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Capture of Generals Crook and Kelly

by Capt. Jesse C. McNeill, Seymour, Il. - Part 1

This is Part 1 of a reprint from the Confederate Veteran Magazine, Vol. XIV, page 410-413

For a number of years past I have been solicited by my friends to write for publication an account of some of the achievements of the command which I had the honor, in part, of leading. I have heretofore declined to do so from a feeling of diffidence as to my ability to write entertainingly and a fixed impression that it was better some one other than myself should chronicle the deeds of heroism and daring of this command. The lengthening shadows that fall athwart my path remind me that the twilight is coming on, and that whatever I am to do toward preserving for history any of the incidents connected with McNeill and his men must be done quickly, and this has prompted me to forego my aversion to appearing in the public prints and to tell in my homely way the story of the capture of Major Generals Kelly and Crook in Cumberland, Md., on the morning of February 21, 1865.

My father, Capt. John H. McNeill, organized and led this band of self-sacrificing, heroic men till the time of his death, which occurred on November 10, 1864, at Harrisonburg, Va., from wounds received in a night attack on a Federal force encamped in Mimms Bottom, near Mount Jackson, on the morning of October 3 in the same year. I was then first lieutenant, and by common consent, as well as by virtue of my rank, the command devolved on me. He had long cherished a desire to capture General Kelly, who was then at Cumberland, Md., and I determined to carry out this desire and if possible add to the reputation the command had gained under his leadership.

In December I had the misfortune to have my leg severely injured, which forced me to turn the command over to Lieut. I. S. Welton and seek rest and recovery, which I did at the hospitable home of Mr. Felix B. Welton, on the river about four miles above the town of Moorefield. I was confined there for two or three weeks, during which I suffered much. I was subsequently removed to the home of Mr. R. B. Sherrard, on the opposite side of the river, and while still on crutches I turned my thoughts to the capture of General Kelly.

In the early part of February, 1865, John Lynn, a member of the command from Cumberland, Md., wanted to return home; and, having secured a furlough for him, I instructed him to find out all he could bearing upon the enterprise under contemplation and report to me on his return. It was as unfortunate as it was discouraging that he was captured and never returned.

I next sent for Sergt. John B. Fay, a Cumberland boy, a gallant, cunning, and trusted scout of my father's, and consulted with him about obtaining the information desired. He volunteered his services and accepted the hazard of the undertaking and asked that C. R. Haller, a sixteen-year-old lad from Missouri, be permitted to accompany him, which request was readily granted. My instructions were that they proceed to Cumberland, secure all the information they could, and report to me at the Hampshire County Poorhouse on the night of February 19. Lieutenants Welton and Hoggs, to whom I had made known my purpose, with the enthusiastic spirit of the true soldiers they were, busied themselves in making the needed preparations for the trip by having the horses shod, getting together rations, etc.

On the night of February 18 I left the house of Mr. R. B Sherrard in company with Joseph Kuykendall, of Rosser's Brigade of Cavalry, and John H. Cunningham and Joseph H. Vandiver, of my own company, and went to the house of Jacob Smith, about four miles northeast of Moorefield, near where the command was encamped, and remained there that night. The next morning was bitter cold. My injured leg was still in splints; but I discarded my crutches and, substituting a cane, rode to the camp, where I picked out sixty-three men who had strong horses, and with them rode leisurely to the Hampshire County Poorhouse, where we went into camp for the night.

To Lieutenant Boggs, with the remainder of the command, I assigned the duty of guarding the roads and protecting our rear, with instructions to report anything that might threaten the success of our undertaking.

While in camp that night Mailer came in bearing a note from Fay. It read: "Dear Jesse, I have been across the Potomac and find all O. K. Meet me here on Monday evening. Haller will give you all the particulars, and the plan, if carried out, will certainly prove successful." "Meet me here" meant at Vanse Marriott's, about six miles below Romney.

The next morning about ten or eleven o'clock we broke camp and moved slowly down the South Branch, halting to feed and kill time, for I knew that prudence demanded that the trip be made in great haste after reaching Romney. At this point we crossed the Northwestern Turnpike, leading from New Creek to Winchester, at both of which places there were garrisons of Federal troops, and our destination was twenty-six miles beyond this point. This was a menace to our safety, and imperiled our escape if our whereabouts were discovered at either of the places named.

It was after dark when we reached Herriott's, and here we found Fay waiting for us. Some time was consumed in feeding the horses and resting them for the sixty-mile ride they must take before they could be fed or rested again. With the exception of a few to whom I had given my confidence, none of the men had any idea of the nature of the trip. Before leaving Herriott's I gathered the men (numbering sixty-five) around me and told them our destination and purpose and that I wanted them to act voluntarily, and if any one wished to go back he could do so without censure. It was gratifying to find all willing to go, and each man conducted himself as if success depended on his actions alone.

I felt the weight of responsibility resting on me as I recalled a lecture which my father gave me on his deathbed about my rashness or foollhardiness, as he termed it, and telling me "to look well for a getting-out place before going in. I knew that should we fail and be captured the blame would fall on me and I would be censured, and with this responsibility I was cautious beyond my usual habit.

