150 years ago today, Maj. Gen. John Buford, the finest cavalryman produced by the Union during the Civil War, died of typhoid fever at the far too-young age of 37. The rigors of so many years of hard marching and fighting had taken their toll on Buford, who had contracted typhoid fever “from fatigue and extreme hardship,” after participating in the marches and fighting during the Mine Run Campaign that on November 7-8 compelled Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to abandon the line on the Rappahannock River and retire behind the Rapidan River. By November 16, he was quite ill. Buford was granted a leave of absence and removed to Washington, D.C., on November 20, 1863.
There he was taken to the home of his good friend, General George Stoneman. Buford’s condition deteriorated quickly, and it soon became apparent that he would not survive.
On December 16, 1863, President Lincoln sent a note to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was said not to trust anyone with southern antecedents, and who disliked most of the officers associated with John Pope’s Army of Virginia. Lincoln’s note requested that the gravely-ill Buford, whom Lincoln did not expect to survive the day, be promoted to major general. Although the promotion was well deserved, Stanton permitted Buford’s promotion only when it became certain that Buford was dying. The promotion was to be retroactive to July 1. 1863, in tribute to Buford’s service at Gettysburg. “Buford lapsed in and out of delirium, alternately scolding and apologizing to his black servant, who sat weeping by the general’s bed- side. He was comforted by several old comrades, including his aide, Capt. Myles Keogh, and General Stoneman. When the major general’s commission arrived, Buford had a few lucid moments, murmuring, “Too late. . . . Now I wish that I could live.” Keogh helped him sign the necessary forms and signed as a witness, and Capt. A. J. Alexander, 1st U.S., wrote a letter to Stanton for Buford, accepting the promotion. Buford’s last intelligible words–fitting for a career cavalryman–were, “Put guards on all the roads, and don’t let the men run back to the rear.” He died in the arms of his devoted aide and surrogate son, Keogh, on December 16.
Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt, Buford’s protege and the temporary commander of his First Division, prepared general orders:
His master mind and incomparable genius as a cavalry chief, you all know by the dangers through which be has brought you, when enemies surrounded you and destruction seemed inevitable…. The profound anguish which we all feel forbids the use of empty words, which so feebly express his virtues. Let us silently mingle our tears with those of the nation in lamenting the untimely death of this pure and noble man, the devoted and patriotic lover of his country, the soldier without fear and with out reproach.
The First Cavalry Division’s staff officers prepared resolutions of regret, lamenting Buford’s death and resolving that the members of the First Division would wear the badge of mourning for thirty days as a sign of respect for their leader. Another of Buford’s peers wrote in his diary,
December 20: The army and the country have met with a great loss by the death of . . . Buford. He was decidedly the best cavalry general that we had, and was acknowledged as such in the army. [He was] rough in his exterior, never looking after his own comfort, untiring on the march and in the supervision of all the militia of his command, quiet and unassuming in his manners.
In a tribute, the men of the First Division raised money to erect a monument to Buford at his grave site at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a fitting final campground for a Regular. Most members of the 9th New York contributed a dollar each to pay for the monument.
Had Buford not fallen ill, he would have gone west to assume command of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. The thoughts of a confrontation between Buford and Nathan Bedford Forrest boggles one’s mind, particularly since Buford’s first cousin Abraham assumed command of one of Forrest’s divisions in early 1864. Alas, it was not to be.
And so, we will leave it with the words of Buford’s dear friend, Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, who said, “John Buford was the finest cavalryman I ever saw.” What more needs to be said?
At Gettysburg, the Devil gave him a huge debt to pay, but Buford and his troopers did so magnificently. Here’s to Maj. Gen. John Buford, gone far too soon, but most assuredly not forgotten.Scridb filter
This is another forgotten cavalrymen profile that I’ve been working on for a while. This one features Maj. Jerome B. Wheeler, a man who led a fascinating life and who ultimately became both benefactor and scoundrel at the same time.
Jerome B. Wheeler was born in Troy, New York on September 3, 1841, the son of Daniel Barker Wheeler and Mary Jones Emerson. On his father’s side, he could trace his ancestry to British barons, while his mother was a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both of his parents were originally from Massachusetts. The family moved to Waterford, New York while Wheeler was a boy, where he attended public schools until the age of 15. In 1856, he took a clerical job, and from 1857 to 1861, he worked as a tradesman, “which may have included engineering, mechanical, or machine shop work.”
Wheeler enlisted in the 6th New York Cavalry at Staten Island as a private for a term of three years on his 20th birthday. He stood 5’8″, had sandy colored hair, and grey eyes. He listed his occupation as “mechanic.” He was assigned to Co. D of the 6th New York. The next day, he was appointed corporal, serving with his company while the new troopers of the 6th New York learned their trade. “Filled with patriotism and and an earnest desire to learn all the duties of a soldier, I performed with the various duties of drilling, riding horses, bareback to water, with only a halter to hold them, being run away with, and receiving numbers of falls, but escaping serious injury, and performing other duties incident to camp life, I concluded that I was becoming a hardened soldier,” he recalled years after the war.
Late that fall, the 6th New York established its winter camp in York, Pennsylvania. On January 16, 1862, Wheeler was appointed battalion quartermaster sergeant. The regiment was ordered to report to Washington, DC in the spring of 1862, where it was mounted and then took the field. Wheeler was promoted to second lieutenant on October 27, 1862 after the 6th New York served at the Battle of Antietam. “Now I want you to earn it,” declared Devin when he handed Wheeler the commission, promptly sending Wheeler and a detachment of troopers behind enemy lines to insert a spy. Wheeler came under fire at the Battle of Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville, and scrapped with Maj. John S. Mosby’s guerrillas in the spring of 1863.
Wheeler performed his quartermaster duties so well that by June 1863, he was acting as his brigade’s quartermaster. Col. Thomas C. Devin, who commanded the 6th New York until he became commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, knew Wheeler well, and used his talents wisely. When Brig. Gen. John Buford’s 1st Cavalry division made its historic stand at Gettysburg on the first day of the battle there, Wheeler was acting as Devin’s brigade quartermaster, and he had the important task of insuring that Devin’s small brigade, which had a long front to protect, had sufficient ammunition in order to give it a fighting chance to fulfill its mission.
On September 1, 1863, partially in recognition of his fine service during the Gettysburg Campaign, Wheeler was promoted to first lieutenant. During the October 1863 Bristoe Station Campaign, Mosby’s guerrillas attacked Wheeler’s wagon train in an ambush. The guerrillas captured the train, and Mosby was in the process of looting it when Wheeler mustered as many troops as he could and led a ferocious saber charge that recaptured the train, captured some of Mosby’s men, and set the rest of them running.
He served with distinction throughout the 1864 Overland Campaign. During the Battle of the Wilderness, he was ordered to report to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters and was given the task of getting an enormous wagon train of wounded men back through Fredericksburg to the Potomac River, and then to bring back supplies, all the while operating in hostile territory. He accomplished this task in record time, earning the praise of Grant. He served through Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, often having to contend with Mosby’s guerrillas while escorting wagon trains from place to place, and it was Wheeler’s orderly who was sent to Winchester during the Battle of Cedar Creek to inform Sheridan that his army was being shoved back from Cedar Creek by the enemy.
