Life is tenuous for all of us. Life is especially fragile for a soldier in a combat zone. The order or action which may alter a soldier’s life forever is always only a second away. We are, perhaps, lucky we do not possess the ability to see the future, as we might always be running – seeking either to seize events we care to embrace or flee those which frighten us.
William Bricker, 24, was farming in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, when he enlisted. His age may have been a factor in his being mustered as a sergeant. Clearly, he was an above average soldier, however, earning a commission in May 1863. Four months later, and while he languished in Libby Prison, he was stripped of his commission and dismissed from the service. Lieutenant Bricker’s fateful moment arrived at 3 a.m., August 22, in the guise of a courier, carrying an order from Bricker’s superior, Maj. Oliver O. G. Robinson.
The 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry had been ordered to picket the country around Orlean, in Fauquier County, the previous day. Leaving camp near Warrenton, Robinson established his headquarters along Carter’s Run. Retaining four companies as a reserve, Robinson directed Capt. David Gilmore to take the remaining four companies, about 90 men by Gilmore’s count, to Orlean and picket Thumb Run, several miles west of Robinson’s position. “The whole country was,” as Gilmore later described, “infested with guerrilla bands, so that at almost any hour of the day they could be (from my Reserve) observed on the surrounding hills.” Gilmore established two reserve posts, with one squadron (two companies), along with his headquarters, at Orlean and his second squadron “about a mile in advance on Thumb Run.”
Captain Gilmore wrote his account in January 1865, with the benefit of hindsight, and with an eye to aiding Bricker. The degree to which Robinson, Gilmore or Bricker appreciated their situation only hours after taking their posts is another matter. Shortly after establishing his pickets, Robinson received an order from Col. John McIntosh, commanding the brigade, “to send out a small scouting party, across the ford at Thumb Run, to Barbee’s Cross Roads, and thence towards Manassas and Chester Gaps.”
Robinson ordered Gilmore to send Lieutenant Bricker, with 20 men, to accomplish the task. Gilmore “was at a loss to know how to obey” the order, “for there was no place which I could with safety take the men from.” Gilmore may have overstated his concern at this point, though his next statement is harder to question. “I did not know the country and was ignorant of where the roads to be scouted lay, not having been furnished with a map of the country.” None of the officers state the time they established their outposts, how many hours of daylight remained once they posted their men, or what steps they took to familiarize themselves with the countryside.
This last task, though challenging, was imperative. As Capt. Charles Francis Adams, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry had described a few months earlier, “There are few things more disgusting I imagine than being called upon to establish a line of pickets at night and in a strange country, and then having night shut down on you just when you realize how difficult your task is. It took me four hours to ride over my line, and when I returned I was in an awful maze… I no longer knew…which was north or south, or indeed where I was. My mind was a jumble of fords, hills and roads…”
Lieutenant Bricker was not a novice to command. Though holding his commission just three months, his tenure included the near constant reconnaissance and skirmishing of the Gettysburg Campaign. Major Robinson never explained why he selected Bricker for the task; was the choice a matter of happenstance, was Robinson simply looking to give Bricker a taste of independent command or was there a darker motive?
Regardless of his experience, Bricker’s trepidation upon receiving the order was still palpable 15 months later. Receiving the order at 3 a.m. to lead a patrol an unknown distance, through unfamiliar country, and to return by daylight struck Bricker “as being very singular,” particularly as the order reached him “about one hour” before daylight. He sought Captain Gilmore’s counsel, only to be told “I would have to go.” The sun broke the horizon “soon after we had left the picket line.”
Bricker led his 20 men north, along the Leed’s Manor Road, to Barbee’s Cross Roads (modern day Hume). He may have been further perplexed as to the need for his mission, as he encountered at least one other Union patrol along the route. Still, he took precautions, leaving three men at Barbee’s Cross Roads, “to watch the two roads and guard against surprise in the rear.” Bricker then continued north along the Leed’s Manor Road for five miles, to the intersection with the Manassas Gap Road (modern day Rt. 55). “Finding no signs of the enemy…but fearing to advance any further… [Bricker] returned to the cross-roads.”
