After the surprise and capture of New Creek, Va., by Gen. Rosser, Maj.-Gen. Crook, of the Yankee army, was assigned to the command of the department in which that station is embraced. Maj.-Gen. Kelley, who previously commanded the department, still remained in Cumberland, having his headquarters at one of the hotels in the town. Gen. Crook established his headquarters in the same town, at the other principal hotel. As soon as this state of affairs became known to Lieut. Jesse C. McNeill, upon whom has devolved the command of McNeill’s Rangers since the death of his father, the lamented old Captain, he resolved to risk an attempt to surprise and bring off those two Generals.
Having posted himself thoroughly in regard to the situation of affairs in and around Cumberland, the night of Monday, 20th inst., he, with sixty trusty men, crossed Knobby Mountain to the North Branch of the Potomac. Reaching this stream, at a point below the first picket post that overlooked the selected route of ingress into Cumberland, he crossed, and in a few minutes the Yankees on duty were relieved. “Your countersign,” demanded Lieut. McNeille, to a burly Dutchman, with such accompaniments as seemed to impress the fellow with the notion that to divulge it was a matter of self-preservation. “Bool’s Kash,” (meaning “bull’s Gap,”) was the quick response.
Then on briskly down the country road towards town, near five miles distant, he moved. As the little band struck what is known as the old pike, soon, “Halt! who comes there?” rings out on the air. “Friends, with countersign,” is the response. “Dismount, one, advance, and give the countersign,” is the picket’s next order to the Lieutenant.
Having lately had his ankle crushed, the Lieutenant was not in a condition to obey; and so urging his horse forward, he quickly heard from the astonished picket, “Don’t shoot; I surrender.”
On they rushed, and the reserves were gathered in. The first picket captured was cavalry, the next infantry. The former were brought along; the latter were disarmed, their guns smashed, and they were paroled to remain where they were until morning; were told that this town was surrounded, and it would be impossible for them to escape.
Entering town on the west side, they passed another picket on the right bank of the North Branch. By this picket they were not halted. Crossing Wil’s Creek, (which flows through the town,) at the Iron Bridge, coolly and deliberately up Baltimore Street they ride, some whistling, some laughing and talking, as if they were Yankees, at home among friends.
To and fro, on the street, by the gas-light, are seen walking Yankee guards. “Helloa, boys! whose command it that?” “Scouts from New Creek,” is the response.
Presently here they are, between two and three o’clock in the morning, in front of the St. Nicholas Hotel, Kelley’s headquarters. Down spring, quietly and calmly, the men who, by previous arrangement, are to visit Kelley’s room. They enter the hall, and having procured a light, they enter the General’s room. the General, aroused by the knock, resting on one elbow, “You know me, Genera., I suppose,” says Joseph W. Kuykendall, who had charge of this party. “I do,” said the General. “You are _____,” giving his name. “General, you had me once; it is my honor to have you now. You are a prisoner.” “But,” says the General, “whom am I surrendering to?” “To me, sir,” was the emphatic response. “No place or time for ceremony; so you will dress quickly.” The order was obeyed.
While this was going on at the St. Nicholas, another scene was transpiring at the Revere House. Thither went promptly a portion of the men, as per arrangement, under Lieut. Welton. Reaching it they halt–five men, in charge of Joseph L. Vandiver, dismount, and “Halt!” is the greeting of the sentinel, standing in front of the entrance. “Friends, with countersign, bearing important despatches for Gen. Crook,” is Vandiver’s answer. “Advance, one,” &c. In a moment, Vandiver had the sentinel’s gun, and ordered him to stand aside under guard. The door is rapped at–a voice from within asks, “Who is you? I don’t know you.” “Open the door; I must see Gen. Crook.” The door is opened, and there stands a small darkey. “Is Gen. Crook in?” “Yes, sir.” “Show me his room.” “I’m afeerd to; but I will, if you don’t tell on me.” Crook’s room is reached; a rap given. “Come in.” In obedience to the invitation, a tall and stalwart form, with light in one hand, and pistol undisplayed in the other, stands erect, cool and deliberate, before the General. “Gen. Crook, I presume,” says Vandiver. “I am, sir.” “I am Gen. Rosser, sir; you are in my power; you have two minutes to dress in.” Then the General rubbed his eyes, as if he thought he dreamed. “Come, General, there are your clothes; you can either put them on, or go as you are.” The General quickly arose and dressed.
The prisoner and his captors make their exit to their vigilant comrades without. The General is made to mount behind Vandiver. Off they start, soon rejoin the St. Nicholas party with their prize, and then they all commence to “evacuate” the city quietly, coolly, and in good order. Reaching Will’s Creek Bridge, they turned oto the left, and proceeded down the tow-path.
On the opposite side of the canal, encamped on the hills around the town, are many of Crook’s and Kelley’s soldiers, who dream not of the surprise the morning shall bring them; the sentinels too, as unconscious as their slumbering comrades of the proximity of a foe. a few are awake, and with curiosity aroused by the sound of horsemen moving, as it were, in midnight review before them, inquired, “Whose command?” “Scouts going out,” is the careless response. At length, they are about five miles below the town, where they intend to recross to “Old Virginia.” A “Halt” greets the advance. “Friends, with a countersign.” The picket gives the usual command. “Bull’s Gap,” says McNeille; “no time to dismount; are in a hurry; the enemy are reported close; we are sent out by Gen. Crook to watch his movements.” “Go on, then; cold night, boys, to be out.” “Yes, pretty cold.” “Give the Johnnies h—l, boys.” “O, yes, we are the boys to do that;” are some of the words interchanged, as McNeill and his boys file past the unsuspecting Yankees. A moment or two more, and McNeill is in Virginia!
“McGregor is on his native heath,
with McGregor’s clan around him.”
On he pushes briskly, without any report of Yankees pursuing in the rear, to which a strict watch is kept. Romney, twenty-seven miles from Cumberland, is reached; the rear-guard report about sixty Yankees in sight, with some of whom they exchanged a few shots, but the Yankees exhibited no disposition to push on very fast. At about two o’clock in the day, McNeill is seen near Moorefield, moving up the South Branch of the Potomac, while up the pike, on the opposite side, move the Yankees, about two hundred strong, their horses the worse for having galloped from New Creek Station, some thirty-five miles off, from which point they started about eight o’clock in the morning, as we afterwards learned. Tuesday night, McNeill camped on the South Fork of the South Branch, with his prisoners all safe, but, like their captors, all tired. The next morning, five hundred Yankee cavalry entered Moorefield; a large force was also reliably reported to Lieut. McNeill, going up Lost River, to intercept him; but they didn’t, as the Generals reached this city Sunday morning, about two o’clock, in charge of Lieut. J. S. Welton, who rendered prompt, active, and efficient service in effecting the capture.
It is proper to say, that the entrance into Gen. Kelley’s room was through his Adjutant-General’s apartment. An eye was kept to this gentleman, and he was brought off with four headquarter colors. His name is Major Melvin.
To have entered Cumberland, a city of eight or nine thousand inhabitants, (a majority of whom are bitterly hostile,) with, according to our best information, seven or eight thousand troops encamped in and around, is very strong evidence that Lieut. Jesse C. McNeill is a chip of the old block, a worthy son of his gallant old sire, Capt. John Hanson McNeill, who, and his eldest son, have already laid their lives upon their country’s altar.
Gen. Early, immediately on the receipt of the news of his exploit, advanced the gallant young officer to the rank of Captain in McNeill’s Rangers.