On January 16, 1865, Wheeler was promoted to captain, but remained in his role as quartermaster for Devin, who, by then, was in command of the 1st Cavalry Division. On February 26, his horse slipped and fell in Winchester, Virginia, pinning Wheeler underneath. “I was badly bruised and lamed,” he recalled, “and was carried into a house nearby. It was several days before I could be moved, and in the meantime the Cavalry Corps was out of reach up the [Shenandoah] Valley, and much to my disappointment and chagrin, I was obliged to return to Pleasant Valley, where the corps train had been ordered.” Hence, Wheeler missed the beginning of the Cavalry Corps’ march to join Grant’s army in the siege lines at Petersburg. Wheeler caught a train to City Point and arrived too late to join the Cavalry Corps’ last campaign. Wheeler’s April 1, 1865 return of service indicates that he was at Five Forks, Virginia, but he claimed that he was not present with the army when Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox. He participated in the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac in May 1865, and was then the 6th New York was ordered to report to Louisville, Kentucky, where it spent a pleasant summer. Wheeler and the rest of the regiment mustered out on September 5, 1865.
Although his service records do not indicate as such, he was breveted to major at some point in late 1864. One account of his life states, “late in the war, he was promoted to the rank of colonel, but his commanding officers reputedly revoked the promotion due to to a breach of discipline.” Nothing in his service records supports this claim, but has been repeated numerous times over the decades since the end of the war. One account of his life indicated, “Wheeler was cited repeatedly for ‘outstanding courage in the field’ but was broken from his rank of Colonel for disobeying orders…he led a supply train through enemy Confederate lines to an encircled and starving Union regiment.”
“During [Jerome’s] service on the brigade and division staff he was always at the front, even when his duties did not call him to the post of danger; and his zeal, tempered always as it was by good judgment, was not surpassed by that of any of those with whom he served,” declared Capt. William L. Heermance of the 6th New York Cavalry, himself a Medal of Honor recipient.
He mustered out of the army in September 1865, and returned home to Troy, New York, where he took a job as a bookkeeper, a position where his quartermaster skills served him well. He remained in Troy for about eight months and then moved to New York City, where he took a clerical position with a prominent grain merchant firm. He stayed there for two years before taking a position with Holt & Company, one of the largest grain brokers in the city. He spent ten years there, working his way up to a full partnership position by 1878.
In 1870, Wheeler married Harriett Macy Valentine, whose family owned a dry goods store in New York City called R. H. Macy, which still exists today as Macy’s. By 1870, R. H. Macy was a full department store and was the largest and oldest retail store in the city. Harriett’s uncle Rowland Macy, who ran the family business, developed a fatal kidney disease called Bright’s Disease (which also claimed the life of Judson Kilpatrick). Rowland Macy’s son, Rowland, Jr., was a dissipate young man, and Rowland Macy did not believe he was capable of running the family business. Instead, the operations of the company ended up in the hands of young man named Charles B. Webster, who was too inexperienced to run the business effectively. Webster approached Wheeler to join him in running the company, and Wheeler purchased stock from a family member and began his tenure as a partner in the venture.
From 1879-1888, Wheeler ran the affairs of Macy’s as president and 50% partner, leading the company to record sales and profits. In 1882, Wheeler and Harriett visited Colorado, seeking a cure for Harriett’s severe bronchitis. Wheeler was instantly smitten by the rugged beauty of the place. They visited Manitou Springs, and famous for its mineral waters, and built a summer home there. He started the Manitou Mineral Water Company, which was very popular back east, and was served at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. While residing in Manitou, he heard of silver strikes in nearby Aspen and caught mining fever. Before long he had purchased interests in a number of silver mines, and sold his interest in Macy’s in 1888 in order to focus on silver mining.
Wheeler also organized the Grand River Coal and Coke Company to provide coal to smelt ore and to fire railroad engines. He also founded the Aspen Mining and Smelting Co. to smelt the ore from his mines. He promoted and invested in the Colorado Midland Railroad and settled in Aspen, high in the Rocky Mountains. He founded a bank, built the Wheeler Opera House, and The Hotel Jerome in the newly affluent town. He also owned two other banks and a marble quarry. Before long, he was phenomenally wealthy. He invested nearly $6 million into developing Aspen, and is remembered fondly and as an icon there as a result.
“In a time of robber barons, Wheeler was a benevolent giant of industry,” recalled one biographer. “Looking out for the welfare of others was a lifelong trait. He paid the way for many a young artist to study in Europe, he supported families that had no claim on him other than his sympathy. When the silver crash did come, he sent cattle and potatoes to feed starving families.” Unlike the robber barons, Wheeler is remembered fondly as a good man who gave much back to the community that he helped to found.
But his wealth did not last.
The demonitization of silver in 1893 doomed his silver mining operations and the businesses that depended on those silver mines. His banks in Aspen, Manitou, and Colorado City failed and were forced to close, but Wheeler paid his depositors every dollar, and they lost nothing.
All along, Wheeler had been the patron of a gifted sculptor in New York City neared James E. Kelly. He subsidized many of Kelly’s projects, and when the Buford Memorial Association was formed to erect a suitable monument to Wheeler’s old commander, Maj. Gen. John Buford, Wheeler paid the bulk of the nearly $4000 cost of the handsome monument that was finally dedicated on McPherson’s Ridge on July 1, 1896.
In 1892, Wheeler became embroiled in the first of a series of lengthy and costly lawsuits over one of the silver mines that ultimately ruined him. Most of these suits were from investors in the silver mining operations who claimed that they had been defrauded. In 1893, he lost a lawsuit and had a judgment of $800,000 taken against him. He lost several other cases associated with his silver mining activities, and was financially ruined. The combination of the judgments and the economic recession of 1893 caused by the crash of the value of silver cost Wheeler nearly his entire fortune. He lost The Hotel Jerome and Wheeler Opera House to back taxes, and in 1903 was forced to declare bankruptcy in the courts of New York.
He died in Manitou Springs on December 1, 1918, still trying to regain ownership of the Wheeler Opera House. Jerome B. Wheeler was buried on June 26, 1919 at Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, New York, Cypress Section 47, Lot 5486-90. The Wheeler Family plot is marked by a beautiful monument of his son, Clarence Wheeler, by James E. Kelly.
Jerome B. Wheeler left behind a truly mixed legacy. Part hero, part insubordinate officer, part patron of the arts, and part swindler, Wheeler marks the best and the worst that the Gilded Era had to offer. The modern city of Aspen, Colorado owes much to Wheeler, and he is largely responsible for the erection of the handsome monument to John Buford that stands atop McPherson’s Ridge. But many lost everything as a result of his business dealings, and he lost everything he had made of himself as a consequence of his own overarching greed. His life is a cautionary tale of rags to riches to rags once again.
Here’s to Bvt. Maj. Jerome B. Wheeler, forgotten cavalryman. With my thanks to William B. Styple for his assistance in locating Wheeler’s gravesite and for the image of the monument to Clarence Wheeler.Scridb filter
In October 2006, I did an extremely abbreviated Forgotten Cavalrymen profile of Col. William H. Boyd, the commander of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry. When I did that post, I lamented how difficult it was to locate usable material on Colonel Boyd. Sadly, things remained that way for seven long years. Finally, though, thanks to Barbara Chaudet, who provided me with much of the information that I needed to flesh out this profile, I can finally put some real meat on those bones.