After leaving Herriott's we marched along on the Virginia side of the Potomac until we reached the house of Ren Seymour, a near relative of Lieutenant Welton. Welton and two or three of the men dismounted and, going to the house, awoke the old gentleman from his peaceful slumber and told him where we were going and requested that he go to the cellar and fill a few canteens with the good old Bourbon he was known to keep on hand. The night was intensely cold, and, appreciating the situation, he complied with the request, at the same time enjoining us to touch it lightly. The admonition was unnecessary, for every man realized that if there ever was a time when they needed clear heads and steady, firm nerves it was then.

While at Seymour's I found Edwin Harness, an old friend from Ohio, who was on his way to Moorefield. His brother, George Harness, and his nephew, John Cunningham, were both members of the command and with us. After learning where we were going, he bade us good-by, adding that he never expected to see us again, as we would all be killed or captured. We replied, telling him to be of good cheer, that we would meet him in Moorefield. We then crossed the Potomac into Maryland and, going to the home of Sam Brady, halted the command. With Fay and several others I went into the house and saw John Brady, who had left Cumberland about eleven o'clock that night, and he reported that everything was quiet when he left. Noting the lateness of the hour, I was satisfied we could not reach Cumberland before daylight by the route mapped out by Fay and others, and upon consultation we decided to take the New Creek road as the most direct and shortest way. We knew it was heavily picketed, but we trusted to fate and our previous good luck to carry us through in safety.

While here we settled the details and part to be played by the men selected for the purpose. To Joe Vandiver was assigned the duty of entering Crook's room and making him a prisoner, and to Joe Kuykendall the same duty as to Kelly; while George Arnold and George Cunningham, of Company F, 7th Virginia Regiment, Rosser's Brigade, were to raid the stable and secure Kelly's horses. To John Fay and John Cunningham was given the task of destroying the telegraph office, thereby cutting off communication with the garrisons in our rear and preventing the possibility of capture.

The order of march was Kuykendall and myself in advance, with ten picked men a few rods behind, and the remainder, under Lieutenant Welton, a short distance in the rear. In this order we moved on cautiously, feeling our way, not knowing where the pickets were stationed. When about three Miles from the city, we were halted by a sentinel, whose challenge rang out on the frosty morning air, "Who comes there?" and we answered back, "Friends and scouts from New Creek." He demanded that one of us should dismount and advance and give the countersign. I whispered to Kuykendall to dismount and at the same time called: "Boys, come up and hold my horse." Obeying my order, the ten picked men rode up, when I whispered to Kuykendall, Telling him to remount, when we twelve rode rapidly forward on the sentinel, who ushed into the road a few feet in my front, and with pistol Pointed directly in my face cried: "Halt, halt, halt!" Acting on the theory that he would kill me if I did not kill him, I fired my pistol at him, at which instant my horse lunged to one side, almost dismounting me, and passed him, causing me to miss him. He did not fire, and we captured him and the two others, who proved to be German cavalrymen. By a persuasive sort of argument, reenforced by the pistols of twelve determined men, we induced the disclosure of the countersign, which was given in broken English as "Bool's Kap" (Bull's Gap).

We all felt that the firing of the shot was an unfortunate affair, as it seemed to echo and reecho through the hills; but on consultation we agreed that the reserve picket if they heard it would give no alarm to headquarters until they heard further from the outside picket. The command was now closed up, with Kuykendall and myself in advance, so that the noise of our own command would not interfere with any in our front. We had gone probably a mile when, looking ahead, we saw a camp fire and heard the challenge, "Halt! who comes there?" and we answered back, "Friends from New Creek." The sentinel then demanded that one of us should dismount and advance and give the countersign, to which I answered, "We haven't time," and then gave the countersign, "Bool's Kap," in imitation, as near as possible, of the German sentinel's pronunciation. "All right; come on," was the reply. We moved on and formed a circle around their rough shelter formed of logs at the side of the road, when they rushed for their arms, and for a moment it seemed as if they would not surrender without firing; but we presented our pistols with the threat, "Surrender, or we will kill the last one of you," and they capitulated. We took possession of their muskets, uncapped them, broke them over the logs, and told them to remain there until morning, as we had the city surrounded, and they would be paroled with the rest of the prisoners in the morning.

We now marched unmolested into Cumberland. Entering the city on the west side, we passed a reserve picket on the right side of the North Branch, but were not halted. We crossed Will's Creek, which flows through the city, at Iron Bridge, and rode coolly and deliberately up Baltimore Street, whistling and charting as though we were Yankees among friends. Guards could be seen walking about on the streets, and some of them shouted, "Hello, boys, whose command is that?" to which we replied, "Scouts from New Creek;" and thus we continued our march until the head of the column reached the Revere House, where we halted, the rear being at the Barnum (now the Windsor), a block away.

The men who had been selected to dismount did so in a quiet and orderly way. So thoroughly had everything been arranged, even to the men who were to hold the horses, that not a single command was given after entering the city. Joseph Kuykendall with five men entered the St. Nicholas Hotel, went to the room of General Kelly, and, entering, addressed him thus, "General, do you remember me?" to which he replied, "Yes; it is Kuykendall, I believe." "General," he said, "you had me once. It is my pleasure now to have you." "To whom am I surrendering?" demanded Kelly. "To me, sir. This is no time or place for ceremony, so you will dress quickly," responded Kuykendall.

Go to: Part 2