AFTER our hard-fought battles of May 31 and June 1 at Cold Harbor, we were relieved by the infantry of the Sixth Corps, and though constantly in the saddle, were given a few days’ respite from severe fighting. But General Grant, desiring to continue hie flank movements toward Richmond, deemed it essential to draw off the Confederate cavalry while this movement was in process.
Already Sheridan had made a successful raid around Lee’s right, and now he proposed a similar move around his left, not only to divert the enemy’s mounted forces, but to make a junction with General Hunter, then sup posed to be in the vicinity of Staunton, and moving toward Charlottesville, their joint mission being the destruction of railroads, bridges, the James River canal, and in various ways to cripple the Confederacy. However, as a consequence of Hunter’s defeat in the Shenandoah Valley, he was unable to connect with Sheridan, and the latter, after two days of hard fighting at Trevilian Station, returned to the Potomac army.
Sheridan’s forces consisted of two cavalry divisions. Gregg’s and Torbet’s,- numbering about six thousand officers and men, provided with three days’ rations and forty rounds of ammunition, besides reserve ammunition in wagons; also one medical wagon and eight ambulances. The description of this expedition herein given, aside from a few corrections of errors, is a verbatim report, prepared by the writer at the time for Northern readers.
As stated elsewhere in this volume, it was my custom, during our entire service, to carefully write up descriptions of our battles, marches, etc., for publication in home papers, or for neighborhood reading. In this, I was greatly aided by Colonel Gibbs, who freely furnished me all information not contraband. Captain Britton and other officers also kindly assisted in a similar manner.
WHITE HOUSE, VA., June 21, 1864.
Dear Friends at Home.
We have again emerged from rebeldom and turned up at White House, having reached this historic locality this morning after another long, tedious, and withal eventful raid through the enemy’s country. It has been fifteen days since we have either received mail, sent out letters, or even heard what was transpiring in the army or elsewhere. Although wearied, worn, and begrimed with the”sacred soil “of the “Old Dominion,”I hasten to relieve your anxiety by giving a somewhat detailed account of our transactions.
You will remember that in my last I gave a narration of our terrific fighting at Hawe’s Shop and Cold Harbor. Well. after two or three days’ relief from fighting, it was rumored that we were about to start out upon another raid. Rations, forage, and ammunition were issued, and on the 7th inst. we were in the saddle and moving out from the army of the Potomac. Crossing the Pamunkey River at New Castle on pontoons, we encamped the first night near Dunkirk, on the Mattapony. The next day crossed the Richmond and Potomac Railroad above Hanover Junction at Polecat Station, and bore off to the Northwest, threatening first Orange Courthouse, then Gordonsville and Louisa Courthouse. Finally, on the morning of the 11th, we pushed for Trevilian Station, which you will see by the map is about ten miles from Gordonsville.
Our brigade was in the advance that morning, and our regiment second in order of march. The advance guard moved out early and unexpectedly met the enemy about two miles from where we stayed overnight. We had just commenced getting breakfast when a few shots were heard, followed by the rebel yell, which we knew meant a rebel charge. Though hungry and wearied, there was no time to eat. Some of us filled canteens with coffee, and either dumped the contents of frying pans on the ground or put the half-cooked bacon in our haversacks. Colonels Gibbs and Thorp were both temporarily absent, but every officer was shouting some kind of a command: “Saddle up! Saddle up!””Hurry up, men; be lively!”But the men needed no orders; as the yelling and firing were coming nearer every moment. By this time Colonel Gibbs was on hand, and we were quickly moving to the scene of action. The advance regiment was already engaged, and as we came upon the gallop, that old familiar command rang out: “Dismount, and pre pare to fight on foot!”In a jiffy, we were moving double-quick in line of battle. The vigilant enemy was on hand, and gave us a warm reception, killing and wounding several in a very short time, besides capturing prisoners, Colonel Thorp being among the captured.