Here’s a full profile of this heroic, forgotten cavalryman:
William Henry Boyd was born in Montreal, Canada on July 14, 1825. His father was a soldier in the British army. “From early boyhood, he was self-reliant and ready to do for himself. He was traveled in the four quarters of the globe,” recalled a friend. “He has been sent upon missions of importance in early manhood and carried them through with credit. He has held places of trust and been faithful.” At the age of twenty, he settled in New York City, where he went into the business of publishing city directories. His city directory business–called Boyd’s Directories–was similar to a modern telephone book. It provided listings and information about businesses and individuals. “He has followed up a special branch of business, in which he might be called a pioneer, and in which he worked hard enough and long enough to have been counted among the millionaires; but, like so many others with a similar nature, he was confiding, and trusting, and generous, and so others often reaped where he had sown.”
He married Elizabeth S. Watson in 1845, raising a family of five daughters and two sons, including William H. Boyd, Jr., who served with him in the Civil War, and nine grandchildren.
With the coming of war in 1861, he was operating his directory publishing business in Philadelphia. Boyd had the honor of recruiting THE first company of volunteer cavalry raised in the Civil War. He personally recruited and mustered Company C of the First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry in Philadelphia on July 19, 1861. He was elected captain and thus had the honor of being the first volunteer captain of cavalry sworn in. He and his men went to New York to join their regiment, which arrived in Washington, DC on July 22 and was mounted and equipped two days later. These raw horse soldiers were ordered to report for duty without having had any training to speak of, but found themselves on a mounted reconnaissance near Mt. Vernon on August 18, 1861. They encountered Confederate cavalry near Pohick Church, and Boyd ordered the first charge of volunteer cavalry. He was complimented by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan in front of the troops at a review held on August 22, and again on December 5, in Special Order No. 170.
“He was a brave soldier and faced anything he encountered,” recalled his eulogist. “He never forgot to be a humane man, and he was well known throughout the Shenandoah Valley and other sections, as a kind military man. When he necessarily came in contact with the households of those who favored the other side, or whose men were in that service, he respected their helpless situation and remembered that they were of his own mother-sex and needed this honorable treatment.”
Boyd was appointed provost-marshal on December 1, and his company served as provost guard for Gen. William B. Franklin’s division, serving with Franklin throughout the Peninsula Campaign. He was relieved of that duty on August 4, 1862, and joined his regiment, which had reported to Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside at Falmouth, VA on August 14. The 1st New York Cavalry then reported to Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry division of the Army of the Potomac on September 5, 1862, just in time to participate in the Maryland Campaign, which was already underway. Boyd participated in the Battle of Antietam, and helped to lead a charge of the whole regiment at Williamsport, MD on September 19.
On September 28, Boyd was assigned to western Virginia to chase after guerrillas and bushwhackers. In October, at Capon Bridge near Winchester, he captured several of Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden’s artillery pieces, twenty wagons, eighty mules, 100 horses, a major, a lieutenant, and 30 enlisted men. The 1st New York remained there until December 12, when they were sent to join Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s command in the Shenandoah Valley, leading to a promotion to major. The Lincoln Cavalry spent most of the spring of 1863 chasing the guerrillas of John Singleton Mosby. That spring, Boyd led an expedition to The Plains, in the Loudoun Valley, in an attempt to capture Mosby in his bed, when an informer told him that Mosby was visiting his wife there. All of Mosby’s clothing but his boots were there when Boyd entered the house (Mosby went out a window and was hiding in a tree), and Boyd interrogated Pauline Mosby about here husband’s whereabouts.
On June 13, 1863, during the Second Battle of Winchester, Boyd engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins’ troopers, and then led his command out of the trap laid for it at Winchester by the Army of Northern Virginia when he was ordered to carry important messages to Martinsburg. From Martinsburg, he escorted Milroy’s wagon train to Harrisburg, PA, arriving on June 17. Boyd and his troopers then rode to Greencastle, PA, where they engaged Jenkins’ cavalry on June 22 (Cpl. William Rihl of Philadelphia was killed in this skirmishing with Jenkins, making Rihl the first Union soldier killed north of the Mason-Dixon Line during what we now know as the Gettysburg Campaign). Boyd and his little band dogged Jenkins’ command all the way to the banks of the Susquehanna River and then back in the direction of Gettysburg, seldom escaping from the saddle for more than a few minutes. They were in the saddle almost constantly from June 12-July 12 and remained in constant contact with the enemy the entire time.
As a reward for this remarkable service, Boyd was commissioned colonel of the newly-formed 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry in August 1863. After the new regiment mustered in, it received orders to report to the Shenandoah Valley, where it remained for the winter of 1863-1864. In May 1864, his regiment was ordered to report to Washington, DC. He was then ordered to dismount his men, whom were then armed with infantry weapons. After some time to drill, Boyd and his regiment (which, although still designated as a cavalry regiment, was now serving as infantry), arrived at the front on June 1, 1864. On July 3, they participated in Grant’s great assault at Cold Harbor, where Boyd and his men came under heavy infantry and artillery fire. Colonel Boyd received a severe wound to the neck that left him disabled and unable to resume the field for the balance of the war. The ball Confederate ball pierced his neck and lodged in one of the vertebrae, where it remained for five months and was only extracted after three unsuccessful attempts, leading to a medical discharge for disability in November 1864 as a result.
When he left the service, he took up residence in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In recognition of his kindness to the people of the Shenandoah Valley, when Brig. Gen. John McCausland’s cavalrymen burned Chambersburg in July 1864, McCausland posted guards around Boyd’s residence to protect it, demonstrating the respect in which the enemy held him.
Notwithstanding his military service, Colonel Boyd continued publishing his city directories, and with the assistance of his sons and sons-in-law, published the directory in Washington, D.C. throughout the war, missing only one year. He settled in Washington after the war, and resided there for the rest of his life. In 1868, he was appointed an agent of the Treasury Department, and held that position for some years. Boyd’s “life was a busy and eventful one, and he was highly respected by the entire community,” recalled one observer. He was a member of Calvary Baptist Church.
“Colonel Boyd was a great pedestrian,” observed a biographer, “and it is said that in 1854, he made a mile in six minutes and forty-two seconds, which it is claimed has never been beaten.”
In 1869, Boyd and John S. Mosby met, and after an ugly exchange of words, Mosby challenged Boyd to a duel. Boyd was apparently serving as sheriff of Fauquier County, Virginia after having been appointed to the post, and the possibility of a duel proved to be tantalizing to the public, given Mosby’s fame as a guerrilla. The duel never occurred, but the two men engaged in a lengthy war of words in the local newspapers. For those interested in learning more about this interesting episode, click here, where the complete interviews with both Boyd and Mosby can be found. It is not known precisely how long Boyd served as sheriff of Fauquier County.
Boyd died on October 7, 1887, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery, in Washington, DC. “He had suffered intensely the last three weeks and was unconscious when he died,” noted one obituary. His entire family was with him when he died. A number of his old comrades in arms attended the funeral.
William H. Boyd is a particular favorite of mine, both for raising the first company of volunteer cavalry in the Civil War, and also for his heroic service during the Gettysburg Campaign. He suffered a severe wound while doing his duty, and was an honorable man. Here’s to this forgotten cavalryman.Scridb filter
The Phil Sheridan Society
Perry County Historical and Cultural Arts Society
The Perry County Historical and Cultural Arts Society are proud to announce the formation of the Phil Sheridan Society to help promote an understanding of the many aspects of the Civil War. The Phil Sheridan Society is dedicated to not only promote the history of the Civil War but to also promote the legacy of General Phil Sheridan. To accomplish this The Phil Sheridan Society is having a lecture series encompassing all different topics of the Civil War.
