Civil War Era Dispatch of Thomas Martin Sobottke Portraying New York Tribune Chief Correspondent Samuel Wilkeson at Old World Wisconsin 24 and 25 August 2013. The time is 25 August 1863 and the place is a little town called Burnsville just four miles from Williamsport, Maryland and the large Federal pontoon bridge over the Potomac River to neighboring Virginia.
25 August 1863
Near Williamsport, Maryland
Just four miles from Williamsport and the Potomac River crossing, proclaims the Four Mile Inn. After some hard travel in trying to catch up with the ever shifting relative positions of the armies of Meade and Lee, I stopped for a couple of days for what I thought might be a well-deserved idyll. The quiet little town of Burnsville boasts no more than seventy or eighty citizens living in and around the town. No sooner had I pitched my tent than a long baggage train followed by a supply train rolled through headed for Virginia. There has also been a press of people coming into town on Saturday for Market.
When the miles long line of wagons had cleared the square, a company of the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry arrived to picket the town. Captain Holbrook was in charge and ably assisted by the very personification of the young dashing lieutenant, Lt. Schwartz.
The arrival of Company K soon convinced any lingering secessionists to submit to the Federal authority. The balance of the town is solidly loyal. I’d made camp with a detachment of Battery B, 6th Wisconsin Lt. Artillery in the yard of the Sanford home on the edge of town.
Shortly after noon the picket post on the North edge of the little township was driven in by some eight to ten Rebels who first appeared as Bushwackers. The picket post was reinforced, and watching from a nearby fence line I saw the 2nd drive them from the field and take two prisoners, who when prodded admitted they were from the 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion known commonly as White’s Comanche’s.
These rascals terrorized Gettysburg town in June last in the days prior to the great battle there. These men are part of Stuart’s cavalry command and Lee often uses them to do advance scouting for his army. But they are the most ill- disciplined and unkempt sort of men imaginable. They entered the town fully dismounted and with the utmost stealth.
The boys of the 2nd fired in skirmish order amid further shooting, shouts so savage that we all heard the most genuine Rebel Yell. It was a field of high grass and thistle. You could easily see each man by the outpouring of smoke from each musket. One Confederate was hit and brought down by a particularly well aimed shot at almost 300 yards. Two of his comrades dragged him away. Then the field fell silent and a hearty series of Federal huzzahs was heard. Soon after a deep throated canon shot rang out from the opposite corner of town. Sargent Walter Hlaban of the 6th said his command had stood to anticipating just such an eventuality. They managed a single shot at a group of Confederate horsemen riding rapidly away in defeat.
Later in the afternoon when things had quieted somewhat, a recruiting fair was conducted at the Inn on the town square. Men were there who were much moved by the steadfastness and fighting qualities of the 2nd Wisconsin men. They gathered to hear “the pitch” as they termed it. The speech predictably made that common appeal to their manhood, challenging them even now to join the colors. A Dutchman, that is a German-American soldier, testified in his lingua franca with the aid of an officer of the 2nd of Yankee stock who translated into English all that he said.
It was a strongly emotional appeal. The best line I thought by far was when he said “in America we can choose our leaders and our destiny!” He went on to say that here we have “Freedom of the people: the choice to unite and act as one.” The crowd-pleaser was “stand up and fight as free men while you fight for your land and its unity.”
The soldier continued in his own tongue as translated by his officer, “if the ignorant and arrogant vipers succeed our country will be lost.” He asked the crowd if they chose the United States over the secessionist Confederacy to which they replied “Yes I have!” There followed three hearty “ya’s” and then a Federal huzzah. At least three men came forward along with a few young boys—quite an amazing feat from so small a place, so far advanced in this struggle, and so proximate to the Potomac and Virginia.
On Sunday, about 9 O’clock in the morning, a desultory yet steady firing could be heard in the direction of Williamsport and the greater picture and full meaning of the events of yesterday became clear. Some portion of Stuart’s cavalry attacked the supply train that moved through here yesterday morning. The firing is coming, we learn, from the South or Virginia side of the river. This is a bold attempt to capture the supply train and deprive Meade of hundreds of wagons filled with what an army needs to fight. A dispatch rider came through who a moment ago told me that the Rebels are getting much the worst of it and supply train is in no danger.
One thing more. In speaking to Captain Holbrook and a pair of soldiers I asked if his Westerners had been victim to a certain prejudice against those not in our Eastern regiments. The nod of their three heads and the look upon their faces told all.
General Cutler of Cutler’s Brigade of the very same First Corps who used to command the 6th Wisconsin, has been telling much about how the Wisconsin boys from our famed Iron Brigade did so greatly on that first day at Gettysburg. Nearly seven in ten of the 2nd were casualties that day. They had much to do with our retention of that wonderfully high ground south of the town that ensured our victory.
They especially cooperated with our 14th Brooklyn and 95th NY regiments of Cutler’s command in the woods west of town and at a long railroad cut nearby.
I close now to break camp after sending this away with the very same dispatch rider who agreed to include it with what he sends from a town further north that has a wire and a telegraphist. I hope to get quickly south of the Potomac and further into Virginia to find the Federal army of Meade. The opposing armies are maneuvering over the heart of Northern Virginia for yet one more great battle that might bring the signal victory and the end of this war.