Retracing his route, Bricker turned west at Barbee’s Cross Roads. Advancing about five miles, along what he termed the Chester Gap Road (The Hume Road today), and again finding no sign of the enemy, Bricker, though still a couple miles from the actual road to Chester Gap, turned back toward Barbee’s Cross Roads. Reaching the intersection, he ordered the three pickets to act as a rear-guard, following him at a “distance of about two hundred yards.” The lieutenant then turned his small force south, toward Orlean. He may have taken a deep breath and relaxed; the safety of his own lines was just ahead.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the details of what happened next diverge at this point. Writing 15 months after the event and possibly shading the facts in his own favor, Bricker believed he was within two miles of his picket line when attacked by a Southern force of about 100 men. Taking advantage of thick woods, the Rebels had secreted themselves along an “unfrequented road.” At the front of the column, and with little alternative, Bricker, along with a sergeant and two privates put up a brief resistance before surrendering. The lieutenant identified his captors as belonging to the 12th Virginia Cavalry. According to Bricker, his other men “fled and reached the picket in safety.” Once in camp the survivors told Captain Gilmore a different story.
Possibly relying upon information provided by Sgt. Jerome Weaver, Gilmore reconstructed Bricker’s actions for Major Robinson. The patrol had never reached the road to Manassas Gap; Bricker had turned back two miles shy of the intersection. Rather than advancing four or five miles in the direction of Chester Gap, Bricker had only gone “about three miles, before turning for home. And, rather than being only two miles from camp, the patrol was just 300 yards south of Barbee’s Cross Roads when the Rebels attacked.
As described by the survivors, the Pennsylvanians were climbing “a hill in a narrow road through woods [when] they were suddenly fired on from the top of the hill not over fifty yards in advance and immediately charged by from twenty-five to thirty men.” The Yankees were driven back a couple of hundred yards where they rallied, and “exchanged several shots” with the Southerners who had taken a position in the woods. With Bricker and the other four men missing, Sergeant Weaver then turned his men about and fled toward Salem (modern day Marshall), before turning back for camp. Gilmore, in his report of the same day, gave the facts as he knew them without affixing blame.
The following day, Brig. Gen. David Gregg, commanding the division, sent a brief report to Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the corps. Gregg faulted the lieutenant for not having left “a picket behind to cover the roads until his return.” In fact, Bricker had detailed three men to act as a rear guard.
Several days later, Major Robinson filed his own report of the affair. He faulted Bricker for not having posted an advance guard. He also accused the young officer, and one other man, of fleeing into the woods at the first fire. The rest of the men “remained in the road, and retiring about 150 yards, poured a volley into the enemy, who retreated into the woods and reformed. When our men again advanced they found [the enemy] in line in the road.” Faced with no alternative the Yankees retired. Robinson judged Sergeant Weaver’s conduct as “highly commendable.” The major offered no recommendation concerning Bricker.
Lt. Peter Bricker, William’s brother, served in the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Though in different brigades, both brothers served in General Gregg’s 2nd Division. Upon hearing of his brother’s plight, Peter went to the camp of the 3rd Pennsylvania to secure William’s property. There he learned of the pending action against his brother, as well as concerns some of his fellow officers had as to the manner in which William’s case was being treated. Seeking “a fair and impartial trial or hearing” for his brother, Peter petitioned Brig. Gen. Seth Williams, Assistant Adjutant General, Army of the Potomac, on William’s behalf. Describing William as both cautious and daring, Peter believed a hearing would confirm his brother’s reputation for “exemplary conduct, bravery, and efficiency. Peter may also have believed other members of the patrol had escaped censure. Though forwarded along with the other paperwork, Peter Bricker’s request was ignored.
Reviewing Major Robinson’s report, Col. McIntosh recommended Bricker be dishonorably dismissed from the service. Both Gregg and Pleasonton concurred. Army commander George Meade also agreed, citing Bricker’s failure to take “proper precautions and permitting his party to be surprised and himself captured by his negligence.” President Abraham Lincoln endorsed the recommendation, and on September 21, just one month after his capture, and without the opportunity to defend himself, Lieutenant Bricker was dishonorably discharged for neglect of duty.
