19 November 2006 by Published in: Union Cavalry 9 comments

Here’s another installment in my periodic series of profiles of forgotten cavalrymen. I discovered Oliver Blachly Knowles during the course of my research and work on William H. Boyd and his company of Philadelphians who served in the First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry.

Much of the information contained in this profile comes from old friend Blake A. Magner’s excellent little research reference, At Peace with Honor: The Civil War Burials of Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Knowles was born in Philadelphia on January 3, 1842, the son of a prominent merchant named Levi Knowles and Elizabeth Adeline Croskey. He attended local public schools and two years of high school before joining his father’s business. The young man loved horses, and was known as an excellent horseman. He was tall–six foot, two inches and well-proportioned–and was fair complected.

With the coming of war in 1861, nineteen-year-old Knowles enlisted in Capt. William H. Boyd’s Co. C of the First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry. He became Boyd’s orderly, and quickly developed a reputation for his dedication to duty and willingness to obey orders.

The Lincoln Cavalry saw action for the first time at Pohick Church near Alexandria, Virginia. During a sharp skirmish, Knowles demonstrated leadership, good judgment, and courage in helping to lead a detachment of Philadelphia horse soldiers to safety after they were nearly cut off. Knowles received a promotion to corporal for his gallantry in September 1861. However, Boyd had to force the young man to accept the promotion.

In January 1862, he was promoted again, this time to orderly sergeant, and as a result of excellent service during the Peninsula Campaign, he received a commission as second lieutenant at the conclusion of McClellan’s campaign. “He was never sick, always ready for duty, and seemed to regard the most fatiguing service or hazardous undertaking as pastime,” recorded Capt. James H. Stevenson of the Lincoln Cavalry in one of the two published histories of the regiment.

The Lincoln Cavalry participated in the Antietam Campaign, and then was assigned to serve in the Shenandoah Valley as part of the command of Brig. Gen. Robert H. Milroy (Milroy received a promotion to major general in March 1863). The Lincoln Cavalry spent most of the spring of 1863 chasing the guerrillas of John Singleton Mosby. Knowles was commissioned first lieutenant in April 1863 and then took a furlough. He rejoined the regiment in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania while the Gettysburg Campaign was already underway, Milroy’s cavalry having escaped from Winchester before it fell to the Confederates on June 13, 1863. Knowles helped Boyd dog the advance of the Confederates, and performed excellent service during the Gettysburg Campaign.

In August 1863, when the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry mustered in with Boyd as its colonel, Knowles became one of the newly-formed regiment’s three majors. The 21st Pennsylvania was dismounted and served as infantry during the latter portion of the 1864 Overland Campaign, and when Boyd was badly wounded during the Battle of Cold Harbor, Knowles took command of the regiment, which participated in the siege of Petersburg. In October 1864, with the 21st Pennsylvania now mounted and acting as cavalry again, Knowles was promoted to colonel at the age of 22, and his unit was attached to the cavalry forces still serving the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg.

The 21st Pennsylvania participated in the various actions in and around Petersburg at the end of March and beginning of April 1865, and in the Appomattox Campaign. In June 1865, Knowles received a brevet to brigadier general of volunteers to date from March 1, 1865, for meritorious service in the war.

The twenty-three-year-old war hero mustered out of the volunteer service on July 4, 1865, and returned home to Philadelphia. He ended up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he participated in the grain trade, and sought (and obtained) a commission as a major in one of the Regular Army’s new cavalry regiments; ironically, the commission arrived the day after he died. However, on December 5, 1866, Knowles was stricken by cholera and died five hours later. He was only 24. His young life, so full of promise, ended much too soon. One can only speculate just how many great things he might have accomplished had he lived to old age.

His remains were taken home to Philadelphia, and like so many other brave young men, he was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, overlooking the waters of the Schuylkill River. His gravestone reads:

He was:
Gentle, yet Courageous,
Firm, but Magnanimous,
Beloved by all.

“The conduct of Colonel Knowles throughout his entire military career, from that of a private carrying the carbine to his last charge when the foremost of all the Confederate leaders had been compelled to surrender, was most devoted and heroic, winning the respect and affection of those beneath him, and the confidence and admiration of his superiors. His unaffected simplicity of manner, genial bearing, and never-failing wit won for him troops of friends wherever he moved,” recorded the eminent Pennsylvania historian, Samuel P. Bates. “As a token of their esteem, he was presented by his companions in arms with a horse, sword and equipments. He was warmly commended by Generals Sickel, Gregg, and Sheridan, and it was at the suggestion of the two latter that shortly after the surrender he was commissioned a Brigadier-General, as a special recognition of his merit in the final campaign.”

Here’s to Bvt. Brig. Gen. Oliver Blachly Knowles, who rose from private to colonel during the course of the war, and who was brevetted to brigadier general of volunteers at the tender age of 23.

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  1. MarylandReb
    Sun 19th Nov 2006 at 10:36 pm

    Mr. Knowles sounds like he was a remarkable young man!

  2. Sun 19th Nov 2006 at 10:39 pm


    Indeed he was. Nobody that young reaches that rank without being something special.


  3. lori
    Tue 05th Feb 2008 at 6:17 pm

    hi! i am researching Cpt. James Hunter Stevenson, author of the book “Boots & Saddles” as my partner’s family is related to him. I was wondering if you are familiar with this name and if you are do you know if he served with Col. Knowles? Later in life James Hunter had a son named Oliver Knowles Stevenson, so it seemed like a good fit that these two men knew each other given that they both served in the Lincoln Calvary.


  4. Dan Stevenson
    Mon 23rd Feb 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Hi Lori,

    I am Daniel Hunter Stevenson, a direct descendant of James Hunter Stevenson and have a reasonable amount of information about him.

    Let me know if/when you receive this note and perhaps we can touch base. We have a whole website dedicated to him with many Stevensons as members.

  5. Tue 15th Jun 2010 at 8:54 pm


    I’m researching James Stevenson the 1st Dragoon 1853-1856. I have his unpublished dragoon memoirs. Would share what I got.

  6. Stephen Knowles
    Thu 05th May 2011 at 6:30 pm

    I have been researching the “Knowles” genealogy for years. There have are a number of Knowles lines that have proven to be not related including my own, however, I have and am in contact with those are descendants to the siblings of Oliver. Oliver died about December 6, 1866 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin leaving, to my knowledge, no direct descendant family. He was, in deed, a great civil war leader whose accomplishments evade the history books. As reported, his parents were Levi Knowles and Elizabeth Adeline Croskey. His grandparents were Levi Knowles and Elizabeth Hart. From a genealogical view point, I am always interested in those facts which will support my own research. I may be reached by slknowles1@cox.net. Thank you all and keep our history.

  7. Tue 19th Jul 2011 at 12:16 am

    I am the great great grand-daughter of Cap. James Hunter Stevenson. I have lots a information. My cousin has a copy of “Boots & Saddles”. I am interested in more information and I look forward to hearing from family members and people who are interested in the history of families.

  8. Tue 19th Jul 2011 at 12:21 am

    James Hunter Stevenson named one of his children, Oliver Knowles Stevenson and the name Oliver and the name Knowles is in other Stevenson’s names. Oliver Knowles had a child named Blanche Oliver Stevenson.NM87

  9. Kathy Davis
    Wed 10th Jun 2015 at 12:09 pm

    I stumbled upon the Military Register naming Oliver Knowles as the field officer in charge of the 21st Cav (civil war)

    My email address is KDavis4537@aol.com

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