John Imboden

John Imboden

John Imboden v John Buford at Williamsport

Esteemed member "Eric and Susan Wittenberg" contributes:


As promised, here is a biographical sketch of Confederate Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden. Born near Staunton, Virginia on January 16, 1823, Imboden had a typical childhood, attending school near Staunton. At age 16, he matriculated at nearby Washington College in Lexington (today, this school is known as Washington & Lee University). He taught school for while, and then studied law. He maintained a law practice in Staunton, where he was twice elected representative to the Virginia legislature.

At the outbreak of the war, he was commissioned captain of the Staunton Artillery, commanding it at the capture of Harper's Ferry. He also commanded the battery at First Bull Run, winning acclaim for his service there. Leaving the artillery, he organized a battalion of partisan rangers and participated in Jackson's Valley Campaign, fighting at Cross Keys and Port Republic.

On January 28, 1863, he was promoted brigadier. As a brigadier, he and Brig. Gen. William E. "Grumble" Jones led the famous Jones-Imboden raid into northwestern Virginia which severed the vital rail artery of the B & O Railroad. In the process, he captured several thousand horses and cattle. His command did not participate in the grand reviews at Brandy Station, but when the Army of Northern Virginia marched northward to its date with destiny in Pennsylvania, Imboden's men went along, serving as the Confederate rear guard. They spent most of the battle in Chambersburg.

Imboden's finest moment occurred during the retreat. Given the important task of commanding the Army of Northern Virginia's wagon train of wounded, Imboden performed admirably, fending off the Federal cavalry and protecting the supplies and the vast number of wounded men. On July 6th, he was trapped on the banks of the flooding Potomac River, and scratched together a defensive force consisting of his brigade, some artillery, and the waggoners. There, they defeated a combined force commanded by John Buford and Judson Kilpatrick, and saved the Confederate wagon train. It was a remarkable performance by a man unaccustomed to commanding troops in a stand-up fight.

After Gettysburg, Imboden continued to command troops in the Shenandoah Valley region. After Grumble Jones was court-martialed and sent to the Valley, Imboden served as his second-in-command until Jones fell leading his men into battle at Piedmont in June 1864. Imboden then served under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's command during the Valley Campaign of 1864, until he was incapacitated by typhoid in the fall of 1864. He spent the balance of the war on prison duty in South Carolina.

Untrained as a soldier, John Imboden proved effective, both as artillery officer, and also as commander of partisan cavalry forces. In a time of great need, Imboden performed admirably at Williamsport, and saved the Army of Northern Virginia's supplies and wounded from capture. No less than Robert E. Lee himself recognized the importance of Imboden's service during the retreat, and paid him the appropriate compliment: "In passing through the mountains in advance of the column, the great length of the trains exposed them to attack by the enemy's cavalry, which captured a number of wagons and ambulances, but they succeeded in reaching Williamsport without serious loss. They were attacked at that place on the 6th by the enemy's cavalry, which was gallantly repulsed by General Imboden." (OR Vol. 27, part 2, p. 309)

Upon the end of the war, he settled in Richmond, and resumed his law practice. Later in life, he moved back to Washington County, Virginia, where he helped develop the coal mining industry in the area. In the process, he founded the town of Damascus. Imboden died there on August 15, 1895. He is buried in the general's section of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Sources: Warner, Generals in Gray
Woodward, Defender of the Valley: Brigadier General John Daniel Imboden, CSA
Suggested reading includes Imboden's own description of the retreat from Gettysburg contained in volume 3 of Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, and his description of the Battle of Piedmont published in Annals of the War.

Eric Wittenberg

Esteemed member Steve Faulk contributes:

At the urging of "Brother Dennis", I'm going to share this letter with you. It's from D.S. Freeman to my Grandpa (Daniel Imboden) about his grandpa (my gg grandpa),J.D.Imboden, who commanded a cavalry brigade at Gettysburg. Dennis thought that you all would find it interesting. Here it is:


Major Daniel Carrington Imboden,
Director, Military Training Division,
Northern Security District,
Seattle 1,Washington.

Dear Major Imboden:
My warmest thanks to you for your gracious letter of October 12th. You bear a most distinguished Confederate name. I always wished that General Imboden could have commanded troops of a firmer discipline. As a Brigadier under Stuart, with such men as those of the 1st and the 4th Virginia Cavalry, he would have made an eve greater name for himself than that which he had passed on to posterity.

