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With the cavalry on the Peninsula.

by William W. Averell, Brevet Major-General, U. S. A.

A part of the fortified camp at Harrison's Landing. After a sketch made at the time.

In the Peninsular campaign of 1862 there were employed fourteen regiments of cavalry, entire or in parts, and two independent squadrons [see p. 314]. Considerably over half this force was composed of volunteers, and had been in existence about six months. In the regular cavalry three years had been regarded as necessary to transform a recruit into a good cavalryman. The amount of patient and persistent hard work required to convert 1200 untrained citizens, unaccustomed to the care of a horse or to his use under the saddle, and wholly inexperienced in the use of arms, into the semblance of a cavalry regiment in six months is known only to those who have done it.

The topography and soil of the peninsula presented a most difficult field for cavalry operations. From Fort Monroe to Hanover Court House there was hardly a field with sufficient scope for the manoeuvres of a single regiment of cavalry. After a rain the deep alluvium became, under the tread of horses, a bed of mortar knee-deep. The forests between the York and the James rivers were filled with tangled thickets and unapproachable morasses. The tributaries of the rivers, mostly deep, crooked, and sluggish, became more tortuous as they approach their confluence, and the expanse of floods is converted by evaporation into stagnant swamps. A heavy rain in a few hours rendered these streams formidable obstacles. Above this dismal landscape the fierce rays of the sun were interrupted only at night, or by deluges of rains, so that men and animals were alternately scorched and drenched. These conditions made cavalry operations in this region affairs of squadrons.

The cavalry had been organized into a division under General George Stoneman, chief of cavalry, and distributed by assignment to the corps of the army, excepting the cavalry reserve under General P. St. George Cooke and that portion which was attached to general headquarters. During the month of the siege of Yorktown not an hour was lost which could be applied to cavalry instruction. Alertness and steadiness soon characterized our cavalrymen. No incident was fruitless. When grindstones were procured and the sabers of my regiment were sharpened at Hampton, it produced a similar effect upon the men.

Few but cavalry names reached the ears of the army on the day of the evacuation and pursuit. Stoneman and Cooke, on the right, with the 1st and 6th Regulars, struck cavalry, infantry, batteries, redoubts, and ravines, and pushed their attack with audacity. Cavalrymen galloped around field-works. We soon heard of the gallantry of Colonel Grier, Major Lawrence Williams, Captains Sanders, Davis, Baker, and others in cavalry charges, and that the French Princes were among the first in the advance. Lieutenant-Colonel Grier, commanding the 1st ( “Old Billy Grier, the bucno commandante” ), had led a charge and engaged two of the enemy in personal combat, wounding one and himself receiving a wound. Then came tidings of the dash of Chambliss and McLean leading Hancock's column and crowding the left-center of the enemy's line, and soon the 3d Pennsylvania cavalry met the enemy in the woods and drove him out with skirmishers and canister, and cleared our left toward the James of the enemy's cavalry under Stuart. During the following day, the cavalry were spectators of the battle at Williamsburg (except the 3d Pennsylvania actively engaged on our left) and were only occupied with the rather serious business of procuring food for the horses.

Although pursuit was again undertaken on the morning of the 6th by squadrons of the 3d Pennsylvania and 8th Illinois Cavalry and was continued for four miles, and five pieces of artillery were recovered and some prisoners were captured, it came to a dead halt from necessity. During the succeeding twenty days the cavalry swept the country in advance of our marching army by day and hovered around its bivouacs by night.

When the army was in line about seven miles from Richmond, on the 25th of May, I was directed to communicate with the gun-boats on the James River at City Point. Lieutenant Davis, of the 3d Pennsylvania, with ten men, was selected for the duty, and he made his way along various roads infested with the pickets and patrols of the enemy to the bank of the James, where, taking a skiff, with two negroes, he went on board the Galena and communicated to Captain Rodgers the position of the army, and received from the captain a statement of the position of the gun-boats.

On the 27th, not satisfied with the picnic appearance [430] of our front on our left, south of the Chickahominy, I reported its perilous condition to McClellan, who at once sent Colonel N. B. Sweitzer, of his staff, to me, and together we rode to the front. As a result, orders were given at once for slashing the forest, and positions for batteries and outposts were determined,--precautions which, three days later, disclosed their value in the battle of Fair Oaks.

