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Reminiscences of cavalry operations.

By General T. T. Munford.

Paper no. I.

Rev. J. Wm . Jones, Secretary Southern Historical Society

Recent communications have appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, written by officers who served in the Confederate cavalry. The reminiscences which these have revived, together with frequent solicitations from officers and soldiers of the brigade I had the honor to command so long and often, as senior Colonel and Brigadier General, have induced me at this late day to attempt a narrative of the work accomplished by that command when under my immediate supervision. My task is fraught with difficulties, and if its execution is defective I hope, in the interest of history, it will be corrected by those whose memories serve them better than my own. To attempt more than a general outline would be beyond my limit. Brigadier-General W. C. Wickham, my immediate predecessor, was elected to the Confederate Congress in the spring of 1863, and soon thereafter was promoted as Brigadier-General of cavalry. He held both commissions until October, 1864, when he resigned his military commission. It happened that in nearly every important engagement, if he was present, he commanded the division and I his brigade. Whenever we co-operated with other cavalry brigades in the Valley of Virginia, General Fitz Lee being the senior Major General, he would take command of the whole, Wickham of the division and I of the brigade. General Fitz Lee having been seriously wounded at the battle of Winchester, 19th September, I had command of Wickham's brigade from that time, except at the battle of Cedar Creek, when I was absent on sick leave. At General Rosser's Tom's Brook cavalry disaster, where we lost nearly ‘everything on [343] wheels,’ my trunk and desk containing all the data I had collected fell into the hands of the enemy.

Wickham did not call for a report while with us in the Valley and I did not make one. Until these recent communications I had contented myself with the reflection ‘that the credit for what was done and the reward of the deeds was in doing them.’

I shall endeavor to give my recollections with frankness, and will criticise our operations without hesitation, that the student in quest of facts may see the boldness and enterprise displayed by General J. A. Early, and the corresponding want of it evinced by his opponent, General Phil. Sheridan. The latter had the finest equipped army the world had ever seen, numbering about 65,000 men of all arms, of which 11,000 were well mounted cavalry, and 100 field guns. To combat this force, Early had about 14,000 men of all arms, less than 3,500 cavalry, and the usual complement of field guns. Sheridan said our ‘cavalry were in poor condition.’ The country was admirably suited to the operations of large bodies of cavalry, and one of their greatest advantages consisted in their ability to subsist largely upon the country through which they operated, (which was done without stint and without pay). Early's presence had kept them ensconced behind fortified lines, and he had checkmated their movements until General Anderson's withdrawal to General R. E. Lee's army; after which ensued the battles of Winchester, Cedar Creek, Fisher's Hill and Waynesboroa, in every one of which engagements a soldier of dash should have gobbled Early's entire command and sent him to Washington, and moved with the remainder of his command across the mountains and joined Grant. Sheridan's dispatches to Grant and Halleck up to the battle of Winchester indicate a caution amounting to timidity. What was accomplished at the end of a six months campaign should have been done effectually at Winchester.

History will yet vindicate Early's efforts. ‘But friends in trouble are rare and few.’ General R. E. Lee had sent Early to the Valley for a purpose. He clearly understood the situation; he had certain objects to accomplish. Time was an object to him. His limited means and small army, comparatively, were heavily taxed, his resources curtailed, and he could not spare a larger force. He knew Early was an educated soldier, and that he was tenacious and full of fight. His letter to Early at the end of the Valley campaign, when Early lost the little remnant that had been retained as a nucleus to guard the upper Valley, shows he was in full sympathy with him. [344] Hope may be ever bouyant, but real sympathy in disaster showed that General Lee had a generous spirit and understood the situation and was grateful. Sheridan's physical strength was Early's weakness. There is no evidence of military skill or strategy anywhere shown by the former.

Of my old brigade I must be permitted to say it was composed of the best material Virginia could produce. For intelligence, moral worth, courage, and physical endurance it could not be surpassed, and it was backed by a patriotic devotion not excelled in the annals of war. It was the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Virginia regiments of cavalry and Brethead's old battery, known as ‘Stuart's Horse Battery.’ Many of its field and company officers were educated soldiers; others were soldiers born, and promoted for distinguished services. (I had seventeen officers in my own regiment who had either graduated or been cadets at the Virginia Military Institute.) No officer could have received a more generous and cordial support than was accorded to myself. Their ready obedience to my orders under any and all circumstances endeared them to me. A mutual confidence bound us by all the ties that steeled our hearts and spurred our best energies to uphold the glorious cause, and forged us into a homogenous, active body, ready for any emergency. Shakespeare says:

He [they] that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fallen lord
Doth conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place in the story.

