WITH SHERIDAN IN THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY

 
 

Table of Contents

Our entrance upon the Valley campaign was signalized as the entrance also upon our third year’s service. Two years of drilling, marching, and hard fighting had gained the First New York Dragoons an honorable record. Since the opening of the spring campaign, it had partici­ pated in fourteen hard-fought battles, besides numerous minor engagements. It had repeatedly marched with unfaltering tread into the very jaws of death. Nearly half the brave boys who started out with us three months before, had either fallen in battle, were suffering in hos­pitals, or worse than all, were slowly dying from starva­tion and inhuman treatment in those terrible Golgoth s, known as Confederate prisons. But the remnant was on hand for duty, and as full of fight as ever.

On August 8 we crossed the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, and during the halt, many of the regiment ran up the heights to obtain a view of this famous locality. In his diary of that date, Comrade E. D. Humphrey speaks the sentiment of all present:-

“I am standing on a commanding hill, high above the village, viewing the surrounding country. The scenery is brilliant and romantic. What a position for an artist! Would that I could tarry longer, but the bugle is sounding ‘Stand to horse ! ‘ and I must leave this enchanting spot.”

With his usual promptness, Sheridan began prepara­tions for an aggressive campaign. Calling to his aid that superior topographical engineer, John R. Meigs, be quickly acquainted himself with the geography and topographical features of the Valley. Meigs, being familiar with every road, stream, and hill, was an important adjunct to Sheridan’s staff.

The same day that we crossed into Virginia we were off on a reconnaissance to Duflield’s Station, and thence to Shepherdstown, marching back in the night. The few rebels which we found retired on our approach. Early on the morning of the 10th, we were in the saddle moving in a southwesterly direction. As the advance entered Charles­ town, the place of John Brown’s execution, they struck up the John Brown song, each regiment, in turn, taking it up until several thousand voices composed a grand chorus, singing under the inspiration of the circumstances as we . had never heard it before, nor have we since.

Pushing on through Berryville, we struck a force of Johnnies, near White Post, busily gathering up grain; and here occurred our first engagement in the Shenan­doah. At first, they were disposed to resist our advance, but as we bore down upon them with a yell, pouring in a few rounds from the repeaters, they made off at a lively gait, leaving the grain, threshing machines, etc., in our possession. This affair, however, was as mere boys’ play compared with our desperate battle of the day fol­ lowing.

The battle of Newtown, June 11, 1864, though scarcely known in history, was, so far as our particular regiment was concerned, the most desperate of all our fifty battles. Todd’s Tavern, Cold Harbor, Opequon, and Cedar Creek, were great battles, in which the Dragoons had severe fighting; but in those great encounters, our regiment was but a small factor. Not so at Newtown, where the First New York Dragoons, single-handed, met in terrible con­flict an entire division of Early’s veterans.

In the preparation of this account official reports, histories, diaries, and letters have been consulted. In fact, this course has been pursued all through the volume, but particularly so in this case.

To understand the situation, it may be stated that the rebel army was marching southward up the Valley from Winchester, on the Valley Pike, while we were going nearly in the opposite direction on the Front Royal road, the Dragoons in the advance. When near Newtown we were sent away toward the left on a reconnaissance under Major Scott. At that time (3 P. M.), . the rebel General Gordon’s division of infantry was passing, having thrown out a line of flankers to guard his main column. These we first came in contact with, quickly driving them back upon their support. A spirited fight at once commenced in our front. Gordon having halted his division. We quickly discovered that we were face to face with a very heavy force, who poured upon us a severe fire; but owing to the advantage afforded us by the seven-shooters, we held them back. Soon strong reinforcements were sent out to attack both the left and right flanks of our line. There were woods in our front and to the right, but on our left, we could plainly see a large body of the enemy coming across an open field; on the double-quick. They were now nearly in a half-circle about us, so that we were receiving not only a direct front fire but an enfilading fire from both flanks.

