THE SPRING CAMPAIGN

Table of Contents

When the approach of spring, 1864, increased activity in all departments in preparation for the coming cam­paign, was everywhere apparent, both in the Union and Confederate armies. . To those of us within the limits of the cavalry corps, this was most emphatically discernible.· All was hustle and activity. The ordinance, commissary, and quartermaster’s departments were each in their respective lines busily equipping the cavaliers for the important part they were to perform in the great drama soon to be enacted in the theater of war.    Radical changes were also to be made in the leadership, reorganization, and general management of this important branch of military service, which hitherto had to a great extent been only a disintegrated and unappreciated adjunct of the army, broken into detachments to guard infantry trains, do outpost picket duty, and the like. It was a sort of errand boy, subject to the whims and caprices of the infantry Commander.    This, as we learn from Sheridan, was most decidedly the con­dition of things under Meade, who seemed to have no just appreciation of the mounted service. It is no wonder, under such conditions, that the infantryman regarded the trooper with sneering contempt, and quoted to him the stale. old inquiry, “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?

The cavalry was composed of as fine a body of men as could be found in the army, and under such gallant leaders as Stoneman, Pleasanton, Buford, and Kilpatrick had performed valuable service; but they had been hampered. A cavalry leader, however, was at hand who not only comprehend the situation, but had the stamina to insist that this important department of military service be so organized and conducted that its effective power would be realized to its full extent in the coming cam­paign, and all traditional prejudices against its effective­ness are forever removed. This new and unknown leader was Philip Henry Sheridan.

General Grant, that matchless military genius, had been called from the West, given the high rank of lieutenant-general, and though placed in command of all the armies of the United States, chose to make his headquarters in the field and personally direct operations in Virginia. A crushing blow was to be given to the most gigantic rebellion known in history.

Though successful at Gettysburg, all of Meade’s subsequent movements had proved wretched failures, causing the army to lose all confidence in him as an aggressive commander. Thus the advent among us of the hero of Donaldson and Vicksburg was hailed with acclamations of delight.

Concerning the changes in the cavalry corps, we were not at first so jubilant. We all knew Pleasanton but had never heard of the man who had superseded him – Sheri­ dan. “Who’s Sheridan? ” was a very common inquiry. A few months later we would Lave answered, He’s the greatest general on earth.” It may be opportune to state that the first impressions of Sheridan were disappointing. He was small of stature and worn down by his severe campaigns • in the West. The appellation, “Little Phil,”was quite appropriate.

It is with great distinction the writer recalls his first glimpse of this little, great soldier. While on detail, lettering the brigade headquarters tents, a dozen or more officers, General Merritt among them, rode up and dismounted. One of the numbers was noticeable of smaller stature than the others and particularly conspicuous on account of the high cavalry boots he wore, reminding one of a little six-year-old boy, toddling about in the boots of his father. A group of soldiers had gathered where we were at work, one of whom remarked, “There’s Sheridan,””Which one of them?””That one with the big boots.””What ! ” exclaimed another, in astonishment, “you don’t mean that little rat terrier?

April 6, 1864, he formally assumed command of the cavalry corps, consisting of about twelve thousand offi­cers and men, and entered with energy upon the task of putting it in the best possible shape. On reviewing his troops, and discovering the horses thin and worn down by excessive picket and scouting duty, be promptly re­ quested of Meade that as the men and horses of the cavalry, having borne the burden during the winter, be relieved and given a few weeks for rest and recuperation. Meade, manifesting reluctance, the request was followed by an imperious demand.

The assistant inspector-general said officially:-

“The horses are used up and in a deplorable condition for active duty in the field. Having performed heavy outpost duty in all sorts of weather, it has been impossible to keep the animals in proper condition, and I am decidedly of the opinion that the best interest of the service demands they be given the opportunity to rest from these burdensome duties. The First New York Dragoons need improvements in uniform and hair cutting. Their unreliable Joslyn carbines should be turned in, and the regiment supplied with others.”

This exchange occurred a few days later, -the regiment being armed with the then famous Spencer seven-shooters, thus increasing our effectiveness sevenfold.

April 13, from· commanding the brigade, Colonel Gibbs was returned to his regiment, General Merritt to the brigade, and Torbert to the first division, to which our brigade (the reserve) belonged.

