A Brief History of Hancock, Maryland -Part 2

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Hancock was greatly affected because of the main arteries of travel transecting at this junction: the Bank Road, the C&O Canal, and the B&O Railroad on the banks of the Virginia side of the Potomac River at Alpine Station (now Hancock, WV). Troops were stationed here at various points to safeguard these supply lines.

On January 5, 1862, Hancock was laid siege to by Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Coming up from Winchester, VA, Jackson drove troops of the 39th Illinois stationed in Bath, VA north across the Potomac River into Hancock on January 4th. On the 5th, after his demand for surrender was denied, he began shelling from Orrick's Hill (VA) toward Hancock. Union troops were positioned on a ridge behind St. Thomas Episcopal Church and St. Peter's Catholic Church. A first hand account from local canal merchant James Ripley Smith states:

Jan 5, 1862 - Sunday - The citizens of Hancock left by orders of the Southern General Jackson. 1 1/2 hours to leave, at one o'clock they came cannonading but we replyed which silenced them before night. About 100 shots were exchanged, one part of a shell hit my house and smoke house, a ball lodged in the garden in the ground and many other places in town.

You'll note that it was a Sunday attack, which for "Stonewall," a devout Presbyterian, was almost unheard of. It was reported that the attack was in retaliation for the Union shelling of civilians at Shephardstowns (West Virginia) while there were no Confederate troops there. Through the night of the 4th, and into the 5th, Union forces were reinforced by forces from Hagerstown and Cumberland, MD. The weather turned bitter cold and Jackson withdrew his army of 8,500 men to their winter headquarters in Winchester, VA. But before leaving, Jackson's forces plundered a large catch of rifles, ammo, blankets and other bounty from a supply train that had come into the Alpine Station directly across the River from Hancock. It was estimated that the supplies taken might have had a value of up to half a million dollars.

     The following is information provided by Mr Thomas Swaim, County Commissioner of Morgan County, WV to the Hancock Historical Society monthly meeting held on 30 April 2006 at the Town Hall and Community Center in Hancock.  This information provides information that led to the shelling of Hancock on the 5th of January 1862.

This information is quoted from the monthly meeting minutes of the Hancock Historical Society of 30 April 2006.

     "On January 1, 1862, Jackson started towards Berkeley Springs with an army of troops.  He was joined by General Kelly with 12,000 men from Romney, and General Banks with 12,000 men from Winchester.  This band of troops stretched for five to seven miles.  On the first night, the men camped in Pughs Town.  A North Easter made the crossing rather difficult.  On the second day, Jackson was met by more men from Martinsburg.  By this time rumors were spreading in Berkeley Springs that a militia was headed their way.  By January 4, 1862, Jackson's men had reached the town where a "skirmish" took place.  Jackson called for the advancements on Alpine, Sir Johns and Cacapon.  Jackson also sent an army to the hills overlooking Hancock and ordered the firing upon the town.  Excavations show many shells did in fact land on the northern side of the Potomac River."

According to a report submitted to Secretary of War Stanton by Acting Quartermaster A. S. Kimball on January 21, 1867, we learn that St. Thomas Church requested $1662.00 in War reparations. The report states:

Possession was taken of the Church by the troops of the United States on the 2nd or 3rd day of Jan. 1862. The command of Brig. Gen. A. S. Williams was stationed at Hancock and occupied under his auspices. The former part of the occupation was for barracks and quarters, but latterly it was occupied for hospital purposes. The parsonage was used wholly as a hospital. The Church was vacated by the troops in March 1863, thus making a period of about 14 months, during which time it was in possession of the troops.

Other damage claims were presented from an extensive area of the town.
The next major incursion on Hancock's tranquility occurred on July 31, 1864. This is an account from the journal of Hancock resident James Ripley Smith:

31 Sunday Rebel General McCouslin & B. L. Johnson made a raid on this place. Arrived about 12 m. and was whiped out about 6 P.M. They burned boats, robbed and destroyed stores. I lost about 2000 dollars in goods and money. left me no clothing to ware. Took the hat off my head, but Gen. Averel made them leave in a hurry. The Rebs burned all the Bridges on the Pike between this place and Flintstone and cut trees along the road. One cannonball passed thru my store within 3 feet of my head. Bullets flew thick. Jacob Hammann Boat, Liberty was burned in front of my store.

