30 October 2006 by Published in: Union Cavalry 4 comments

When Fort Sumter fell in April 1861, tens of thousands of young men flocked to join the armies of the South and the North. Many had no military experience whatsoever. Some had served in various militia regiments and had at least some rudimentary military training and skills. One such militia unit was called the Philadelphia Light Horse, which was composed of affluent young men from a suburb of Philadelphia called Germantown.

About twenty of the city’s social elite formed a militia company. James H. Stevenson, a former U. S. dragoon, joined them. This is Stevenson’s description, written in 1879, and included in his history of the First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, “Boots and Saddles”: A History of the First Volunteer Cavalry of the War, Known as the First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, and also as the Sabre Regiment:

On the 1st of May we took possession of an unused race-course, at Chestnut Hill, near Germantown, with the unoccupied inn and stables attached, where we had ample accommidations for both men and horses, and the grounds wer admirably adapted for a Cavalry School of Practice.

Discipline was observed in accordance with the United States Army Regulations. The men slept on straw shake-downs on the floors of the inn; answered reveille roll-call at break of day; groomed and fed their horses; cleansed the stables and policed the barracks and grounds; drilled on foot in the forenoons and mounted in the afternoons, and performed guard duty at night. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen, in carriages and on horseback, came to witness the mounted drills, and we felt duly stimulated by their presence; the ladies waving their handkerchiefs and the gentlemen cheering when we performed any evolution which excited their admiration.

On a fine June day it was an animating sight to behold the grand stand filled to overflowing with young ladies, the elite of society, all elegantly attired in their gauze-like garments of pure white, or delicate pink or blue, their beautiful faces radiant with pleasurable excitement, as they witnessed the dashing horsemanship of the gallant young troopers, riding at the “heads” in the ring, with sabre or pistol, or taking the “ditch or bar” at flying leaps. And, anon, charging in line across the fields; then ploying into column; then deploying as skirmishers, firing blank cartridges as they advanced; then charging as foragers, and rallying at full speed upon the reserve. We generally went through the sabre exercise, at open order, in front of the stand, so that the ladies might be enabled to watch the different individuals as they executed the cuts, thrusts, and parries, at the word of command.

After drill it was usual for the troopers to act as escorts to the young ladies on horseback; and the beautiful sylvan lanes, leading to and from the romantic banks of the Wissahickon, presented gay and lively scenes during those charming afternoons. And at night the old woods rang with pleasant echoes, as we strolled leisurely along the banks, bathed in the cooling waters, or rowed upon the silent and softly flowing stream. But these things were not to last.

Indeed, they did not. Most of these young men received commissions in the Union army, and many of them achieved prominence in its mounted arm. Stevenson was a company commander in the First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry. A number became officers in the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry: William P. C. Treichel, Frederic C. Newhall, William W. Frazier, Emlen N. Carpenter, and Osgood Welsh. Walter S. Newhall joined the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry, serving with great distinction until his untimely drowning death in December 1863.

Times certainly changed. Certainly, playing at war lost its allure. Reading the descriptions of those heady, idyllic days of the spring of 1861 contrasted with the horrors of Civil War combat makes on wish for those innocent days again, much as we modern Americans long for the lost innocence of the prosperous 1950’s.

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  1. Christ Liebegott
    Thu 02nd Nov 2006 at 12:16 pm

    I don’t know about anyone else, but after reading the passage, I was ready to enlist!!!

  2. David Stevenson MacBain
    Wed 13th Dec 2006 at 10:32 am

    That passage was written by my GG Grandfather. I’m trying to obtain a copy of his book “Boots and Saddles.” He named his son “Walter Newhall Stevenson after his fallen comrade referred to above. The name has since been passed on to the 5th generation of Stevensons.

    A far cry from the send-off that our current soldiers receive.

  3. Thu 27th Sep 2007 at 9:57 pm

    I also would like a copy of Stevenson’s book “boots and Saddles.
    My father was Walter Newhall Stevenson, Jr.

  4. Christopher Morris Newton
    Tue 14th Aug 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Great post!
    My grandfather (x6) was Capt. Samuel Morris who commanded the 1st City Troop during the revolution.

    Here’s a link to the book you were searching for:

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