About this time the inflexible fidelity of Colonel Gibbs to his regiment was put to a test. There being an insufficiency of horses to supply the brigade, General Merritt proposed having the First New York Dragoons dismounted, and our horses turned over to the regiments of regulars. This unjust proposition exasperated the men and was indignantly resented by Colonel Gibbs. His steadfastness triumphed, and we were saved from the humiliation of “hoofing it,”in order to let men ride whose chief characteristic was cowardice and black­ guardian.

April 23 we vacated our quarters at Mitchell’s Station, and moved a couple of miles toward Culpepper, and not far from Pony Mountain. The weather was warm and pleasant, and all nature was clothed in the hues of spring. Our poor, tired, and emaciated horses were given eight or ten days of comparative rest; and even in so short a time, their improved condition was apparent.

 

PONY MOUNTAIN

While in this camp hundreds of the soldiers improved the opportunity to visit the signal station on the summit of this isolated mountain, from whence could be obtained a magnificently comprehensive view of the two great contending armies. On May 1 a company of us made the ascent, which was decidedly romantic. Following winding paths and clambering up steep slopes of rocks, we were at last rewarded by a view truly picturesque and grand. To the north, east, and west were spread out the vast encampments of the Potomac army extending twenty miles. To the south, across the Rapidan, could plainly be seen the equally vast army of the enemy. Below us lay the village of Culpepper, while the snowy peaks of the Blue Ridge loomed up in the distance. It was the sight of a lifetime. Probably no better view was ever obtained of the two contending armies. Never before did we have a proper conception of their magnitude. With the aid of field glasses we peered into the rebel camps and discovered that there, as well as on our own, great activity prevailed.

Fortunately, in the signal corps, we found an old acquaintance who obtained permission for us to use their powerful telescope. As we were about to leave, he called us back, saying, “Come quick, I’ve got Lee.”Although the rebel chieftain was about a mile distant, he seemed scarcely ten feet from us; and as he conversed with some officers in front of his tent, we could plainly see their eyes and the movements of their lips.

Our close proximity to Culpepper gave the boys an excellent opportunity to study the characteristics of our great commander. If any at first had him in mind as a pompous and handsomely uniformed general, abundantly decorated with gold lace, epaulets, feathers, and brass buttons, with a great swing of staff officers and orderlies, one glimpse of that plain, quiet-appearing man y_uickly dispelled all such notions. Though exalted by his government•to the highest position of military authority, he was unassuming in his demeanor, and toward the rank and file of his army, kind and considerate. Hundreds of instances are on record of his personal kindness to private soldiers, and no worthy soldier was ever tied up by the thumbs for personally addressing him, as was once done by a certain brigadier-general, not of, but well known to, the dragoons.

The following from Comrade Bishop is opportune:-

PERSONAL RECOLLECTION OF GEN. U. S. GRANT

SAN FRANCISCO, CAL., June 5, 1899.

During the winter and spring of 1863-64, while the First New York Dragoons were encamped at Mitchell’s Station, Va., doing picket and scout duty along the Rapidan, the writer had obtained permission to visit Washington and was provided with passes good for three days, to enable him to do so. Accompanied by a comrade, who also had the necessary passes, we arrived in Culpepper early one morning, where we expected to take the train for Washington, but were told that on account of the giving away of a bridge across the Rappahannock River, no train would leave for Washington until the next morning. This would make our passes worthless, so we concluded to wait around the station and see if something would not turn up.  Along toward noon, we learned that a special train would soon start to carry General Grant and staff to Washington, and we were determined to go with it. Hunting up the captain of the post, we stated our case but were roughly told that no one but the general and his staff would be allowed on the train. Not discouraged at this, we waited on the platform at the depot until General Grant and his staff (a single officer) arrived. The general, upon entering the car, took a seat at an open window next to the platform. This was our opportunity, and we quickly took advantage of it. Advancing to the open window we saluted the general, at the same time stating our predicament and showing our passes. The general returned our salute, listened to our hasty explanation, took our passes, and after carefully looking them over, said, as he returned the passes, “Certainly, sergeant, you can go as well as not.”Then looking around, and seeming for the first time to notice that a number of people-soldiers and civilians–were waiting at the depot, he called the officer in command of· the post, and said: “Captain, if there are parties who have the proper permits, and wish to go to Washington tonight, allow them to get aboard.”As there were several who were most anxious to go, it was a very jovial party that rode to Washington with General Grant that night.