On the same day (27th) we were scratching the ground away up to our right at Hanover Court House, in invitation to McDowell to come down from Fredericksburg. Almost within his sight, and quite within his hearing, the principal northern gate to Richmond was set ajar, the Virginia Central and the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroads were destroyed. In the resultant melee about Hanover Court House, the cavalry, under Emory, Royall, Lawrence Williams, Chambliss, Whiting, Harrison, and Arnold, and Rush's 6th Pennsylvania, aggressively attacked infantry, captured whole companies with arms, swept right, left, and rear, and generally filled the ideal of cavalry activities in such a battle.

General Lee assumed command June 1st. On the 13th he announced himself, through his cavalry, in Stuart's raid around our army. This expedition was appointed with excellent judgment, and was conducted with superb address. Stuart pursued the line of least resistance, which was the unexpected. His subordinate commanders were Colonels Fitz Lee, W. H. F. Lee, and W. T. Martin, all intrepid cavalrymen. It was an easy thing to do, but being his first raid, Stuart was nervous, and, imagining perils which did not exist, neglected one great opportunity — the destruction of our base of supplies at the White House. Had he, at Garlick's, exchanged purposes with his detachment, sending it on the road home while he with the main body bent all his energies to the destruction of our base of supplies, we might have had something to lament even had we captured his command. On our side were developed many things to remember with pride, and one thing to regret with mortification. The memories are glorious that not a single vedette or picket was surprised, and that never was outpost duty more honorably and correctly performed than by Captain W. B. Royall and Lieutenant McLean of the 5th United States Cavalry. They met the enemy repeatedly, and the lieutenant gave his life and the captain was prostrated with saber wounds in resisting Stuart's column. The killing of the dashing Confederate Captain Latane and several men with the saber, and the checking of the invading forces for an hour attest the courage and devotion of Royall and his picket. We had to regret that there was no reserve to the outpost within supporting distance, and that when the reserve was alarmed in its camp precious time was lost by indirections. This raid of Stuart's added a new feature to cavalry history. A similar expedition, however, had been projected previously. Just before the Army of the Potomac advanced on Manassas, in March, ‘62, in a conference with General McClellan, it was suggested that I should t ake my brigade, consisting of the 3d and 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the first brigade of cavalry formed in the war, and go around the enemy, then at Manassas, destroying the bridge at Rappahannock Station, and that at Fredericksburg;, but the immediate movement of the enemy from Manassas prevented its being carried out.

Our general's plans were not disturbed by Stuart's raid, and two days after it was over the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry crossed the Pamunkey River on our right and rear, ascended to King William Court House and Ellett's Mills, burned the bridge and ferry-boat, and a schooner and other boats, and a storehouse containing 30,000 bushels of grain. Scouts were pushed out many miles in quest of news of Jackson's coming. This was the last extension of our hands toward McDowell, for Jackson came sooner than he was expected, on the 26th, the day upon which a general advance had been determined and the battle of Gaines's Mill was opened.

McClellan met and mastered the occasion. Alert, radiant, and cheerful, he stood out in front of his tent in his shirt-sleeves nearly all day of the 2 6th listening to his army. To the north, across the Chickahominy, his clipped right wing, environed with our cavalry, was sullenly retracting its lines to the position at Gaines's Mill. Stoneman, with infirmities that would have kept a man of less fortitude in hospital, was in the saddle confronting Stuart's cavalry and covering the White House Landing.

The ensuing night was without rest for the cavalry. The strain of the following day to help the Fifth Corps to hold its ground until dark will never be forgotten, and it was not devoid of heroic cavalry effort. Fragments of the reserve under General Cooke stood massed in the valley of the Chickahominy, on its left bank. About 5 P. M., when it was evident that we were being pressed on the right and left of our line by all the force the enemy could bring into action against Porter, and that we were not likely to be able to resist his attack, the cavalry was moved from its masked position to the edge of the hill and placed in a formation to charge, should a charge seem likely to do good. It was there exposed to the enemy's fire, and must either retire, advance, or be destroyed. In a few minutes the order to charge was given to the 5th Regulars, not 300 strong. Chambliss, leading, rode as straight as man ever rode, into the face of Longstreet's corps, and the 5th Cavalry was destroyed and dispersed. Six out of the seven officers present and fifty men were struck down. Chambliss, hit by seven balls, lost consciousness, and when he recovered found himself in the midst of the enemy. The charge at Balaklava had not this desperation and was not better ridden. Chambliss lay on the field ten days, and was finally taken to Richmond, where he was rescued from death by the kind care of Generals Hood and Field. In this battle there were two and a half squadrons of the 5th and two squadrons of the 1st U. S. Cavalry, three squadrons Rush's Lancers (6th Pennsylvania Cavalry), and-one squadron 4th Pennsylvania (Col. Childs). [431]

Two or three weeks before this several officers of the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry, Newhall, Treichel, W. E. Miller, and others, penetrated the region between the Chickahominy and the James, taking bearings and making notes. Their fragmentary sketches, when put together, made a map which exhibited all the roadways, fields, forests, bridges, the streams, and houses, so that our commander knew the country to be traversed through the seven days far better than any Confederate commander.

