The Loudoun Rangers
An independent Civil War cavalry unit drawn from the largely Quaker and German farming communities of northern Loudoun County
By Richard E. Crouch
Of all the special units that were formed to combat Confederate partisan rangers in Virginia during the Civil War — the Blazer Scouts, the Jesse Scouts, Cole's Maryland Cavalry and others — probably the most promising was the Loudoun Rangers, an independent cavalry unit drawn from the largely Quaker and German farming communities of northern Loudoun County, Virginia.
Despite the pacifist beliefs of their church, many of Loudoun County's Quakers took up arms on each side. The Loudoun Rangers' founder and commander was Captain Samuel C. Means, himself a Quaker and the owner of a large grist mill in Waterford. Means also owned a substantial mercantile business in Point of Rocks, Md. Forced by vigorous Confederate persecution to take refuge in Maryland, Means was summoned to Washington and offered a commission to raise a cavalry company of disaffected refugee Virginians. He quickly raised two companies, which were mustered into Federal service on June 20, 1862.
Loudoun County was swarming with Confederates. It was the Loudoun Rangers' job to make periodic raids to harass and capture them. To do so, the Rangers established camps on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. From there they made constant forays into Loudoun, Clarke and Jefferson counties.
Often the Rangers were merged into other commands and sent off to accompany the main army, fighting in such major battles as Fisher's Hill, Cedar Creek and Monocacy, as well as in other engagements even farther from their native county. In fact, for Means' men, the whole war was a constant struggle to maintain their unit's independence.
There was a curious parallel between the Loudoun Rangers and their archenemies, Lt. Col. Elijah V. "Lige" White's 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, also known as "White's Comanches." The first two companies were raised in exactly the same area of Loudoun County, and the same surnames appear in both the blue and the gray ranks. As the two groups clashed again and again, their special brand of warfare took on the nature of local family feuds.
The relationship between the two bands was especially antagonistic. Soldiers knew individual members of the opposing unit, exactly where they lived, their sweethearts and other loved ones. Like the Loudoun Rangers, the 35th Virginia had been raised for the specific purpose of "ranging in the border counties," and the men never resigned themselves to being forced to follow the main army into distant regions in violation of their special enlistment contract.
White's Comanches returned to Loudoun County as an entire unit only a few times during the war, but its smaller units and individuals of the regiment were constantly turning up there. Convalescent troopers were all too eager to rejoin the fight, and officers and men frequently went back home to recruit, forage or procure a new mount. At the beginning of the war, it was Means and other Loudoun Rangers who had to sneak back into Loudoun County to visit their homes; later in the war, the Confederates had to do so.
When General Robert E. Lee's army moved north as part of the Antietam campaign, White's Comanches were suddenly back in force in Loudoun County. The Rangers were sleeping in the Waterford Baptist Church when they were attacked by White's [leave site]men after midnight on August 27, 1862. Surrounded, the Rangers defended their position in the brick church until almost every man was wounded and ammunition was running low. When they surrendered, it was to relatives and to boys with whom they had gone to school. One of White's men, William Snoots, loudly insisted on the right to kill his prisoner, and it took several of his fellow Confederates to force him to accept the rules of civilized warfare. The prisoner was Loudoun Ranger Charles Snoots, his brother.
On September 1, the Rangers hit nearby Hillsboro, driving off some of White's cavalrymen and capturing two of them. Another clash the next day was much larger and much less successful. This time it was near Leesburg, a hotbed of Southern sympathizers, and the Rangers' opponents were members of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. These hardened Confederate veterans bested them in a pitched battle about a mile north of town. Coupled with the Waterford debacle, the costly defeat at Leesburg was very discouraging to recruiting efforts and probably kept the Rangers from raising enough men to make a full battalion.
