New York major led Union cavalry in Adams and York counties during Rebel invasion
During the first years of the Civil War Charles McLean Knox was the major of the 9th New York Cavalry. The Gettysburg native who had moved to New York to study law at Columbia College before the war played a key role in helping defend south-central Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign in the late spring and early summer of 1863.
When the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia threatened Pennsylvania in June, Major Knox was on furlough while recuperating from dysentery. He hastened to his parents’ home near Gettysburg and offered his services to overall district commander Major Granville O. Haller. Haller, realizing that Knox knew “every spot of ground about those hills” about Gettysburg, named him as his adjutant.
Knox would assume command of the two small, inexperienced cavalry units that scouted the mountain passes and roads south and west of Gettysburg the second and third weeks of June — Captain Robert Bell‘s Adams County Cavalry and Captain Samuel J. Randall’s First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry. The veteran Knox helped drill the new arrivals and coordinate their scouting assignments.
They soon faced a major test as veteran Confederate foraging patrols and scouts began entering Adams County in mid-June, with increasing rumors of a powerful infantry force approaching Pennsylvania behind them.
Knox had studied law at Columbia College in 1860, where he was a member of the Alpha Delta Phi Society. He assisted Professor B.S. Hedrick in teaching math at Cooper Union and became the Sunday School Superintendent for the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of New York City.
Commissioned on November 21, 1861, his men referred to him as a “good and popular officer.” Another subordinate deemed Knox “one of the most active, zealous and valuable cavalry officers in the army.” He performed well in several campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, including at Second Bull Run. In November 1862, he led a “brilliant operation” in which he, “at the head of 200 men, charged through the principal streets of Berryville, Va,, driving a superior force before them.”
On March 10, 1863, Knox pressed charges against his commanding officer, Colonel John Beardsley, for disloyalty, accusations that appear grounded in fact and that led to Beardsley’s resignation. Knox briefly led a brigade during the Chancellorsville Campaign in May 1863.
During the Gettysburg Campaign, Major Knox frequently led patrols in person, splitting his time between Union headquarters in Gettysburg at the Eagle Hotel and at the advanced vidette post at the Cashtown Inn on the turnpike leading to Chambersburg. Knox’s grasp of cavalry tactics provided veteran direction and leadership for the inexperienced Captain Bell and the only slightly more proven Captain Randall. Information from these patrols kept Major Haller and in turn Federal authorities in Harrisburg. abreast of Rebel movements.
On Friday, June 26, Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early invaded Adams County with more than 6,000 men. The Union defenders of Gettysburg, including the newly arrived 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, hastily retreated as Early’s men deployed. Knox and several troopers galloped to the emergency rendezvous point at Hanover, Pennsylvania, where they awaited the rest of the cavalry and what infantry could be salvaged.
Late that night, Major Haller led the remnants of his command to York (likely using today’s Route 116). There they rejoined the Philadelphia cavalry, which had fled eastward from Gettysburg using various back roads. Knox reassembled his two cavalry commands at the fairgrounds on Saturday the 27th. During the early evening, they covered Haller’s withdrawal from York eastward to the entrenchments at Wrightsville.
Knox played a critical role in the subsequent defense of the Columbia Bridge, positioning his cavalry to meet the advance of the Rebels. When the skirmishing began in the Kreutz Creek ravine, he was in the forefront and narrowly avoided injury when Rebel bullets whizzed just past him. Under orders from Haller, Knox retired to the bridge entrance and kept watch for the Rebels as the Federal defenders retreated across the river. Knox was the last officer in Wrightsville, with the exception of a state militia lieutenant colonel who would be captured.
Knox sent word that the Rebels were descending the heights and approaching the bridge. He withdrew to Lancaster as an old black civilian volunteer named Jacob Miller detonated explosive charges set in the bridge’s superstructure. When that tactic to destroy the bridge failed, a work crew set the bridge on fire.
The historian of the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry recounted, “Four Troopers under direction of Major Knox were detailed to perform the work, and the enemy was so near at hand that after exchanging shots with this detachment, he endeavored to extinguish the fire, so little headway had it time to make, between the withdrawal of the last Trooper from the bridge and the arrival of the enemy at its western end.”
Knox rallied his cavalry in Columbia. After the Rebels withdrew, some of Knox’s cavalry rode flatboats across the Susquehanna westward into Wrightsville and then patrolled York and Adams counties looking for enemy stragglers and deserters.
Knox’s health was broken by the Gettysburg Campaign, and he received a medical discharge in October 1863. Major Haller commended him in his official report: “Major Charles McLean Knox, Ninth New York Cavalry, and Mr. Samuel Young; of Reading, gave me every assistance.” Haller noted in a short book he wrote that autumn that Knox was “an experienced and valuable officer.”
Haller and Knox were avid chess players and perhaps spent some quiet evenings discussing or playing the game at the Eagle Hotel before circumstances changed. Before the war, Knox had been an active member of the New York Chess Club and had played in several national tournaments. He had defeated an English champion in a match in Princeton, Iowa.
The site of the historic Eagle Hotel at Gettysburg is now a 7-11 Store. A wayside marker recalls the old building.
On May 21, 1864, in Albany, New York, the civilian Knox married Miss Margaret Roosevelt Mason, a daughter of the late Rev. Ebenezer Mason of New York City. The Rev. James H. M. Knox of Germantown presided over the ceremony.
Knox moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1868 and took a job as a general sales agent for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. That same year he published a novel solution to a chess problem in the book, American Chess-Nuts. He received his master’s degree from Lafayette College (in Easton, Pa.) in 1870 and rose to Secretary of the insurance company.
In 1873 Knox was promoted to vice-president. Five years later he resigned because of health issues and philosophical differences, and subsequently worked for the Philadelphia Mutual Insurance Company. He managed their New York City office for several years before retiring to Long Island.
Charles McLean Knox died on February 19, 1894, at Patchogue, New York, (on Long Island) at the age of 56. His obituary described him as “an energetic businessman, positive in his ideas, and well liked by all who came in contact with him.” He left a widow and two children. Crowds of mourners attended his funeral at the residence of his brother-in-law and business associate, James Weir Mason, at 32 W. 129th Street in New York on February 22 at 2:30 p.m.