Again, my warmest thanks.
Gratefully yours,
D.S. Freeman

DSF-c My grandpa had pasted the letter to the inside cover of "Lee's Lieutenants" Vol 1

Eric Wittenberg

On July 5, 1863, Brig. Gen. John Buford and his staff set out for Boonsboro, Maryland, where Judson Kilpatrick’s command was camped. The two generals met to plan their advance on a 17 mile long Confederate wagon train of wounded in Williamsport, Maryland, where the wagons were trapped by the rising waters of the Potomac River. The two generals agreed that Buford’s division would pitch into the Confederate forces guarding the wagon trains on the banks of the swollen river.

On the 6th, Buford’s Division advanced on the river crossing town of Williamsport. A Confederate defensive force, scraped together of a brigade of cavalrymen and the waggoners, was commanded by Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, a forty year old lawyer from the Shenandoah Valley primarily noted for his partisan activities. The town had become one large field hospital for the stream of Confederate battle casualties, but the Union pursuit soon forced Imboden to battle in its defense. He wrote, “Our situation was frightful. We had probably ten thousand animals and nearly all of the wagons of Gen. Lee’s army under our charge, and all the wounded, to the number of several thousand, that could be brought from Gettysburg.”

That morning Imboden learned that Buford’s and Kilpatrick’s divisions were closing in. Recognizing that he had a difficult task, the Confederate genera armed as many of the wounded as were able to fight and arrayed his troops on the high ground surrounding the town. Imboden had a number of batteries of horse artillery with him, so his force had firepower to oppose the strong Union force bearing down on him. At about 1:30 p.m., Kilpatrick’s men attacked.

It was about 5:30, before Buford’s division, then located near St. James College, four miles from Williamsport, encountered one of Imboden’s advanced detachments. As Buford’s command advanced, it came under both artillery and small arms fire. The Confederate gunners briefly compelled Buford to fall back until Calef’s battery could be brought up. Calef unlimbered and engaged the Confederate artillerists in a counter-battery duel, which was won by the Confederates. Calef’s men were briefly driven from their guns, thus leaving them vulnerable to capture. In response, Buford ordered Gamble’s brigade to support Calef, and a sharp fight broke out along the Boonsboro Road, where Gamble’s troopers attempted to outflank the enemy defenses in an effort to get between the Confederates and the river. Gamble dismounted his command and ordered it forward. Federal carbine fire drove the Confederates all the way back to Imboden’s main line of defense at Williamsport, a distance of several miles. In this attack, Maj. William J. Medill, the diminutive but pugnacious second in command of the 8th Illinois, remarked to regimental commander Maj. John Beveridge “A field officer should command the battalion, and if you have no objection, I will go.” Medill grabbed a carbine, caught up to the advancing skirmish line, and joined in the attack. When the Illinois men were halfway across the field, Medill ordered a volley and raised his own carbine to fire a shot when he was severely wounded. The brave, popular little major was taken to Frederick, he died several days later.

Gamble’s men held their positions until dark, frustrated by their inability to get to the Confederate wagon train they could see just behind Imboden’s line. Lt. John Blue, a wounded officer of Grumble Jones’s brigade, who was waiting to cross the Potomac at Williamsport, noted, “The lines of blue could be plainly seen on the high grounds not far away. General Imboden’s command, reinforced by several hundred teamsters, seemed to be patiently awaiting the attack.” But Gamble’s carbines took a heavy toll among the Confederate defenders. Maj. Harry Gilmor of the 2nd Maryland Cavalry commanded the Southern troops in the northern sector of Gamble’s attack. Realizing that his position was vulnerable to Buford’s artillery fire, Gilmor sent back to Imboden for reinforcements, but Imboden had none to spare. Ordering his troopers and convalescents into line of battle, the dashing Gilmor led a small force of 180 Confederates towards a large building occupied by Gamble’s troopers. The Yankees were driven out by this attack, but Gilmor’s command suffered 34 casualties.

Harry Gilmor had scarcely taken possession of the building when Calef’s artillery opened on him, followed by a dismounted assault. Gilmor’s men repulsed this attack, and another, then counterattacked in an effort to reach Calef’s guns atop the nearby ridge. Gilmor was knocked senseless by the concussion of a shell fired by one of the guns and fell into Federal hands, although he later escaped.

Gilmor was soon reinforced by Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Cavalry Brigade, who, along with the brigade of Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton, brought up the rear of Imboden’s wagon train, as well as Confederate foot soldiers and artillery which arrived to stem the blue tide. The 54th North Carolina Infantry, part of the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear guard, took on Gamble’s men, suffering fairly heavy casualties in the fighting. Outgunning Buford’s artillery, the Gray cannoneers continued to get the better of the exchange.