I will show that this brigade clung to the Confederate standard bearer as long as there was a ray of hope, and only when that last glimmering ray had flickered out was it that they called in the dogs of war and furled their unsurrendered flags, carrying them to their homes.

As law-abiding citizens, they began at once, with the same devotion which had animated them as soldiers, to rebuild their broken fortunes but when they laid aside their arms it was their resolve, ‘While I remain above the ground you shall hear from me still, and never of me aught but what is like me formerly.’ Neither privations nor toils, nor the emoluments of office, have tempted the generous and the true from the honest paths of duty. ‘Honest John Letcher,’ our grand old War Governor, told me a few years ago,

I do not believe I commissioned half a dozen soldiers in your [345] command who have made the people of this proud old Commonwealth feel—

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.

He had watched their course with great pride, having put them in the field. I cannot attempt to recount the splendid deeds of personal gallantry seen in every affair and engagement, or the traditions, the songs, and the stories ever dear to the old veterans. They will live in memory and mingle with the sad trials and scenes of a retreat, and the glories of many a victory (dearly bought) whenever they meet together and fight their battles over again. They will never be forgotten by them.

How many ages hence
     Shall our lofty scenes be acted over-
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?
     * * * So oft as that shall be,
So oft shall the knots of us be called
     The men who fought for constitutional liberty.

Can we forget the music of the sweet tattoo or the merry revielle? —the stormy nights when for hours the solitary vidette sat on his horse, in the face of the enemy, shivering with cold, with not even a leafless tree to shelter and turn from him the chilly, penetrating winds of December? Can we forget the neigh and whimper of our faithful steeds, with whom his master would often divide his scanty rations of hard-tack to stay the qualms of hunger? Those were the days that tried the metal and souls of our men, and taught the ‘boys in blue’ that they might overpower us by numbers, but that flags and supplies and well-paid ranks could never conquer us in a fair fight, nor drive us from the field.

It is proper that I should give some insight into the difficulties which surrounded a cavalry soldier before I enter directly upon my narrative. Very few soldiers of the other arms of the service have examined into this subject. Many have fancied that they would have been delighted to have had an opportunity for such an easy berth; that the bugle's call for boots and saddles, followed by the note to mount, was a pleasant pastime, and that moving out to the front, to dare the field, was nothing, ‘as they had to follow and do the work.’ Remember, it takes a fusion of the best metals to make a fine-toned bell, and it takes the same sort of fusion or mixture in a body of soldiers to make an army; and when many a gallant cavairy [346] soldier fell in front of the army in a charge, and laid there ‘for pavement to the abject rear, like an entered tide they rush by and leave him hindmost, his good office and services too soon forgotten.’ Each cavalryman had to supply himself with a horse and turn it over to the Government (have him mustered in), for which the Government agreed to pay him $10 a month and to supply him food and shoes and nails, and a blacksmith to do his shoeing, free of expense to him.

It was a Government of our own making. We all felt sure it would do the very best it could for us; but we soon realized that we had its prayers, as it had ours, but that it did not possess and could not furnish us in sufficient quantities the supplies our pressing necessities demanded, and we also knew that the efficiency of a command was exactly in proportion to the way in which it was fostered and guarded. Experience soon demonstrated that we must help the Government, and its need demanded our best efforts. We were in a war, and ‘he was not worthy of the honeycomb that shuns the hive because the bees have stings.’

