It was one of the most fascinating and romantic love stories of the Civil War. Lt. Jesse McNeill was a member of McNeill’s Rangers, a partisan unit of Confederate cavalrymen based out of Moorefield in western Virginia. 18-year-old Jesse was deeply in love with the young and beautiful Mary Clara Bruce. Mary’s father, Robert Bruce, was the Colonel of the U.S. Second Maryland Regiment, of the Potomac Home Brigade. Col. Bruce was also a prominent banker, accountant and businessman in Cumberland. Mary was an outgoing vivacious beauty who acted and sang occasionally at the Belvedere Hall theater in Cumberland. Her relationship with a handsome young Confederate lieutenant would never be sanctioned by her parents.
The problem for Jesse was that not only did his sweetheart live 50 miles away, her father was a U.S. Army Colonel and she resided in a town that was a Federal strong hold, garrisoned with 8,000 troops to protect the B&O railroad hub. Also, Federal generals considered McNeill’s Rangers “Bushwhackers” and not entitled to the rules of war regarding captured prisoners. If Jesse was caught in or around the town of Cumberland, he would most certainly be hung as a spy. To complicate matters even more, word came to Jesse that one of the Federal Major Generals residing in the Barnum House, Benjamin F. Kelley, was beginning to court Mary.
Jesse needed to see Mary. Undaunted by the risk and accompanied by his friend and fellow Ranger John B. Fay, a secret rendezvous was arranged near the Revere House, a hotel located next to the B&O railroad depot on Baltimore Street.
After the romantic meeting, shielded by a steam engine and train, Jesse realized something needed to be done about General Kelley. The matter was brought before the whole Company of Rangers, and it was decided that a raid would be planned to capture General Kelley who was staying at the Barnum House and General Crook at the Revere House, and clear the way for Jesse’s love affair.
The great Cumberland raid took place on the snowy night of February 21st and resulted in one of the most brilliant exploits of the civil war, the capture of Major Generals Kelley and Crook. After a brief confinement in Richmond, Virginia, Kelley was released by special exchange shortly before the war ended three months later. Kelley returned to Cumberland where he would offer Mary Clara Bruce the security and comfortable life of being the wife of a wealthy general. She accepted General Kelley’s marriage proposal despite her love for Jesse and her thoughts of their secret rendezvous.