Rebel raider “Lige” White recounts the Gettysburg Campaign
Confederate Lt. Colonel Elijah V. White led the 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, on a raid of Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of June 26, 1863, during the Gettysburg Campaign. His men burned bridges on the Northern Central Railway and the intersecting Hanover Branch Railroad. Painting by J.P. Walker. The original is in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society.
The townspeople of Hanover, Pennsylvania, had heard rumors of the coming of E. V. White and his dreaded Southern saddle soldiers. Stories abounded about the feared partisan and his hordes. Throughout the morning of Saturday, June 27, 1863, reports circulated that “the Rebels are coming!” Shortly before noon, a rider dashed into town and cried out that the Confederates were now in McSherrystown, just a stone’s throw away in nearby Adams County.
Hanover officials and leading citizens assembled in the predominantly German town’s Center Square. Most had never seen a Rebel soldier. None had ever seen the much publicized “Lige” White, whose frequent border raids into Maryland had made the newspapers in York County for more than a year.
Now, Elijah was coming to Hanover.
According to a post-war account by White’s contemporary, Colonel John SIngleton Mosby (the legendary “Gray Ghost of the Confederacy”): “With Ewell’s cavalry were two battalions commanded by Colonel Lije White and Major Harry Gilmor. They had been detached and sent with Ewell and Early because White and Gilmor were regarded as two of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Southern army; and many of their men were from Maryland and their homes were on the border. Gilmor was from Baltimore; Colonel White lived on the Potomac. Their knowledge of the country would make them valuable as guides and in procuring information. French’s cavalry regiment and White’s battalion went east with Early to York.”
Before riding into York, White had business in Hanover. It would be a useful rest stop on his way to destroy the important railroad interchange at Hanover Junction. The town’s shops and stores were an inviting target for him men, who just the day before had cleaned Gettysburg out of whiskey.
White and his men rode into downtown Hanover about noontime. The citizens were startled by his appearance. He was dusty and dirty, ruddy complected, and much less ferocious than the rumors of his deportment. When White introduced himself, ripples ran through the assembled crowd of civilians, now more curious than frightened. To one observer, he “seemed to be an excitable, impetuous sort of personage, of large build and auburn complexion.”
Sensing “wonderment mingled with fear,” Lt. Colonel White decided to make a brief speech. In language “more forcible than elegant,” he informed the gathering that his men were all true Southern gentlemen fighting for a cause that they believed was right. As such, they would do no harm to the town or its people. The small crowd breathed an audible sigh of relief.
Their town would be spared the torch.
Decades after the Civil War, Elijah White wrote a letter intended for his old fellow former Confederate partisan ranger, John S. Mosby, in which he briefly recounted the Gettysburg Campaign.
Historians wish White would have wrote a much more detailed account of his war-time exploits, but the Leesburg, Virginia, preacher, sheriff, and businessman perhaps had more pressing things to occupy his thoughts.
Here is the text of Lige White’s letter to one of Colonel Mosby’s associates:
“Leesburg, Va., April 17, 1906.
Hon. John H. Alexander,
My Dear Comrade: According to promise I will give you for the benefit of Colonel J. S. Mosby a condensed statement of the operations of my Command at Gettysburg.
Gen. R. S. Ewell applied to Gen. Lee for my Command to go with him before he left the main army. I had scouted for General Ewell much. The application was referred to General Stuart who refused to comply with it, and Colonel French was sent. Before crossing the Potomac River General Ewell again asked for my Command, and his request was granted. I joined him at Chambersburg. The next morning I was ordered by Ewell to report to General Early, who was on the direct road to Gettysburg. In his dispatch to Early, General Ewell ordered to put me in front of Gordon’s brigade. Colonel French, with a small portion of his Command was put on detached service; and the greater portion of his Command was placed under me and I was put in front of Gordon. But Colonel French’s own regiment was not put under me, nor did I want them.
After we passed through Cashtown and arrived in about a mile of Gettysburg, I saw on my left from 700 to 900 of the enemy drawn up in line of battle. I reported this to General Gordon, and told him if he wished to see the fight to come up, which he did. My Command numbered 250. The fight was short and decisive. I captured 170 of them and would have captured more but for the fences which were numerous. I camped near Gettysburg that night.
I was then ordered by General Early to go to Hanover Junction and break the railroad communications, &c. I started early the next morning. Nothing occurred on the way of any consequence, except that I captured a wagon load of jewelry. After supplying ourselves we buried the balance. We found Hanover Junction guarded by infantry. After a sharp fight we drove them away and burned the depot, bridges, &c. We camped that night not far from Hanover Junction, and joined General Early at York the next day. I was sent by Early in front of his Command, the next day, in the direction of Gettysburg. I gave Early valuable information which I gathered on the way, and joined Ewell at Cashtown. I was ordered by Ewell to make reconnaissance and report their number, position, &c. I did this and General Early made his attack on my report. Early ordered me to watch his left flank and I took my position on the left of Cemetery Hill.
After the first day’s fight was over, and about dark, I saw the enemy leaving Cemetery Hill. I found General Ewell sitting on the ground near Gettysburg and reported to him what I had seen. At that time an officer from General Lee rode up and delivered General Lee’s compliments to General Ewell for his great fight during the day, and said that General Lee said, ‘if Ewell did not think his position strong enough he was to swing around to the right on Longstreet.’ Early replied, ‘Tell General Lee I’ll bet him fifty dollars in green backs we can whip them any way they come.’ General Ewell, without replying, rose up and walked away and ordered me to follow. He asked me if I could find out for certain if my impression was correct that the enemy were retreating. Said that he would detach any number of men to go with me. I replied that if possible I would find out; but did not want any of his men, and wanted but few of my own. I promised him to be back by 3 A.m. I selected five men to go with me. We found the Yankees too thick around for us to ride through them; so I left our horses with three men in an orchard of very large trees, and took men on with me afoot. We had then gotten near enough to the pike to hear the noise of the troops moving over it; but could not distinguish whether they were reinforcements coming up or the army retreating. I finally reached the pike and listened attentively to all that was said, and learned that the whole army was up or coming up. The night had passed too swiftly for me. One of my men said, ‘Colonel, the day is breaking.’ We reached our horses, I know not how; but on the way we passed houses in which the Yankee soldiers were eating their breakfast, perhaps. When we reported to General Ewell that the whole army was up, or nearly so, he said, ‘Hear that gun, it is too late; that means the opening of the battle. It is Longstreet’s gun.’
I continued scouting for Ewell until General Stuart arrived on July 2nd, and was with General Stuart in his fight with the enemy on that day. On our retreat General Ewell ordered me to report to General Gordon and bring up his retreat. Gordon was in the rear on leaving Gettysburg. We had hard fighting all that day; and at one time Gordon had to come to our assistance. When night arrived I had scarcely a man or horse fit for duty.
I would be glad to answer any questions that Colonel Mosby may want to ask, and of which I am capable. I have gone but little into details. We inflicted considerable loss on the enemy in several small engagements, but also lost several men ourselves — especially while with General Stuart [ed. note: at the Battle of Brandy Station].
E. V. White (Signed)”
What else did Lige White do?
For much more on Elijah White’s role leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, pick up a copy of my recently revised and reissued book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863.” It is available at major booksellers and bookstores, or I have autographed copies available. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in buying one (they also make great gifts for Civil War buffs!)