The most significant Civil War action to take place in the Waterford vicinity occurred in early August 1863 when Eliiah White’s 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry encountered a large scouting party from Harpers Ferry commanded by Capt. Harvey H. Vinton at Walker’s Hill at the southwest corner of the Town of Waterford. The following is an excerpt about the skirmish and its aftermath from Between Reb and Yank: A Civil War History of Northern Loudoun County, Virginia by Taylor M. Chamberlin and John M. Souders:
Brig. Gen. Henry H. Lockwood’s earlier request for cavalry to contend with partisans in Loudoun County remained unfilled, but the Harpers Ferry commander still had 400 horse soldiers at his disposal: specifically, detachments from Purnell’s Legion, the 1st Connecticut and the 6th Michigan. Accordingly, on 6 August he ordered Col. George Wells to send out a hundred-man cavalry detachment from the 1st Brigade with instructions to pass through Hillsboro and Waterford as far as Leesburg. The objective was to “ascertain the force and whereabouts of…. Rebel guerrillas who are reported to be ranging Loudoun County and committing depredations on the persons and property of the Union citizens thereof.” The next day thirty riders from the 1st Connecticut and seventy from the 6th Michigan crossed the Shenandoah into Loudoun with three days’ rations for an extended scout in pursuit of White’s “guerrilla band.” The column, led by Capt Hervy H. Vinton of the Sixth’s Co. M, proceeded up the Between the Hills valley as far as Hillsboro, turned east through the gap in the Short Hill and arrived at Waterford in the late afternoon.
That same morning (7th) their intended quarry, Colonel White and about 120 men of the 35th Battalion, rode into Wood Grove, where they learned that Vinton’s column was in Hillsboro, three miles distant. Cautiously approaching that town, the Rebels found the Yankees had already departed for Waterford. White followed the bluecoats east, halting his command halfway between Wheatland and Waterford near the farm of Armistead Vandevanter. He assumed the Federals would return to Harpers Ferry via the same route later in the day and laid an ambush. Just before dark, however, word arrived that Vinton planned to spend the night at Waterford. At this point White edged his men closer to their target, cutting across Sanford Ramey’s farm (Rosemont) to the south branch of Catoctin Creek, then moving downstream toward the town, using trees along its banks as cover.
The Northern squadron had been in Waterford about two hours when Vinton learned that White and “his band” were only a half mile away, observing their movements. With darkness fast approaching, the Michigan captain moved his 100 riders to a more defensible “high hill” on James Walker’s farm, one that overlooked the town from the southwest. The Federals posted pickets on all roads and paths into town, and about 9 p.m. set out additional “camp guards” around the encampment at a distance of 10-15 rods. A Connecticut trooper recalled the memorable evening.
All remained quiet until near 11 o’clock, when the enemy was discovered marching out of the woods into an open field, evading our outer pickets, but was discovered by one of the camp guards, who, according to instructions, fired his pistol and reported to the commanding officer that the enemy was approaching. The men were immediately aroused from their slumbers, mounted their horses, and, according to orders from Capt. Vinton, fell in line back towards the advancing column, the Michigan cavalry being on the right and the Connecticut on the left.
The rebels came slowly and steadily up the hill until our boys could hear the officers saying to them stead men, keep your dress, etc. They, however, did not make a good calculation, for in charging their left came in contact with our left, therefore the Michigan cavalry did not receive a shot.
Receiving no orders from the commanding officer, Sergeant Gore gave the order, “Form left around wheel,” but before our boys were in line, the rebels gave a volley, wounding several horses. This made them very fractious, and uncontrollable, three of which charged through the rebel line. Our boys then gave them a splendid volley, which checked them. At this point if the officers had brought the Michigan men around and charged them on their left flank, it would have totally routed and put them to flight. But no! All this time the officers and men were looking the other way for them, but finding they were attached in the rear broke and ran, disgracefully leaving only thirty men to contend against 300 strong.
The rebels then rallied and our boys were compelled to fall back, leaving in their hands ten men, who fought most gallantly. If the Michigan boys had shown half the courage that Frank Leslie’s artist gives them credit for at Falling Waters, we are satisfied the result would have been very different.
