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The ride around General McClellan. [from the Richmond, Va., times, May 22, 1898.] Colonel John S. Mosby tells about General Stuart's brilliant feat of war. The Colonel on scout duty.

He brought information about McClellan's movements, which induced the General to move on the enemy.


In June, 1862, the battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, had been fought, almost in sight of Richmond; the Army of the Potomac was lying on the peninsula between the James and Pamunkey, and astraddle the Chickahominy, a narrow, deep and sluggish stream that meanders between them and empties into the James. Its base of supply was at the White house, on the Pamunkey—once the property of Martha Washington—which was connected with the army by railroad and telegraph. The left wing extended to within three or four miles of the James; its front and flanks were supposed to be protected by the swamps and the river. The infantry pickets were in sight of each other; cavalry videttes were not needed to give notice of the approach of an enemy. For the first time since the war began, Stuart's cavalry corps was idle and behind the infantry; his headquarters were on the Charles City road, about two miles east of Richmond. Men who had been educated in war by service on the outposts soon grew restless and weary of inaction in the rear.

During the greater portion of the first years of the war I had been a private in Stuart's Regiment—the 1st Virginia Cavalry—and had [247] been made Adjutant when Stuart was promoted to be a Brigadier-General, and my Captain (William E. Jones) became the Colonel; but lost my position on the reorganization of the army in the spring of 1862.

The Confederate government ordered elections for officers in all the regiments, and thus attempted to mix democracy with military discipline. Jones, who was one of the ablest officers in the Southern army and a stern soldier, was rotated out; Fitz Lee was elected, and wanted another adjutant. So I gave him my resignation. A smile of fortune was really masked under a frown.

When our army retired from Centreville, two months before, my regiment had been the rear-guard, and I had conducted several scouting expeditions for the purpose of discovering McClellan's movements, which had elicited Stuart's commendation in his report to General Johnston. So Stuart asked me to come to his headquarters and continue to do that kind of work for him. This was the origin of my partisan life, that was far more congenial to me than the dull, routine work of an adjutant. According to my estimate, the loss of my commission did not weigh a feather against the pleasure of being directly under the orders of a man of original genius.

An opportunity.

One morning he invited me to breakfast with him—none of the staff were at the table. Stuart asked me to take a small party and find out whether McClellan was fortifying on the Totopotomoy. This was a creek on McClellan's extreme right that emptied into the Pamunkey. That was the very thing I wanted; an opportunity for which I had pined. In a few minutes my horse was saddled. I rode over to the camp of the 1st Virginia and got three men from my old company, who had marched with me from Abingdon the year before—Pendleton, Crockett and Williams. We started off as joyful a party as if we were going to a wedding. When we reached the road leading to the Totopotomoy I learned that there was a flag of truce on that road that day. Not wishing to disturb a peaceful meeting, but not willing to lose a chance for adventure, we determined to move on farther north toward Hanover Courthouse, and explore the region along the Pamunkey. So, making a wide detour to the north the next day, we got down among McClellan's outposts that had never been disturbed since his advance on Richmond. His headquarters were a few miles off at Cold Harbor; the White House on the Pamunkey was the depot where military stores were landed [248] and forwarded to the army by railroad. The line of supply was therefore parallel, and not perpendicular to his front. This formation is called in technical language forming front to a flank.

The infantry outposts did not extend to within several miles of the river. For a considerable distance on his right, therefore, McClellan's communications were not covered by his infantry. I learned from citizens that the only protection to the railroad was a thin veil of cavalry. Of course, if there were no infantry there would be no fortifications about there.

