Town awaits war


1863 battle leaves 4 soldiers dead THE CIVIL WAR COMES TO WESTMINSTER

July 04, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Contributing Writer

It will take longer to read this page than it took for Corbit's Charge to take place on Monday, June 29, 1863, at the junction of East Main Street (Baltimore Pike) and Washington Road.

While the presence of Union and Confederate forces in and near Westminster upset the quiet routine of a summer's day, the elapsed time of the battle was five minutes.

But it proved to be a bloody five minutes. When it was over, four lay dead in the road, two Union officers had been taken prisoner and Westminster's nerves were jangled beyond endurance.

The day before, two companies of the 1st Delaware Cavalry Battalion, made up of six officers and 95 men commanded by Maj. Napoleon B. Knight, rode into Westminster and took up a position on College Hill at the western edge of town. Company C, under the command of Capt. Charles Corbit, and Company D, led by 1st Lt. Caleb Churchman, had been sent from Baltimore to act as observers and guards.

An eyewitness account by a correspondent known as "Everett," published in 1872 in the Democratic Advocate, described the commander of the Union forces who set up headquarters in the Westminster Hotel.

"The major in command of it had more nerves than brains, did more cowardice than common sense and being afflicted with an insane belief that the whole and sole object of the invasion was the capture of his precious person," he wrote, "could see in his every glass of whiskey, which he drank at intervals of five minutes with the most commendable industry and astonishing regularity, whole hosts of Rebels within a few moments of him."

On June 25, Gen. J. E. B. Stuart's cavalry division of 6,000 began an advance north toward Gettysburg. His force had captured a Union supply train of 125 wagons and 800 mules in Rockville, while the 4th Virginia Cavalry, under the command of Fitzhugh Lee, had taken 400 prisoners.

"Never before had Westminster beheld -- and please God never again shall witness -- such a scene of hurry, alarm and confusion as that which now every day presented," wrote Everett of the city when word arrived that the Rebels were nearby.

"The merchants closed their shops at every fresh alarm, and all offices of the government hastily fled. The tradesman forsook his shop, the farmer his plough, and the lawyer his office and came out on the street to join in the search for news."

Friends of the South

Southern sympathizers were thrilled at the news of the coming of the Confederates.

"The friends of the South went wild with excitement, prophesying the certainty of the triumph of their cause," continued Everett.

" 'Lee has cut the Union Army into pieces,' it was said. 'He is marching straight on Philadelphia and New York! He will be here tonight! Here -- tonight!' "

Some of the Delaware troops were captured when an advance Rebel patrol surprised them as they were having their horses shod at a blacksmith shop on Main Street.

When the news reached Corbit encamped on College Hill, he assumed command; Knight was drunk in his headquarters in the hotel.

With 60 men, Corbit led a cavalry charge down Main Street

shouting, "Come on boys, close up!" into a clash at Main Street and Washington Road with the Confederate forces.

"At once the bugle sounded a charge," wrote Everett, "the men --ed forward and in an instant both parties were mixed in the wildest confusion. First came the quick and vehement crack of carbines in two explosions in rapid succession; then a general discharge, as of a number of persons firing at once, and, at last, the floundering of horses, the cries and curses of men, and the ringing of steel striking steel.

"This lasted for a moment or two that seemed hours; and then the Rebels turned and fled; but the cheer that went up for the victors had scarcely died in their throats before the whole of Stuart's men were upon them. In turn, the Union men sought to fly, but it was now too late -- the whole county was black with enemies."

As Corbit's horse's head reared into the air, it took a ball between the eyes. That was credited with saving Corbit's life. He stood over the dead animal with his pistol in his hand until taken prisoner with Churchman. They were paroled the next day near Hanover by Stuart personally, with the admonition that they "ought to be fighting for the Confederacy rather than against it."

As quickly as it had begun, the clash was over. Casualties included two privates from the 1st Delaware Cavalry, William Vandergrift and Daniel Welch. The 4th Virginia lost two officers, Lieutenants John W. Murray and St. Pierre Gibson.

Lieutenants Murray and Gibson were buried in the Ascension rTC Episcopal Church graveyard on Court Street. Gibson's remains were sent home later for reburial, but Murray still rests there under an ancient sycamore tree in a grave marked by a small Confederate flag and tombstone.

A hasty retreat

Major Knight, rapidly sobering up, took what men remained and beat a hasty retreat toward Reisterstown, pursued by elements of Stuart's cavalry.

As a consequence of the skirmish, the Confederates rested in Westminster rather than moving on to Gettysburg. When they did move into Pennsylvania the next day, they were forced to take an alternate route that prevented them from reaching Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces until late in the second day of the battle.

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