Before Colonel Dixon Miles surrendered his 12,000-man force at Harpers Ferry to Confederate Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson later that same September, some 2,000 Union horsemen fought their way to safety. Among them were the Loudoun Rangers. Means, like most officers, was outraged at the plan to surrender. He and his Rangers had special reasons to avoid capture. Since they were Virginians, they could be hanged as traitors. Means already had a price on his head courtesy of Virginia authorities. He chose to live and fight another day.
The Virginia Yankees later fought Colonel White's men again, as well as cavalrymen under the command of Colonel John S. Mosby. The Rangers fell upon and routed an unsuspecting company of White's cavalry at Catoctin Mountain near Morven Park on September 13, 1863, and were ambushed in turn by a detachment of Mosby's men under Captain Dolly Richards on May 17, 1864.
The young men of the Loudoun Rangers, like their Rebel counterparts, were able to sustain fairly close relationships with the local womenfolk. Unlike the ordinary Union and Confederate troops who served far from home, the Rangers frequently saw girls they knew in the Waterford, Lovettsville and Taylorstown neighborhoods. Often they attended parties, dances, weddings and other social gatherings. The local boys in gray did likewise, and all too frequently the nicest parties were spoiled by gunfire.
On February 20, 1863, Sergeant Flemon B. Anderson's sister Molly gave a ball at the James Filler house that was interrupted by some of White's cavalrymen, led by a Lieutenant Marlow. When Molly begged and pleaded for the Rebels to spare her brother a trip to Libby Prison, Marlow finally agreed that Anderson would be paroled if she would dance the next set with him. Relieved, Sergeant Anderson took up the fiddle and played happily for the rest of the evening. The next morning he reported to Union headquarters at Point of Rocks and was sent to Camp Parole at Annapolis, where he stayed until properly exchanged.
Unfortunately, the party-going Anderson pushed his luck. On Christmas Eve 1864, a Ranger detachment left Maryland for a raid into their old home grounds near Waterford, knowing the Confederates were camped there. Anderson's mother had arranged a dance at her home near Taylorstown, and the sergeant stopped by to visit. He was sitting beside his intended when White's and Mosby's men surrounded the house around 9 p.m. Anderson tried to escape through the back door as they came in the front, but he was shot through the head and died in his mother's arms. The Confederates wanted to shoot captured Sergeant John Hickman as well for some alleged war crime in the past, but they desisted when one of Mosby's men who was related to the Andersons intervened.
The Rangers should have been successful in thwarting the Confederate partisans who preyed on communications and rear-echelon troops. The fact that they were not can be attributed to at least four identifiable factors.
First was a lack of formal training. The Rangers received no military training from the Union Army. Charles A. Webster, who was mustered in on June 20, 1862, did his best to teach the men how to drill. Webster, who apparently had prior military training, became the unit's drillmaster even before he was promoted to sergeant. He earned the Rangers' undying gratitude for turning them into an efficient military unit with a working knowledge of cavalry drill, discipline and fighting techniques.
Webster was a terrific shot and a skilled hand with a saber, but he was quite reticent about discussing his past. It turned out that Webster was not really his name. He was Charles Brown from New Hampshire, and he was recognized by some Maine troops when they were camping nearby after the Battle of Antietam. He had taken the name Webster because his mother was distantly related to Daniel Webster and because his father, who had become a Californian in the 1849 Gold Rush, was a notorious Copperhead (anti-war Democrat). He never revealed where he had received his earlier military training.
Webster was captured in December 1862 and showed incredible toughness and an incorrigible fighting spirit in prison. He suffered numerous privations at Castle Thunder in Richmond and made three valiant efforts to escape. Finally, the Confederates hanged Webster on April 10, 1863, for the alleged murder of Confederate Captain Richard Simpson at the latter's Loudoun County home in August 1862. (They had to put Webster in a chair for the hanging because he had broken both legs during his last escape attempt.) Apparently, there was nothing murderous about Simpson's death, which was rather typical of the Rangers' brand of border warfare. Simpson, of the 8th Virginia Infantry, had been on a recruiting mission when he tried to visit his home at Mount Gilead. He was surrounded by the Rangers and shot down as he ran for the woods, ignoring demands to surrender.