It is the fate of war, but the regiment can ill afford just now to lose its gallant young commander. We shall greatly miss his clear, ringing commands and intrepid leadership. He would probably not have been captured had the United States regulars of our brigade done their duty and kept up on the line of battle; instead, they played us the same old trick as at Manassas, Cold Harbor, and on other occasions-slunk back to the rear, out of the reach of bullets, leaving a gap in the line, enabling the Johnnies to swing around and gobble up a man worth m·ore to the Union cause than their entire pusillanimous crowd. No doubt, however, the cowardly regulars will as usual get credit for the fighting done by the Dragoons.
All our forces, as fast as they came up, were put in action, and the fighting became severe along the entire line, which must have reached over two miles in length. At the same time, Custer dashed around to their flank and rear, barely escaping capture.
Our line, though suffering frequent and severe repulses, steadily gained ground, driving the obstinate adversary at every point. In some respects, the battle was a peculiar one, as there seemed to be fighting at every point of the compass at the same time. Perhaps the generals undP.rstood the situation, but to the rank and file, it was an exceedingly mixed-up affair. From prisoners, we learned that Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee were in command of the two divisions of Confederate cavalry. I had quite a chat with some prisoners that I assisted in escorting back. Some of them were glum arid sulky, others as jolly as if on a picnic. One jokingly remarked, “We-unsallers know’d them dogon Dragoons were comin’ when that yelling officer [Thorp] began to whoop; and when we heard that ‘Forward, double-quick!’ and yo-uns began pumping the bullets out-en them shootin’ irons o’ yourn we know’d ‘twa!I time to git.”
I wish I could give you a full and accurate description of the manner in which our battles a.re conducted, though of course, no two are just a.like. No written description or painting can give a. correct idea. They are not as we ha.ve seen depicted in some pictures, where two straight rows of soldiers stand in an open, level field, and whang away at each other. On the contrary, imagine a rough coun try, interspersed with woods, ravines, creeks, and swamps. stone walls, corkscrew fences, hills, and deep gullies, with the two armies constantly changing position -advancing, retreating, executing flank movements, often ending miles from where the fighting began. In bringing on a battle, usually, a skirmish line is thrown out in advance to develop the strength of the forces in our front. This falls back or merges in the line of battle as the two hostile lines come in con tact. In this battle the men were deployed only a few feet apart, and as far as possible kept in line as we advanced. But we had some rough ground to go over, creeks to cross, and woods with thick underbrush to pass through. Then bear in mind there were a lot of ugly rebs in our front inclined to dispute our way by shooting in our faces, charging, and taking every possible advantage to discomfit us. Thus you will understand it was often a difficult thing to keep our alignment. Both hostile lines were ablaze, and bullets flew like hailstones, cannon on either side were throwing their missiles of death, and the air was sulfurous with smoke, our artillery often shooting over our heads and dropping their shells in the ranks of the enemy. Soon the order passed along the entire line: “Forward, double-quick, charge.”The bugles sounded the charge, and at once our boys set up a yell, like so many devils, rushing forward regardless of shot or shell; and then the scene became terrific beyond description, as both sides contended for the mastery in the sanguinary struggle. But in every instance save one our boys put them to rout.
The fighting lasted all day, and by dark, we had driven them, over all kinds of ground, three or four miles. and gained possession of the station, destroying the considerable railroad.
At the time when Custer made his dash upon the rebel rear, he captured nearly two thousand led horses, baggage trains, caissons, and many prisoners; also recaptured Colonel Thorp, but had to give him up again, besides losing heavily himself.
Fighting was resumed early next morning, continuing until dark; but we were not so successful either in driving them or in the capture of prisoners. they having been re-enforced by infantry.
In the battle of the 11th we claim a decided victory, but that of the 12th was a draw game.
I might spend much time telling you about the sufferings of our poor wounded boys. Doubtless, people sometimes regard the newspaper and other reports of these things as exaggerated, but let me assure you that the half is not told, either of the agonies endured or the horrible sights presented by the mangled dead. A dozen sheets might be filled with a description of what I have witnessed in these two battles alone, as duty called me at different times to our field hospital, where our wounded, and those of the enemy, faJ1ing into our hands, are brought for treatment. Here were the bare-armed surgeons, with their bloody instruments, amputating the mutilated arms and legs of the poor, groaning sufferers, or bandaging some ghastly wound of the face or body. I assisted in carrying one poor boy who had been shot through both cheeks, nearly cutting off his tongue, besides having his shoulder shattered. One man was struck by a piece of shell which tore away his chin and lower jaw, some with shocking wounds were stretched upon the ground in the last stages of life, while swarms of flies revealed upon their gashes. Some were shot through the lungs or bowels and were groaning in their agony of suffering. But such things are too horrible to dwell upon.