The public is cordially invited to attend all of the lectures and any events put on by The Phil Sheridan Society! The lecture series will commence on September 28, 2013, with a discussion by John Dye on Civil War medicine. The group will have a social hour at 6:30 pm at the Somerset Courthouse with the lecture starting at 7:30 pm. There will be a small $ 5.00 fee for the public or they can purchase a lecture series membership which will allow them access to all of the lectures for free. This is done to help offset some of the costs for the speakers so that the public will have access to some of the premier Civil War authorities within the state and the nation. The Phil Sheridan will meet on the last Saturday of the month with the lecture series lasting from September 2013 to May of 2014. Some of the other topics will include Morgan’s Raid in Ohio, Ohio’s Forgotten Civil War Generals, Ohio’s wartime governors, Medal of Honor Winner Milton Holland, Abraham Lincoln, Nellie Sheridan, and of course, Nellie’s famous son Phil Sheridan!
If you wish to get more information on The Phil Sheridan Society feel free to contact Craig Phillips at email@example.com with any questions.
I’m just guessing, mind you, but I’m thinking that they won’t be asking me to come speak to their group any time soon…..Scridb filter
I had quite a rare treat today. Sharon McCardle, who is an officer of the Rockton, IL Historical Society, stopped by my office to visit. Sharon and her husband Karl had been in Gettysburg at the conference of the Company of Military Historians, where she set up a prize-winning exhibit on Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth. Farnsworth’s charge and death are the cornerstone of my book Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions: Farnsworth’s Charge, South Cavalry Field and the Battle of Fairfield, so he’s long been of great interest to me.
Sharon brought a number of very cool items for me to see, but none cooler than Farnsworth’s saber–the one he was carrying when he was killed. I’m holding it and its scabbard in the photo. I’ve only had one cooler photo of me taken, which is of me holding John Buford’s Henry rifle, taken many years ago.
That’s Sharon in the photo with me. What a very neat thing to experience. Thanks to Sharon and Karl for coming to visit and giving me such a neat memory to savor.
Click on the photo to see a larger image.Scridb filter
Nineteenth Century American cavalrymen were the fighter pilots of their era—devil-may-care, flashy, equally eager to impress the women and eager to seek glory for dashing deeds of courage. When modern students of the Civil War think of cavalrymen, they conjure up images of Jeb Stuart, with his ostentatious ostrich plumes, or of George Custer and his flowing blonde hair and outrageous uniforms. Certainly, the cavalry produced more than its fair share of cads like Earl Van Dorn and Judson Kilpatrick.
However, it also produced some extraordinary soldiers—quiet, modest, competent men who went about their business in an efficient, professional way. This category includes men like John Buford, David Gregg, Wesley Merritt, and Thomas C. Devin on the Northern side, and Wade Hampton, Matthew C. Butler, Lunsford L. Lomax, and Thomas T. Munford on the Southern side. More interested in doing their jobs well than in reaping favorable press clippings, these men avoided the harsh spectacle of the press’s prying eyes.
Theophilus F. Rodenbough fell into the latter category. In fact, it’s quite likely that only a handful of readers of this blog have ever heard of Rodenbough. He probably would have wanted it that way. Nevertheless, his story has languished in obscurity for more than a century, and the time has come to pay tribute to a brave man who was a fine soldier who sacrificed his health in the service of his country. Instead of allowing that to destroy his life, Rodenbough used his post-Army career to become one of the most gifted and prolific military historians of the Nineteenth Century.
The son of Charles and Emily Rodenbough, Theophilus Francis Rodenbough was born in Easton, Pennsylvania on November 15, 1838. The boy’s father owned a rolling mill and wire factory where the first telegraph wire was made. He had one brother, Joseph K. S. Rodenbough, who was also a successful businessman in Easton after the Civil War. His father was active in the Presbyterian church, and served on a number of boards of trustees, including that of a local bank.
Theophilus, a child of privilege, attended private schools, had special tutors, and enrolled in a course of mathematics and English literature at Easton’s Lafayette College in 1856 and 1857. He left Lafayette after a year of studies and tried his hand at business, a field for which he was not well suited. The young man seemed adrift, searching for his life’s calling. As the storm clouds of war gathered on the horizon in 1860, the young man realized that he might enjoy a soldier’s life, and he set about pursuing his new dream.
Rodenbough enlisted the assistance of Representative Andrew H. Reeder, his Congressman, and began his campaign to obtain an officer’s commission. On March 27, 1861, a scant two weeks before the first shots at Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln signed a second lieutenant’s commission for Rodenbough. Rodenbough would join the 2nd U. S. Dragoons, a legendary unit that produced the likes of John Buford and Wesley Merritt. Not long after the outbreak of the Civil War, the Regular Army’s mounted units were reorganized and the 2nd Dragoons received a new designation, the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Now that he wore a second lieutenant’s shoulder straps, Theo Rodenbough had to learn his chosen trade. Unlike today, where new officers have the benefit of attending Officer Candidate School, there was no such luxury in 1861.
To learn how to be a soldier, Rodenbough reported to the Cavalry School of Practice at the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. There, he underwent intensive training and learned his new trade. The bright young man quickly demonstrated administrative abilities and became post adjutant and quartermaster for the Cavalry School, serving in that role during the first year of the Civil War. As a reward for his good service, he was promoted to first lieutenant later in 1861. By the time he reached his first anniversary in the United States Army, the young officer had mastered the skills needed to command horse soldiers in the field, and he joined his regiment in time to participate in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.
On July 17, 1862, just fifteen months after joining the army, Rodenbough received a second promotion, this time to captain. By way of comparison, John Buford, considered by many to be the finest cavalryman of the American Civil War, did not receive his captain’s bars until he had served in the army for eleven years. Of course, the coming of war provided ample opportunities for a capable officer to advance his career, and Rodenbough benefited by it. Rodenbough served with his regiment throughout 1862, and was captured at the Battle of Second Bull Run on August 30, 1862. He was exchanged a week later and rejoined his regiment just in time for the 1862 Maryland Campaign. In October 1862, he went on recruiting duty, raising a new company of Regulars, Co. L, of which he assumed command.
During the spring of 1863, he led a squadron on the Stoneman Raid in April-May, 1863. He commanded a squadron at the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station, where he was slightly wounded and had two horses shot out from under him. On June 28, 1863, Capt. Wesley Merritt, commander of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, received a commission as brigadier general of volunteers and assumed command of the Army of the Potomac’s Reserve Brigade. Rodenbough, the regiment’s senior captain, took command of the 2nd U.S., just two scant years after joining the army. His rise through the ranks of the Regular Army, notorious for slow promotions, was meteoric.
He commanded the 2nd U.S. at Gettysburg and during the retreat, as well as during the fall fighting in 1863. Rodenbough had two more horses shot out from under him during the course of the Gettysburg Campaign. In the spring of 1864, with Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in command of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, the Union horse soldiers expected a busy campaigning season. They were not disappointed. Rodenbough led his regiment at the Battle of Todd’s Tavern on May 7, 1864, at Yellow Tavern on May 11, and during the Richmond Raid of May 1864.
During the opening moments of the Battle of Trevilian Station, on June 11, 1864, Rodenbough received a serious wound when shot at point blank range in the left shoulder by a South Carolina cavalryman. Following Merrit’s instructions, Rodenbough led the advance of the Regulars himself, riding alone and in front of the rest of the Reserve Brigade. As he turned to give orders, a South Carolinian of Brig. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s Brigade shot him. Rodenbough turned over command of the regiment to his senior captain and retired, desperately wounded.