On the evening of June 27th, my pickets from Tunstall's Station and other points were called in, and at 6:30 A. M., on the 28th, the regiment crossed White Oak Swamp, leading Keyes's corps, and advanced to the Charles City road. Lieutenant Davis was again sent to communicate with the gun-boats on the James.

At daylight, on the 29th, Captain White's squadron, with 200 infantry and 2 guns, was sent to picket and hold Jones's Bridge on the Chickahominy. About 9 A. M. my scouts reported a regiment of the enemy's cavalry advancing in column about a mile away. Some woodland intervened. Between this and my position was an open field a quarter of a mile across. A picket was quickly posted at the hither edge of the wood, with orders to fire upon the enemy when he should come within range and then turn and run away, thus inviting pursuit. On my position two guns were already placed to enfilade the road, and a few squadrons held in readiness to charge. The enemy came, was fired upon, and the picket fled, followed by the enemy in hot pursuit. Upon arriving within two hundred yards of our position, the picket quitted the road through the gaps in the fences made for that purpose, thus unmasking the enemy's column; the two guns of Major West fired two rounds, and two squadrons, led by Captains Walsh and Russell, of the 3d Pennsylvania, were let loose upon the enemy, and over 60 of his officers and men were left on the ground, whilst the survivors fled in great disorder toward Richmond. The command was the 1st North Carolina and 3d Virginia Cavalry, led by Colonel Lawrence Baker, a comrade of mine in the old army. The 3d Pennsylvania lost 1 man killed and 5 wounded.

After this affair I galloped back to see General McClellan, and found him near a house south of White Oak Swamp Bridge. Near him were groups of a hundred officers eagerly but quietly discussing our progress and situation. So soon as McClellan descried me, he came with the Prince de Joinville to the fence, where I dismounted. After telling him all I knew and had learned from prisoners and scouts, I ventured to suggest that the roads were tolerably clear toward Richmond, and that we might go there. The Prince seemed to exhibit a favorable interest in my suggestion, but the general, recognizing its weakness, said promptly: “The roads will be full enough to-morrow” ; and then earnestly, “Averell, if any army can save this country, it will be the Army of the Potomac, and it must be saved for that purpose.” The general rode to the front with me, and reconnoitered the ground in all directions. In the afternoon, with Hays's regiment of infantry and Benson's battery, I established our outposts and pickets within one mile of New Market, where we were first touched with some of the enemy's infantry during the night. On the 30th, there were battles on our center and right, and having joined the Fifth Corps, I proceeded to Malvern Hill in the evening and rode over the field with Captain Colburn, my classmate and the favorite aide of McClellan, and made a topographical sketch of the position, which was of some use afterward in posting the infantry and artillery as they arrived.

During the night of the 30th, the general commanding asked me for two officers for hazardous service. Lieutenants Newhall and Treichel, because of their intimate knowledge of the country, were sent to communicate with our right and center, and a second time that night made their way for a mile and a half through the enemy's camps.

During the battle of July 1st (Malvern Hill), my cavalry was deployed as a close line of skirmishers with drawn sabers in rear of our lines, with orders to permit no one to pass to the rear who could not show blood. The line of battle was ready and reserves of infantry and artillery in position some time before the enemy came in force and developed his attack. There were some preliminary bursts of artillery, but the great crash of all arms did not begin before 6 P. M. It lasted about two hours. The commanding general, with his mounted staff, was standing on the plateau in front of the farm-house at the rear verge of the hill, a conspicuous group, when a round shot from the enemy struck the ground a few yards directly in front of him and threw dirt and gravel over the little group around him. General Porter, with whom I was riding, had just started toward the front when he turned and said to McClellan: “General, everything is all right here and you are not needed; if you will look after our center and right that would help us here more than you can by remaining.” Then we separated from them and rode toward our left, at Crew's house. The wounded were already coming away from the lines.

When the battle was over and the field had become quiet, the cavalry bivouacked half a mile in rear of the line of battle. Men and horses were too tired to do aught but sleep for hours. At midnight I found myself in the saddle with a cup of hot coffee held to my lips, a portion of its contents having scalded its way down my throat. When awakened I was informed by the Due de Chartres that General McClellan desired to see me. We found him near by, in a little orchard by a campfire, giving orders rapidly to his generals and staff-officers. When my turn came, McClellan said: “Averell, I want you to take command of the rearguard at daylight in the morning, and hold this position until our trains are out of the way. What force do you want” I asked for just enough to cover the front with a strong skirmish line. The orders were given for Buchanan's brigade of Sykes's division, Fifth Corps, to report to me at daylight, and also a battery.

