Have you ever considered that truth is stranger than fiction? In the case of the kidnapping of two Union generals from Cumberland, Maryland in 1865, it seems all too true. Who would have thought that the McNeill’s Rangers could sweep into the city and nab the generals from their beds in the early morning hours of February 21, 1865? But’s that what happened.
It seems there was bad blood between John Hanson McNeill, a Southern partisan group leader, and Union General Benjamin Kelley. Kelley was responsible for
arresting and imprisoning McNeill’s wife, daughter, and her young son in 1863.
John McNeill wanted revenge against Kelley, however McNeill was killed in 1864 before exacting that revenge. So his son Jesse McNeill picked up where his father left off.
After sending scouting missions into the city of Cumberland on a number of visits, Jesse McNeill was ready to launch his plan. On February 19, 1865, the McNeill’s Rangers gathered horses and men near the Hampshire County, West Virginia poor house. On February 20th they capture General Kelley. They discovered that General George Crook was also in town, so his capture was added to the plan. McNeill and his men were unaware that another general, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Major William McKinley – two future American presidents - were also in Cumberland hotels that night.
The raiders were able to surprise the pickets guarding the city perimeter and the password “Bull’s Gap” was obtained. This information allowed the rangers to get access to the two generals. With little fanfare or resistance, the generals were removed from their different hotels – the Revere House and Barnum House – and taken out of town, following a section of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath to Wiley Ford, West Virginia. Civil War crossings were not uncommon for the towpath near Cumberland. At Wiley Ford, Patterson Creek near Spring Gap, and Oldtown, frequent troop and partisan group crossings occurred.
Following their capture in Cumberland, Crook and Kelley were taken to Richmond, Virginia where they spent a short time in captivity before being paroled. Less than two months after the kidnapping, the war ended.
Of the Cumberland kidnapping, Robert E. Lee said “Lieutenant McNeill and party deserve much credit for this bold exploit”. One of Lee’s trusted assistants John B. Gordon said “in daring and dash it was one of the most thrilling incidents of the entire war.” In speaking with McNeill’s Rangers on the train to Richmond, John Mosby said “This surpasses anything I have ever done, to get even with you boys, I’ve got to go into Washington and carry Abe Lincoln out.” While having little impact on the outcome of the Civil War, the kidnapping of Crook and Kelley caused much excitement in Cumberland and got the attention of both Union and Confederate leaders - a tale of two generals captured and their exit from Cumberland along the C & O Canal towpath.