I saw now that I had discovered McClellan's vulnerable point—the heel of Achilles, and hastened to give Stuart the information. It was a hot day in June; I found him sitting out in the front yard in the shade. All were in high glee; news had just come that Jackson had defeated Fremont and Shields at Cross Keys and Port Republic. Being worn out by a long ride, I laid down on the grass and related to Stuart what I had learned, and told him he could strike a heavy blow at McClellan's communications. After I had finished, he said, ‘Write down what you have said,’ and called to a courier to get his horse ready. I went to the adjutant's office and wrote down what I had told him, but thinking he only wanted it as a memorandum, did not sign it. It was addressed to no one. When I returned, an orderly with two horses was standing ready for them to mount. Stuart read the paper, and told me I had not signed it. So I went back to the office and put my signature to it. He went off at a gallop, followed by the courier. They rode to General Lee's headquarters, a few miles off, and returned in the afternoon. General Lee's orders authorizing the Pamunkey expedition is dated June 11th, the day after my return. Stuart's quick penetration saw the opportunity and instantly seized it. Orders were immediately issued to get ready to march. Activity now succeeded inaction in the cavalry camps. On the 12th we started with about 1,200 cavalry and two pieces of artillery, and, marching through Richmond, moved in a northerly direction on the Brooke road. I rode that day with the old company to which I had belonged when I left Abingdon in the beginning of the war. I knew where we were going, but said nothing. The cavalry headquarters were left in charge of the adjutant. I was present when Stuart told him goodby. The adjutant asked him how long he would be gone. There was a poetic vein in Stuart, as there is in most men of heroic temperament. His answer was ‘It may be for years and it may be forever,’ which suggested the parting from Erin and Kathleen Mavourneen.

[249]

A Sharp Collison.

From the direction we took the impression prevailed that we were going to reinforce Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. The command bivouacked that night about twenty miles front Richmond, and a few miles from Hanover Courthouse.

Early the next morning Stuart asked me to go in advance with a few men to the court-house. This settled any doubt I may have had about the expedition. I had not asked him a question and he had not spoken to me on the subject of my recent scout since our interview on my return. I started off and soon struck the same road over which I had ridden four days before. Just as we got in sight of the village, a squadron of the enemy came, reconnoitered us, and as we simply halted and did not run away, rightly concluded that a support was behind us and left in a hurry. One of the men was sent to inform Stuart of their presence, but they had gone when his column came up. The column pushed on and in two or three miles came upon the enemy's pickets, and now began a running fight, or rather a fox chase for a mile or two. The 9th Virginia Cavalry, commanded by W. H. F. Lee (a son of General Robert E. Lee), was in advance, and as we were ascending a hill, one of the men came dashing back and said the enemy's cavalry was coming down upon us. We could hear but could not see them. I was sitting on my horse by Stuart, who had halted to close up the column. Latane's squadron was in front. There was an order to draw sabres; Lee said ‘charge men.’ The squadron dashed forward with that wild demoniac yell which the enemy often afterward heard and can never forget.

There was a sharp collision in the road. Latane was killed; Captain Royall, commanding on the other side, was wounded, and his squadron routed. It was a detachment of the 2d U. S. Cavalry we had met; Fitz Lee had been a Lieutenant in the regiment. He came on the ground in a few minutes, and several of his old company, who had been captured, recognized him. We could not stay to perform for Latane the last duty we owe to the dead—

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where the hero was buried.

From prisoners, it was learned that their camp was about a mile away. The column moved on. When we got there we found the tents, camp utensils and commissary stores, but Royall and all his [250] men were gone. McClellan's headquarters, surrounded by camps of cavalry, infantry and artillery, were only a few miles away. We were on their flank and had simply broken through the shroud of cavalry that covered his depot and line of communication. To have done this and no more with all the preparations that had been made would have been a good deal like the labor of a mountain and the birth of a mouse. It would have been easy for Stuart to have retraced his steps; the way was open and could not be occupied by the enemy's cavalry, even if there were no resistance for several hours. The Southern cavalry was in its prime; the Northern cavalry was just going to school.

It would have been impossible to place any obstacle in the way to prevent our return. The danger was all in front; not behind us. A mile or so on one side was the Pamunkey, an impassible river; within six miles on the other were the camps of Fitz John Porter and a division of cavalry. A man of mediocrity would have been satisfied with what he had done; to have gone back would have been a grand anti-climax to such a beginning. But if he had had no choice between going back or going on there would have been little merit in what he did. While the men were plundering the camp, Stuart had a few minutes conference with the two Lees. I was sitting on my horse within a few feet of them, buckling on a pistol I had just got, and heard all that passed. Stuart was urgent for pressing on to Tunstall's station, on the railroad, nine miles ahead, in McClellan's rear; Lee of the 9th agreed with Stuart.

A Big Bluff.

