We have all undoubtedly learned about the American Civil War from a very early age. We grew up with graphic accounts of Manassas, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg close to our hearts. The war between the northern Union and the southern Confederacy was the largest conflict in which any American patriots have ever been a part. Despite the prominent place in our history for the Civil War, the key turning point of this war is often neglected by men of our noble profession.
The Great Bicycle Battle of 1862, perhaps better known as the McConnellsburg Massacre, was a great Confederate defeat that would serve as a rallying point for the rest of the Union campaign. The Union troops were marching south under the direction of General Allan Dutch-Eli to try to intercept the 4th brigade of General Stephen McDouglas at the Maryland-Virginia border. Unbeknownst to Dutch-Eli though, the crafty Fightin’ Fourth, as it would come to be known, was stationed on the low ground just south of McConnellsburg. Early on the morning of August 14, the first scouts reported back to Dutch-Eli that a rapidly advancing Confederate force was going to attack them within minutes. What ensued was one of the largest bike-cavalry battles in world history.
The diary of Confederate Corporal Morris Jacks recounted the experience of the initial charge:
There was a low fog across the field as we lined up; we could hardly see our own pedals let alone the mass of Union troops a few hundred yards away. We pedaled furiously in a low gear because we weren’t used to the rocky terrain. Beneath a flurry of artillery fire we coasted, bayonets affixed, toward the enemy line. When I close my eyes I can still smell the smoke.
Shortly after, Major Ronald Blumby adjusted his seat and then ordered those under his command to don their helmets and press forward to defend the Union. Historians Peter Gregg and Linus Frohmsteiner, in their 1994 book It’s As Easy As Ridin’ A Bike, described how the Great Bicycle Battle of 1862 made the Civil War “the greasiest, most mechanical war to date.” This new technology led to men dying in ways never before witnessed:
…flipping over handlebars into waiting bayonets, putting sticks in between Confederate spokes, both sides shooting the hell out of each other’s tires…
Over the course of nineteen hours, 35,740 men lost their lives, an additional 16,000 were injured, and 22,000 more popped chains. Snagged shoelaces and pant legs were causes of many injuries, but the real killer was the unstoppable stream of victims who died from infection. Skinned knees and saddle sores often became gangrenous because of the poor hygiene of the field hospitals. A hard fought battle raged through the sleepless night and the Union bike-cavalry dwindled to 1200. When the outcome looked its bleakest, General Dutch-Eli
reared back on his back tire on top of Mount Pleasant in an iconic and often-depicted show of patriotism. Dutch-Eli raised his saber high above his head and proclaimed, “do it for Lincoln!”, spurring his troops to pedal down the hill for one final push and almost certain defeat.
The final counter maneuver caught the Fightin’ Fourth and General McDouglas off-guard and the sixth brigade swept through the Confederate ranks, slaughtering nearly a third of them on the first pass. General McDouglas was knocked from his Schwinn and overrun by the swarm of Union bicyclists. A rubber wheel cracked his skull and his aide rushed to his side asking urgently how he was. McDouglas, well-known for his bravery and wit, replied “Tired” in his dying breath. After the demise of General McDouglas, the demoralized Confederate troops scattered across the Pennsylvania countryside before regrouping south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The Union bike-cavalry had in an unparalleled late surge defeated the significantly larger Confederate 4th Brigade. It was the beginning of the end for Jefferson Davis and the Confederate States of America.
Dr. A.T. Piskai
Chief Historian, Georgetown University Civil War Library