At daylight the cavalry advanced toward the front. There was a fog so dense that we could not see a man at fifty paces distance. Colonel [432] Buchanan was met with his staff returning from the front on foot, their horses being led. He informed me that the enemy was threatening his pickets, and advancing on both flanks. I asked him to halt his command until further orders, and galloped to the front, where our line of battle had been the night before. I could see nothing, but could hear shrieks, and groans, and the murmur of a multitude, but no sounds of wheels nor trampling horses. I ordered the line reestablished, with skirmishers and a squadron of cavalry on either flank. Colonel Hall, with the 2d Regiment Excelsior Brigade, also reported for duty, and took position in the line. The battery not having reported, some cavalry was organized into squads, resembling sections of artillery, at proper intervals behind the crest. By this time the level rays of the morning sun from our right were just penetrating the fog, and slowly lifting its clinging shreds and yellow masses. Our ears had been filled with agonizing cries from thousands before the fog was lifted, but now our eyes saw an appalling spectacle upon the slopes down to the woodlands half a mile away. Over five thousand dead and wounded men were on the ground, in every attitude of distress. A third of them were dead or dying, but enough were alive and moving to give to the field a singular crawling effect. The different stages of the ebbing tide are often marked by the lines of flotsam and jetsam left along the sea-shore. So here could be seen three distinct lines of dead and wounded marking the last front of three Confederate charges of the night before. Groups of men, some mounted, were groping about the field.

As soon as the woodland beyond, which masked the enemy, could be clearly seen, I offered battle by directing the infantry lines to show on the crest, the sham sections of artillery to execute the movements of going “into battery, action front,” and the flank squadrons to move toward the enemy until fired upon. All these details were executed simultaneously at the sound of the trumpet. The squadrons had not proceeded three hundred yards when they were fired upon and halted. At the same time, a horseman from among those on the field approached our line with a white flag. An aide was sent to meet and halt him. The Confederate horseman, who was an officer, requested a truce of two hours in which to succor their wounded. I was about to send a demand that his request be put in writing, when I reflected that it would be embarrassing for me to reply in writing, so word was sent to him to dismount and wait until his request had been submitted to the commanding general. In the meantime the scattered parties of the enemy withdrew hastily from the field to the woods, and there was some threatening desultory firing on my flanks, killing one man and wounding another. After waiting thirty minutes, word was sent to the officer with the flag that the truce was granted, and that their men could come out without arms, and succor their wounded. I had no idea that the flag was properly authorized, else there would have been no firing on my flanks, but time was the precious thing I wished to gain for our trains which crowded the bottom-lands below Malvern. My squadrons were withdrawn to the line, the infantry lay down, while officers took position in front of the line to prevent conversation with the enemy. In a few minutes thousands of men swarmed from the woods and scattered over the field. I kept myself informed by couriers of the movements of our army and trains, and had already sent officers to reassure our rear of its security, and also to bring me back a battery of artillery. C aptain Frank with his battery responded. I sent a request to General Wessells, commanding Keyes's rear brigade, to select a good position about two miles in my rear in case I should need a checking force when the time for withdrawal should come. That excellent soldier had already chosen such a position and established his brigade in line of battle.

When the quasi-truce had expired, at the sound of the trumpet, the line resumed its attitude of attack, and the officer with the flag again appeared with a request that the truce be extended two hours. After a reasonable wait, answer was returned that the time was extended but that no further extension would be granted. I had come on the line at 4 A. M., and these manoeuvres and truces had consumed the time until after 9 o'clock. The Army of the Potomac was then at its new base on the James, and all its trains were safely on the way there, with Keyes's corps some miles below in my rear awaiting the enemy. So when the extended truce had expired, my command, with the exception of the cavalry, had left the field. Our dead and wounded, about 2500 in number, had been cared for during the night. Not above a dozen bodies could be found on our field during the truce, and these were buried. Twelve stalled and abandoned wagons were destroyed, and two captured guns which could not be removed were spiked and their carriages were broken. The 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry, which had led the Army of the Potomac across White Oak Swamp, now saw its last serviceable man safe beyond Malvern Hill, before it left that glorious field, about 10 A. M., July 2d. A heavy rainstorm was prevailing. When everything movable was across Turkey Bridge it was destroyed by my rear squadron. My command passed through Wessells's lines about noon, and the lines of General Naglee a little later. Everything was now quiet and in good order, and the 3d Pennsylvania proceeded to camp at Westover after dark.