Merritt praised his subordinate. “Had Rodenbough simply detached the squadron, transmitted the orders through his adjutant and remained with his regiment he would have executed my order in the customary way. As it was I judged his action then as I have since regarded it as especially distinguished and of great benefit, as an example of valor, as well as leading quickly to an important result.” Sheridan urged Rodenbough’s promotion as a result of his valor on June 11. Thirty years later, Merritt submitted Rodenbough’s name for a Medal of Honor, over Rodenbough’s objections, writing, “I know of no living officer more surely entitled to the honor than he.” In 1894, Rodenbough received the Medal of Honor “for distinguished gallantry in action at Trevilian Station while handling his regiment with great skill and unexampled valor.” Rodenbough responded, “I value this distinction especially because it comes to me at the instance of my former commander, Gen. Merritt.”
Rodenbough went on sick leave and recruiting duty before rejoining his regiment in September 1864, just in time for the Third Battle of Winchester. There, in the great mounted charge of five brigades at Fort Collier, on September 19, 1864, with Rodenbough leading his Regulars forward, he received another severe wound, this time costing him his right arm, which was amputated three inches below the shoulder. “At the battle of the Opequon, he displayed almost unparalleled gallantry and coolness,” observed Maj. Gen. Alfred T. A. Torbert, commander of the Army of the Shenandoah’s Cavalry Corps, “finally, near Winchester while charging at the head of his regiment in a brigade against the enemy’s infantry, he received a wound which cost him his right arm.”
In recognition of his valor at Winchester, he was brevetted major “for gallant and meritorious service.” The severely wounded captain spent three weeks convalescing in the Winchester home of a staunch Unionist before going home to Easton for another three weeks. He then did recruiting duty in Philadelphia from November 1864-April 1865. He received a brevet to lieutenant colonel “for gallant and meritorious conduct during the war” on March 19, 1865.
During the winter of 1864-65, Sheridan and Torbert mounted a campaign to obtain a colonel’s commission for Rodenbough so that he could take over the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. “He is a gallant and meritorious young officer,” wrote Sheridan, “and would do honor to the grade asked for him.” Torbert echoed a similar note: “He is one of the most deserving young officers of the cavalry, and will not disappoint any trust reposed to him.” With such distinguished support for his promotion, Rodenbough received a commission as colonel of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry on April 29, 1865, and the thrice wounded officer served in the Middle Military Division, commanding the Brigade District of Cumberland, Maryland and the Sub-District of Clarksburg, West Virginia from June until November 1865.
Just four years and four months after joining the army, in July 1865, he received a brevet to brigadier general, U.S. volunteers, “for gallant and distinguished conduct during the war,” and also received an assignment to duty at that rank from President Andrew Johnson. Dated March 13, 1865, he also received a brevet to colonel in the U. S. Army “for gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Todd’s Tavern,” May 7, 1864 and to brigadier general, U. S. Army “for gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Cold Harbor.”
In recommending Rodenbough for his final brevet, Sheridan wrote, “Colonel Rodenbough was one of my most gallant and valuable young officers, under my command, in the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. He was constantly in the field with his regiment, the 2nd U. S. Cavalry (a portion of the time in command of it), from the spring of ’62 up to the time of his being wounded whilst gallantly leading his regiment at the Battle of Opequon, September 19, 1864.”
On October 31, 1865, he mustered out of the volunteer service and returned to 2nd U. S. Cavalry. In the winter of 1865-66, he joined the staff of Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge as Acting Assistant Inspector General, a position he held until May 1866. “An educated soldier of strict integrity and excellent morals, his ability and past services entitle him to promotion,” urged Dodge in a letter to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1866. Rodenbough served at various posts in Kansas in 1866, and then received an appointment as major of the 42nd U. S. Infantry on July 28, 1866. He served with the regiment at Hart Island, New York and in various staff positions until May 1867, when he assumed command of the Plattsburgh Barracks in New York until the end of the year.
He then commanded the regiment and post of Madison Barracks in Sackett’s Harbor, New York from December 1867 to April 1869. “On the eve of your departure from this command I avail myself of the opportunity to express my thanks for the efficient manner in which you discharged your duties while serving under me in the Department of the East,” proclaimed Maj. Gen. George G. Meade in the spring of 1869, “both as regimental commander and in charge of the military station at Sackett’s Harbor. Your official course has met my approval, and I feel confident that to whatever position you are assigned you will display the same zeal and efficiency which characterized your conduct here.”
Rodenbough went on recruiting duty in Cincinnati and Detroit for a time. In December 1870, he appeared before a Retiring Board commanded by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell. After hearing testimony from surgeons and from Rodenbough himself, the panel concluded that the cavalryman was “incapacitated for active service, and that said incapacity is due to the loss of his right arm, about three inches below the shoulder joint, in consequence of a wound received at the Battle of Winchester, September 19, 1864.” He was retired “with full rank of Colonel of Cavalry, on account of wounds received in the line of duty.” He was just thirty-two years old.
The gallant young colonel had married Elinor Frances Foster at the Church of the Incarnation in New York City on September 1, 1868. Their forty-four year marriage was fruitful, producing two daughters and a son, although their first child, Mary McCullagh Rodenbough only lived two years. After retiring from the Army, he remained active and productive. He served as Deputy Governor of the U. S. Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D. C. in 1870-1871, and the accepted an appointment as General Eastern Agent, Pullman Car Company for two years. He served a two-year term as Associate Editor of the Army and Navy Journal in 1876-77, and became Secretary and Editor of the Journal in 1878, a post he held for twelve years. From 1891-1893, he served as Vice President of the Military Service Institution of the United States, and as Chief of the Bureau of Elections, City of New York, 1890-1892.
With the coming of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the sixty-year old warrior tried to obtain a commission and take the field again, writing, “Here is an old sword-blade not so rusty that it will take a respectable polish yet; and I imagine there are several others on the Retired List.” He actively campaigned for an administrative position in the army, but his age and disabilities produced a gentle rebuff. He tried again in 1904, now sixty-four years old, writing, “I have the honor to apply for assignment to duty and detail on recruiting or other service, preferably with station in [New York City].” Rebuffed again, due to an act of Congress, Rodenbough was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, retired, in May 1904, meaning that the honorific of “general” became real, and not just by brevet.
Filling his retirement years, General Rodenbough proved to be a prolific writer and gifted historian. In addition to a comprehensive family genealogy, he wrote numerous articles on diverse topics such as Sheridan’s May 1864 Richmond Raid, the Trevilian Raid, lessons learned by the cavalry in the Civil War, and others. He authored a superb history of his former regiment titled From Everglade to Canon with the Second Dragoons (1875) as well as a history of the Anglo-Russian dispute over Afghanistan (1882). He also wrote The Bravest Five Hundred of 1861, providing thumbnail sketches of various Medal of Honor winners, and a companion volume, Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor, as well as co-authoring a history of the United States Army. He edited the cavalry volume of Francis Trevelyan Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War, and headed the committee given the task of preparing a regimental history for the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
After a long and productive life, Theophilus F. Rodenbough died at his home in New York City on December 19, 1912. His wife, who joined him in death a few years later, survived him. He was buried with full military honors in the family plot in Easton Cemetery in his hometown. He was seventy-four years old, and he had packed a great deal of living into those years.
