The Battle of Cool Spring, July 18, 1864: Perspective of Col. Joseph Thoburn, Commander of U.S. Forces on the Ground

I received a mailer today from the Civil War Trust announcing its effort to preserve 1,500 acres of what is to me one of the most pristine and beautiful battlefields in Virginia. The battlefield is best known as Cool Spring but it is also referred to as the Battle of Snicker’s Gap or Castleman’s Ferry. This field is nestled among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and christened by the sparkling waters of the Shenandoah River as it meanders toward Harper’s Ferry, the serene setting of this evocative field takes visitors back in time to July 18, 1864 to experience that “Right smart little fight” as the soldiers called it where Jubal Early repelled an attempt by U.S. Generals Horatio Wright and George Crook to damage Early’s rear guard. As always, the men in the ranks paid the price. To help spread the word about this preservation opportunity and to increase awareness of the battle itself, I thought that I would share

Ch 18 Thoburn

Col. Joseph Thoburn, 1st West Virginia Infantry.

the journal entry of Col. Joseph Thoburn, the combat leader of the U.S. forces that crossed the river in hopes of surprising Early’s rearguard but instead found themselves surprised in turn by Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’ crack division. Thoburn’s casualty figures are skewed but the account is terrific. Actual losses were about 400 on either side.

From the Journal of Col. Joseph Thoburn:

Snickers Gap, Va.

July 19th,    Moved forward through the Gap yesterday about 1 P.M.  I was put in command of Sullivan’s old Division and the 3rd Brigade of Crook’s, and was directed by Gen. Crook to proceed by a circuitous and hidden route to a fording, one and a half miles down the river and effect a crossing, move up the other side and drive the enemy from the upper ford on the Berryville Road. The impression then was that the main body of the enemy had retreated leaving only a rear guard to dispute our passage of the river. On reaching the fording we round the enemy occupying the opposite bank with a strong picket of about 150 or 200 men. By making a rapid dash across the river the picket was driven away without loss to us. We captured a Capt. and eleven men. The captain was a staff officer on Gen. [Armistead] Long’s staff.

From the prisoners, information was gained that 2 divisions of Early’s army were within one mile of the ford and the remainder of the command not farther than 4 miles distant. This news was sent back to Genl. Crook and a position was taken near the river bank and a strong skirmish ‘line was sent forward about half a mile. A line of rebel skirmishers surrounded ours a half mile farther out. In this manner we lay for about one hour when their skirmish line advanced in very heavy force and our line fell back. Behind their skirmish line a heavy column advanced upon our right flank.

About one thousand of the dismounted Cavalry broke and ran across the river. A panic was created by this and a great portion of several regiments fol­lowed them in wild disorder. A portion of the line towards the right was entirely deserted and for a short time we were on the verge of disaster. But two regts [116th and 123rd Ohio] from the left were double quicked to the right and the enemy were checked and finally driven beck. Two other attempts were made to dislodge us, but both were repulsed.

About dusk I rec’d. orders to recross the river which was done in good order. Our loss was comparatively light considering the character of the contest which was very stubborn and determined. The men were protected by the embankment of a road that ran along the river bank and under a large bluff. The total killed and wounded will not exceed perhaps 200. The loss of the enemy is much greater, probably three times as much. We are resting today very quietly. The 6th Army Corps and a portion of the 19th is here.  No attempt is being made to cross again to the other aide of the river.  What the enemy is doing, we know not. The way is open for him to again destroy the railroad at Martinsburg. If they are disposed to do this it will not be difficult to accomplish for our force at that place and Harpers Ferry is not large. Genl. Crook has added the 3rd Brigade of his old Division to Sullivan’s Division and has given me command of the whole. This arrangement will probably not last longer than the present pursuit of the rebels for after that Genl. Crook may be returned to the Kanawha with his old command.

For more details on the Battle of Cool Spring and Jubal Early’s Summer Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley see my book Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign.

Shenandoah Summer

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Battle of Cool Spring, July 18, 1864: Perspective of Col. Joseph Thoburn, Commander of U.S. Forces on the Ground

  1. Richard H Jones

    Will be getting your book shortly. My GG grandfather was wounded at Snicker’s Gap. He fought with 2nd Reg. Co. A MD Inf PHB. His wound never really healed, was always infected and cared for until his death in 1895. His name was William D. Jones from Lonaconing, MD

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