmish at Frankfort and Patterson’s Creek.
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