Exactly 149 years ago Thursday, on June 28, 1863, a Confederate cavalry force of more than 8,000 soldiers led by Gen. J.E.B. Stuart rumbled into Rockville, firing a volley of pistol shots into the air as they surrounded the house of Union-appointed County Commissioner John H. Higgins.
Within seconds, Dora Higgins had ushered her and John’s children into the safety of the house.
But according to a letter Dora wrote to her mother just two days later, the mother of three quickly left the house again, charging through the crowd of mounted Confederate troops to a nearby church to warn her husband and the other Union sympathizers gathered there.
“I broke through the charging columns with the pistol balls flying, rushed through the back way to the church just in time to warn Mr. Higgins, Mr. Bowie, Mr. Dawson, and Williams to stay in the Vestry Room for [the Confederates] were vowing vengeance on them,” Dora wrote in her letter, which has been preserved by the Montgomery County Historical Society.
Although Dora’s courageous actions yielded limited success that day — her husband and many other Union-affiliated men in the town were quickly made prisoners by Stuart’s forces in front of the church — those actions, as well as her tireless vigil defending her husband’s storefront from Confederate looters through the night, still are remembered.
Dora’s stand is immortalized in a plaque outside the Higgins’ still-standing house on North Adam’s Street. It also has been carefully documented by groups such as the historic society, along with other important moments of Maryland Civil War history, said Emily Correll of Rockville, who began lecturing on Dora’s stand after retiring from the historical society earlier this year.
“It's good to know what was going on with the people who lived here before us because it partially explains why things are the way they are today,” Correll said. “People did some very weird things and we'd like to be able to understand why they did them; many times it's inspirational and in other ways it can be enlightening.”
Indeed, many historians believe Stuart’s stopover in Rockville to acquire prisoners and, at one point, capturing a Union wagon supply caravan, had an immediate and resounding impact on the Confederate forces’ defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1 through July 3, 1863, said Montgomery County Historical Society Executive Director Thomas Kuehhas.
“While it was valuable to capture such a very large supply train, it really hampered Stuart’s movements because, as a cavalry unit, the whole idea is to move as quickly as possible,” Kuehhas said. “They were marching these prisoners and of course any column is only as fast as the slowest contingent in that column.”
Realizing this, Stuart ordered most of the men captured in the raid on Rockville — including John Higgins and an injured Union soldier who had been recovering in Higgins’ home — released only a day after their capture, when his forces reached Beallsville. By late June 29, Higgins had returned home, unharmed, to his family, Correll said.
Because of its central location near the Union capital of Washington, D.C., and Confederate strongholds in Virginia, Montgomery County was among the most-contested areas in the Maryland Campaign of the Civil War, which included Confederate losses at the Battle of Antietam in 1862 and Gettysburg the next year, Kuehhas said.
The historical society, along with fellow historic nonprofit Heritage Montgomery, is planning a larger commemoration of Stuart’s raid in Rockville for the 150th anniversary of the event next year, Kuehhas said.
“We’re still in the planning stages but kind of the general idea is to have kind of a reconstruction of the events that day,” he said. “We’ll have re-enactors of Stuart’s cavalry, Dora and John and other pro-Union sympathizers in Rockville.”
In the meantime, county residents are encouraged to check out a new exhibit at the historical society’s museum in the Beall-Dawson House, 103 W. Montgomery Ave., Rockville, which celebrates the role of famous local women in the Civil War era from 1861 to 1865.