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