Usually, two of our buglers could supply the line with ammunition, but our boys fired with such rapidity and so incessantly that Sergeant Jackson and several of his band were called to our aid, and all were kept busy distributing cartridges. Notwithstanding a murderous fire was poured upon us, not a man flinched, nor was there any confusion. Never was the regiment put to a severer test, and never did it stand that test better. This gallant stand against nearly, or quite ten times our number, has scarcely a par­allel in the history of the war,- a depleted regiment of dismounted cavalry, without the slightest protection from breastworks, holding at bay an entire division of veteran infantry.

Finally, fearing that with such overwhelming numbers the enemy might close in and capture us, Major Scott directed us to fall back about twenty rods, and make a stand at a rail fence. Here we held them until the bal­ ance of the brigade came up, when, after a few more vol­ leys, the battle ended.

Our loss was twenty-nine killed and seriously wounded, besides several sunstrokes, it is an unusually hot day. Notwithstanding this, the list of casualties shows that not a man of any regiment who came up at the close ·of the battle received a scratch. As usual Generals Merritt and Torbert gave all the glory to the Reserve Brigade, the only reference to the Dragoons being the wounding of Major Scott.

To show how unjustly we were treated, by giving in every instance all the honor to the reserve brigade, when the Dragoons did all the fighting, we will quote from Merritt’s official report: “The enemy’s infantry was encountered about two miles from Newtown, and a battle fought by the Reserve Brigade. The enemy was strong in numbers and position, and it was found impossible to dislodge them.”

Is it any wonder that when on the 9th of the follow­ing month, we were transferred from the Regular, or Reserve Brigade, to Devin’s brigade, there was great rejoic­ ing among the Dragoons? All our relations with ” Uncle Tommy’s”boys were very congenial, and with Devin, we always received credit for what we did.

Sheridan’s report is on a par with the others. He says: “General Merritt was at this time ordered to strike the enemy’s column on the Strasburg road at Stephensburg or Newtown and force him farther westward, or oblige him to give battle. In this movement, General Merritt encoun­tered Gordon’s division repulsed an attack made by it, and made a bold push to get between the enemy and Stras­ burg.”As it was the First New York Dragoons, alone and unaided, that accomplished this, we see how little credit this volunteer regiment received for gallantry and courage seldom equaled in the annals of warfare. It does seem to us old veterans that Sheridan might have done as much as to mention the name of the regiment. If one of the regular regiments had done half as well, all three of those generals would have extolled them, by name, to the skies.

Captain R. A. Britton writes that the regulars were or­ dered to support ns at Newtown, but never came near until the battle was over, serving ns as they did at Manassas, Todd ‘Iii Tavern, and other places. We did the fighting; they received the glory. Britton further writes: ” I remember well the battle of Ang.11, 1864, of dismounting and taking the men into that bloody piece of oak timber, and of poor George Durfee, Charley Armstrong, Jimmie Bowen, and all the rest who came out wounded; and I can see that row of graves where we left our dead. I remember how yon boys so gallantly carried and distrib­uted the ammunition along that bloody line. We fired away two hundred and forty rounds that day. I never expected either one of you would get halfway down the line. They well knew what you boys were about, and tried hard to get you.”

In 1870, at Atchison, Kan., I met a clear-headed rebel major, who often faced us in the valley. On learning the name of my regiment he shook my hand, remarking: “Them Dragoons were the ugliest lot of Yankee fighters we ever met.”He was present and regarded our defense at Newtown as something remarkable.

Among the seriously wounded was Geo. W. Durfee shot quite through the body. No one supposed he could live an hour, but at this writing, he is a lively inhabitant of Jamestown, N. Y.1

Early in the morning of August 13, the entire reserve brigade wagon train was captured by the guerrilla Mosby. It had been moved out from Harper’s Ferry and was in a park near Berryville. The train was guarded mostly by one hundred day men, who threw down their arms and ran like sheep at the first sight of the coming guerrillas. We lost all our regimental records, besides much valuable private property. Mosby destroyed seventy-five wagons, and ran off two hundred prisoners, with a loss of but two men, killed by Than Marr and another Dragoon, who stood their ground and were captured. They had $100, which he quickly hid beneath a large stone. Escaping on the road to Richmond, he returned and secured his money. In this affair, we lost two weeks’ mail.