A soldier can cheerfully submit to personal privations and toil, his mind and spirit keeps him buoyant, but a horse loses spirit and strength, and the more spirit he has the worse it is for him as soon as his rations are cut down and double duty imposed upon him. We could get grass sometimes, when corn could not be had, and when in camp they could live; but the finest horse in the best physical condition, casting a shoe on a rough, rocky road and forced rapidly over it, will be rendered wholly unfit for service in half a day. The cavalry were used as couriers, scouts, guides—the eyes and ears of the army. They were expected to move promptly and quickly, the loss of a shoe was not taken as a valid excuse when dispatch was demanded. Few men well enough off to furnish their own horses, could nail on a horse-shoe (if he had the tools), and if he had extra shoes and nails in his saddle-pocket, and the company's blacksmith was sick or absent, what could he do? The service was too precarious to admit of wagons accompanying an expedition, so that, with the best management, it often happened neither shoes, nails or smith could be had. I have seen my men many a time have the hoof of a dead horse strapped to their saddles, which they had cut off at the ankle with their pocket-knives, and would carry them until they could find a smith to take it off with his nippers, and thus supply their sore-footed steeds. In the Valley the roads were McAdamized, and exceedingly hard on the horses' feet. One horse, however [347] well managed, could not perform the duty required of a cavalryman. It took many horses for each man during the four years of the war. When the war commenced it was an easy matter to secure a horse, but the demand increased so rapidly and the number decreased at a so much greater ratio that at last it would cost five years pay in Confederate money to purchase a good cavalry horse. The Government only agreed to pay for horses killed in battle, and it would take weeks and sometimes months to get the money after all the papers had gone through the ‘tape of office in Richmond.’ Many a cavalryman mortgaged his property to supply himself with horses, and had to pay in greenbacks after the war what was expected of our Government. The Government was very short of transportation; it could not send the men and horses back to their homes when necessary to exchange their jaded ones for fresh horses; neither would it pay the extra expense he incurred to accomplish this object. Take this illustration: A member of a company, whose home was in Washington county, Southwestern Virginia, has his horse wounded near Martinsburg, or Shepherdstown, in Jefferson county. How long a time will it take that man to carry his jade back home and hunt up a fresh horse? To keep that animal in camp to consume the scanty rations doled out to the active horses reported for duty was poor management; but we had no men detailed at camp for that purpose, and yet a cavalryman without a horse during an active campaign was a mere ‘camp dog,’ and the good soldiers would not stay there. The only thing to be done was to start him as soon after the horse was unfit as the papers could be gotten ready, and if the horse was kept too long in camp it was just that much added to his difficulties in getting home, and when we were actively engaged in the field the difficulties of getting the papers promptly was a severe tax upon the Adjutants of regiments and the Assistant-Adjutants of brigades, &c., &c.

It kept on an average at least one-third of a regiment on the road to and from home to remount. One-third of a regiment would generally be sick and wounded. In a fight (dismounted) it took one-fourth of the men to hold the horses of the dismounted men, and when we were far from our camps or wagons, about one-eighth of the men would be detailed to secure food for the horses and rations for the men. You will thus perceive what duty those present had to perform, and what was expected of a cavalry regiment. In General Early's narrative he gives Wickham's brigade an honorable record and credits them for the work done. [348]

George E. Pond, assistant editor of the Army and Navy Journal, has written a book (which is regarded as having General Sheridan's approval), in which he gives Wickham's brigade a fair record from a Federal stand-point. With the assistance of these two books I will try and give an outline of my recollections of what occurred in the fights under my immediate supervision. When we entered the Confederate service we were armed with double-barrel shot-guns of every conceivable calibre, and our saddles and bridles were citizens' make of every conceivable shape, and wholly unsuited for cavalry service. When we laid down our arms we had as complete an outfit for each cavalryman in my brigade as we wanted, all of which had been supplied by the United States Quartermaster Department, through their cavalry, and captured by us—the finest cavalry pistols, sabres, carbines, saddles, halters and bridles, blankets and canteens, oil-cloths and tent-flies—in short, all that we wanted, and our transportation were all branded ‘U. S.,’ together with the mules and harness. Our cavalry battery, caissons, battery forges, &c., all had the U. S. brand until Rosser's great disaster at Tom's Brook 9th October, 1864.

Reconnoisance in force 19th August, 1864.

