Eyewitness Cavalryman

5 July 2006

I’ve recently read a contemporary letter from Confederate trooper James K. Munnerlyn about what he saw in Maryland as part of the cavalry rear-guard of Lee’s Army on and after 9 September 1862.

J.K. Munnerlyn, 1867

Munnerlyn (above, in 1867) was a Private in Company F of the Jeff Davis Legion Cavalry: the Georgia Hussars. They were nominally part of Wade Hampton’s Brigade for the Maryland Campaign, but were often on independent duty, notably on the turnpike from Frederick to Baltimore on 7 and 8 September, and as the sole defense at Turner’s Gap til the afternoon of 13 September.

For your enlightenment, here’s the text of part of Munnerlyn’s letter, as transcribed and imaged from UNC, from their Southern Historical Collection:

Camp near Winchester Oct 9th 1862

My dear sister

Your letter of the 19th Sept was handed to one of our men by a soldier passing our camp. It had no post-mark on it and as you did not mention in the letter I came to the conclusion that you had found an opportunity of sending it after it was sealed. I wrote you from Fredrick Maryland.

At the time I wrote our Infantry were at Fredrick and we about eight miles in advance on the Baltimore road with the expectation of advancing on that City. We were soon disappointed, for our own Infantry began to fall back, and then came work for us to cover their retreat. The enemy soon found out that we were retreating and advanced on us, we had to hold our position for two days with very little loss at the end of that time we fell back to Fredrick, the the enemy in sight and skirmishing. with our rear guard as they fell back from one position to another.

As our rear guard was passing through the streets of Fredrick City the Yankee Cavalry appeared within a few hundred yards of them, the gallant Col. Buttler of the 2nd So. Ca. Cavalry who was in command gave the order “by fours right about wheel, Charge”! Notwithstanding the danger from pistol & carbine Balls, the windows were crowded with women & men cheering and waving their handkerchiefs to the Yankees. Our men made at them at full speed they turned to run but they could not escape our men who were exasperated by the people cheering and determined to chastise them in their presence. Our men got into their ranks and did good work with their sabres. Nownie Saussy was in the front rank and was wounded. Our Lieut. said that the last he saw of Nownie he was standing in his stirrups with his Sabre raised over the head of a Yankee. Nownie has gone home on account of his wound.

We fell back fighting to Boonsboro where we met our infantry and there was fought the Battle of Boonsboro when our men were badly whipped Why the enemy did not follow us up that night and take all our artillery I dont know. I suppose it was because they did not know how badly whipped we were.

A part of the army were ordered to retreat by way of Williamsport and our Regt sent as guard to them. We had not gone far before it was ascertained that a body of Yankee Cavalry was on the road ahead of us. Our company was sent ahead as advance guard, and I was sent out in advance of the company as vidette. My mare being a very fast-walker, I soon got a long way in advance before I was aware of it I entered a village just about dawn. As I rode along the street two men turned a corner within a few yards of me I had my pistol drawn and halted them, asking them what Regt they belonged to. They said 1st Maryland Cavalry. I knew we did not have any Regt. of Maryland Cavalry, so I covered them with my pistol and told them they were my prisoners. They asked me who I was, I told them that I was a “Rebel,” they said “don’t shoot, we surrender”. Just then one of our men rode up. I made the prisoners give up their arms and sent them to the rear. We found out from them that they belonged to a column of 16 hundred Cavalry who had escaped from Harpers Ferry and who had just passed about five (remainder missing) …

In addition to the obvious combat action, there are a few interesting points that jump out. Items for further study, perhaps.

Note his disappointment–even surprise–in not being ordered to Baltimore on 7 or 8 September. Everything I’ve read says the posting of cavalry on the Frederick-Baltimore Pike was to warn of any advance of Federals from that direction, and perhaps to confuse, as a side benefit. This testimony suggests the men involved thought it more than that. Was this just good security? Or was there a possible move on Baltimore in the back of Lee’s (or Stuart’s) head?

I was a bit startled, next, to read that he thought the Confederates “badly whipped” at Boonsboro (Turner’s and Fox’s Gaps on South Mountain – 14 September). This perception may have been local to Munnerlyn, his unit, or the cavalry. Most of my reading suggest the Confederates knew they were beaten there, but felt that they had held their own, buying time for the Army. Of course, this might be after-the-fact thinking.

Lastly I was amused by his encounter with men of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, late of Harpers Ferry, while he was enroute to Williamsport. This would have been on or about 15 September. I wonder what the Marylanders were doing there? The cavalry who escaped from the besieged garrison with Colonel Davis on the 14th were reported to have reached Greencastle, Pennsylvania by morning of the 15th. Had these two stopped to visit with family or friends, maybe, and been left behind?

More little mysteries to chew on.

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