In nine years and eight months in the Regular Army, this dashing horse soldier earned five promotions, two brevets in the volunteer service, and four brevets in the Regular service. Along the way, he impressed almost every officer he served under. “General Rodenbough is a cultivated and refined gentleman of ability and integrity,” wrote Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, summing him up nicely, “and is well and favorably considered wherever known. His record as an officer during the war was irreproachable, and he was disabled for life by the loss of an arm while gallantly performing his duty in battle.”
His rise had been meteoric, and only his battle wounds terminated a promising military career that probably would have led to high command. But for those wounds, Rodenbough likely would be remembered as one of the greatest horse soldiers in American history. Thus ended the fascinating life of a gifted soldier and scholar, a man who spent his life in the service of the Army that he loved, and in doing the duty that marked his character.
Here’s to Theo Rodenbough, forgotten cavalryman, Medal of Honor recipient, and cavalry historian. He was one of those natural soldiers who rose to prominence despite a lack of any formal military training.Scridb filter
On one of the forum boards that I regularly visit, someone asked for examples of infantry forming squares in echelon to defend against cavalry charges. The first response on the list was Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s Confederate infantry brigade forming square at Gettysburg on July 1.
There’s a problem with that response. There is no proof that it happened. And it completely ignores the documented instance of Confederate infantry forming square to defend against a feinted cavalry charge that DID occur earlier in the afternoon of July 1, 1863.
For those unfamiliar with forming squares in echelon, it’s a classic Napoleonic tactic for infantry to defend against a cavalry charge. A good, concise explanation of the tactic, and how to try to break a square, can be found here. Yes, it’s a Wikipedia article, but it’s a good one and it is accurate. The photo is of a Union infantry regiment, formed up in a hollow square. Click on the photo to see a larger version of it.
Here’s the story about Lane’s supposed forming squares:
A determined attack by the Confederate infantry brigade of Col. Abner Perrin finally broke the last Union line of resistance on Seminary Ridge, driving the First Corps back toward Cemetery Hill. At 4:00 p.m., in imminent danger of being flanked by Perrin’s advance, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, the acting commander of the First Corps, sent staff officer Capt. Eminel P. Halstead in search of Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, then overseeing efforts to cobble together defenses on East Cemetery Hill, looking for reinforcements. When Halstead reported the Confederate threat, Howard informed him that he had no reinforcements to spare, and suggested that Halstead “go to General [John] Buford, give him my compliments, and tell him to go to Doubleday’s support.” When Halstead asked Howard where to find Buford, Howard indicated that he did not know, but that he thought Buford was somewhere to the east of Cemetery Hill. Halstead set off to search for the Kentuckian.
After they were driven from the stone wall they had held until Perrin’s attack broke the Union line, Buford ordered Col. William Gamble’s weary troopers to fall into line on the Emmitsburg Road, where they were later joined by Devin’s brigade. There, Halstead found Buford, mounted on his thoroughbred war horse, Grey Eagle, overseeing the disposition of his cavalry. When Halstead delivered Howard’s order, the irate Buford “rose in his stirrups upon his tiptoes and exclaimed, ‘What in hell and damnation does he think I can do against those long lines of the enemy out there!’”
Halstead responded, “I don’t know anything about that, General, those are General Howard’s orders.”
“Very well,” replied Buford, “I will see what I can do.” Around 5:00 p.m., Buford ordered his mounted command to move out into the fields in front of Cemetery Hill, in plain view of the enemy. The sight so impressed Second Corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, sent by Meade to take command of the field, that he later recalled that, “one of the most inspiring sights of his military career was the splendid spectacle of that gallant cavalry, as it stood there unshaken and undaunted, in the face of the advancing Confederate infantry.”
Gamble sent elements of the 8th Illinois forward to remove fence rails and other impediments to a mounted charge. In line of battle, Buford’s exhausted troopers stood their ground, daring the Confederates of Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s brigade to attack. Doubleday noted in his diary that night, “Having thus strengthened his right, General Hancock extended his line by posting Buford’s Cavalry…on the left. This gave us an appearance of strength we did not possess and the enemy did not press the attack, preferring to wait for reinforcements.” Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer, later recorded, “General Buford’s cavalry was all in line of battle between our position [on Cemetery Hill] and the enemy. Our cavalry presented a very handsome front, and I think probably checked the advance of the enemy.” Doubleday’s aide Halstead recounted, “the enemy, seeing the movement, formed squares in echelon, which delayed them and materially aided in the escape of the First Corps if it did not save a large portion of the remnant from capture.” Doubleday later recounted that with the feinted charge, Buford “rendered essential service…and prevented them from cutting us off from our line of retreat to Cemetery Hill.”
The problem is that Halstead’s post-war account–published in a paper that he presented to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (a Union officers’ veterans’ organization)–is the ONLY source that claims that Lane formed square. None of the participants mentioned it in their contemporary after-action accounts. None of the other memoirs, letters, and other primary sources mention it. It simply cannot be corroborated by anyone. Undoubtedly, SOMETHING halted Lane’s advance that day. It was probably the sight of two full brigades of cavalry–roughly 2700 troopers–mounted, in line of battle, with sabers drawn, awaiting the order to charge. But there is no evidence that Lane actually gave the order to form squares by echelon, and there is no evidence that they actually did so. Instead, it appears that the feint was enough. Lane’s advance halted, which allowed time for the Union infantry to fall back safely from its very exposed position on Seminary Ridge to the positions that Hancock and Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer, had prepared on East Cemetery Hill.
The story of Lane’s Brigade overlooks another instance that day when Confederate infantry did, indeed, form square against a feinted charge by troopers of the 8th Illinois Cavalry of Gamble’s brigade.
About 1:00, advancing Confederate infantry of Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew’s brigade threatened the left flank of the First Corps near the end of modern-day Reynolds Avenue. Col. Chapman Biddle’s brigade held the end of Doubleday’s line. Biddle’s men were in grave danger of being flanked by the 52nd North Carolina Infantry of Pettigrew’s Brigade. A deep swale hid the Confederates’ advance and allowed the Tarheels to approach Biddle’s flank unseen.
From his vantage point, Gamble could see the threat, and he ordered Maj. John Beveridge, commanding the 8th Illinois, to take his regiment out to the southwest, along the Hagerstown Road, where they took position in an orchard south of the road, near woods.
Beveridge “ordered the 8th Illinois, in column of squadrons, forward, increased its gait to a trot as if to make a charge upon [the Confederate] right. His right regiment halted, changed front, and fired a volley: Biddle’s brigade rose to their feet, saw the enemy, fired and retired across the field toward Seminary Ridge.”
The men of the 52nd North Carolina stopped dead in their tracks and formed a hollow square. A member of the 52nd recalled:
[the 52nd North Carolina] held the right of Pettigrew‘s line, and as we advanced through the open field our right flank was menaced by a body of the enemy’s cavalry, seeking an opportunity to charge our lines. While on the advance and under heavy fire Col. [James K.] Marshall formed his regiment in square to guard against attack from this body, and at the same time deployed Company B…to protect his flank. [They] succeeded in holding the cavalry in check and finally drove them from our flank. This maneuver was executed by the regiment as promptly and accurately as if it had been upon its drill grounds.
Maj. William Medill of the 8th Illinois proudly observed that his regiment
saved a whole brigade of our infantry and a battery from being captured and cut to pieces. The rebels had them nearly surrounded and hemmed in, perceiving which, we made a detour to our left, gained their flank, and charged right on the rear of one of the living walls that was moving to crush our infantry. The rebel line halted suddenly, faced about, formed to receive us, and fired a volley that mostly went over our heads. We returned fire with our carbines and galloped away. But during the time they were delayed, the infantry escaped.