(Bowen’s footnote) 1 In ‘this battle I had a peculiar experience. It was not the tra­ditional Bible or pack of cards, but a thick package of letters in my breast pocket that saved me from a discharge on the spot. This package was struck with such force by a glancing ball that I was sent whirling upon the ground. In attempting to start on with the nosebag or cartridges, I was prostrated by the effects of the shock and sunstroke and carried off the field.

If the comrades who recall this circumstance will write me, I

will be glad. J. R. B.

At this time Sheridan and Early were maneuvering t11eir armies, both infantry, and cavalry, up and down or criss-cross the Valley very much as two skillful chess players would move their men, cautiously watching for any advantage of position. The two armies were about equal in strength. Early was a hard fighter, with an army of trained veterans, and had many advantages over Sheri­ dan, one of which was that nearly the entire population was friendly to him, while Sheridan was compelled to detail large guards for his trains and rear communications. Nearly every man and boy old enough to handle a goo were ready to kill our men on sight.

The cavalry in particular was kept almost constantly in motion, usually precipitating a battle whenever we came in contact with the enemy; thus many sharp battles were fought without very great results. But Sheridan understood his business, and when the proper time came, struck a telling blow.

Soon after the battle of Newtown, we went into camp­ at night not far from Strasburg. The tramp of our horses produced a singular hollow sound, causing con­siderable comment. Next morning, as a colored servant was getting the officers’ breakfast, he suddenly rushed out yelling that the debble was down in de groun’ shnah, and no amount of persuasion could induce him to return to his cooking. The mystery was soon solved. Some of the boys in search of water had discovered the entrance to a subterraneous chamber or cave and crawled into inves­tigate. Near where the negro was cooking was a small crack in the rock through which they could see him, and making a hideous noise, they frightened the poor fellow nearly to death. Most of us visited this natural curiosity, which, though not large, was beautiful with its pendant stalactites resembling glittering icicles. The entrance was difficult, as we had to lie upon our backs, and by bending the body worm ourselves in.

Sheridan had received from Grant the following instructions: “In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley it is desirable that nothing be left to invite a return of the enemy. Take all provisions, forage, and stock waited for your command, and all not needed to destroy.”Dwellings were to be spared, but the Valley was to be made desolate. As we fell back from Strasburg, the torch was merci­lessly applied, and the whole stretch of the country laid waste.

BATTLES OF KEARNEYSVILLE AND SHEPHERDSTOWN. HOW CUSTER SAVED THE DRAGOONS

The night of August 24, we encamped at Shepherds­ town, on the Upper Potomac, and the next morning our division moved out toward Winchester. Near Leetown we ran upon a cavalry force, which we put to rout, but ran right into Breckenridge’s corps of infantry, and received a counter-attack which caused us to fall back to Kearneysville, on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, where we had a lively engagement. With a cavalry force equal to our own, backed up by a corps of infantry, we were compelled to retire toward Shepherdstown, the Dragoons covering the retreat.

Major H. M. Smith, in command of the regiment, was instructed to fall back no faster than compelled to, and it was understood that the command would go via Shepherdstown.

(Footnote from Bowen need punctuation) The description of these two successive battles IR gathered from accounts furnished by three comrades,- Ezra Marlon, Harry Green, and the late Marvin W. Lindsley, though tho latter account having been prepared years ago. All three writers exactly agree with my own correspondence at that time.

The advance, however, learned of a road leading to Harper’s Ferry, leaving Shepherdstown to the left. Instead of supporting, or even notifying Major Smith, the regulars took this road, leaving us to our fate. The Graycoats were quick to discover the situation and laid their plans to corral us.

