160 Years Ago Today: Skirmish at Frankfort and Patterson’s Creek

In mid-June, Col. Lewis “Lew” Wallace, commanding the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment, arrived in Cumberland, Maryland across the Potomac River from Virginia with a mission to guard the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. His 11th Indiana routed a Confederate force out of Romney, Virginia on June 11, then withdrew.

Confederate reinforcements under Col. Ambrose Powell Hill arrived in Romney on June 15, then proceeded to burn the railroad bridge at New Creek. On June 19, two companies of Confederate cavalry arrived in Romney commanded by Col. Angus W. McDonald, Sr. to relieve them. Hill’s infantry left on the 21st.

These troop movements alarmed Wallace and his men, who were outnumbered and far from reinforcements. His nearest support were Pennsylvania Reserve units who had orders not to leave their state. To gather intelligence about what he was up against, Wallace instructed his men to commandeer horses, but they only found thirteen in “fair” condition.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s cavalry was busying itself around Romney. Lt. Col. Turner Ashby led a company called the “Mountain Rangers” from Fauquier County. On the morning of Wednesday, June 26, 1861, Lt. Col. Ashby and his younger brother, Cpt. Richard Ashby, set off on two different missions. The elder Ashby took nine men on a scouting mission toward Patterson’s Creek Depot, while the younger Ashby set off with 19 men to arrest a local Unionist. Not finding him at home, Richard Ashby split his force and took the smaller squad toward Patterson’s Depot.

Lew Wallace’s scouts, led by Cpl. David B. Hay, were also on the move that day. His troop of thirteen mounted infantrymen headed from Cumberland east to Frankfort’s Ford along the Potomac River to ascertain if any enemy cavalry were there. They ran into Richard Ashby and his squad near the mouth of Dan’s Run, approximately three miles southeast of Patterson’s Creek. A sharp fight erupted. Most of the younger Ashby’s men managed to get away, but Richard was mortally wounded and left for dead. Cpl. Hay was also wounded.

The Hoosiers rode back toward Cumberland and stopped to rest on a small island (called Kelley’s Island or Kelly’s Island) in the Potomac River at the mouth of Patterson’s Creek. Lt. Col. Turner Ashby, joined by two scouts who heard the firing earlier, located the federals and charged headlong through the shallow water. It was a fatal mistake. Ashby’s horse was shot out from under him, two of his men were killed, and several wounded (Lew Wallace greatly exaggerated the number of Confederate cavalry and their casualties).

Col. Wallace had high praise for the performance of his troops, writing:

“I would simply say of this skirmish, that it was one of the boldest, most desperate, and fortunate on record, abounding with instances on the part of my scouts of rarest coolness, skill, and courage. What makes it most singular is that, for a considerable portion of the time, it was a hand to-hand fight, carried on with pistol, saber, bayonet and first.”

Wallace sent two companies to help, and the Confederates withdrew. Later, Turner Ashby found his younger brother’s body and became a changed man–sullen with a burning desire for revenge. He would also die in battle, on June 6, 1862.

This was the last skirmish for the 11th Indiana in Virginia. In July, the regiment joined Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson’s army north of Winchester, Virginia, returned to Romney July 11-13th, then proceeded home to Indianapolis to be mustered out and re-organized as a three-year regiment in early August.

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