Stuart decided to go on. Here was not only the turning point in the expedition, but in Stuart's life. If he had failed to grasp the opportunity then he would never have reached that height on which his fame now rests. He took counsel of courage and read his fate in the stars. Just before he gave the command to move forward he turned to me and said: ‘I want you to ride on some distance ahead.’ I answered: ‘All right, but I must have a guide; I don't know the road.’ So two cavalrymen who were familiar with the country were sent with me. That day I was riding a slow horse I had borrowed—mine had been broken down in the scout a few days before. We had not gone far before a staff officer overtook us and said the General wanted us to go faster and increase the distance between us. The reason was he did not want to run into an ambuscade. So we went on at a trot. It was important to reach the railroad [251] before dark, and before troops could be sent there to stop us. Infantry did come on the cars that night; but we had gone. All they saw by the moonlight were our tracks in the sand. As we were jogging along a mile or so ahead of the column we came upon a sutler's wagon. About a mile to the left could be seen the masts of some schooners at anchor in the river. A wagon train was loading at the wharf with supplies for the army. I sent one of the men back to tell Stuart that the woods were full of game; to hurry on. The sutler's wagon was condemned as prize of war and left in charge of my other companion. Tunstall's was still two or three miles off. I had never been there, but the road was plain and I jogged on alone. When Stuart got up to the sutler in the road he sent a squadron to burn the schooners and wagon trains. I believe this is the only instance in the war where cavalry operated on water. As I turned a bend in the road I came suddenly in sight of Tunstall's, half a mile off, and a few yards from me was another sutler's wagon, and a cavalry vedette, who had dismounted. Just then a bugle sounded, and I saw a company of cavalry, to which the vedette belonged, only a few hundred yards off. My horse was pretty well fagged out. The vedette and sutler surrendered, but I was in a quandary what to do. I thought there would be more danger in trying to run away on a slow horse than to stand still. So I concluded to play a game of bluff — I drew my sabre, turned around, and beckoned with it to imaginary followers. Fortunately, just then Lieutenant Robins, commanding the advanced guard, came in sight at a fast trot. The company of Pennsylvania (Eleventh) cavalry left in a hurry. Robins captured the depot and guard without firing a shot. Stuart soon rode up at the head of the column just as a train of cars came in sight. There was no time to pull up a rail; logs were placed on the track. The engineer discovered the danger too late to reverse his engine, so crowding on a full head of steam he dashed by, receiving a salute as he passed. He carried the news to the White House, four miles off. The critical condition we were in would not allow us the time to go there and destroy the stores. They were under guard of gunboats. If we had had a pontoon train on which to cross the river this could have been done. We were now on McClellan's line of communication. News of the affair with Royall had by this time spread through the camps. As soon as the telegraph lines were cut it was noticed to McClellan that Stuart was in his rear. General Ingalls, who was in command at the White House, says that he received a telegram from McClellan warning him of danger. It is a [252] mystery that McClellan, knowing that it must be impossible for Stuart to retreat up the Pamunkey, should have made no attempt to capture him when returning up the James. To have done so he would only have had to spread a wing. Hooker's division was camped in three or four miles of the only road on which he could escape. The guard at Tunstall's didn't even have their guns loaded. In order to return to Richmond it was necessary to make a complete circle of McClellan's army and go up the left bank of the James. Of course, it was taken for granted that a large force would be sent in pursuit.

Panic reigned.

