THE GORDONSVILLE RAID
This affair, though scarcely mentioned in our general histories of the war, has nevertheless been remembered with great distinctness by all who participated in it, on account of the long marches and the severity of the weather, causing intense suffering and injury to both men and horses. Also, several striking incidents occurred during the expedition.
The objects of the movement are set forth in Sheri dan’s official reports. General Torbert, with about eight thousand Cavalry, was directed to strike the railroad at Charlottesville, and follow it up to Lynchburg, destroying everything of use to the enemy.
Dec. 19, 1864, these troops, consisting of the commands of Merritt and Powell, moved out from Winchester, passing the first day through Front Royal and Chester Gap. The Dragoons were commanded by Major Scott. The weather, at first pleasant, changed within thirty-six hours, first to drizzling rain, then to a wretchedly dis-_ agreeable sleet, making our second night’s camping out one of the most disagreeable of all our hard experiences, the clothing of most of the men becoming thoroughly saturated. During the night, another change occurred, the weather growing cold so rapidly that our wet clothing became frozen, the overcoats and pants becoming almost as rigid as sheet iron. Who of us will ever forget that intensely cold day when, in climbing a spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we faced that bitterly piercing wind, so penetrating that it forced its way to our bodies through thick clothing as though we were dressed in gauze. We could only keep from freezing by frequently dismounting and leading our horses in the quick walk of the marching column.
Reaching the summit just before dark we discovered a considerable force of the enemy occupying the plateau before us. A lively charge was at once made, led by one of the advance regiments, hustling the Johnnies out of their comfortable camps at a rapid gait. In this engagement, known as Liberty Mills, our regiment captured two pieces of artillery. Taking possession of the rebel camps, with fires burning and victuals cooking, we felt ourselves quite fortunate. But our nice plans were upset, as in the darkness the enemy could approach along the mountainside within easy range, and make targets of the men about the fires, thus making it necessary to extinguish all light.
We tried huddling together to get a little sleep, but soon froze out, and were compelled to run, beat our arms about our bodies, and resort to all manner of devices to keep from freezing. Many of the men on picket that night were frost-bitten and permanently injured.
An interesting episode of that night was the shrewd capture of a rebel general’s pack train, consisting of several men, horses, mules, and camp equipment. Not suspecting the presence of Yankees, they came to our lines and informed the challenging picket who they were. Passing through, they were astonished when informed of the trap they had been drawn into. Among the prisoners was a rebel surgeon, to whom Dr. Rae paid special attention. Rae, who was left at Trevilian to care for our wounded, was badly treated and made a prisoner. Having but recently returned, he did not feel very amiable toward the secesh, and expressed his opinion of them in such a vigorous manner that the grayback disciple of Esculapius trembled like an aspen leaf. The doctor, however, informed him that he had fallen into civilized hands, and would be accorded far better treatment than the barbarous rebs had shown in his case.
During the following day, several minor engagements occurred, but nothing of special importance was accomplished except the capture of a few prisoners near Gordonsville. The expedition, under a competent leader, might have been a success; but under Torbert proved a failure. Aside from his incompetency, his tyrannical treatment of the soldiers made him an object of detestation. Sheridan, in his personal memoirs, states that have lost confidence in Torbert, he appointed Merritt as his chief of cavalry when starting on his last raid. In his official report, the principal thing Sheridan gives Torbert credit for on this occasion is the capture of two pieces of artillery by the Dragoons.
An amusing incident of the raid occurred on our return trip, amusing at least to some of the actors, but quite the reverse to the parties most concerned. Noticing smoke rising above the trees, some of us galloped up a narrow road to investigate. In front of a house in a clearing were hitched four horses, equipped with Confederate saddles, one of which evidently belonged to an officer. Three privates were seen running for the woods, but we knew the officer must be in the house, and a search was commenced.