William Bricker sat in Libby Prison until May, whereupon he was transferred, first to Danville, Virginia, then to Macon, Georgia, followed by Charleston, South Carolina and Columbia, South Carolina. He was returned to Charleston in December to be exchanged. Returning home in disgrace, he immediately sought to clear his name. One hundred and fifty-two years later his petition to his local congressman is not especially convincing, but William Bricker was a farmer, not an attorney. His fellow officers had issued a more compelling statement the previous August, a year after Bricker had been captured, when two-thirds of them signed a petition asking that he be restored to his rank. The War Department denied their request, but offered a ray of hope; once released, Bricker would be given “an opportunity…to meet the charge.” True to their word, once Bricker had been exchanged, officials at the War Department sent his case to the Military Commission established to review such matters.
Bricker’s file included a letter from Captain Gilmore, written on January 4, one day before the commission received the case. Never comfortable with the need for the patrol, or the urgency ordered by Major Robinson, Gilmore acknowledged writing “a very strong protest to Maj. Robinson,” as soon as Bricker had departed. The order was, in Gilmore’s opinion, “impossible to obey in the specified time.” Gilmore also confirmed no effort had been made to examine the country prior to the patrol going out, thus neither he nor Bricker were familiar with the terrain and road network. Then, writing on Bricker’s behalf, Gilmore stated Bricker had successfully fulfilled his orders in every regard feasible. Lastly, Gilmore accused Robinson of recommending Bricker be dismissed based upon the statements of a coward, a man “who according to his own statement, had fled at the first fire.” By necessity, Gilmore had based his own initial report upon the testimony of the same man. Still, Gilmore had drawn attention to the man’s less than courageous actions under fire. Robinson, on the other hand, praised the man’s valor.
Captain Gilmore submitted a second letter two days later. After speaking with men who had been on the patrol, Gilmore credited Bricker with posting both an advance guard, as well as a rear guard, for the length of the patrol, until he reached Barbee’s Cross Roads for the final time and turned for home. There, believing he was on ground well patrolled by other friendly troops, Bricker relaxed his vigilance.
Clearly, the presence of an advance guard was the vital question in the case against Bricker; had he detailed men to scout ahead of his small column? He made no specific reference to an advance guard in his December statement, saying only, “We had got to within about two miles of the picket line, the videttes still following us and the patrol being in front, when the Rebels attacked us in a wood.” Then, like Gilmore, Bricker issued a second statement on January 12; the wording and tone of both of the later statements, Gilmore’s as well as Bricker’s, suggests the aid of counsel. Stating he had been “condemned unheard,” Bricker, like Gilmore, now clearly asserted he had, in fact, detailed two men to act as an advance guard throughout the journey, up until he departed Barbee’s Cross Roads the final time. He recalled the two troopers knowing “the road before us was regularly patrolled by our own men, and was not considered dangerous.”
The members of the Military Commission found Bricker’s and Gilmore’s latest statements, as well as the “testimonial signed by 22 of his regimental officers” convincing. The reviewing officers were also troubled by Major Robinson’s reliance upon testimony from a soldier of less than sterling character, while failing to speak with Captain Gilmore. On January 12, 1865, the commission found in Bricker’s favor and recommended he be honorably discharged from the service. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton approved their findings two weeks later, upgrading Bricker’s separation to an honorable discharge.
Only one of the men captured along with Lieutenant Bricker has been identified with some certainty; Daniel or David Jones is listed in various sources as rising from private to lieutenant in the regiment, though never actually mustered as lieutenant. A diary entry quoted in the regimental history refers to Jones as an orderly-sergeant. He died in a Richmond prison December 30, 1863. One of the other men (unnamed) escaped and returned to Union lines during the night. The diarist, noting the constant guerrilla threat in the area around Orlean and Barbee’s Cross Roads, closed his entry of August 23 with the following declaration, “I never spent a more anxious night, expecting to be ‘gobbled,’” – a Civil War euphemism for captured.
In the last years of his life, William Bricker was slowed by rheumatism, vertigo, heart and liver problems and swollen feet. An examining doctor termed him “rather obese.” Described as one of Carlisle, Pennsylvania’s “prominent men,” William Bricker died on April 26, 1910, “of apoplexy while feeding his chickens.” He was 65.
Documents from the National Archives
Harrisburg Telegraph, April 27, 1910
A Cycle of Adams’ Letters, Volume 1
History of the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry
A note to readers – As I begin pushing hard on a revised edition of my Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville study, work on this site will, of necessity, slow down. I wrote this story months ago for just such a moment. I plan at least one, and maybe two, future stories to close out the series on the cavalry in King George County, before returning to a more random subject matter.
Thank you for continuing to follow the site.