I am unable to give all the casualties of the regiment, only to say that we lost eighty-six men in killed, wounded, and prisoners. Rut in my company (I), Captain Lemen was badly shot in the hand; Corp. Wm. Smith severe wound in the thigh, and will probably lose his leg; Wm. A. Luce, serious wound in the breast; Ransom Haight, wounded below the knee, and may lose the leg; David Clark, .little finger shot off. Captain Lemen will doubtless be unfit for duty for some time, and Co. I will greatly miss him. Too much can not be said in his praise, for since the campaign opened he has been up to the mark in every battle, and no officer has looked more to the interests of his men. When the boys have been short of rations, he has divided with them. I wish as much could be said in favor of Lieutenant–, who has never been in a battle and is principally noted for his whisky-drinking and tyranny over the men.
Since the campaign opening, Co. I alone have sustained a loss of thirty-one men, and I think that all the other companies have suffered as severely, and some even more than ours.
I must also tell you how we have lived on this raid. Our bill of fare has been better than on the raid toward Richmond, as we have been permitted to forage for both men and horses. We took but three days’ rations, but have lived like kings for fifteen days. In fact, the boys prefer being their own commissaries on such expeditions. We have had flour and meal for pancakes, ham, and bacon in any quantity, chickens, pigs, and sheep, together with various knickknacks in the shape of hooey, apple butter, and preserves. butter, and cheese. Our greatest Jack was time to cook, being rushed through as fast as the condition of our wounded would permit.
After the hard fighting of the 12th, we withdrew in the night, taking with us five or six hundred prisoners and those of the wounded able to be moved, the others being left in the care of one of our regimental surgeons (Dr.Rae), who was detailed to remain with them.
Our return march has been an unusually wearisome one, owing to the intense heat and terrible dust, at times so dense that we were nearly suffocated. It is a positive fact that at times we could not see ten feet ahead, or even distinguish our file leader. It is also true that as the men perspire the dust adheres so freely that except for the dissimilarity of features, we can scarcely tell a white man from a negro. But then we should not complain when we think of what our_ poor wounded boys have to endure on such a journey.
The manner of transporting our wounded was somewhat novel. We were sadly lacking in ambulances, having nearly five hundred wounded to be conveyed, and were compelled to press into service every old horse and vehicle obtainable. There were antiquated family carriages and buggies, old stagecoaches, carts, and in fact, everything obtainable on wheels. As the motley procession moved out, the”horribles”and “fantastic”of a fourth of, July celebration were nowhere.
Besides the five hundred to six hundred prisoners in our procession, there were negroes like the locusts of Egypt for number; where on earth they all came from no one could tell. I judge there were from two thousand to three thousand of these poor fugitives, of all ages, both sexes, and every shade of complexion, all having un bounded confidence in “Massa Linkum ‘s sogers.”There were old men and women, bent nearly double with infirmities of years. I saw several mothers with babes on one arm and leading little toddling youngsters with the other, yet all plodded through and were sent down the river from here.
Our journey took us over the battlefields of the Wilderness. where we saw the vast fortifications of both armies in the battles early in May. ·we were particularly interested at Spottsylvauia, where one of our hard cavalry battles was fought.
Quite a brisk fight occurred here at White House this morning, but we were not in it. Several were killed, and we are now en camped on the battlefield. A caisson was blown up near where we are, one of our shells having penetrated and burst within it. A caisson is the ammunition wagon of a battery.
