Gordonsville, Va., Dec. 28, 1864
The Battle of Gordonsville was a military conflict that took place on December 28, 1864, during the American Civil War. The First New York Dragoons played a crucial role in the battle, which was part of a larger operation that aimed to destroy everything of use to the enemy by striking the railroad at Charlottesville and following it up to Lynchburg. The expedition was led by General Torbert, who was later replaced by Merritt, and consisted of about eight thousand cavalry. The soldiers, including the Dragoons, suffered intense hardship and injury due to long marches and severe weather. The battle itself was marked by several striking incidents.
The Dragoons were commanded by Major Scott and began their expedition on December 19, 1864, moving out from Winchester and passing the first day through Front Royal and Chester Gap. The weather, at first pleasant, changed within thirty-six hours, first to drizzling rain, then to a wretchedly disagreeable sleet, making their second night’s camping out one of the most disagreeable of all their hard experiences, with the clothing of most of the men becoming thoroughly saturated. During the night, another change occurred, and the weather grew cold so rapidly that their wet clothing became frozen. They faced a bitterly piercing wind that was so penetrating it forced its way to their bodies through thick clothing.
The soldiers reached the summit just before dark and discovered a considerable force of the enemy occupying the plateau before them. A lively charge was made, led by one of the advance regiments, and the Dragoons captured two pieces of artillery. They took possession of the rebel camps, with fires burning and victuals cooking, feeling themselves quite fortunate. But their nice plans were upset as the enemy could approach along the mountainside within easy range, and make targets of the men about the fires. This made it necessary to extinguish all light, and the soldiers huddled together to get a little sleep. However, they soon froze out and were compelled to run, beat their arms about their 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. The soldiers drew the unsuspecting rebels into a trap, and among the prisoners was a rebel surgeon, to whom Dr. Rae paid special attention. Rae, who was left at Trevilian to care for their wounded, was badly treated and made a prisoner. He did not feel very amiable toward the secesh, and he 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.
Several minor engagements occurred the following day, 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, it 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 having 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.
As the boys started to enter the bedroom, the older girl begged them not to go in, saying that her younger sister was in there and that she was sick with a fever. Despite her pleas, the soldiers pushed past her and entered the room, only to find a young Confederate officer lying in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin. He looked up at them with a sheepish grin and said, “Well, boys, I reckon you’ve got me.” The soldiers were delighted with their find, and they quickly took the officer prisoner and rode off with him and the confiscated horses.
Although the raid on Gordonsville was ultimately a failure, it was not without its moments of triumph and adventure. The capture of two pieces of artillery by the First New York Dragoons was a significant achievement, and the shrewd capture of a rebel general’s pack train demonstrated the resourcefulness and quick thinking of the Union soldiers. The raid was also marked by a number of amusing and entertaining incidents, such as the search for the Confederate officer and the discovery of the well-stocked pantry.
Overall, however, the raid was a difficult and grueling experience for the soldiers involved. The long marches and severe weather took a toll on both men and horses, and many soldiers suffered frostbite and other injuries as a result. The incompetence of General Torbert and his tyrannical treatment of the soldiers further added to their misery, and it is clear that many of the soldiers harbored a deep dislike for their commanding officer.
Despite these difficulties, however, the soldiers of the First New York Dragoons demonstrated their courage and determination in the face of adversity. They faced bitter cold, freezing rain, and howling winds, but they continued to push forward in pursuit of their objective. They showed resourcefulness and quick thinking in capturing the rebel general’s pack train and the Confederate officer, and they were able to achieve some measure of success in capturing the two pieces of artillery.
In conclusion, the raid on Gordonsville was a difficult and challenging experience for the soldiers of the First New York Dragoons. Despite the severe weather and the incompetence of their commanding officer, however, the soldiers demonstrated their bravery and resourcefulness in the face of adversity. The raid may not have been a complete success, but it was not without its moments of triumph and adventure, and it is clear that the soldiers who participated in it would never forget their experiences.