This willingness to oblige one and all, at all times and places, Is to be one of the finest characteristics of our great commander,

 

    1. S. Grant. T. D. BISHOP,

Sergeant Co. D., First New York Dragoons.

We give place to one other sketch of Grant as seen by a dragoon, April 22, 1864: –

“I saw General Grant again yesterday at Culpepper on his return from Washington. A large company of officers was at the depot awaiting his arrival. They were also bad in waiting for a fine confiscated barouche, drawn by four horses; but he evidently did not fancy so much style, pre­ferring to walk to his headquarters, while the vehicle went away empty. You would be surprised to see what a commonplace man be in, so far as outward display is con­cerned. Were it not for his military suit, he might easily be taken for one of the well-dressed Northern farmers that have visited our camps of late, instead of the man upon whom so much now depends as commander-in-chief of our armies.”

During the closing days of April, all superfluous per­sonal effects and camp baggage were Rent away, leaving us in light marching order. Early Wednesday morning, May 4, we struck our_ tents and moved out upon the fa­mous “spring campaignb”of 1864.

It should be borne in mind that this is not intended as a history of the war, but simply a narration of incidents connected with the regiment. The details of this great campaign can be obtained from the personal memoirs of Grant and Sheridan, and from all general histories of the Civil war.

On the morning of the 5th, we crossed the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford and encamped that night near the old Chancellorsville battlefield. For the first two or three days, Tor­bert’s division guarded the great trains of the army, but on the 7th we were pushed to the front. Terrific fighting had been going on for two days, in which our infantry and two divisions of cavalry were engaged.

Our first severe engagement occurred at TODD’s TAVERN, and it was of the most sanguinary character, the “First New York Dragoons sustaining the heaviest loss of any cavalry regiment, in any one engagement during the entire war.”1

Says Lieutenant Flint in his little regimental history:­ “At 3 P. M. the regiment is dismounted and moved across the country for more than a mile at the double-quick,’ when the enemy is met. With a terrible yell, the Dra­goons go to work, loading and firing their carbines with the utmost rapidity and with deadly effect.

“The air seems filled with leaden missiles from either side. For a while the issue is doubtful, for support comes up tardily; but still, the desperate, though unequal, con­flict is kept up with unabated fury. Night closes in upon the scene. Over eighty of the dragoons lie on the ground either killed or severely wounded. The support has arrived, and the day is won.

“An aide-de-camp who witnessed the affair remarked to General Sheridan: ‘I never saw men fight with such desperate valor as did the First New York Dragoons; the men fought like demons.'”

” On the following morning, the battle is renewed with great fury, the enemy being dislodged from his first line of works and driven to Spotsylvania.”

(Footnote Bowen) 1 See Colonel Fox’s “Three Hundred Fighting Regiments.”

In response to my request for incidents, an officer of the regiment, and a participant, sent the following:- 

“At the battle of Todd’s Tavern, in which the First New York Dragoons lost so heavily, General Meade very in­ considerately, and in the face of a strong protest from Sheridan, near nightfall sent in a small force of dismounted cavalry with their carbines to attack Lee’s infantry, stationed in overwhelming numbers behind log breastworks. Notwithstanding the immense disadvantage in numbers, our heroic troopers charged up to the very breastworks, poking their carbines between the logs and firing at close range, eventually setting the works on fire. The Confederates discovering by the light of blazing logs that the dismounted cavalry was not properly supported, swarmed around on either flank, capturing the remnant of the forlorn hope not stricken down by death or wounds. Cos. I and F suffered most severely, the loss in Co. I alone being twenty-four- killed, wounded, and prisoners.

“I particularly recall the circumstances of some of them: Corporal Emerson Rude, of Co. I, was literally shot to pieces but was carried off the field, to die a few days later at Fredericksburg. When captured, Josiah H. Flint had only the barrel of his carbine left, the stock having been shot out of his hands. He and Hiram J. Woodward were fighting side by side when captured, and both these noble boys sleep in unknown graves in Andersonville.”