The second factor working against the Rangers' success was their original captain. Despite being a brave leader and a staunch loyalist, Means was always a bit suspect. He had no military background and had originally not wanted to take a stand. Means avoided joining the Union forces at first, he explained, because he had a brother serving in the Confederate Army and did not want to make trouble.
More important, Means was always in trouble with his Union superiors. Much of this friction arose from the Rangers' attempts to preserve their status as an independent unit and serve in their home territory. This was a fight the Rangers ultimately lost. On March 31, 1864, Means was ordered to take his command to Parkersburg, W. Va., to be consolidated with the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry. Means refused to comply because this order violated Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's specific directive that Means recruit the company for special service and that the unit be directly under Stanton's orders. Stanton backed Means in the flurry of angry correspondence between officers that ensued, and the Rangers stayed in the East.
Means was victorious in the fight, but it cost him his command. The orders of consolidation were countermanded by Stanton on April 25, but Means had already resigned his commission and left the service as of April 13. Means, who could not go home to Waterford while there were still Confederates about, moved in with his daughter in Washington, D.C., apparently took to drink and died a broken man.
Whether Means' drinking had affected his leadership during the war is an intriguing question. The reminiscences of at least one soldier from another unit described the commander of the Loudoun Rangers as a notorious drunk. To him the most hilarious moment of the whole war was when a very drunken captain tried to impress visiting government officials and their ladies on the riverbank at Lovettsville. Welcoming them to Virginia in cavalier fashion, he swept off his hat, bowed low, lost his footing and tumbled backward into the Potomac. Out of discretion, however, the soldier did not give the captain's name, and without a precise date it is unclear whether it was Means or another officer who put on the embarrassing show.
The Loudoun Rangers generally seemed to have had, for a bunch of Quaker lads at least, a rather pronounced drinking problem, and that was the unit's third hindrance. A great many soldiers, both Northern and Southern, liked to get into people's liquor when they could, but the Rangers had special opportunities. Operating on their own home ground, they tended to know exactly where alcohol could be found. They would pay visits to various local distilleries and cider mills in Loudoun County. If it was a Union sympathizer's distillery and the liquor belonged to friends, it was drunk in friendship; if it was Confederate booze, it was treated as spoils of war. More than once this inebriation compromised the Rangers' fighting ability and got them into trouble.
Finally, Federal Army commanders never really trusted the loyal Virginians. They were not true to their own state, and many Union military men tended to regard a turncoat as beneath contempt. A man once turned might easily turn again. The fact that the Rangers were specially recruited under the direct command of the secretary of war also rankled many Federal commanders.
Several times during the war, and at least three times on the Maryland bank of the Potomac, the Rangers were surprised in their camps and badly mauled by large, concentrated forces of White's or Mosby's command. At least twice the Rangers claimed that the striking Rebels wore blue uniforms, which allowed them to get close enough to deliver a surprise knockout blow, but this has always been disputed.
When both companies of the Rangers were camped at Keyes Switch on the B&O Railroad just west of Harpers Ferry on April 6, 1865, few expected any threatening activity from the all-but-beaten Confederate Army. Military discipline, accordingly, was at low ebb. The Rangers were relaxing in camp when a force of 250 horsemen approached from the northwest on the Charlestown Pike. Since they wore blue uniforms, no one took undue notice. Mosby's troops, thus undetected, captured every horse and man in the camp, some 81 horses and 65 men.
This was the final blow to the Rangers. Chief of Staff Winfield Scott Hancock, when informed of the attack, threw away the telegram with a hearty laugh and said, "Well, that's the last of the Loudoun Rangers."
In later years, the old veterans gathered to reminisce about the war and to remember their fallen comrades, many of whom had died in Southern prisons. The reunions were a lot like those of their Virginia Confederate neighbors--with one notable exception: They met to celebrate a victory.