As some evidence of the panic that reigned, I will mention the fact that after we had passed Royall's camp a body of twenty U. S. regulars followed under a flag of truce, and surrendered. They were dumbfounded. Stuart had done something without precedent in war, which was not provided for by the cavalry tactics they had been taught. Before McClellan recovered from his shock, the raiders were back in their camps. Their escape was due to the novelty of the enterprise, and the courage and skill with which it was conducted. The column halted at Tunstall's long enough to close up; there were a good many prisoners and the cavalry only marched as fast as they could walk. About dusk it moved on through New Kent towards the Chickahominy; we had crossed it once, but would have to cross it again. It was a glorious moonlight night; there were sounds of revelry all along the line of march. The way was strewn with the wrecks of burning wagons; the forests were ablaze, and the skies red with light reflected from them. We only lost one man: a Dutchman drank too much of a sutler's Rhine wine and had to be left behind. It made us sad to see the flames destroying the plunder we could not carry off. Two brigades of cavalry, one of infantry, and a battery of artillery were in pursuit. They got to the railroad several hours after the Confederates left. The only ones who overtook us were those under a flag of truce. General Emory, who commanded their advance, says that he got to Tunstall's about 2 o'clock that night. Here, he says, he lost Stuart's trail, and could not find it until 8 o'clock next morning. It is a miracle that 1,200 cavalry and two pieces of artillery should have passed over a dirt road without making a track. It is more wonderful than Mahomet's escape from Mecca. It is clear that Providence was on the side of the Confederates. General Warren says: ‘It was impossible for the infantry [253] to overtake him, and as the cavalry did not move without us, it was impossible for them to overtake him. The moon was shining brightly, making any kind of movement for ourselves or the enemy as easy as in the day light.’ Fitz John Porter regrets, ‘That when General Cook did pursue he should have tied his legs with the infantry command.’ About day light we reached the Chickahominy. Stuart had expected to ford it, but is was overflowing. He did not appear in the slightest degree disappointed or discouraged. He was just as bouyant with hope and joy as when he left Royall's camp. Fortunately he had two guides—Christian and Frayser—who knew all the roads and crossings on the river. Christian knew of a bridge, or where there had been a bridge, a mile lower down, and the column was headed for it. But the bridge was gone and nothing left but the piles in the water. He was again lucky in having two men—Burke and Hagan—who knew something about bridge-building. Near bye were the relics of an old warehouse, out of which they immediately began to build a bridge. It seemed to spring up by magic like the enchanted palace in the Arabian Nights. It was not such a bridge as Ceasar threw over the Rhine, whose strength increased with pressure upon it, but it was good enough for our purpose. While the work was going on Stuart was lying down on the bank of the river in the gayest humor I ever saw. He did not seemed oppressed with any care. During the night I had foraged among the sutlers and brought off a lot of their stores. Out of these I spread a feast. While we were waiting for the bridge no enemy appeared. At last, about 2 o'clock, when all had passed over, and the bridge fired, Rush's lancers came up on a hill and took a look at us as we disappeared from view. General Emory received news of the crossing eight miles off, at Baltimore Store.

The feat has no parallel.

In his report of what he did not do, he says the Confederates crossed at daylight, and left faster than they came. There is no evidence either of haste in Stuart's march or in Emory's pursuit of him. About 1 P. M. on the 13th, Royall's camp at Old Church was captured; about sunset we reached Tunstall's, nine miles distant, and at daylight on the 14th got to the Chickahominy, after a night march of twelve miles, where we stayed until noon. If, therefore, we had been pursued at the rate of a mile an hour, General Emory would have overtaken us. As no enemy molested our rear, there was some [254] apprehension that McClellan was allowing us to cross in order to entrap us in the fork of the Chickahominy and James. We got in and got out of the fork. No enemy was there. As we passed up James river that night we could see the gunboats on one side of us; McClellan's camps were a few miles off on the other. The great result of the raid was not in prisoners and property captured and destroyed, or in the information obtained, but in the electric effect it produced on the morale of the army. It raised Stuart to an eminence as a cavalry leader, where he stands, like a glacier on the summit of Mount Blanc, solitary and alone—without a rival, ancient or modern. The feat has no parallel in the annals of war. He had ridden continuously around McClellan two days and nights, in a circle of a radius of not more than six miles. This raid is unique, and distinguished from all others on either side on account of the narrow limits in which it was performed. From the time when he broke through McClellan's lines until he had passed entirely around him, he was enclosed by three unfordable rivers, without bridges, one of which it was necessary for him to cross. There is as vast a difference between the difficulties and dangers of Stuart's ride around McClellan and Sheridan's towards Richmond in 1864, as between the voyage of the great Genoese over an unknown sea and the passage of an Atlantic liner from New York to Liverpool. It was the first and greatest cavalry raid of the war. The Count of Paris, who was on McClellan's staff, speaking of it, says: ‘They had, in point of fact, committed but few depredations, but had caused a great commotion shaken the confidence of the North in McClellan, and made the first experiment in those great cavalry expeditions which subsequently played so novel and so important a part during the war.’


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