Both belonged to a fighting race, whose sturdy ancestors answered roll call at Bunker Hill, York­ town, and Lundy’s Lane.

“On the morning after the slaughter at Todd’s Tavern, “says Lieutenant Flint, “I overheard Lieutenant-

“Colonel Thorp made a verbal report of the battle to Colonel Gibbs, then commanding the brigade. ‘Colonel, it is a sore task for me to tell you that your regiment has been badly cut to pieces; that we have lost nearly a hundred killed, wounded, or captured. Officers Britton, Lewis, West, and Abbott are prisoners.’ Colonel Gibbs, deeply affected, and hardly able to control his voice, inquired whether any of his men ran. On being assured in the negative, he replied, ‘I knew they wouldn’t.'”

Captain Britton writes: 

“Had not the regulars failed us there, as they did at Manassas, Colonel Thorp would have turned the rebel flank, and accomplished the desired objective without such fearful slaughter.

It is proper here to notice that, according to Sheridan, the bloody battles of Todd’s Tavern and Spotsylvania need not have occurred but for Meade’s unwarranted in­terference with Sheridan’s well-laid plans. It was also in connection with this that the fiery wordy encounter between Meade and Sheridan occurred. Of this lively tilt, Sheridan says: –

“Meade was very much irritated, and I was nonetheless so. One word brought on another until I finally told him that I could whip Stuart if he (Meade) would only let me; but since he insisted on giving the cavalry directions without consulting me, he could henceforth command the cavalry corps himself,-that I would not give it another order.”

Meade complained to Grant that his new cavalry commander was an obstreperous fellow, and “says he can knock the hell out of Stuart!”

“Did he say so? asked Grant. “Then let him go and do it.”

Meade took the hint, and issued orders accordingly, resulting in Sheridan’s first great raid, which we will follow in the next chapter.

While we were off upon the raid, the two great contending armies were grappling each other like wild beasts amid the dense thickets· and bewildering mazes of the wilderness. The carnage was frightful and the dead lay everywhere – in the underbrush, in trenches, along the roadsides, or wherever death overtook them. The Union army had met with appalling losses, but Grant had no idea of following the old custom of withdrawing to re-organize. His grasp upon the adversary did not relax, and Lee began to realize that he had, at last, met his master, and thereafter if any retreating was to be done, the Confederates were the parties to do it. So, too, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, regarded even by “Grandmother”Meade as invincible, were soon to realize that their prestige was forever gone.

The following incident from an old dragoon, Capt. G. Wiley Wells, of Co. G, will doubtless be read with in­terest:-

ROMANTIC CAPTURE OF A REBEL LIEUTENANT

“I have in mind an incident which may be interesting and laughable if told in the history.    It is as follows:- 

“In May 1864, when Grant crossed the Rapidan and commenced his Wilderness Campaign, our regiment passed over, and the brigade camped in the rear and on the right flank of the army.

“I was ordered, about 3 P. M., to establish a picket line and to scout over the interior of the lines up to where the brigade was encamped, visiting a11 houses and learn­ ing who the occupants were. I was captain, commanding a squadron, and taking my orderly, I started on my mission. The country was thickly wooded, wit h now and then a cleared patch, containing a small log house with a· board roof.On riding up to one of these houses a lady of about fifty-five years came to the door and appeared very much surprised at our approach. Leaving my horse in charge of the orderly, I dismounted, and approached the door, receiving from the old lady a polite invitation to come in. The house contained but one room, and there I found a handsome young lady dressed in colored silk, something unusual in the South at that time. I inquired who occupied the house with them, and how near and in what direction the next neighbor Jived. The young lady answered my questions in a pleasant way, and also informed me that she was unmarried, and had recently come from Lynchburg to visit her aunt. She said there was only one neighbor, and pointed out the direc­tion. I however noticed a bridle path leading the other way, and inquired where it led. ‘0h,    that only leads to the spring,’ she replied, but on examination, I discovered it continued beyond. So bidding them good-day, we took the path by the spring, when the young lady, with evident anxiety, urged us to take the other path as the right one to reach the neighbor’s house. I thanked her but continued on, and soon reached another house similar to the first. In dismounting, the noise of my saber brought a middle-aged woman to the door, who, throwing up her hands, ejaculated:-

“‘ Mercy on me! Where did you all come from? 

