Word reached Maj. Gen. Robert Schenck at his Union Eighth Corps headquarters in Baltimore that enemy cavalry under Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart had crossed the Potomac River near Rockville, Md., and was headed northward toward Pennsylvania.
At 4:30 p.m. on June 27, 1863, under orders from Schenck, Maj. Napoleon Bonaparte Knight, commander of the 1st Delaware Cavalry, led Companies C and D, totaling some 95 men, on a scouting expedition toward Westminster, Md.
Capt. Charles Corbit was in charge of Company C, while Lt. Caleb Churchman led Company D. The 1st Delaware had been formed in Wilmington in January 1863, and Knight had briefly served in the Confederate military before deserting because he felt the Union needed to be preserved.
Stuart and three brigades of cavalry, 4,500 strong, were behind schedule in their plan to rendezvous with Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Confederate infantry corps near York, Pa. These units were part of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army that was invading the North and in a few days would engage in battle at the small town of Gettysburg in south-central Pennsylvania.
Stuart was anxious to make up lost time, since his cavalry brigades had already encountered serious delays while attempting to navigate a shortcut through the stationary Union army in Northern Virginia. Trouble occurred when the Yankees went on the march northward, thereby blocking Stuart’s path to the Potomac.
Other delays ensued as the Confederates backtracked around the Union army, considerably lengthening the travel time in order to reach Ewell’s forces near York. When the rebel cavalry finally reached Rockville and headed toward Westminster, the tails of both men and horses were literally dragging.
In a Gettysburg magazine article, authors Eric Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi describe Charles Corbit as a 25-year-old who was “six-feet tall … strong, vigorous, broad shouldered, and deep chested.” Brig. Gen. James Harrison Wilson, who married a New Castle Countian and made Delaware his home, said of Corbit, “He was in every way an ideal volunteer soldier.” Many years earlier, Corbit’s ancestors had emigrated from England to Pennsylvania with William Penn.
As the imposing cavalry force under Stuart and the small contingent from Delaware approached Westminster on a collision course, neither one was aware of the other’s proximity. Stuart’s men had already caused considerable damage by destroying telegraph lines and railroad track north of Washington, D.C. That had severed communications between the Union Army of the Potomac, marching a few miles to the west in Maryland, and the authorities in the capital city.
Knight and the two 1st Delaware Cavalry companies arrived in Westminster late on the morning of the 28th and joined a small detachment of the 150th New York Infantry under Lt. Pulaski Bowman that was protecting the important Western Maryland Railroad from saboteurs. The youthful 23-year-old Knight and the men of the 1st Delaware lacked field experience, having served primarily in the defenses of Baltimore.
In “The Civil War in Maryland,” Daniel Carroll Toomey narrates what happened on June 29: “Approaching Westminster from the east, [Stuart’s] advance guard captured five men from the 1st Delaware Cavalry at a blacksmith’s shop. Alerted to the presence of enemy troops, he sent the 4th Virginia Regiment to occupy the town.”
In his report, Knight wrote, “Captain Corbit, commanding Company C, was ordered to charge the column on the Washington road, which he did in a gallant and masterly manner, driving the enemy with very considerable loss until his reserve arrived, and, re-enforcing the shattered column which Captain Corbit had so gallantly charged, turned again in overwhelming numbers upon Corbit and his bold followers….”
H.B. McClellan, a member of Stuart’s staff, picks up the story from there in his memoirs, “Here the [4th Virginia] encountered a brief but stubborn resistance from two companies of the 1st Delaware. …. This fight was more gallant than judicious … for [the 1st Delaware] lost 67 men out of 95.”
Among those 67 casualties were Corbit and Churchman, whose company had also joined the fray. The rebel cavalry had captured both men; however, wanting to avoid the burden of a large number of prisoners, Stuart paroled the Delawareans. The Confederate general commended their gallantry but admonished them that, since Delaware was a Southern slave state, “they ought to be fighting for the Confederacy rather than against it.”
Nearly 150 years after this stirring event, the citizens of Westminster have not forgotten what took place. “Corbit’s Charge” further delayed Stuart’s arrival at Gettysburg, which may have affected the outcome of the battle. A historical marker on Main Street, where the cavalry skirmish occurred, is a reminder that these Delawareans demonstrated, according to one eyewitness, “an almost suicidal bravery” in attacking a much superior force.
An annual reenactment of Corbit’s Charge in Westminster reflects community pride in the valor of this Delaware contingent. A self-guided tour map of Corbit’s Charge can be downloaded from http://www.carrollcountytourism.org/PDFs/Corbits-Charge-Tour.pdf. For more information, call the Carroll County Visitor Center at 1-800-272-1933, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at email@example.com.