My lovely wife, Beth Ann, and I made a trip to Gettysburg yesterday. It was a beautiful Sunday, warm, but not too hot, with mostly sunny skies. We decided to explore Culp’s Hill, since I had just read John D. Cox’s guide to that part of the battlefield, Culp’s Hill: the Attack and Defense of the Union Flank, July 2, 1863. We started at Benner’s Hill, where Confederate artillery had received a punishing fire from their Union counterparts, then drove over to Spangler’s Spring and parked the car. From there we had a pleasant walk to the top of the hill (where we paid our respects to George Sears Greene), over to Stephen’s Knoll, and then back to the car.
Since it was such a nice day, and we were in the neighborhood of the neighborhood, we decided to drive to Monterey Pass, the site of fighting during Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg. A little museum had opened there in the spring and I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit. When I wrote about Monterey Pass for a book called Pennsylvania Civil War Trails, there was almost nothing about the battle there, just a single historical marker. But a team of volunteers from the Friends of Monterey Pass Battlefield, Inc., has labored for years to build a visitor center, and their dream reached fruition this spring. The museum tells the story of the battle and a good deal about the region’s history. It is certainly worth a visit, and the Friends of Monterey Pass should feel proud of what they have accomplished.
Once the Union threw back Pickett’s Charge, Robert E. Lee knew he had to get his battered army out of Pennsylvania. The retreat required monumental feats of logistics and planning. The army needed ambulances for the wounded and wagons for the tons of provisions that it had foraged. The wagon train for Richard Ewell’s division alone stretched for 40 miles. Supplying his army from Pennsylvania’s riches had been one of Lee’s primary goals, after all, and he wasn’t about to leave his spoils behind. Making the retreat even more difficult was the driving rain that began on July 4 and turned roads to mud and drenched the defeated army as it made is way back towards the Potomac River and safety.
The quickest way back to the ford across the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland, was via Fairfield, then across South Mountain at Monterey Pass. Through the downpour of July 4, one of the two southern wagon trains (the other was proceeding via Cashtown Pass) was laboring up South Mountain on a steep, narrow route called the Maria Furnace Road. Heading up the Emmitsburg/Waynesboro Turnpike from the south, on a collision course with the retreating rebels, was Judson Kilpatrick and his Union cavalry.
Kilpatrick’s men approached the pass through a pitch-black night, with visibility made even worse by the driving rain. The cavalrymen literally couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces until sudden bolts of lightning lit everything for brief instants. On their way up the steep pike towards Monterey Pass, Kilpatrick’s men met 12-year old Hetty Zeilinger. The girl offered to guide the Union cavalry up to the pass, so one of the Union troopers hoisted her onto his horse.
Near the top of the road, at Monterey Pass, Kilpatrick’s men, with Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer in the lead, ran headlong into a tiny force of defenders, about 90 men and a single cannon under the command of Captain George Emack of Company B, First Maryland Cavalry. Aided by the darkness and confusion, Emack’s small force managed to delay the 4,500 Federal cavalrymen, before he was forced slowly back towards the wagon train.
With the sounds of the wagon train coming from the darkness in front of him, Custer sent the Sixth Michigan forward through the dark and rain to attack it. It was so dark, in fact, that one of the dismounted cavalrymen literally stepped on a Confederate lying on the ground in his path. The rebel shot him dead. In the charge that followed, Custer’s men captured 300 wagons and 1,300 prisoners during a nightmarish encounter amid crashing thunder and lightning, panicked animals, and screams and shouts. Captain Emack suffered a series of serious wounds before his men carried him to safety.
Henry J. Chritzman of Greencastle, a surgeon with one of the Union cavalry brigades, recalled the scene. “When we came up with the wagon-train, Federal and Confederate cavalry, wagons, ambulances, drivers and mules became a confused mass of pursued and pursuing demons whose shouts and carbine shots, mingled with the lightning’s read glare and the thunder’s crash, made it appear as if we were in the infernal regions,” he wrote. Panicked animals went tearing down the road and plunged over the steep edge, where the wagons crashed to pieces. When Kilpatrick burned his captured wagons later that night, the light from their flames was visible for miles.