160 Years Ago Today: Skirmish at New Creek

On June 11, 1861, Union Col. Lewis “Lew” Wallace, commanding the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment at Cumberland, Maryland, attacked several companies of ill-trained militia at Romney, Virginia (today West Virginia) along the South Branch of the Potomac River. The Confederates fled in disorder. This, and the threat of McClellan’s army coming over the mountains from the west, led Confederate Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnson to withdraw his small Army of the Shenandoah from Harper’s Ferry south to Winchester, fearing he was in danger of being surrounded.

To counter Wallace’s presence in the area, Johnson sent Col. Ambrose Powell Hill with the 3rd Tennessee Infantry Regiment and Hill’s own 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment to re-occupy Romney. They arrived sometime on the night of June 15th. “I have positive information that there will be four thousand rebel troops at or in Romney to-night, who swear they will follow me to hell but what they will have me,” Wallace wrote frantically. Their actual number was likely around 1,500.

On the night of Tuesday, June 18, 1861, Col. John C. Vaughn took two companies from the 3rd TN and two from the 13th VA and marched 18-miles northwest to New Creek (today, Keyser) on the North Branch of the Potomac River. New Creek was also located along the strategically important Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. A.P. Hill gave Vaughn instructions to disburse whatever Union forces were there and burn the bridges over the river.

When Col. Vaughn arrived at New Creek around 4am on Wednesday, June 19th, he observed 200 to 300 armed men with two pieces of artillery on the north bank of the Potomac. But who were they? Col. Wallace’s regiment was the only organized force in the area, but none of his reports describes a skirmish at New Creek.

In his memoir, Wallace mentioned “a company of loyal guards” keeping watch over the New Creek bridge. Whoever they were, Col. Vaughn reported they spiked their two cannon, fired their muskets, and skedaddled, wounding a private from Company I, 3rd TN. The Confederates captured the guns and the unit’s flag, then burned the bridge and returned to Romney.

In Cumberland over the following days, Wallace prepared his men to fight and evacuate if necessary. He staged their wagons filled with baggage on the main road going north to Pennsylvania, then arrayed his regiment for battle when scouts reported a rebel force coming toward Cumberland from Romney. “There were a number of curios in my camp, relics of the late raid, and I did not relish the thought of making contributions of the kind in return, not even a handful of beans,” he wrote in his memoir.

The enemy unit turned around four miles away, however, and the anticipated battle never arrived. In a few days, the 11th Indiana would be tested again, but another inconsequential skirmish would do little to change the fortunes of war in that corner of northern Virginia.

Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:

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