We have now been in the saddle every day for about forty-five days. having in the meantime participated in some of the hardest-fought battles, and greatest raids or the war. – JAMES
In a letter, four days later, dated “Near Willson’s Ferry, on the James, June 25, 1864,”I made this reference to the regulars:-
“As predicted in my letter of the 21st, some of the New York papers contain glowing accounts of their [the regulars’] valor at Trevilian; how the First, Second, and Fifth United States Cavalry of the reserve brigade’ charged over the crest like a whirlwind, sweeping all before them, exhibiting gallantry that won the applause even of the enemy.’ The above may be true of the volunteer regiments so unfortunate as to be brigaded with them, but so far as the three regular regiments are concerned it is all bosh. Colonel Gibbs says that this unfairness comes from the fact that the regulars have with them a professional New York correspondent, who gives them credit for all the fighting of the brigade. Besides this, regulars always have a feeling of antipathy, or disdain, for the volunteers, and improve every ·opportunity to treat them with contempt. I have heard it remarked that they hate volunteers worse than they do the rebs.”
I may remark that this feeling of aversion to the volunteers referred to in the old letter, as quoted above, was never relaxed, and no opportunity to chaff us was allowed to pass unimproved. The following September, however, just before the battle of Opequon, we were transferred to Devin’s brigade, where our associations were more congenial.
A month or so after we left the Reserve, or Regular, Brigade, their feeling of animosity brought on a hand-to hand fight with sabers. As Devin’s brigade was marching on the pike, a regiment of these regulars was waiting for us to pass.• As we came up, some of them said, “There come those damned Dragoons, let’s cut ’em in two.”This they attempted to do, and rushed right against the column, but met with a quick rebuff, as our boys whipped out their sabers and played them over the heads of the braggarts at such a lively rate that they retreated. Harry Wheeler, of Co. I, had a lively saber contest with one fellow, who persisted in going through; but Harry finally gave him a stunning blow that made him reel in the saddle, leaving an ugly gash in the head.
As heretofore stated, Sheridan, on retiring from Trevilian Station, left Dr. Robert Rae, of the Dragoons, in charge of the hospital. By request, the doctor furnishes a brief narration of his experience with the barbarians composing the rebel army: –
“After the two days’ battles of June 11 and 12, 1864, at Trevilian Station, Va., I was detailed by General Sheridan to remain at that place in charge of the Union and Confederate wounded whose condition would not permit of their removal. All able to stand the journey were transported by Sheridan to White House Landing or West Point, but ninety Union men were left in my charge, with plenty of medical stores, including blankets and the like.
“No sooner had Sheridan departed than the rebels, regardless of all rules of civilized warfare, looted the hospital. They at once removed most of my clothing, even to my boots; took the blankets, rubber ponchos, and the clothing from the wounded, acting so like savages that two Confederate officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Carter, of Notaway Courthouse, and a Lieutenant Helm, who was under my care, were disgusted. These officers freely expressed their disapproval. and protested against such conduct, but to no effect, although their own wounded were receiving the same care and treatment accorded the Union soldiers.
“In a few days we were moved to Gordonsville, thence to Lynchburg and Dannville, Va.. going slowly until reaching Macon, Ga. I was sent to Savannah, and thence to Charleston, S. C., where, sometime in October, I was exchanged, reaching the regiment in December, in time for the Gordonsville raid.
“I was present the night that rebel surgeon was captured at Liberty Mills, and after the barbarous treatment I had so recently received, it is probable I said more to him than necessary. But I did not rob him of hie cloth ing; on the contrary, I saw that he was decently treated, which was more than the Confederates did by me.”1
(Footnote from Bowen) 1 The capture of this rebel surgeon Is mentioned In the account of the Gordonsville raid, December 1864.
Comrade C. L. Cuddebec sends this account of the wounding of George Stockweather, of Co. F: –
“George was on the front line in the hottest of the second day’s fight at Trevilian Station, Jone 12, 1864, and was struck ·by a bullet which cut out his teeth, destroyed the left ear, and passed out near the back of his neck, waking a ghastly wound. He was supposed to be dead, but as we were driven back, he called out: ‘Boys! boys! don’t leave me! ‘ but we were unable to take him off, and he fell into the hands of the advancing enemy. Fortunately, our assistant surgeon had been left behind in charge of the hospital, and he received good care. He was eventually sent to Libby prison and paroled. He now lives at Hunts, N. Y.”
