Time for another of my infrequent profiles of forgotten cavalrymen. Tonight, we feature Colonel John Beardsley of the 9th New York Cavalry, a scoundrel if ever there was one. He’s one that probably should remain forgotten.
Born on October 12, 1816, in Fairfield, Herkimer County, New York, John Beardsley was appointed to the United States Military Academy in 1837. He graduated 17th in the class of 1841, which included such future luminaries as John Reynolds, Robert Garnett, Richard Garnett, Don Carlos Buell, Nathaniel Lyon and Israel Richardson, all of whom would become generals in the Civil War.
Upon graduation, Beardsley joined the 8th Infantry. Beardsley served in the Seminole War in Florida from 1841-42, and in Mexico. In 1846 with the 8th Infantry, Beardsley participated in the Battle of Palo Alto and in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. On June 18, Beardsley was promoted to first lieutenant.
The 8th Infantry was assigned to serve with the expeditionary force of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, then preparing for an amphibious landing at Vera Cruz. When the invasion began, the 8th Infantry participated in the Siege of Vera Cruz and in the Battle of Cerro Gordo, where their division played an important role in the rout of the Mexican forces. Fighting alongside his comrade in the 8th Infantry, Lt. James Longstreet, Beardsley fought in the Battle of Churusbusco and at the Battle of Molino del Rey, where he was severely wounded in action while leading an assault on the Mexican works.
His conduct at Molino del Rey caught the eye of his superiors, and Beardsley received a brevet to captain for gallant and meritorious service. It took him more than a year to recover from his wound, and he did not return to active duty until 1849, when he was promoted to Captain and company command in the 8th Infantry. After several more garrison assignments, and as a result of visual impairment and lingering problems resulting from his combat wound, Capt. John Beardsley resigned his commission on December 31, 1853, thus ending a twelve year career in the Regular Army marked by regular promotions and meritorious service.
The decorated war hero returned home to New York and took up a career in farming. He led a quiet life on his farm near Athens, New York until the storm clouds of Civil War gathered in 1861. In October of that year, the governor of New York appointed Beardsley as colonel of the 9th New York Cavalry, and gave him the task of recruiting, arming, and training the regiment. His commission was dated November 21, 1861. Interestingly, Beardsley brought two servants with him, Horace, a tall (5’8″) black man with black eyes and hair, and Kip, a dark complexioned male. Due to administrative problems, Beardsley’s command did not receive mounts until the spring of 1862, and had a troubled early history. At one point, while Beardsley struggled to train his demoralized recruits in the tactics of fighting on foot, a proposal was made to either disband the unit, or to assign its men to various artillery batteries. Elements of the 9th New York served with various artillery batteries and infantry regiments during the Peninsula Campaign. Finally, the regiment’s men rebelled and refused to serve with the artillery or infantry any longer. As a result of the near mutiny, Maj. Gen. George McClellan ordered the unit sent north to be mustered out of service in May 1862.
Put aboard ships, the New Yorkers expected to be mustered out of service upon their arrival in Washington, D.C. Instead, the men of the regiment went into camp and were surprised when orders for the regiment to be mounted arrived on June 21, 1862. The newly mounted troopers moved to the front in July 1862, joining Pope’s newly-formed Army of Virginia. Col. Beardsley reported to Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, who assigned Beardsley to command a brigade of cavalry consisting of the 4th New York, 9th New York, 6th Ohio, and 1st Maryland. Given his background as a West Pointer, and his previous record of valor, John Beardsley seemed to be as good a choice to command a brigade of cavalry as Brig. Gens. John Buford and George D. Bayard, who commanded the other two brigades assigned to Pope’s army.
Buford and Bayard did outstanding service during what became the Second Manassas Campaign, prompting Pope to praise their service lavishly. However, the official reports are devoid of mentions of either Beardsley or his brigade. The brigade played a limited role in the campaign, its principal contribution being the capture of the Waterloo Bridge, near Warrenton, Virginia, on August 25. Elements of the brigade served with Buford’s troopers on August 30, participating in the short but fierce cavalry fight at the Lewis Ford, in the closing engagement of the Second Battle of Bull Run.
The rest of Beardsley’s command was assigned the hopeless task of trying to stem the stampede to the rear after Beardsley’s old comrade in arms, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, launched his massive counterattack against the Union left on the afternoon of August 30. Thereafter, Beardsley ordered his men to form line of battle (in a single rank) to the east of Henry House Hill, astride the Warrenton Turnpike, to cover the retreat of the army. Beardsley’s brigade eventually followed the broken army off the field.
Beardsley’s report on the conduct of his brigade during the campaign is brief and cursory. His summary of the action ends by stating, “It would be difficult to enumerate all the duties which my brigade performed. It could not have done more. Without transportation, without supplies, almost constantly in the saddle day and night, frequently engaged with the enemy, they bore all without a murmur.”
Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, Beardsley’s immediate superior, wrote only, “…the commanders of our small cavalry force have assisted me under all circumstances cheerfully and to the utmost of their ability…” Sigel’s failure to recognize Beardsley as the commander of his cavalry forces, and his insistence upon referring to all of the cavalry officers under his command perhaps demonstrates the corps commander’s displeasure with the brigade commander’s performance.
After the ignominious defeat at Second Manassas, Beardsley’s brigade returned to Washington, D.C. with the 11th Corps, where the unit served in the city’s defenses during the Antietam Campaign. Beardsley and his brigade rejoined the reconstituted Army of the Potomac in November. Sometime in late 1862, Col. Beardsley was put in command of the cavalry Convalescent’s Camp near Hal’s Farm in northern Virginia, where he remained until late February 1863. On February 24, 1863, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck sent a curious order to the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Major General Joseph Hooker. Halleck, via his Assistant Adjutant General James Barnett Fry, directed Hooker’s attention to the Convalescent Camp under the command of Colonel Beardsley, and instructed Hooker to issue the necessary orders for Colonel Beardsley to join his proper command, the 9th New York Cavalry. Why would the apparently low profile assignment of a relatively unknown colonel attract the time of the General-in-Chief of all federal armies, his able A.A.G. (who was described by Ulysses S. Grant as one of the best staff officers in the army ) and the recently appointed commander of the government’s principal army (Hooker was appointed in early February 1863)?
Fry’s order generated a brief and furious reaction. On March 10, 1863, Major Charles McLean Knox of the 9th New York Cavalry preferred court martial charges against Colonel Beardsley claiming disloyalty, cowardice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman resulting from a series of incidents occurring between August 6 and November 4, 1862. Major Knox alleged that Beardsley proclaimed, in the presence of enlisted men of his command, on August 6, that “we have no government that we are fighting for – no government; Congress is a mean, abolition faction; the Constitution is broken – we have no Constitution; the abolitionists of the North brought on this war; the Republicans are abolitionists.” Similarly, Beardsley allegedly said, “I would rather fight under Lee than under an abolition leader” on September 12 when he was informed that General Robert E. Lee had invited the conservative portion of the North to join Lee in putting down the administration in Washington.
Major Knox preferred more serious military charges regarding Colonel Beardsley’s actions in the face of the enemy. Knox alleged that Beardsley left his command while it was skirmishing with the enemy on September 1, 1862, when the brigade was serving as the army’s rear guard near Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. Knox similarly alleged that, on November 4, 1862, during the 11th Corps advance from Centerville, Virginia toward Warrrenton, near New Baltimore, Beardsley precipitately retreated when his command first encountered enemy resistance, with Beardsley “manifest[ing] trepidation and fear . . . placed himself at the head of the retreating column and finally ordered the column to trot . . .” Knox pointed out that 40 men of the 9th New York Cavalry stopped the enemy advanced and drove the Rebels back to New Baltimore while Beardsley conducted his retreat.
Knox’s most serious charge related to Beardsley’s conduct on the battlefield at Second Manassas. Knox alleged that on August 30, 1862, Beardsley publicly berated Lt. Col. William Sackett, commanding Beardsley’s own 9th New York Cavalry, while Sackett tried to form line of battle “to stop a stampede that had commenced on the battlefield.” Beardsley allegedly interrupted Sackett’s dispositions of the troops, stating “[w]hat in Hell are you doing with the Regiment there – bring it around here – bring it here, I tell you – by file, march – trot – march – by God, you do not know how to handle a Regiment – I will put someone in command of it that does know how to form a line”. Remember, Beardsley was a career infantry officer whose cavalry regiment had received horses only a little over two months previous to this event. Knox believed that Beardsley’s words and actions indicated that Beardsley “was too much excited to know what he was doing.” Knox went on to allege that Beardsley then left the 9th New York and went to the rear, leaving the command under fire without orders. Lt. Col. Sackett kept his command in place until no more stragglers came his way, and then retired the regiment across Bull Run until he found Colonel Beardsley, from whom Sackett requested instructions. Knox alleged that Beardsley told Sackett to form on one side of the road, but then ordered the 9th New York to the other side of the road while retreating artillery was passing on the road. Knox inferred that Beardsley used the subsequent chaos in the road to abandon his command once again, and that he then rode off to Centerville, leaving the 9th New York formed without orders.
Finally, Knox alleged that Beardsley arrested Lt. Col. Sackett on September 8, 1862 while Beardsley was under the influence of alcohol. He averred that the inebriated colonel berated Sackett in an abusive and ungentlemanly manner. This episode involved a matter in which Beardsley never preferred charges against Lt. Col. Sackett.