The following is a portion of a field report by Confederate Brigadier General Bradly T. Johnson on August 10, 1864:

At sunrise next morning, Sunday July 31 we moved on Hancock, we in the rear. Brig. Gen. McCausland directed me to send cavalry by way of Bedford towards Cumberland to arrest hostages. I ordered Col. Dunn to make the movement, but returning to McConnellsburg he found it occupied by Federal Cavalry and returned to his command. I reported the fact to Brig-Gen McCausland. Reached Hancock about 1 P.M. and stopped to feed, while Brig. Gen. McCausland demanded of the town authorities a ransom of $30,000 and 5000 cooked rations. I explained to him that the whole population of the town was only 700 and without moneyed resources, which made that amount absolutely impossible to be collected. I am colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant: Bradly T. Johnson, Brigadier-General

Out of one of Hancock's most illustrious families came one of the war's most notable warriors, Major James Breathed, M.D. The Breathed family was instrumental in the founding of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hancock. His sister, Pricilla Breathed Bridges, was the wife of Robert Bridges, co-owner of Round Top Cement Mill. Breathed graduated from the University of Maryland medical school. As the war was breaking out he had a chance meeting on a train with James Ewell Brown Stuart (a.k.a. "Jeb" Stuart). Breathed enlisted in the 1st Virginia Cavalry, again meeting up with Stuart who commissioned him "Lieutenant of Stuart's Horse Artillery." He distinguished himself at the Battle of Spotsylvania, Yellow Tavern (where Stuart was killed), and Gettysburg. After the surrender at Appomattox, Breathed returned to Hancock where he made his home with his sister Pricilla's family on the N.E. corner of Main Street and Church Hill. He practiced medicine at the top of that hill on the S.W. corner of Main & High Street. Upon his untimely death on February 14, 1870 (at age 31), he was laid to rest in St. Thomas Cemetery directly behind the Church. His tombstone bears the following quote from General Robert E. Lee: "The hardest artillery fighter the war produced." [6]

As to James Breathed's character, I cite the words of Henry Kyd Douglas of Stonewall Jackson's staff:

He was noble as well as a gallant fellow. Quick handed and warm hearted with courage as keen and at the same time as polished as his sword, generous, without guile and without malice, he was all together a trusty and true gentleman. The popularity of Jim Breathed was not only martial - all who knew him loved him. [7]

After the Civil War, the town continued to thrive as a commercial center. Around 1891 a bridge was constructed over the Potomac River and in 1904 the Western Maryland Railroad reached the town fueling a building boom.

One of the major industries for many years was fruit production. In 1886, Edmund P. Cohill began the planting of commercial orchards. Other orchardmen followed, and by 1925 over 5,000 acres of land were devoted to commercial fruit production. At one point, Maryland produced over two million bushels of apples, 25% of which were produced in Washington County.

Situated on the Potomac about ten miles to the west of Hancock is a huge game conservation preserve of about 8,000 acres with a massive lodge that was known as the "Hunting Club of the Presidents." A large rocking chair at the lodge has been occupied by Presidents James Garfield, Chester Authur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Organized in 1870 as a private hunting club, it was frequented by "Who's Who" of American government, leaders of twentieth century industry and notables such as Babe Ruth and Amos & Andy of radio fame. It is now the property of the State of Maryland, Department of Natural Resources and is sublet to the Izzak Walton League for a portion of the year. The DNR sponsors some public events at the Woodmont Lodge, and details of such events can be obtained by contacting Fort Frederick State Park. [8]

In this fourth century in which Hancock has existed, she continues her long tradition as a center for hosting travelers and a place to escape from a fast paced world.

[1] Charles Polke, The Indian Trader of the Potomac by John G. Kester.
[2] ibid.
[3] Cohill Manor, Circa 1752 by John and Deborah Cohill
[4] Tonoloway Fort, Stoddert’s Fort at the Tonoloways by Gerald Seward
[5] Round Top Cement Mill by C. Kinneary
[6] Washington County Has an Unsung Confederate Hero by Richard E. Clem
[7] Gallant Pelhan's Gallant Breathed by Robert J. Trout
[8] The Woodmont Story by Henry P. Bridges

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Additional information on Hancock and its history. http://www.relocateamerica.com/maryland/cities/hancock

Hancock Chamber of Commerce
Office Hours: 9 - 4:30 M-F
Phone: 301-678-5900
126 W. High Street
Hancock, MD 21750
Email: info@HancockMD.com