The 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, under Colonel D. McM. Gregg, had scoured the left bank of the Chickahominy, on the 28th, and had swum the river to the right bank, rafting its arms across at Long Bridge. He subsequently picketed the front of our center and right on the 30th, and on July 1st and 2d--an extremely important service. The 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, after its efficient service, at and about Gaines's Mill, during the day and night of the 27th of June, performed similar duties with General McCall at Charles City road on the 30th. The 11th Pennsylvania, Colonel Harlan, which, on the 13th, had covered the White House Landing during Stuart's raid, on the 28th, joined Stoneman on similar duty, and retired with him.

Colonel Farnsworth, 8th Illinois, after his active [433] participation in covering our right wing on the 26th, and guiding trains and maintaining steadiness of lines on the 27th, guided Keyes's corps to the James River below Malvern, on the 29th, and assisted the 8th Pennsylvania in covering that corps on the 30th and 1st of July. The 2d U. S. Cavalry and McClellan Dragoons, under Major Pleasonton, escorted Colonel B. S. Alexander, of the Corps of Engineers, on the 29th, to Carter's Landing, on the James. Captains Norris and Green, of the 2d, performed scouting service in the direction of the Chickahominy and Charles City Court House, after the arrival of the regiment on the James. And so ended the first lesson of the cavalry service of the Army of the Potomac.1

Near the White House, on the morning of the 29th of June (at the very time that the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry was repelling the 1st North Carolina and 3d Virginia Cavalry at Willis Church, south of the Chickahominy), Stuart received a note from General Lee asking for his impressions in regard to the designs of the Union Army. He replied that there was no evidence of a retreat down the Williamsburg road, and that he had no doubt that it was endeavoring to reach the James. On the 30th, while we were establishing our advance on Malvern Hill, Stuart, north of the Chickahominy, was directing his cavalry columns toward the bridges of that river behind us. Had the disposition of his forces been reversed at the outset, and had he, with his main body, gone to Charles City road and obstructed and defended the crossings of White Oak Swamp, he could have annoyed and perhaps embarrassed our movements. Finally, had his cavalry ascertained on July 1st, any time before 3 P. M., that the center and right of our lines were more vulnerable and favorable to attack than the left, the enemy need not have delivered the unsuccessful and disastrous assault on Malvern Hill, but, while maintaining a strong demonstration at that point, might have thrown two or three corps upon our center below Malvern with hopes of dividing the Union Army. Undoubtedly Gregg and Farnsworth, with the 8th Pennsylvania and 8th Illinois cavalry, would have successfully prevented the reconnoissance of our center and right, but that it was not attempted was a discredit to Stuart's cavalry.

At Harrison's Landing, General Stoneman having taken sick-leave and General Cooke having been relieved, on the 5th of July I was appointed acting Brigadier-General and placed in command of all the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, and at once issued orders organizing it into a cavalry corps, and the history of cavalry brigades was begun. Stoneman, returning the same day, resumed command, and I took the First Brigade, composed of the 5th United States, the 3d and 4th Pennsylvania, and the 1st New York Cavalry.

Active scouting followed in the direction of Richmond and up the Chickahominy. On the 3d of August I crossed the James, with the 5th United States and 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry, to explore the ways to Petersburg, encountering the 13th Virginia Cavalry in a charge led by Lieutenant McIntosh, of the 5th United States, supported by Captain Miller, of the 3d Pennsylvania. The enemy was driven over seven miles, and his camp and supplies destroyed.

All the successes and sacrifices of the army were now to be worse than lost — they were to be thrown away by the withdrawal of the army from the Peninsula, instead of reinforcing it.

Roll-book of Co. D, 27th New Yorke regiment. From the “history of the 27th New York Volunteers.” The scars show where a bullet passed through the roll-book and entered the heart of Lieutenant (formerly Orderly-Sergeant) John L. Bailey, who carried the roll-book in his breast-pocket. Lieutenant Bailey was shot by a Confederate picket named W. Hartley, of the 4th Alabama, the night of May 6th, 1862, at West Point on the York River. Hartley was shot and instantly killed by Corporal H. M. Crocker, whose name, the eighth in the list of corporals, was obliterated by the tear and the blood-stains.--Editors.

1 The total losses of our cavalry reported in the Seven Days battles was 234; that of the Confederates 71, of which number 61 were credited to the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry, at Willis Church, on the 29th of June.--W. W. A.

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