Some support for Major Knox’s charges can be found. Lt. Col. Charles Wetschky of the 1st Maryland Cavalry stated in his official report dated September 17, 1862 that, on August 30, his command was ordered to stop stragglers until Colonel Beardsley subsequently ordered the 1st Maryland to form a line of battle on the right of the retreating column. Lt. Col. Wetschky stated that the line was promptly shelled by artillery, causing Beardsley to pull the line back behind a hill. Beardsley then ordered the 1st Maryland to remain in position until it received further orders. Wetschky reported that “the regiment was left without orders until the bridge over Bull Run had been nearly destroyed, when the officer in charge of the party who were ordered to destroy [the bridge] sent a message for the cavalry to come up in great haste – that he had just discovered that they were still in the rear.”
The report of Colonel William Lloyd of the 6th Ohio Cavalry, Beardsley’s final regiment, dated September 13, 1862, recites a consistent story of being formed to stop straggling infantry, and then being shelled by artillery while in position. Lloyd then states “[w]e were shortly thereafter ordered to withdraw, and with the brigade, conducted by Colonel Beardsley, we moved on toward Centerville with the then retreating army.” Is this a clever use of the passive voice, indicating that Beardsley was present during the retreat but that he did not give the order to withdraw from the battlefield proper?
Major Knox’s charges were sent to the 1st Cavalry Division on March 10, 1863. On March 12, Brig. General Alfred Pleasonton forwarded the charges to the Cavalry Corps. Pleasonton’s endorsement stated that “Colonel Beardsley . . . is not a proper officer to command a brigade, to which his rank entitles him and from the gravity of these charges, it would evidently be of advantage to the service if he was out of it.” The speed at which Pleasonton’s headquarters forwarded Major Knox’s charges seems to indicate that no deliberation was required before deciding that Beardsley should be removed from command as the spring campaigning season got underway.
Beardsley must have realized that he had little chance of retaining his command. He resigned as Colonel of the 9th New York Cavalry on March 14, 1863, and his resignation was speedily accepted by divisional headquarters and sent to the Cavalry Corps on March 16. Corps headquarters was obviously forewarned of the issue, because Colonel Beardsley’s resignation was accepted a mere one day later. Major General George Stoneman, commander of the Cavalry Corps, took time out of his busy schedule (the Battle of Kelly’s Ford was fought between Federal and Confederate cavalry on March 17, as blue clad horse soldiers forces under Brig. Gen. William W. Averell sallied south of the Rappahannock) to accept Beardsley’s resignation with the following endorsement: “Respectfully forwarded with the recommendation as strong as English language can express that it be excepted [sic].”
Even more remarkable than the events surrounding Beardsley’s resignation are the efforts made by many people to sweep these ugly incidents under the rug. Instead of elaborating on the reasons why Beardsley left the service, the regimental history of the 9th New York states only, “March 9….Col. Beardsley…rejoined the regiment…June 4, Lieut. Col. Sackett returned from Washington with a Colonel’s commission for himself and a Lieut. Colonel’s commission for Maj. Nichols. Col. Beardsley had resigned.” There were no other references to Beardsley in the balance of the 9th New York’s fine regimental history. An obituary of Beardsley that appeared in a West Point alumni publication simply stated, “Immediately after [Second Bull Run], he came back to the Regiment and assumed command and remained with it until he resigned his commission at Acquier (sic) Creek, on the Potomac, April 8, 1863.” There were no other references to the circumstances underlying the resignation stated.
Beardsley returned to New York, where he resided for the rest of his life. In the years after the war, he worked as a farmer and as a trust agent. He died in Athens, New York on February 18, 1906, and was buried in Athens Rural Cemetery. Despite the disgrace that marked the end of his military career, the obituary that appeared in a West Point alumni publication stated, “Colonel Beardsley was highly respected by all who knew him for his excellent qualities of mind and heart.” The cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the end of Beardsley’s career with the 9th New York Cavalry was complete. It is, perhaps, without precedent in American history that a West Pointer with such a distinguished pre-war service record would have his career end so ignominiously, followed by so extensive an effort to sweep the incident under the rug.
What happened to John Beardsley on August 30, 1862 that turned the hero of Molino del Rey into a brigade commander who reportedly shied away from combat and apparently abandoned his troops under fire? Perhaps the sight of the Union army being pushed off the plains of Manassas for the second time in 14 months, combined with Beardsley’s obvious contempt for the Republican administration, broke his will resist. Beardsley’s position, at the rear of the army, with all the normal incidents of tales of woe and defeat compounded by the very real success of Longstreet’s attack, could only lead an experienced soldier to the conclusion that John Pope, the Republicans’ hand-picked savior of the East, had badly mismanaged his command. Alternatively, Beardsley could be yet another anti-Pope Democratic old Army officer who fell before Edwin Stanton’s winnowing of the officers corps, as most poignantly exemplified by the Fitz John Porter court martial. This alternative may provide a reason for the involvement of Halleck in this affair.
Thus ends the strange saga of Colonel John Beardsley. A Civil War career that began with such great promise ended with secrecy and cover-up. Perhaps he should have remained a forgotten cavalryman.Scridb filter