The mission accomplished, the 8th Illinois fell back to rejoin the rest of Gamble’s brigade southwest of the Federal line.
This critical episode saved Biddle’s brigade from being flanked and permitted it to withdraw safely to Seminary Ridge. Yet, it is completely overlooked. Instead, it gets lost in the shuffle of the legend of Lane’s Brigade forming square, when it probably never happened. It’s a shame, because the stand by Beveridge’s men was a critical moment. That’s not to downplay what John Buford and his troopers did, as the very threat of a mounted charge by 2700 Union troopers clearly brought Lane’s advance to a screeching halt. What’s not clear, though, is whether Lane formed square, as it cannot be corroborated.
This particular issue has fascinated me for years, and I’ve been wrestling with it since 1992. I’ve seen every known account of the events of that day, and the idea of Lane’s Brigade forming square, romantic as it may be, just can’t be reconciled with those accounts. Hence, it does not appear that it occurred.Scridb filter
Thank you to reader Jeff Anderson, of Rockton, Illinois, for bringing this good news to my attention.
Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth, who only got to wear his general’s star for five days before the ego of Judson Kilpatrick sent Farnsworth to his death needlessly at Gettysburg, was taken to his home town of Rockton for burial. Apparently, the large monument over his grave has fallen into some degree of disrepair over the years, but I’m pleased to report that that is no longer the case. From Tuesday’s edition of the Rockford Register Star newspaper:
Rockton cemetery project brings Civil War history into the light
By Greg Stanley
Posted Nov 20, 2012 @ 12:00 AM
ROCKTON — Rockton Township officials have refurbished a little local history in Year 3 of a cemetery restoration project.
The township has set aside $10,000 each year to restore and clean headstones in the oldest part of the cemetery, which dates to the 1800s.
“We’re trying to do more Civil War markers this time around,” cemetery sexton Jerri Noller says.
The most prominent headstone restored this year belongs to Elon J. Farnsworth, a brigadier general for the Union who became something of a celebrity in his death.
Farnsworth was a rising star when he was made general at 25 years old (along with a 24-year-old George Armstrong Custer) on June 29, 1863 — two days before the battle of Gettysburg. He was killed four days later, on the final day of the battle, in what many historians have described as a reckless blunder of the vain and philandering Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.
Kilpatrick ordered Farnsworth to lead a doomed charge against a Confederate stronghold of little strategic importance to the battle, according to historian Edwin B. Coddington’s well-regarded 1968 tome, “The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command.”
“Although Farnsworth protested it was suicide, Kilpatrick insisted that he should charge with half his brigade,” Coddington writes. Farnsworth “put on a brilliant display of courage and horsemanship, but the attack ended in a fiasco.”
It became known as “Farnsworth’s Charge” and led to 101 casualties, according to one historian’s report for the National Park Service.
Farnsworth was born and raised in Michigan, but his body was brought back to Rockton Township to be buried next to his mother and father.
Greg Stanley: 815-987-1369; firstname.lastname@example.org; @greggstanley
On this Thanksgiving Day, I find it difficult to say how gratified I am to hear that this largely forgotten hero of the Battle of Gettysburg is being remembered by his home town. So far as I can tell, in all my years of researching the Civil War, I have never been able to identify another general officer who was killed in action while leading an attack BEHIND enemy lines, as Farnsworth was. His valor was wasted by the ambitions of Judson Kilpatrick, but that valor is nevertheless still worthy of commemoration, and I tip my cap to the township for being willing to spend the money to see that his grave is not forgotten.
And on this Thanksgiving Day, I wish each and every one of you a joyous day with family and friends. Enjoy your day, the good food, and the comradeship, but at the same time, let’s not lose sight of the purpose of the day: be thankful for the blessings that you have. And I am thankful for all of you.Scridb filter
When I did my post on Col. Othniel De Forest of the 5th New York Cavalry, I noted that in the spring of 1864, De Forest was cashiered from the army, and that not long after his death that December, he was cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated to his prior rank of colonel posthumously. The reasons for this were a mystery, and I indicated that I intended to pursue the answer to this question in the hope of solving the mystery. I ordered De Forest’s service and pension files in the hope that they would hold the key to solving the mystery.
I am pleased to report that the mystery has, indeed, been solved, that the system worked the way it was supposed to work, and that an injustice was thereby corrected.
Sometime shortly after the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, De Forest was arrested and charged with fraud. He had been ill during the early phases of the Gettysburg Campaign and only returned to duty on July 10, during the retreat from Gettysburg. At that time, he became commander of the First Brigade, Third Cavalry Division, as its senior colonel. However, on July 29, he was sent to the General Hospital in Washington, D.C. on orders of the Cavalry Corps surgeon. There was some confusion over this, as he was reported to be away without leave, but “he was found on a [railroad] car quite ill.” Although he was ill, when De Forest arrived in Washington, he was arrested by the Provost Marshal and conducted to Old Capitol Prison. Then, on August 3, he was taken to New York City under guard, where he was turned over to the civil authorities despite being what was described as “dangerously ill.” Presumably this was the same illness that ultimately caused De Forest’s death the following December.
An individual named Samuel Strong claimed that at the time that the 5th New York Cavalry was formed in 1861, De Forest conspired with others, including his brother Benjamin DeForest, to (a) procure authority to raise the regiment, (b) to purchase horses and equipment for the regiment and (c) to share in the profits of the venture. “The evidence shows that the Govt was defrauded of large amounts thro these parties, which was accomplished in various ways,” states the summary of the court-martial proceedings against De Forest. The document indicates that horses were purchased for $45 and sold to the government by the conspirators for $113, with the parties dividing the profits. De Forest supposedly controlled the inspection of the horses, which enabled deficient horses to be pressed into service. De Forest also was charged with selling the sutlership for the regiment as a bribe. Supposedly, De Forest skimmed more than $50,000 from the government as a result of this scheme, and he was charged with theft. The matter was referred for criminal indictment, and the brief states, “The evidence in this case presents offenses so grave and important that as to require a further punishment than the mere dismissal of Col. De Forest, which of itself does not seem adequate besides some restitution should be made for the losses of the Govt. through his frauds.”
As a result, De Forest was summarily dismissed from the service, and was dishonorably discharged by order of President Lincoln on March 24, 1864. Special Orders No. 131, dated March 29, 1864, declares, “By direction of the President, Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby dismissed from the service of the United States with disgrace, for presenting false and fraudulent accounts against the Government.” A handwritten note on the Special Order dated May 11, 1864, adds: “No payments are to be made to Colonel De Forest without the special orders of the Department. By Order of the Secretary of War.”
In December 1864, De Forest died of “congestion of the brain.” After his death, there was a concerted effort to clear his name and restore his reputation. Consequently, a Military Commission convened to reevaluate the charges against De Forest. The Judge Advocate General’s office opposed the request, arguing:
The Judge Advocate General, in reviewing the case at great length, & with much minuteness, entertains the opinion that the application should be be granted–1st because the evidence strongly implicated the deceased, and 2d because “the order dismissing his officer has been made final by his death. No revocation of it can reach him. Before he can be honorably discharged from the service, as asked for, he must be restored to it; but such restoration is a physical impossibility, because he is dead. It is believed that the action proposed has neither the support of example nor of principle, and if allowed to drawn into a rule of administration, could scarcely fail to lead to dependable results,”
After completing its investigation, the Military Commission rejected the Judge Advocate General’s recommendation. The Military Commission expressly found that “all the charges against Colonel De Forest were trumped up by one Samuel Strong who was solely actuated by vindictive motives.” The Commission recommended that “the order dismissing the accused be revoked and that he be honorably discharged the service as of the date of his dishonorable dismissal.”