Is the Yankee army here?’

‘”Yes,’ I replied, ‘within a mile; and as I am directed to search all houses within our lines, shall be compelled to search yours to learn who its occupants are.’

“‘ Law me!’ she exclaimed, ‘there ain’t anybody but me and my poor sick sister, and we, poor lone women.’

“Thereupon I inquired how long her sister had been sick, and if there was any doctor nearby. She told me that there was no doctor nearby and that she had no medicine except what she prepared from herbs; she also that her sister had been sick for several months with a bad fever. When I told her I would bring a physician, she ap­peared greatly excited, and said:-

“‘0h no, it will only excite my sister to know the Yankee army is here.’

“‘Very well,’ I said, ‘but I shall have to examine the house,’ and started for the door, whereupon she excitedly declared: ‘ It will kill my poor sister,’ and implored me for mercy’s sake not to do it. But I told her I must go in; that I was something of a physician myself, and did not feel justified in leaving without seeing the patient. To this 1:1he said: ‘I have just given her a dose of snakeroot tea, and she has dozed off, and I am afraid the noise will awaken and frighten her almost to death.’ I assured her that I would be careful, but she insisted that if I went up to her room I must take off my saber, which I did, hanging it upon the pommel of my saddle.

“I had a large revolver in my right bootleg, and told the orderly, in a low voice, if any trouble occurred to go with all speed and bring up the men, as I believed there were rebels secreted there.   

“The house had but one room below, with ladder stairs to the upper room. I started up the ladder, the lady following close behind me, but found the room quite dark. Seizing my revolver, I examined the room as well as I could in the darkness. It was bare of furniture ex­cept for a bed in one corner, but I could not see whether anyone was in it or not. I requested the woman to open the shutter, but she insisted that the light must necessarily be kept out. Going to the bed I was able to dimly perceive a person with a nightcap and a sort of nightdress on, breathing heavily. The person rolled up a pair of feverish­ appearing eyes, looking beseechingly at me, whereupon I stooped to examine, and determine if the face was that of a female. I directed the person to show me her tongue but could determine nothing. I then asked her to give me her right hand and pretended to feel the pulse. This was exciting and nervous, but the hand was such as a lady with her surroundings might have had. I was nonplussed, and what to do did not know; for if I went further, and it should prove to be a sick woman, the affair would be dis­torted into a gross outrage, and to leave without ascer­taining the sex might be to leave a dangerous person within our lines.

“After a moment’s thought, I determined to act, so drew my revolver and leveled it at the head of the patient, saying:-

“‘ Get out of that bed quickly, and dress or I’ll kill you.’

“This dose took immediate effect, as the poor sick in­ valid sprang up, exclaiming:-

“I will. I told them this wouldn’t work, and I’m ashamed to be caught in such a way, but l was married only three days ago, and came here just in time for your army to cut us off.’

“Pulling his clothing from between the bedding, he quickly dressed and followed me down, when I learned that he was a lieutenant in a Virginia regiment. He was a man of fine address and noble character. He implored me not to tell the manner of his capture, and to this day no one but myself knows his name in this relation. At his request, he was taken back over the path by the spring and permitted to see his young wife. As we came over a rise, we saw her standing in the path, and as she saw her husband, ran down to meet him. But I will attempt no description of their parting interview, only to state that as the prisoner bade his aunt goodbye, the old lady said to the young wife: ‘That falsehood you told gave the whole matter away, and I thought so at the time.’ Whereupon I said, ‘That is true; her statements excited my sus­picions.’ We took him back, and turned him over as a prisoner of war.”

I will close this chapter with an incident of Colonel Thorp’s boyhood days, furnished by Alfred Bigelow.

When quite young, Thorp was converted at a camp­ meeting in Alleghany County, N. Y., and attracted atten­tion by his earnestness and ability. On one occasion, in company with a schoolmate, he attended ·a meeting at a country schoolhouse. The preacher failed to appear and the audience was about to disperse, the schoolmate said: “This young man will preach, “and introduced Thorp. Those who heard that sermon remember it to this day as one of remarkable power.