A patriotic fervor swept across Washington and Greene counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania after Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., signaling the start of the Civil War 150 years ago.
Local men believed the Union Army would quickly prevail and the war would be over before any of them had a chance to fight, said Mark Tomazin, former president of the Washington County Historical Society.
"Everybody was revved up," Tomazin said.
Few could have predicted then that it would take the North nearly four years to regain Fort Sumter following the April 12, 1861, attack.
In the early months of the war, Capt. John Keys of Beallsville, Pa., petitioned Pennsylvania Gov. A. G.. Curtin to reorganize the Ringgold Cavalry, which formed on July 4, 1847, to enter the Mexican-American War. The fighting horsemen had taken their name from Maj. Samuel Ringgold of Washington County, Md., an 1818 West Point graduate who was killed in that war, and they were eager to serve again.
Keys was "anxious to do what he could (to) save the Union," Sgt. John W. Elwood of Coal Center wrote in his 1914 memoirs, "Elwood's Stories of the Old RinggoldCavalry 1847-1865."
But Curtin turned Keys down because President Abraham Lincoln was interested in recruiting only foot soldiers, Tomazin said. Some of the cavalry members were thought to have been too old for service, added John "Jack" Cattaneo, a retired Ringgold High School history teacher.
"They went over his head to Secretary of War Simon Cameron," Cattaneo said.
Cameron, who had befriended Keys' father while working as a contractor on the National Road, delivered his approval of the cavalry in a letter that arrived in Beallsville June 18,1861.
"It was read and reread until it was almost worn out," Elwood's book states.
By then, the area known today as West Virginia was being brought into the war, and Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson and other Confederate leaders would soon have their sights set on destroying fertile farmland the Monongahela River valley. Those farms stocked the Union Army's food supply. From there Confederates forces planned to march north and attack Pittsburgh, which was a major supplier of soldiers and weapons to the North.
"The Ringgold left with farm horses and ancient weapons. They had to outfit themselves," Cattaneo said.
They had no uniforms or arms other than "flintlock horse pistols" and were required to supply their own ammunition, Elwood wrote.
Of the original cavalry of more than 50 men, fewer than a dozen went to the front lines. The reorganized cavalry left a large crowd of well-wishers in Beallsville only four days after Keys received the Cameron letter with 70 new recruits to serve in Grafton, W.Va., then part of Virginia.
The Ringgold probably never fought in any famous battle, although some of its members fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, Tomazin said.
Among the most famous campaigns the cavalry served in was Jackson's failed Romney Expedition to secure western Virginia. The campaign took place seven months after the cavalry formed, and it became known as Jackson's first major defeat of the war.
Jackson was forced back to Winchester, Va., mostly because of bitter winter weather. His troops were inexperienced. Many soldiers either deserted Jackson or froze to death, Tomazin said.
However, its members marched more than 375 miles in one campaign and traveled at least 800 miles on another, Ralph Haas wrote in his book, "The Ringgold Cavalry, the Rest of the Story."
Haas described the cavalry as an outfit of bushwhackers, or cold-blooded guerilla fighters.
Their mission mostly had them serving as scouts and guards protecting the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Tomazin said.
The Ringgold also had numerous skirmishes with the McNeill Rangers, Confederate scouts known for plotting their killings, Haas wrote.
"They served long and hard," Tomazin said.
The two units fought so often that they developed a mutual respect across enemy lines, he said. The onetime enemies even attended each others' reunions after the war ended, according to Haas' book.
The Ringgold would end the war having lost three enlisted men to battle and 19 to disease. Keys, who died in Beallsville Nov. 10, 1863, was among those who succumbed to disease, according to Civil War in the East, an online reference guide to the war.
Four decades ago, Ringgold School District formed and took the name as a tribute to the cavalry.
"To me they were heroes," Tomazin said.
(This story first appeared in the Observer-Reporter)