The Battle of Leetown occurred on August 25, 1864 when Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early took the bulk of his army on a reconnaissance in force toward Shepherdstown and the Potomac River. Sheridan, who had just fallen back to the defenses of Harper’s Ferry, simultaneously sent two cavalry divisions on a recon mission of their own toward Early’s northern flank. With two large forces moving in the same direction, a clash of arms was inevitable. After General George A. Custer scored an initial success against the Confederate advance, Early brought his superior manpower to bear upon the Federals and forced them back in confusion, although Sheridan’s cavalry had acquitted itself well in a toe-to-toe fight with the Confederate infantry. In the course of the fighting, Lt. Col. Wolfe was killed. The following story is told by his brother.
Early’s infantry was encamped in the vicinity northwest of Charlestown on the morning of the 25th of Aug. 1864. About 8 o’clock A.M., the whole army marched in the direction of Shepherdstown. At 12 M. Wharton’s division in front and his old brigade in front of his division with the 51 Va Regiment leading the advance. We halted at a brick church abut one mile from Leetown – remained here about one hour, and resumed the advance. We had not gone more than one half of a mile when we met our cavalry falling back. Col. Wolfe received orders to deploy his regiment (the 51st) as skirmishers on both sides of the turnpike and advance. This was quietly done and the regiment advanced at a double quick, the other troops being in column on the road.
This regiment charged a strong line of battle supported by artillery posted on an eminence in their front, driving them back upon their reserves one half mile beyond their first position. The enemy now began to flank with cavalry on the right and left of the skirmishers. On the right they were met and repulsed by the 45th Va Regiment sent by Col. [Augustus] Forsberg commanding brigade under direction of Gen. [Gabriel] Wharton. Col. Wolfe seeing the right of the regiment made safe, hastened to the left of the road into a cornfield, where he as shot and instantly fell dead. The regiment then fell back to the top of the hill from which they had driven the enemy, but not until the last round of ammunition had been expended.
By this time other brigades of the the division had been deployed and advanced and drove the enemy in great confusion across the Potomac before sundown. Our loss was chiefly in the 51st. This regiment was the largest regiment in Gen. Early’s command, and had no superior in the point of discipline and valor.
Some time after the battle, I spoke to General Early about the battle being fought by a skirmish line and the loss of my brother and he told me that according to the information he had received from our cavalry in front that there was but one brigade of the enemy present and that he knew that Col Wolfe could, with the 51st, whip any brigade of yankee cavalry on top of the earth. But at the time our cavalry fell back and the 51st advanced two other brigades of the enemy had reached the field, which was not known to him until after the battle was joined.
In this battle I had another brother [Peter Wolfe] wounded – disabled for life. I hope that you will forgive me for the length of this letter about Leetown or Kearnesyville as it is sometimes called. My loss shall be my plea.
The 51st Virginia Infantry lost 12 killed, 63 wounded and 27 captured at Leetown.