The family consisted of the mother and two good-looking daughters. When questioned as to the whereabouts of the officer who rode that horse, the old lady replied, ” He’s stuck to the bush, suh.” ” No,” replied our spokesman, ”he’s in the house, and we want him, quick.” “He’s shooly not in here,” persisted the older girl. A search commenced, and in the kitchen were found preparations for a sumptuous repast, while the pantry shelves fairly groaned with their weight of cakes-mince pies, tarts, cold ham, etc. Every nook and corner was searched except the bedroom. As the boys started to enter it the older girl placed herself squarely in front of the door, exclaim ing in Southern dialect, “Shooly you-ns won’t be so vulgah as to enter. a lady’s bah-doo-ah [boudoir] I” Nothing wa11 found but a well-spread bed, but suspiciously high. The first move to touch the bed brought on the climax. All three women uttered a jargon of protestation, and the older girl, fairly frantic, pushed the men away. Jerking off the clothing, and then a feather bed, we found tucked in among pillows, a handsome young rebel major, dressed in a new Confederate uniform. He informed us he had intended to be married on New Year’s Day.
As the expectant bridegroom was ordered to mount his horse and ‘.’ come along,” the scene was truly pathetic, his sweetheart clinging to him, and weeping as though her heart would break. In the meantime, all the dainties of the pantry had gone into the haversacks of the unfeeling Dragoons, under the plea that “all is fair in war.” The whole affair did not occupy over fifteen minutes, but what a change was wrought in the plans of the young couple.
One evening the men “made their beds in an open fire!d without tents or shelter. First, they spread down a rubber blanket, and upon that one of the wool. . These were to lie on, while over them was another blanket of wool, with a rubber on top of all. Two usually slept together. That night the snow fell to a depth of eight inches or more. The first risers in the morning witnessed a novel scene, the rows of men having the appearance of snow covered graves. Most of them slept so soundly that the snow was undisturbed, and the only evidence of life within the mounds were the breathing holes. As the bugler sounded revealed, and the men sprang out, we could not but think of that scene when Gabriel’s trump shall awaken the dead. Were the men cold 1 -on the contrary, they steamed with perspiration?
On this raid, the entire force seemed to find an abundance to eat and drink; too much of the latter. Apple jack, apple brandy, and blackberry wine flowed like water to abundance. Comparatively few of the Dragoons were intoxicated, though in some regiments scores of men had to be strapped to their horses, all the while howling like maniacs. It was indeed a sorry scene. We returned via Culpepper, Warrenton, and Ashby’s Gap. At times the .guerrillas were bold and troublesome. At one time they dashed out and ran off the packhorses of the regiment ahead of us, and the darkey cooks had to foot it into camp. Near Ashby’s Gap several of them, on fleet horses, came down to within six rods of our marching column, halted, fired upon us, and were off like a flash. The strange part was that they did not hit a man or a horse.
In E. D. Humphrey’s record of this raid, he says: “We are living off the country, and living high; but it makes a soldier’s heartache to hear the ladies begging to have a few of the necessaries of life left them.”
December 28, with horses and men jaded, we reached our home camp near Winchester. It was a ten-days’ raid of hard tramping and suffering, in which we lost men and horses, with many men injured for life; and no one has ever been able to point to even one compensating result.
The following tribute came too late for insertion elsewhere: –
Thorp and Scott participated in every battle of the Army of the Potomac, including the Peninsular campaign. Their prior service was with the Eighty-fifth New York Infantry, Thol’p leaving the senior class in Union College, and Scott his law studies with Judge Grover to enter this service. Thorp was made captain of Co. E. At Fair Oaks both were wounded but continued with their commands during the memorable seven-days’ fight, Thorp being again wounded at Malvern Hill.
At the close of this campaign, Thorp and Scott were appointed by Governor Morgan lieutenant-colonel and major, respectively, of the One Hundred and Thirtieth New York, and both returned to the field with their new command.
These officers came to the new regiment with much valuable experience. Their services and peculiar make-up soon fashioned the fighting style of their commands as second to none in the army. They were always at their posts and fearless in the discharge of every duty. Both were made brigadier-generals for brave and meritorious service in the field. Thorp was always addressed as “Colonel Tom.”
The One Hundred and Thirtieth Regiment would doubtless have made a good record under any leadership, but it entered the field with a splendid corps of officers, as one of the fortunate conditions which led to its glorious achievements.