To appreciate our predicament, the reader must under­ stand that the road by which we entered Shepherdstown and the one leading out of the village to Harper’s Ferry, formed at the edge of the village a triangle, so that half a mile out from town the two roads were not far apart. As their cavalry crow, led upon us at the village, we took the angling road, when to our horror it was discovered that their infantry was double-quicking across the fields and taking possession of our road of escape. Halting on a rise just oat of the village, ours seemed a forlorn hope indeed. We could see their cavalry at the edge of the place forming for a charge, while their infantry was clos­ ing in to gobble as up. Just then Captains Thorp and Robinson rode up and said: ” Major, what do you propose to do1″He replied: ” There are but two things to do; surrender, or charge them, and cot our way out the best we can.”That of course meant great slaughter.

At this critical moment, loud cheers were heard in the rear of the rebel line, and there occurred a scene that beg­gars description. Coming over a hill we beheld the gal­ lant Custer at the head of his staff and headquarters guard. His wide-brimmed hat was flapping, while his long. golden curls were streaming in the air; and swing­ ing their sabers over their heads, the cavalcade swept down like the wind. This sudden and unexpected attack upon their rear threw the rebel line into confusion, and Coster dashed through to where we were. Putting himself in command, he shouted: “Wheel about, boys, and charge them! Forward! Charge!, and away we went with alacrity, with sabers glistening above our heads; and rais­ ing a savage yell, we swept through the rebel line with but little opposition. In the meantime, Custer’s battery and the brigade had come up and held the enemy in check while we retired, and with Custer forded the Potomac below the village, and encamped near the old Antietam battlefield. The next morning we crossed the noted Antie­ tam bridge and joined the brigade at Harper’s Ferry.1 When Custer heard the firing, he said to his staff: “The Dragoons must be in trouble over at the town. They did me a good turn at Trevilian, and I am going to return the compliment.”It was a timely and daring rescue, worthy of the gallant Custer.

TWO DAYS OF FIGHT AT SMITHFIELD, VA

After a breathing spell of two days, following the battle of Shepherdstown, we were again in the saddle and moving out to scenes of other severe conflicts. Under date of Aug. 31, 1864, Sergt. Chester B. Bowen, in a home letter, gives the following account of the two en­gagements at Smithfield: –

“This is my first opportunity to write since our bloody battles at Smithfield last Sunday and Monday, in which our regiment suffered severely. We left camp near Harper’s Ferry Sunday morning, the 28th, and moving out toward Leetown, the advance, when near that place, met the rebel cavalry, which the First Regulars promptly charged in a bloody hand-to-band saber fight. These regulars are drilled swordsmen, and quickly pot the Johnnies to rout, with many a bruised bead. We quickly swung into line and moved with a brigade front sending them flying toward Smithfield. Occasionally they tried to make a stand, but we would charge them, keeping them on the run through the place and across the Ope­quon Creek.

(Footnote from Bowen need punctuation) 1 Harry Green, who was captured, thus gives his experience: “Our regi­ment was rearguard and Co. H, the rear guard of the regiment. I with three others were in the rear of the company. My horse was shot In the bowels, and becoming unmanageable, ran into Shepherdstown, and dropped dead. I was badly hurt, but ran down the street, expecting every minute to receive a bullet. I kept up a run and turned to the right where I could see you, boys, on the hill. Thereby overhauled me, and though frustrated, I could but laugh at the interest they took in my personal effects. They went through my pockets, taking money, a watch, a knife, and my wife’s photograph. I was downed, and off came my cavalry boots and hat, and I was hurried back to the rear.”

“Eighteen Maryland prisoners were captured, belong­ ing to the command of the notorious cut-throat, Harry Gilmore, who burned Chambersburg. All of them had saber cuts on their heads. An officer of the regulars and a rebel officer had a clash of sabers, in which the regular officer ran his saber clear through the body of the reb. I saw one reb whose head was split down t his neck.

