Gettysburg fatal to unheralded civilians
By Steve French
January 12, 2008
Anyone familiar with the history of the Battle of Gettysburg knows of the tragic death of Jennie Wade.
Oddly continuing to knead dough in her sister's kitchen while concealed blue and gray riflemen blasted away at one another outside the house on the morning of July 3, 1863, she was hit in the back by a stray Rebel bullet that passed through two doors.
Although she had the unlucky distinction of being the only townsperson killed during the three-day struggle, a trio of others from widely separated locales also met violent deaths during those perilous times as Robert E. Lee's 70,000-man gray tide rolled north and then back across the Mason-Dixon Line. Only the most serious scholars of the campaign, however, know the names of Griffin Twigg, Isaac Strite and Thomas Lemen.
On the evening of June 16, from his camp at Springfield in western Virginia (now West Virginia), Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden ordered his two regiments, the 18th Virginia Cavalry and the 62nd Virginia Infantry, to march against points along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Earlier that month, Lee gave Imboden's 1,400-man Northwestern Virginia Brigade the duty of guarding the left flank of the Army of Northern Virginia as it marched down the Shenandoah Valley toward the Potomac River fords.
At dawn the next morning, Col. George Imboden — the general's brother — led 350 troopers into Cumberland, Md. Although the city, located along the railroad and at the western terminus of the canal, was an important military post, Union authorities already had decided against defending it and ordered the two regiments stationed there to evacuate west to New Creek.
After staying in the Queen City of the Alleghenies for about two hours or so and spending their newly printed scrip on things that were scarce back home, the Virginians started back to Springfield.
A soldier-correspondent for the Staunton Vindicator in Virginia described to his readers what happened along the way. "The regiment," he wrote, "turned its attention to the fine bridges, they were utterly demolished, the wooden ones burned. ... The depots were turned into smoking ruins."
In the meantime, Col. George Hugh Smith's infantrymen had marched to Old Town, Md., and followed the canal towpath about eight miles west. Then, under the watchful eyes of Smith and Gen. Imboden, the men got busy.
Writing to C&O Canal headquarters in Georgetown on June 20, district superintendent Lloyd Lowe estimated that the total cost of repairing the damage done to the waterway and its locks would amount to $500 to $600. In its June 25 edition, a reporter for the Civilian and Telegraph, a Cumberland paper, commented on the destruction, "They dug a portion of the tow-path down at one point about 15 feet below the bottom of the canal."
As Confederate raiders were up to mischief along the railroad and canal, others were roving on both sides of the river trying to round up horses and other livestock. Besides getting some animals, downstream, at the mouth of the Little Cacapon River, they "burned the R.R. Bridge, engine, station house, block house, quarters, etc," the newspaper said.
Once the news got out into the hills and hollows that graybacks were about, worried farmers began driving their animals to secluded spots deep in the nearby forests. By June 19, though, the Rebels, now camped along the B&O at French's Depot about a mile east of the mouth of the South Branch of the Potomac River, began moving away from the area toward the Forks of the Cacapon.
Not all of the Confederates, however, marched out with the brigade. Capt. Frank Imboden, commander of Company H (and another brother of the general), took his men along with Companies A and C and, hoping to catch some farmers napping, doubled back across the Potomac to the area they had just plundered. That day, the troopers rode a 40-mile circuit and captured another 38 horses.
Not all went as planned, however. Seventy-year-old Griffin Twigg lived on a hardscrabble homestead on the eastern slope of Warrior Mountain, not far from Old Town. The tough woodsman already had vowed to defend his property, and when the Rebels finally showed up for his horses, he was primed for a fight.
Before being gunned down, Twigg badly wounded Pvt. Thomas Scanlon and shot Lt. Luther Ginevan and a horse. The Civilian and Telegraph, commenting on the bloody shootout, proudly noted that the rugged mountaineer resisted "the rapidity of these marauders of (equivocal) gentlemanly deportment."
In 1878, while testifying during a lawsuit involving Twigg's son, a man named Denton Bucy was asked when the elder Twigg died. "He was killed about 15 years ago by the Confederates, shot while standing in his yard, and [they] burnt his house and barn down," Bucy replied.
Although Twigg became the first civilian to be shot to death in the Gettysburg Campaign, another, who lived more than 60 miles to the northeast of Twigg's homestead, would fall to a Rebel bullet the next day.
Forty-three-year-old Isaac Strite lived with his wife, Nancy, and their six children just east of Guilford Springs, Pa., about four miles south of Chambersburg. The 1860 U.S. census records for Franklin County show that Strite, of German ancestry, was a rather successful farmer whose net worth amounted to $3,600.
Like their neighbors, the Strites had no idea that the Confederates were headed their way until, on June 15, a Union wagon train and its cavalry escort were seen fleeing up the Cumberland Valley Turnpike toward Chambersburg. Not long afterward, a large band of Rebel cavalry followed in pursuit.
The graybacks never caught their prey, deciding instead to rein up their tired steeds at Chambersburg. For the next two days, they occupied the prosperous county seat and used it as their base of operations in gathering supplies from the local merchants and livestock from outlying farms.
The Confederate horsemen, hailing from southwestern Virginia, belonged to Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins' brigade. Their leader, a former U.S. congressman, was widely known as a well-educated and cultured gentleman. Many of his soldiers, however, had just the opposite reputation, and Jenkins and his officers frequently had trouble keeping them in line.