Frank Myers’s account of the fight on Walker’s Hill provides a different perspective. After ascertaining the location of the enemy’s hilltop camp just before dark, White had his men tie their horses along the creek and follow him. With the goal of taking as many horses and prisoners as possible, he told the dismounted soldiers to observe strict silence until they reached the edge of the camp. The field below the hill was filled with haycocks, which made it difficult for the Rebel colonel to keep his men in line. Then, still 200 yards from their objective, White stumbled over one of the obstacles and accidentally discharged his revolver. This caused further confusion, some thinking it was the signal to open fire, others believing they were under attack. By this time the Yanks had mounted and fired one volley at the shapes approaching in the dark, before departing “with all haste.” The Southerners returned fire, felling three or four of the enemy. But most of the Federals made good their escape, with all but a few of their horses.
The engagement proved costly to the 35th Virginia. Pvt. John C. Grubb was killed in the initial firefight, and his cousin, Capt. Richard B. Grubb of Company C, was mortally wounded nearby in a confrontation with Yankee pickets on the road to Hamilton. Myers considered the loss “irreparable,” calling Captain Gurbb “one of the best, if not the very best officer” in the battalion. He termed the “affair” at Waterford “fruitful only in disaster.”
Rebecca Williams was spending the night with the Walkers when the fight broke out at the western edge of the farm. “I had not slept any when about 11 o’clock, I heard musketry very sharp firing for 4 or 5 minutes. White & his gang attacked the Federals, they fell back in order, retired down street, again formed in line of battle on A[masa] Hough’s hill [at the north end of town], but they were not pursued….” In fact, White’s dismounted troopers were in no position to pursue their foe even if they had wanted to. Rebecca later learned that each side had suffered two killed, but thought there might have been additional Confederate losses. The “two Grub[b]’s were taken to E. Walker, & from there their freiends conveyed their lifeless bodies home near Hillsborough. The two Federals were brought to the brick [Baptist] church, coffins made & were decently interred. Another badly wounded was brought to Kitty Leggett’s where he is being kindly cared for & is likely to recover.”
At dawn the following morning, as Lida Dutton was returning from an inspection of the skirmish site, she encountered Michigan cavalryman Ulrick Crocker crossing the street at the south end of town. The girl had seen Rebels about on her way out to Walker’s Hill, so she led the soldier back to her parents’ house via an alley to prevent his discovery. On their way, Crocker told how he had lain all night in a cornfield beside his dying companion, Dallas Dexter, whose body Lida had already encountered lying along the road. Crocker had spiked the dead man’s gun and told her that she could keep it as a souvenir, if she could find it. (Lida retrieved the gun and years later presented it to her daughter.) Another soldier, Edward M. Woodward of the 1st Connecticut, also found refuge in the village, and the two Union soldiers were subsequently spirited to safety at Point of Rocks.
In the aftermath of the fighting, one Waterford civilian managed to aid the Union cause while trying to turn a profit. William Densmore, a native of Maine, was a carpenter by trade, but with work scarce in wartime, he sometimes made ends meet by carrying mail between Waterford and Point of Rocks. Like many other residents, he went out to survey the scene of the fighting the night before. His return route took him down by the creek where he found three Rebel horses still tied to the trees. Densmore hired three local black men, Thomas Robinson, French Clapham and George Lewis, to ride the mounts to the Point and turn them over to Captain Means. They had not gone far when they discovered White’s soldiers in hot pursuit “By hard riding and dodging” the trio made good its escape and delivered the horses.
The skirmish on Walker’s Hill was Waterford’s largest engagement of the way. Yet the only account to appear in the Official Records was written at Point of Rocks the following morning by Captain Means, who played no part in it. Captain Vinton had just ridden in to report being attacked by a “large force of rebels,” and that 50 of his men were still missing. (Most would eventually find their way across the Potomac.) For reasons of his own, Means forwarded the information to Washington rather than Harpers Ferry, where Vinton’s expedition had originated. As he had in several earlier messages, the Ranger captain direly warned of Confederate forces massing in Loudoun in preparation for a raid into Maryland. “Send me the force, and I will clean them out. Strangers cannot find them.” Means may have been secretly pleased that Lockwood’s first significant venture into Loudoun had failed, particularly since the general had not seen fit to ask his Rangers to guide the expedition.
Read more about this and other Civil War action in Loudoun County in Between Reb and Yank: A Civil War History of Northern Loudoun County, Virginia by Taylor M. Chamberlin and John M. Souders available online here.