“That night we encamped on the east side of the creek, holding the bridge and fords, and the next day (the 29th) fought a most desperate battle, being the twentieth since the fourth of May. Custer’s brigade crossed by a covered bridge, but was soon hotly engaged, and driven back, having encountered the enemy’s cavalry and two divisions of infantry. Our brigade joining Custer’s, we tried to hold our ground; but with their infantry and two batteries pouring it into our front, and their cavalry on our flanks, we slowly fell back. Notwithstanding the destructive fire from our carbines, and the shells, grape, and canisters poured into their ranks by our artillery, they came yelling like demons. They were by all odds the bravest and most desperate rebs we had ever met in battle.

“At this time Rickett’s division of the old Sixth Corps came to our relief, and the tide was quickly tamed. With infantry against infantry and cavalry against cav­alry, we hustled them back through town double-quick. Advancing over the battlefield we were horrified to find all oar dead and wounded stripped of every particle of clothing. Can we call each an enemy civilized? Surely they are no better than savages?

“Our regiment was highly complimented by many officers of the division for the stubbornness with which we held our line. The right gave way,.and had we failed to hold the center, there would have been a panic, sure.

“Among the killed are Lieutenant Alfred, Emerson Parker, and Richard Southworth. Captain Hakes, Lieu­ tenants Bayer and Critendeo, and many others were wounded. I also got a clip and had some close calls. A ball struck close to my face, filling my eyes with dirt, and bounding up, bruised my shoulder and arm. A ball also struck the heel of my boot. Captain Britton ordered me to the rear, but though suffering pain I soon returned to the line.”

RUNNING THB GAUNTLET BETSEY AS A SPRINTER

The following incident is by Comrade Marion: –

“In Co. F was a tall and very slim young man, in height about six feet two, ‘ all long and no wide,’ weight about a hundred and twenty pounds. After becoming inured to military life, there were few better soldiers than Alf. Waters. In the company, he was dubbed Bet­sey,’ and generally known by that cognomen.

“At one time during the second day’s unpleasantness at Smithfield, Captain Thorp’s company held the extreme left of the line, and at their left was a knot of land, to which ten of the company, Betsey and myself included, were sent for observation. On the crest of a hill, a short distance in our front, was a fence, beyond which we dis­ covered a steady stream of rebs filing along a stretch of woods. We threw up a barricade of rails and awaited the pleasure of the graycoats, who in large numbers suddenly appeared behind the fence and let drive at us without delay. Oar barricade afforded us some protec­tion, and we rapidly returned their fire; but as there were not less than a thousand of the Johnnies, it became apparent we most be captured or break for the rear, tak­ ing ninety-nine chances of being shot to one of escaping, some of us decided to take that one chance, so I said: ‘ Boys, I ‘m going to get oat, and not be taken, prisoner.’

All right,’ replied Betsey, ‘then here’s who goes too,’ and away he went. ‘Halt! halt! halt ! ‘ yelled a hun­dred rebs, but Betsey halted not, and they all cut loose at him. Gee whiz! how the bullets flew! Bot Betsey was running for dear life, and the more they shot, the faster flew Betsey long legs. The time made by bicy­clist Morphy, when he chased a locomotive a mile in fifty-seven seconds, was nowhere compared to the speed generated by Betsey, and he was soon out of their reach. I covered his retreat under the -Same conditions, and we both got bullets through our clothing, though escaping unhurt. Of the ten, only four escaped, of whom Sergeant Woolsey was one; and he received a wound that retired him from the service.”

These battles, though fiercely fought, were indecisive. Sheridan had repeatedly fallen back, and apparently, nothing had been gained to compensate for the loss of life and time. A great wail of complaint was going on at the North. Political demagogues were besieging the president to remove him. Secretary Stanton, who never had any just conceptions of military movements, and whose miserable interference had contributed to the past defeats of our armies, was besetting Grant to replace Sheridan with an older and more competent man. General Grant, to satisfy himself as to the grounds for these com­ plaints, visited the field, and finding Sheridan’s plans satisfactory, left him, giving bot two words of instruction – “Go in!”