By June 18, Jenkins had retreated 10 miles south along the pike to Greencastle, Pa. That night, the brigadier sent Col. Milton J. Ferguson and 200 troopers west across the Cove and Tuscarora mountains to raid McConnellsburg, Pa. Smaller bands of foragers also fanned out into the surrounding countryside.
On June 20, three graybacks were prowling about the village of Marion, a little more than four miles north of Greencastle. Those men, probably part of Jenkins' force, had more in mind than just replenishing the Rebel larder.
Locals said the men broke into a dwelling and stole some liquor. Then, after drinking their fill, they began terrorizing the neighborhood. Marion farmer Henry Hege later recorded what happened when the Southerners reached the Strite farm, about two miles from his place.
"They wanted his money, and he gave them part of it. Then they wanted to burn his barn. He begged them not to do it. They then shot him dead."
According to research by Civil War historian Ted Alexander, at least three Rebels showed up at the farm. Two confronted Strite and took him outside, while the other guarded Nancy and the rest of the family.
After murdering Strite and jamming his body upside down in a manure pile, they returned to the house. There, still looking for money, a Rebel shot and wounded Mrs. Strite when she refused to tell him where any was. Finally, one of the daughters told the drunken bandits that the family kept some cash and valuables hidden in their grandfather clock.
A sudden, violent stroke from the heavy blade of a saber shattered the heirloom, and the thieves found what they wanted. After filling their pockets, the men vanished. Hege estimated that their total haul amounted to $45 and various articles of plunder.
After things quieted down, 15-year-old Barbara walked outside looking for her father. She soon found him, but the sight of his body sticking out of the manure pile drove her out of her mind. Old-timers say that from that day until her death in 1918, she never spoke another word.
A little more than three weeks later, on the night of July 13-14, Lee's battered army retreated across the Potomac River at Falling Waters and Williamsport. The day before, the general had ordered Col. George Imboden to take the 18th Virginia Cavalry over to Virginia. Once there, the regiment was to ride west and watch the river crossings at Cherry Run and McCoy's Ferry.
On July 15, scouts on the hills above Cherry Run saw Federal cavalry using skiffs to try to traverse the high and turbulent waters opposite the ferry landing. Although swept downstream half a mile from their intended destination, they landed safely on the Virginia shore and, after some quick repairs to the ferryboat and its cables, soon had the craft over on the Maryland side.
As increasingly more bluecoats boarded the vessel and made the 200-yard trip to the Old Dominion, the Rebels galloped back to their camp near Hedgesville and reported the new development. Throughout the day, many of their compatriots were out scouring the nearby farms and gristmills for provisions. The pickings, however, were slim.
A loyal Southerner
Thomas Lemen was a 60-year-old farmer who lived with his wife and four daughters about a mile east of Hedgesville. His house, Fort Hill, had been one of the early homesteads of the Hedges family and a community fort during the French and Indian War.
Although some of Col. Imboden's troopers suspected the man of being a Unionist, Lemen upheld the Southern cause. In fact, his son, Sgt. William Martin Lemen, served in the 1st Virginia Cavalry.
With the Army of Northern Virginia back in the immediate area, the family anticipated that William soon would be coming home. As a present to his son, the father had been fattening the family's horses so they would be in top shape to replace William's undoubtedly worn-out mount.
Although Thomas Lemen could have asked Col. Imboden for a few men to guard his property, the stubborn farmer figured that he could do it himself. Sometime after dark on the 15th, Lemen and a helper walked over to the corncrib, about 80 yards from the house, where they took up watch.
It was probably after midnight when some trespassing graybacks arrived, intent on getting their hungry mounts a few bags of corn. Isaac Norval Baker, a private in Company H, recalled what happened when Lemen confronted one. "The old gentleman ... fired on the soldier. The soldier returned the fire with fatal results."
Baker, however, had not been at the scene and had only heard the story secondhand. Family recollections paint a much different picture of the incident.
In the Lemen version of Thomas Lemen's untimely death, three soldiers on horseback slowly approached the two men and asked for some corn. After Lemen explained to them that he needed the grain for his own stock, the men nodded, turned their mounts, and began riding off.
In an instant, however, they spun around, and one Rebel fired. Mortally wounded, Lemen toppled to the ground. The shaken worker immediately picked up his boss and struggled to carry him to the house, but he only got him as far as the back porch before Lemen died.
That same day, the family laid their patriarch to rest in a grave not far from the corncrib. Fortunately, someone notified William of his father's death, and he and a cousin arrived at Fort Hill just in time for the service.
Toward the end of the funeral, mourners saw some Yankee scouts standing off in the distance. Fearing capture, both men later went into Fort Hill, donned women's clothing, and walked over to a neighbor's home. Hiding there until dark, they slipped out of the house, got their horses and rode away to rejoin their unit.
Still a mystery
Records on the tragic episode are scanty, and I have never been able to determine who shot Lemen. Capt. Frank Imboden was not sure of the identity of the shooter, either, but thought he might have been from Cobb's Legion, another Rebel outfit camped nearby.
On July 16, he wrote in his diary, "Board is appointed to investigate and find out murderers."
In his July 16 diary entry, Elisha Miller, a miller who lived in Johnsontown, about five miles west of Fort Hill, recorded, "Mr. Lemen was killed last night by one of Imboden's men."
However, Baker, the private from Company H, indicates that he knew the man and rose to his defense, blaming Lemen for causing the fatal incident. "The soldier," he said, "had been in the service long enough to know it was out of order to fire without first asking the advancing party to halt."
Steve French is a teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and a member of the Harpers Ferry Civil War Round Table. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.