The following is from the same writer: –
‘‘ Comrade Bowen: You ask for incidents of personal experience. Here’s one: During the first day’s fight at Trevilian, about the time Colonel Thorp was captured, a staff officer rode up to the rear of our line of battle, and shouted, ‘ Forward on the right and take those led horses! ‘ We at once obliqued to the right, where across a gully about twenty rods away, we could see horses hitched to scattering pines. But alas! There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip, for as I came over a little hill, near a stream fringed with bushes, there soddenly appeared three Johnnies, not three rods distant, and with guns at the shoulder, ‘Halt, you Yankee son of a bitch ! ‘ greeted my ears. You bet my mind worked quickly, my Spencer repeater was already cocked, and quicker than it can be told I aimed, fired, and jumped for the bushes. They also fired, one ball cutting through my whiskers and coat collar. On crossing the stream, and proceeding toward the horses, I was confronted by a dozen or more rebs, who sent a volley of bullets rattling about me but doing no harm. It was then I discovered that I had become separated from my companions, but soon found some of our boys. In advancing over the ground where I had exchanged shots, we found a rebel soldier shot through the bowels. He begged to be taken to a hospital, but the best we could do was to set him up against a tree and give him a drink from our canteens. He remarked: ‘We-uns thought we’d got yo-uns sure.’ From his boots, I took a pair of large copper wheel spurs and pretended them to Omer Olney, a citizen from Nunda, who visited us. The reb’s name was Jamison and belonged to the Fifth North Carolina Cavalry. 11 I can recall numerous other incidents, but will give other comrades a chance to contribute.”
A LAUGHABLE INCIDENT OF COLONEL GIBBS
A very punctilious officer was Colonel Gibbs – a regular martinet. With him, everything must be done in accord ance with the strictest formality of military requirements. It is, however, related to him, that in one instance, at least, circumstances compelled him to deviate somewhat from his usual custom.
In the early morning of June 11, near Trevillian Station, the men were getting a hasty breakfast, when we were startled by that well-known rebel yell accompanying a charge. For some reason, both Gibbs and Thorp were temporarily absent, and the enemy was coming down upon us like an avalanche. Breakfast was suspended, and in a moment the men stood in readiness for duty. Gibbs, who had been over to headquarters, was seen emerging from the woods, with “Old Blue”(as his horse was called) on the keen run, and the Colonel digging bis spurs into him at every jump. Ordinarily, if the horses were saddled, the commands, given in a very dignified manner, would have been: “Orderly bugler, sound the assembly! “At this call, the regiment, if scattered, would quickly get in place. Then comes: “To horse !” when the men stood at the horses’ heads, holding the bridles with their right hand. At the order, “Prepare to mount!” the left foot would be placed in the stirrup, then comes the command, “Mount! “when the soldier would rise in the stirrup, stand perfectly erect, and without bending either the body or right leg, swing gracefully into the saddle. Wa.s all this gone through with upon this occasion 1- Well, not exactly. The rebs were still yelling, and we expected every minute to see them burst out of the woods. As soon as Gibbs came within easy hearing distance, he shouted: “Hey, there, you men I Climb on them horses damned quick!” and no command was ever obeyed with greater alacrity.
A description of army life would be incomplete without reference to a certain cosmopolitan individual well known to all old soldiers. He has been called the ” Soldier’s Friend”(?) on account of the tenacity with which he clung to all soldiers wearing either the blue or gray. Neither did he have the least regard for r1mk, entertaining the same tender regard for the private as the Major-General. His scientific name was “Pediculus Vestimenti.” A big name, yes, bat not half as big as the fellow seemed to as. His name also was ” Legion, “being numerous, as the sands of the seashore; in common parlance, he was “the old grayback or army louse.”0h, how our backs itch even now as we think of the predatory excursions over our bodies by these noplurous blood-suckers. When in camp we could, by constant vigilance, keep our selves free from the pest, but on the march, it was next to impossible. When halting for a short time it was no an common thing to see hundreds of men with clothes turned inside out hunting for the ”varmints.” This was called “skirmishing, “and we all had plenty of it to do.