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Capt. Robert Bell led Adams County Cavalry in fight at Wrightsville, PA

During the Gettysburg Campaign, 33-year-old Robert Bell, a farmer born in Menallen Township in northern Adams County, commanded an independent volunteer militia unit known as Bell’s Adams County Cavalry (also sometimes referred to as the Adams County Scouts). On June 16, 1863, in response to Gov. Andrew Curtin’s call for volunteers to defend Pennsylvania against the threatened Confederate invasion, Bell organized a company of 45 fellow citizens.

They traveled to Harrisburg, where the state provided uniforms, breech-loading Sharps and Burnside carbines, and Colt .44 revolvers, but the cavalrymen needed to secure their own horses. Thirty-three men provided their own mounts, and the Deputy Provost Marshal added seven more horses confiscated in Gettysburg from deserters and stragglers from the Union Army.

Mustered in by Maj. Granville O. Haller on June 20, Bell’s Cavalry subsequently served as scouts in a small assemblage of cavalry in the Gettysburg region under the overall command of Maj. Charles McLean Knox (the other cavalry unit in Knox’s command was the famed First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry). After scouting for several days and bird-dogging multiple Confederate patrols, Bell and his men retreated through Gettysburg on Friday afternoon, June 26, when John Gordon’s Rebel infantry brigade and the accompanying 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry arrived.

Bell would ride to southeasterly to Hanover, and then on to York. where he and his exhausted troopers rested at the old fairgrounds before again going out on patrol to screen the withdraw of the militia from York eastward to Wrightsville.

Bell would go on to become the major of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry. He survived the war, returned to Gettysburg and resumed farming with his wife Abigail. He was also a bank cashier. He is buried in the graveyard of the Great Conewago Presbyterian Church near Hunterstown, Pa. (shown above in this June 30, 2011, photo by Scott Mingus).

On Saturday evening, June 27, their screening work completed near York and with the Confederates halted for the night in western York County, Bell and his Adams County Cavalry rode out today’s Market Street from York to Wrightsville. They arrived late in the evening and encamped on a farm southwest of town.

The following day, Bell and his men made several lengthy scouting missions, searching for signs of the Confederate approach. In the late afternoon, they were returning from a mission southward to the Long Level environs when they heard the artillery firing from the direction of Wrightsville. They galloped up the dirt road (today’s Cool Creek Road) and arrived as the militia was retreating from their entrenchments toward the Columbia Bridge.

The Adams County scouts encountered the Confederate rear guard while riding up the Old Baltimore Road. Tanner’s gunners adjusted their 3-inch Ordnance Rifles and hurled a pair of shells at the distant Federal cavalry. A few Rebel infantrymen leveled their rifles and blazed away. Two horses dropped, and a detachment of Georgians quickly captured one injured cavalryman. The second fallen rider escaped detection by dashing into a nearby house, where the startled residents successfully hid him. Captain Bell quickly ordered his bugler to sound the recall, and the company galloped south to Safe Harbor. Because the Susquehanna was too swollen to cross on horseback, the cavalrymen commandeered a nearby raft to ferry their horses to Lancaster County. They eventually rejoined their comrades in Columbia (one squadron had remained behind when Bell and the bulk of his men rode south earlier that afternoon).

Bell and his men would return to York and Adams counties. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Bell would serve as the provost marshal and he and his men would patrol the roads around Gettysburg and the battlefield itself. They are known to have arrested several relics hunters and souvenir seekers, including men from Spring Forge who were digging up dead bodies for their clothing to use as rags for a nearby paper mill. In November, now part of Company B, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, some of Bell’s old Adams County Scouts served as bodyguards for Abraham Lincoln during the president’s visit to Gettysburg for the dedication of the National Cemetery.

Bell’s grave is carefully tended and well marked, and is in the far northeastern section of the cemetery of Great Conewago Presbyterian Church.
Robert Bell was a prolific writer during the war. Modern author John B. Horner has recently published a collection of 117 of Bell’s letters made available through the efforts of Bell’s descendants in the Hunterstown area.

Abigail (King) Bell is buried next to her long-time husband. Nearby is the headstone marking the grave of one of their children, Martha. Note that Abigail’s name is misspelled on Martha’s tombstone (click on the photo to enlarge it for easier viewing).

Major Robert Bell is the highest ranking Civil War officer buried in the well-maintained rural cemetery. A similar commemorative stone lists the names of Revolutionary War officers and men also buried in this historic old church graveyard.
For much more on Bell’s Adams County Cavalry, pick up a copy of Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 (Scott. L. Mingus, Sr., Savas Beatie, 2011).
Here is a link to J. David Petruzzi’s fine summary article of Bell’s actions on June 26 around Gettysburg, an action that claimed the life of one of his men, Pvt. George Washington Sandoe.
Booksigning: Reminder that Jim McClure and I will be signing our Civil War Voices from York County at Gettysburg’s Battlefields and Beyond bookstore from 4 to 6 p.m. today.