As a result, on March 14, 1866, War Department Special Orders No. 115 declared, in part:
By direction of the President, upon the report of a Board of Officers, convened by Special Orders, No. 53, series of 1863, from this Office, so much of Special Orders, No. 131, March 29th, 1864, from this Office, as dismissed Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby revoked, and and he is honorably discharged the service of the United States, as of the date of the aforesaid order of dismissal, with condition that he shall receive no final payments until he has satisfied the Pay Department that he is not indebted to the Government.
On April 11, the General Order was revised:
So much of Special Orders, No. 115, Paragraph 2, March 14th,, 1866, from this Office, as relates to Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby amended to read…as follows: He is restored to his regiment, to date September 3d, 1864, when a vacancy occurred in the the grade of Colonel from the discharge of Colonel John Hammond.
And so, De Forest’s dishonorable discharge was revoked and his name was cleared posthumously. As it appears that he was the subject of an injustice, I’m pleased to know that the injustice was corrected, albeit posthumously. And so, the mystery has been solved.
I love pursuing these interesting leads and seeing where they lead. Finding these human interest stories demonstrates plainly that these men were just human beings, plagued with the same flaws and strengths as the rest of us.Scridb filter
The other day, I was asked a couple of interesting questions. One question was whom do I think was the best Union cavalry commander, and as a subset of that question, where did I think that George Armstrong Custer fit into that calculation. The person who asked my opinion actually suggested that Custer has been underrated by historians. I answered the question about the best commander as I always do when asked to answer such questions, which was to identify John Buford as the best. I cited to John Gibbon’s assessment of Buford–he wrote, “John Buford was the finest cavalryman I ever saw”–and said that was good enough for me.
The Custer question opened up a real can of worms that I’ve spent some time considering over the years. At one point, I was asked to write a bio of Custer, and I initially refused. I eventually agreed, but once I got into it, I realized that not only was my heart NOT in the project, after Jeff Wert’s excellent, balanced, and fair bio of Custer, I realized that I had nothing to add, and eventually terminated the project. However, researching it and beginning to write it really forced me to sit back and take stock of this guy whom I had little positive to say about.
Personally, I would NEVER use the word underrated to describe Custer.
My thoughts on Custer have been a long, strange trip. For most of my adult life, most of my thoughts on Custer were seriously prejudiced by the end he met at Little Big Horn. I adhered to the theory that he was reckless and careless about the well being of his men. It bothered me a great deal that Custer had not paid his dues like Buford, George Stoneman, Alfred Pleasonton, David M. Gregg, and the others had. It also bothered me a great deal that this flamboyant man child got the press and attention that he got and that quiet competent professionals like Buford and Gregg did not ever receive. Consequently, I pretty much dismissed him out of hand as a poseur. Eventually, I realized that that was unfair and wrong.
My research into various projects forced me to study Custer’s career in the Civil War. Much ado has been made about his exploits–read my friend Greg Urwin’s Custer Victorious:The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer if you need an example of why I would never consider him underrated–and in most instances, rightfully so. He put up a real stinker at Trevilian Station, but other than that, his career in the Civil War was marked by tremendous luck that landed him in the right place at the right time, and some real talent at leading men.
Custer had a lot of real problems. Because he had never commanded much of anything when he was promoted to general, he had not come up through the ranks like his predecessors like Buford, Gregg, and even Merritt (who, as a brand new second lieutenant right out of West Point, served in the same company with, and under the direct command of, Capt. John Buford, and who was very much Buford’s protege and greatest legacy to the Union cavalry). Consequently, he had little skill for and no experience whatsoever with the traditional roles of cavalry: scouting, screening and reconnaissance. He also was a political naif when it came to Army politics, not ever really having had to deal with them. In many ways, he was as Lee allegedly described John Bell Hood: all of the lion and none of the fox.
In 1864, when Sheridan took command, his style and Custer’s meshed nicely, and Custer became his go-to guy. And, with the exception of his lackluster performance at Trevilian Station, it’s pretty difficult to argue with his record. He was pretty much the ultimate hussar, as opposed to John Buford, who was the ultimate dragoon.
But, let’s make no mistake about it. It’s not a fair or appropriate comparison to compare someone who spent most of the war as a brigade commander with someone like, say, Gregg or Merritt, both of whom commanded the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps at some point during the war and both of whom made their fame as division commanders. There’s a quantum difference between commanding a brigade and a division, and an even greater expanse between commanding a division and a corps.
And so, my thoughts about Custer have come full circle. I am now able to see him clearly–both his good and bad points. At times, he was the reckless clod who charged blindly into whatever lay in front of him without doing any scouting. He had absolutely no skill or talent for the traditional role of cavalry whatsoever. But he was a fighter–of that, there can be no doubt. And he was an inspirational leader whose men loved him for his willingness to lead from the front. Most of all, he was lucky. And his luck finally ran out one hot, dusty day in June 1876.
In the pantheon of Union cavalry greats, I would place him well below the likes of Wesley Merritt or Custer’s West Point classmate and rival, James Harrison Wilson. Why? Because Merritt and Wilson both had the skill and talent to be corps commanders, whereas Custer had neither the experience nor the political skill to be anything more than an outstanding brigade commander and a reasonably good division commander. I also would place Buford ahead of him, because Buford had no peer in the Union army as an intelligence gatherer who was also a ferocious fighter. And finally, I would place David Gregg ahead of him. At the end of the day, it was Gregg whom Sheridan relied upon most heavily in 1864 because Gregg was steady, experienced, and competent.
There are others whom I admire greatly. Robert H. G. Minty was probably the best Union cavalry brigade commander of all of them. Thomas C. Devin was terribly competent, terribly reliable, and deserving of the nickname “Buford’s Hard Hitter,” which pretty much speaks for itself. William Woods Averell deserves much better than he gets historically; much of the historical treatment of his career in the Civil War is terribly unfair. Averell certainly had his issues, but there was no better raider than him in the Union services, and his men adored him. George D. Bayard is the great unknown. After Stoneman, he outranked EVERYONE in the Union cavalry, and had he not received a mortal wound at Fredericksburg, he would have been next in line to command the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps when Stoneman left the AoP for medical leave in May 1863. Bayard was young, competent, and aggressive, if unpopular with the men for being a terrible martinet, and he would have been a VERY different sort of leader than Alf Pleasonton, who was the ultimate lead-from-the-rear kind of guy. I’m not normally much of one for “what-if’s”–there was enough that actually happened to keep me interested, not speculation–but that’s a tantalizing one.
Given that a number of my books have dealt with the Michigan Cavalry Brigade–including my current project–I’ve had to really study Custer’s tenure in command of the MCB in great detail. There can be no doubt that the men who followed him loved him unconditionally. It’s clear that he was inspirational leader of very real skill. He was nothing if not aggressive–too much so at times–and he was a fighter. His poor grasp of army politics nearly cost him his career in the post-war army, and his poor treatment of those who served under him earned him the eternal hatred of some of his officers. But, it is very difficult to argue with his record of success. And in the end, that’s what really matters.
He will never be my favorite, but I have come to respect him, and I have made peace with my relationship with him.Scridb filter