Wickham's brigade of Fitz. Lee's division, Anderson's corps, was stationed to the right of Winchester, near Abram's creek. Its pickets extended along the line of the Opequon creek from the crossing of the Berryville pike north, towards Summit Point. In front of us was Merritt's division of the enemy's cavalry, each holding the opposite banks of the Opequon. About midday I received orders from General Wickham to move with the brigade and battery (Brethead's old battery of horse-artillery) down the Berryville pike and find the location of the enemy's army. On reaching the outpost the picket squadron cleared the way by a dash across the creek, which was followed closely by the brigade. The enemy's videttes were pressed back upon their reserve, and they in turn upon the regiment supporting the picket. At their reserve they had, in a piece of woods, a strong cavalry barricade, from which they gave us a warm reception. Their position commanded the road, and our battery could not be brought into action. I dismounted the brigade and sent Lieutenant-Colonel Cary Breckinridge, of the Second Virginia, to turn their right, which he did handsomely by moving well to our left and front; but in this attack he was severely wounded. Our battery once up and in position, we drove them steadily. [349] Colonel William H. Payne, commanding the Fourth Virginia, supported the battery with spirit, and the Third and First pressing steadily forward on my right, while Major Graves, of the Second, moved steadily ahead on their right and kept their right contracting. Twice they were reinforced, and made stubborn resistance, but each time the vim of our battery and dash of our men on their flank started them again, and until we were in sight of Berryville, kept them on the move steadily back. At their next stand our battery was divided, and by moving a section to an elevated rise to our left we got complete command of their position, and although we had for a time a sharp artillery duel, we pressed until we could see the ‘Clifton-Berryville fortified line,’ behind which lines Sheridan had 50,000 men and 100 field guns. (See Sheridan's report.) After sundown we moved slowly back. Our loss was considerable, but the enemy did not press us, and we carried back with us all of our dead and wounded. Lieutenant Thomas Craighead, of Company D, Second Virginia, was killed when we began to retire, and Sergeant William B. Cross, of Company A, Second Virginia, a gallant youth, was killed by our own battery. The guns were firing over the heads of his company, and a piece of wood from the shrapnel struck him on the scalp, killing him instantly.

Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan, of the First Virginia, and Colonel Thomas H. Owen, of the Third, and Major Graves, of the Second, behaved with fine spirit. These four regiments and the battery worked together always with great harmony and good feeling. Captain Peter Fountain, Captain Henry C. Lee, brigade staff officers, and Sergeant-Major Samuel Griffin (Tip), of the Second Virginia, Acting A. D. C., served with their usual good spirit, rendering me valuable assistance. I know we killed a good number and captured some prisoners. From our own loss, it is manifest that theirs was considerable.

Arriving at the Opequon after dark I reported to General Wickham orally what had been done, and moved back to camp. The next day Sheridan fell back and fortified near Halltown. Nine hundred and fifty men and a battery had driven their best division of cavalry back upon their infantry, and we had bearded the lion in his den and returned to camp without being pressed.

On page 135, Pond's book, we take the following. Sheridan to Halleck, official, August 23d: ‘My position at best was a bad one, and as there is much dependent upon this army, I fell back and took a new position at Halltown.’ Same date, August 23d, from same [350] to General Auger: ‘I do not believe Pickett sand Field's divisions are here, but the rebels have been very bold.’ This latter dispatch makes an old soldier feel

If we did so, tis greater glory for us
That you remember it, than for ourselves
Vainly to report it.

But listen to what he has to say a little further on. September 12th, Pond's book, he writes to General Grant. ‘It is exceedingly difficult to attack him (Early) in his position. Opequon creek is a very formidable barrier; there are various crossings, but all are difficult; the fords are formidable. I have thought it best to remain on the defensive until he (Early) detaches, unless the chances are in my favor. The troops here are in fine spirits; some of them not very reliable.’ On 15th (same to same): ‘There are yet no indications of Early's detaching. It seems impossible to get at their cavalry; it is in poor condition.’ Is not this the most remarkable condition of things ever heard of? Who can explain it?

We crossed the ‘formidable fords of the Opequon creek,’ and found their cavalry; and yet he could not get at ours; and ‘it was in poor condition.’ 'Tis wondrous strange, the like never yet heard of. Early had held Winchester for more than a month without fortifications, which he would not attempt with his great army to hold at all—and wanted him to detach. All advantages are fair in war! Think what would have been the result had Early had Sheridan's command and Sheridan Early's, where would Early have stopped?

T. T. Munford.

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