While investigating his genealogy, Jim Grear of Long Neck discovered that an ancestor, Archibald Rowand Jr., was a Civil War hero. He also learned that Rowand’s record was documented in the literature of this tumultuous period in the nation’s history.
Arch Rowand, born in Philadelphia in 1845, spent several years of his early life in Greenville, S.C., after his family moved there. By the mid-1850s, they were back in Pennsylvania. However, the experience in a Southern environment and learning to speak in that tongue would benefit him when he joined the Union army after hostilities erupted in 1861.
Although still too young, at 17, for service in a Pennsylvania unit, the 1st West Virginia Cavalry accepted Rowand as a member of Company K. The young man and his friend Ike Harris tempted fate when they responded to a call for “extra dangerous duty.”
Reality set in when the two volunteers received Confederate uniforms to carry out their mission. They had become members of the “Jessie Scouts,” a unit whose mission was to gather information about the enemy, often under precarious conditions. Maj. Gen. John Charles Fremont, commander of the Mountain Department that included West Virginia, had formed the Jessie Scouts and named them in honor of his wife. They performed their clandestine activities primarily in the Shenandoah Valley.
Although danger was imminent in carrying out these duties, there were special benefits, as well. Scouts had freedom and privileges not enjoyed by other soldiers and were exempt from camp responsibilities, including picket and guard duty. In particular, scouts received pay in proportion to the value of information collected.
In 1881, William Gilmore Beymer published a collection of stories about men and women who engaged in espionage during the Civil War. Originally titled “On Hazardous Service,” it later reappeared as “Scouts & Spies of the Civil War.” The lead story deals with Rowand’s adventures in intelligence operations.
A reliable and knowledgeable scout by 1864, Rowand had survived continual service behind enemy lines in Rebel uniform. He attributed his success convincing the other side of his loyalty in part to conversing in the Southern vernacular — a product of his youthful Greenville, S.C., experience. As David L. Phillips points out in “The Jessie Scouts,” however, a Confederate bullet to the head killed his friend Ike Harris during an attempt to rescue a fellow scout near Wardensville, W.Va.
When Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in August 1864 as commander of Union forces there, he was aware that Union generals previously had little success in suppressing the enemy in that region. Sheridan realized that victory in combat depended on which side could gain information about the strength, location and intentions of the opposing forces.
To lead the effort in gathering intelligence, Sheridan appointed Maj. Henry K. Young, who selected key members of the Jessie Scouts to join him. Their mission included conducting guerrilla operations counteracting Maj. John Mosby and his rangers. Arch Rowand became a member of Young’s unit.
In addition to his men killing or capturing key Confederate operatives, such as Hanse McNeil and Harry Gilmor, Young recruited a young Quaker woman in Winchester, Va., to report on Confederate activities. Rebecca Wright provided information via a courier — a slave named Thomas Laws — to Sheridan that aided in driving Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s forces out of the Valley.
Having achieved his objective, Sheridan decided to rejoin Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the east, near Petersburg, Va., where he held Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army under siege. To inform Grant of his plans, Sheridan sent scouts through Confederate territory to deliver his message.
Young selected Arch Rowand, accompanied by another scout, for this dangerous mission. These men had to abandon their horses while attempting to cross the Chickahominy River with Rebels firing at them. Having tied their clothes on the saddles, they were forced to walk the last several miles with only their long undershirts for cover but successfully made it through enemy lines to deliver Sheridan’s message to Grant.
For his selfless determination and courage, Sheridan nominated Rowand for the Medal of Honor, citing gallant and meritorious service. The general specified the precarious ride to deliver a message to Grant, capture of the raider Maj. Harry Gilmor and Rowand’s record of conducting daring scouts behind enemy lines.
Jim Grear takes pride in his ancestor who served with distinction and survived many dangerous encounters during the Civil War. The words engraved on the back of the Medal of Honor reflect this pride. They state: “For Valor.”
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.