By the time Devin’s brigade arrived, Gamble was already heavily engaged, as was part of Merritt’s brigade. The Confederates tried to outflank Merritt’s position with a brigade of infantry, which, according to Buford’s report, “was most admirably foiled by General Merritt.” While no direct attacks were made on Merritt’s front, the Confederates there “were so obstinate that General Merritt could not dislodge them without too much sacrifice.” The 6th Pennsylvania held the center of Merritt’s line, supported by the Regular battery of Capt. William K. Graham. There Rush’s Lancers held their position for four hours under heavy fire knowing that “[m]ore than one determined charge of the rebels would have broken our line but for the timely use of canister by Graham’s guns.” Devin was ordered to mass in the woods to the rear of the Union position and await further orders. At 7 p.m., he was sent to relieve Gamble’s men on the left front, with instructions to disengage and fall back to the woods after dark. Meanwhile, Imboden received word from Fitz Lee that if he could hang on for another half hour, Lee’s strong brigade would come to his aid. Resolved to hold his ground, Imboden gamely resisted until Lee’s troopers reached the field. Thanks to those reinforcments, the Confederates began pushing back the Union forces.

Devin held the woods until morning, allowing the rest of Buford’s command to withdraw. Devin’s troopers then conducted a fighting retreat, covering the main line with skirmishers as they retired. Devin had heavily picketed the roads in his rear, since members of the 6th New York had detected approaching Confederate infantry and artillery seeking to cut off the Union troopers. Around midnight, the Confederates advanced skirmishers and encountered Devin’s picket lines. After a brief firefight, the Rebels withdrew. Devin took some casualties in this clash, mostly from the 17th Pennsylvania, which was covering the retreat.

Around 7 p.m., the vanguard of Kilpatrick’s division came down the Hagerstown Road, deployed, and opened fire. Hearing this, Buford sent word to Kilpatrick “to connect with my right for mutual support. The connection was made, Buford reported, “but was of no consequence to either one of us.” The regimental historian of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, of Kilpatrick’s division, noted,

…the whole train would have [been burned] had it not been for the rebel infantry and cavalry, which now came up, and furiously attacked, in flank and rear…Long and desperately did [Kilpatrick’s troopers] contend with the overwhelming forces opposed to them— in fact, too long, for they were at one time completely enveloped…As it was, however, they successfully extricated themselves from their perilous position, [and] recrossed the Antietam in safety…

Unfortunately, Fitz Lee’s brigade arrived about the same time, and supported by strong and effective artillery fire, succeeded in driving off Kilpatrick’s division. Buford noted, “Just before dark, Kilpatrick’s troops gave way, passing to my rear by the right, and were closely followed by the enemy.” The firing ended at about 8 p.m., which probably was a good thing for the Federals. The regimental historian of the 6th Pennsylvania believed, “Had the daylight lasted another hour, we would have suffered the most disastrous defeat.”

Exasperated, the Federals drew off. After removing his wounded, Buford retired to a position along the Sharpsburg and Hagerstown Turnpike, where he threw out strong picket lines. Properly protected, his division bivouacked for the night, cold, wet and tired. The torrential rains continued to fall, and they wallowed in a sea of mud. The regimental historian of the 6th New York observed, “The men passed a wearisome, sleepless night, mounted, in line, or standing to horse.”

July 6th had not been a good day for Buford. Frustrated by his inability to capture the great prize that awaited at the ford at Williamsport, he had tried to drive off Imboden’s scratch force and failed. A member of the 8th Illinois wrote home, “Although the rebels were too many for us, yet they lost the most men; they charged us but we beat them back; but we could not get possession of the town, and so withdrew after dark…” Imboden had done a masterful job of shifting his makeshift force to meet threats, and had repulsed both Buford and Kilpatrick in some sharp fighting. Imboden proudly wrote years later, “My whole force engaged, wagoners included, did not exceed three thousand men. The ruse practiced by showing a formidable line on the left, then withdrawing it to the right, together with our numerous artillery…led to the belief that our force was much greater….A bold charge at any time before sunset would have broken our feeble lines, and then we should all have fallen an easy prey to the Federals.” This ruse was not evident to either Buford or Kilpatrick. Buford noted in his report of the campaign, “The expedition had for its object the destruction of the enemy’s trains…This, I regret to say, was not accomplished. The enemy was too strong for me, but he was severely punished for his obstinacy. His casualties were more than quadruple mine.” It was one of Old Steadfast’s worst showings as a commander.